Teaching Profession

Gates Reaffirms K-12 Priorities Amid Shifting Political Landscape

By Alyson Klein — October 08, 2015 12 min read
Bill Gates gives his keynote address during the U.S. Education Learning Forum put on by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Bellevue, Washington on Oct. 7.
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In his first major speech on education in seven years, philanthropist Bill Gates made it clear Wednesday that his foundation is not backing away from the twin priorities that have defined its K-12 work since 2008—teacher effectiveness and common academic standards—even as both initiatives have sparked a turbulent transformation in the nation’s schools and become deeply politicized.

Gates told the foundation’s U.S. Learning Forum in Bellevue, Wash., that the multibillion-dollar Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been redoubling its efforts to make sure the troops on the ground, specifically teachers, have the tools they need to move forward on implementing college- and career-ready standards and closing gaps in student achievement.

But at no point during his address did Gates mention the name of the man who has helped spread a similar agenda faster and further than his foundation alone ever could have: departing U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who came into office with the Obama administration just months after the foundation staked out its new direction in 2008.

Thanks to $100 billion in education aid in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Duncan and his team—which included some former Gates staffers—had unprecedented resources with which to realize their vision.

Still, it would have been hard to predict back then just how fast the landscape would shift when the federal government and the nation’s biggest foundation pushed forward on standards and teacher quality. Now, more than 40 states are implementing the Common Core State Standards, and about as many are embarking on new teacher evaluations that take student outcomes into account.

Critical Point

But both initiatives are also at a critical juncture. Teachers are wary of new evaluations that were rolled out rapidly in many places and linked to standards-based tests that hadn’t even been developed. And the common-core standards, which have endured some implementation glitches, are a toxic brand with many on both the political right and left.

That would seem to leave the Gates Foundation—which has spent about $4 billion on K-12 education since 1999, including $90 million on educational standards and $980 million on teacher effectiveness and supports—at a crossroads, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of education and political science at Teachers College, Columbia University, who is co-editing a forthcoming book on education philanthropy.

Participants watch as Bill Gates gives his keynote address during the U.S. Education Learning Forum put on by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Bellevue, Washington on October 7, 2015.

“I think they’re having to recalibrate their strategy for pursuing their agenda” and focus more on educators, said Henig, regardless of the renewed commitment outlined by the foundation last week. “They can’t count on the kind of team approach with the White House that they’ve been working before. ... To my mind, that means accepting a slower pace of change, but that’s better than siege and backlash.”

Vicki Phillips, the director of education, college ready for the foundation, sees the landscape differently.

For one thing, she doesn’t think Duncan’s impending departure in December—or President Barack Obama’s a little more than a year from then—will have an outsize impact on the foundation and its work.

“Our job is to work over the long haul with whoever is in the seat at the U.S. Department of Education and the governors and the [state schools] chiefs,” she said.

But Phillips does see teachers as key to the standards’ staying power.

“We do teachers a disservice by just saying, ‘Go do this,’ ” she said. “I think whether [the country] get[s] behind and support[s] teachers is dependent on whether this agenda continues to stay intact.”

(Education Week has received several grants from the Gates Foundation over the past decade, including for coverage of implementation of college- and career-ready standards.)

Early ‘Accelerant’

By the time Duncan took office in 2009, Gates had already taken some crucial steps forward on an agenda that would have a profound impact, first on the K-12 conversation in Washington and, ultimately, in classrooms across the country.

After years of pushing for challenging coursework at the high school level, the foundation had provided support to the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and other organizations that helped develop what eventually became the Common Core State Standards.

Ambitious Agenda

The Gates Foundation has provided significant support for more-rigorous, shared academic standards and high-quality teaching. The following are among the efforts and initiatives in these areas:


• Helped financed the Aspen Institute Commission’s report on the No Child Left Behind Act, which came out in 2007 and recommended voluntary national standards and gauging teacher effectiveness in part through student-outcome data.

• Teamed up with the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation on “Ed in ’08,” an effort initially projected at $60 million to raise the profile of K-12 issues during the 2008 election season. The advocacy push encouraged candidates to campaign in favor of higher, more uniform standards, new forms of compensating teachers based on performance, and extending learning time.


• Funded the $45 million Measures of Effective Teaching study, which was aimed at helping districts pinpoint their best teachers, using a mix of measures that included student surveys, deep observations, and student growth on standardized tests. Final research summaries were released in 2013.

• Financed a quartet of “deep dive” projects in three districts (Hillsborough County, Fla.; Memphis; Pittsburgh) and a consortium of charter schools to test out new teacher-evaluation systems that consider student test scores and other factors.

• Currently underwriting “teacher practice networks” to support teacher-to-teacher collaboration around implementation of the Common Core State Standards


• Funded Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes raising academic standards and student achievement. The organization led the American Diploma Project, which worked with dozens of states aiming to make sure standards, tests, and graduation requirements would get students ready for college and the workplace.

• Provided funding to the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association, and others to support development of the common-core standards.

• Provided grants to states, including Colorado, Kentucky, and Louisiana, to implement the common-core standards.

SOURCE: Education Week

And it began a landmark, $45 million research effort called Measures of Effective Teaching, or MET, headed by Thomas Kane, an economist and professor of education at Harvard University, to help districts pinpoint their best educators through student outcomes, observations, student surveys, and other indicators.

But the new Obama administration moved the ball forward even faster, working first through the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, funded under the economic-recovery legislation, which rewarded states that committed to high standards and new evaluation methods. Those policies later became the centerpiece of waivers granted to states from mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Early on, the federal muscle “seemed like a huge accelerant,” said Christine Tebben, a consultant specializing in education philanthropy and a former executive director of Grantmakers for Education, whose members include the Gates Foundation.

“There was this whole ecosystem growing fast, and everyone got overzealous,” Tebben said. The federal involvement, she said, “became a double-edged sword.”

The dizzying pace of change meant that key ingredients to give the agenda staying power—educator-evaluation systems that were truly ready for prime time, well-crafted curricular materials, buy-in from classroom teachers and principals—weren’t in place in time to meet aggressive timetables.

So the Gates Foundation, whose highest-profile teacher-quality efforts first focused on measurement and evaluation, has bolstered its work in professional development and teacher collaboration. Capacity-building efforts have included support for “teacher practice networks” in California and elsewhere to give teachers time to work with and learn from one another, and involvement with the Southern Regional Education Board and others to create and implement new teaching tools aligned to college- and career-ready standards.

Notes of Caution

Along the way, the Gates Foundation has cautioned the U.S. Department of Education to go slower in some of its policy efforts, especially in linking teacher evaluation to test scores.

In June 2014, for example, Phillips announced that the foundation was in favor of a two-year moratorium on linking common-core tests to high-stakes consequences—a departure from what was required for states with NCLB waivers. A couple months later, Duncan told states switching to new assessments linked to higher standards that they could take extra time to incorporate student test scores into evaluations. (The department has since given some states two years or more to get the job done.)

But some of the foundation’s critics see such cautions as too little, too late.

The foundation “had already committed hundreds of millions of dollars to” teacher evaluations that incorporated student outcomes, said Anthony Cody, a former science teacher who blogs at Living in Dialogue, which was previously hosted on Education Week’s website.

“You set a train in motion, … you jump out midway, … then you’re going to try and say you’re not happy with the wreck that occurred,” he said.

Bill Gates, in his Oct. 7 speech, pointed out that the foundation’s work on teacher evaluation has never revolved around growth in test scores as the be-all and end-all. Instead, he said, MET and other projects focused on broader range of factors, including observations and student feedback.

“Unfortunately, listening to the debate over this subject,” Gates said in copies of his remarks posted to the foundation’s website, “you might think that we’re forced to choose between two extremes: either using test scores exclusively to determine a teacher’s evaluation, or not using them at all. That’s a false choice.

“In fact, states are trying to figure out how to balance test scores with observations, student feedback, and other factors,” he said.

But that misses the point, Cody said. School accountability, he said, is already primarily about progress on standardized tests. Within that context, said Cody, “you don’t have to make test scores the majority of a teacher’s evaluation for it to be hugely influential.”

Dissenting Ideas

The presence of former Gates Foundation staff members and grantees at the Education Department in the early days of the Obama administration contributed to a perception that there was an echo chamber between the two institutions, in which dissenting ideas weren’t given a fair shake.

Education Week Receives Gates Funding

Since 2005, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $7.85 million in grants to Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week. That total includes:

  • A $2.6 million grant over 40 months, starting in 2009, to underwrite a range of efforts to support EPE’s editorial and business-development capacity;
  • A $2.5 million grant over four years, starting in 2005, to underwrite Education Week’s Diplomas Count report, as well as original research on high school graduation rates, and related activities;
  • A $2 million grant over 25 months, starting in 2011, to support the development of new content and services related to the education industry and innovation in K-12 education; and
  • A $750,000 one-year grant, starting in 2014, to support coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards.

Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of its coverage under the Gates grants.

Besides the grant support, the Gates Foundation in 2005 provided a $100,000 contract to EPE. Under the arrangement, the EPE Research Center conducted a pilot project on the feasibility of providing research support to the foundation.

Duncan—the former Chicago schools chief whose district had received more than $26 million from the foundation, beginning in 2005, in part for curriculum and teacher supports,—brought in Gates alumni to serve in key roles. They included Jim Shelton, who later became his deputy secretary, and Margot Rogers, who was Duncan’s first chief of staff at the department.

Other top aides from the beginning of the administration had worked for big foundation grantees. Joanne Weiss, an architect of the Race to the Top grant competition, came from the NewSchoolsVenture Fund, a nonprofit that seeds innovative practices in education. And a more recent hire, Ted Mitchell, the under secretary, also hailed from NewSchools.

The Gates Foundation even provided grants to help a cadre of states craft their Race to the Top applications. Those efforts shifted the policy landscape even in the places that weren’t among the dozen winners.

“I would say they were in sync,” said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University, referring to the department and the foundation. “They knew there was alignment, and so they pursued with the resources they had at their disposal.”

Reckhow is the author of a draft paper that examines federal advocacy on teacher quality by organizations funded by Gates and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation over the past decade.

But Weiss, the former Duncan aide and Race to the Top architect, said that in crafting the teacher-quality portion of Race to the Top—and later the NCLB waivers—the department was trying to lift up the best of state practices and invest in policies that had promising research behind them. It took any information from advocacy organizations with a generous shake of salt, she said.

Some of the reports the administration considered, like “The Widget Effect: Our Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness,” by the research and advocacy organization now called TNTP, were, indeed, underwritten by Gates.

But the administration believed in the integrity of that report and had seen research along the same lines from top universities that didn’t have political agendas, said Weiss, now a consultant whose clients include the foundation. What’s more, she said, the administration listened and made tweaks to its timeline for putting teacher evaluations in place when states began to caution that too much change was coming all once.

Common Core

Both the foundation and the department seem to have been caught off guard by the political heat surrounding the common core, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market- oriented think tank and Gates grantee.

The investment in common core came after years of work at Gates on high school redesign through the 2000s. For example, the foundation was a big contributor to the American Diploma Project, an initiative lead by the non-profit Achieve that worked with states to make sure standards, tests, and graduation requirements would get students ready for college and the workplace.

The foundation “went from a network model, where participants were opting in and gradually forming this coalition of the willing, to suddenly having the feds come remarkably close to insisting, ‘You need to do this,’ ” said Hess, who writes an opinion blog for Education Week. “I think they vastly underestimated how complicated politics and policy are when you’re playing in Washington.”

Gates’ deep involvement in the standards also made the initiative a target of critics who see common core as one more step in a sustained, decades-long effort by philanthropists and business leaders that they deem “corporate reformers” to reshape and even privatize the nation’s schools.

Those critics see a series of grants to national advocacy groups like the National PTA, which got more than $660,000 in 2013 in part to help educate parents on the standards, as an attempt to buy public support.

“Gates has basically paid for some very expensive life support for common core,” said Mercedes Schneider, a high school English teacher in Louisiana’s St. Tammany Parish district and the author of “Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?” “They’re trying to purchase a grassroots.”

Gavin Payne, the director of program communications and advocacy for the foundation, sees it differently.

“It’s about making an investment in the people who are closest to the consumers of the work we do, and making sure the system serves their children well,” he said. “It’s no more deep or political than that.”

And when it comes to the common core, money hasn’t always translated into sustained political support.

Gates gave the Louisiana Department of Education more than $6.5 million to put the standards in place, as well as to implement teacher professional development and evaluations in 2011. Just three years later, the state’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, who now is running for president, had turned against the common core when it became clear the initiative no longer had the support of the GOP’s conservative base. Jindal even sued the federal Education Department for “coercing” states to adopt the standards. (The state chief, John White, continues to stand by the standards.)

Gates didn’t necessarily expect that 40-odd states would quickly jump on the common-core bandwagon, said Phillips, the education program official.

And when that happened, the foundation thought its communications work was done and the implementation work could begin.

“I believe much of the difficulty with the common-core standards came because the advocates—and I include our foundation in this category—didn’t do enough to explain them early and clearly,” Bill Gates said in his recent speech.

That’s because educators were too busy with the work of implementation, he said, to focus on the publication relations aspect.

“They had to be working on it,” said Gates. “And that has generated a lot of exciting, path-breaking innovations.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as Gates Plows Ahead Amid K-12’s Swirl


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