Teaching Profession Opinion

Association with Gates Foundation Subtracts Value from Weingarten

By Anthony Cody — March 26, 2013 2 min read
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This week AFT President Randi Weingarten co-signed a short treatment of the controversial issue of teacher evaluation with the Gates Foundation’s Vicki Phillips.

This recalls the op-ed on teacher preparation of more than a year ago by NEA president Dennis Van Roekel and then CEO of Teach For America, Wendy Kopp.

In both cases, we have union presidents signing their names to documents alongside people who represent the antithesis of teachers’ interests.

The Gates Foundation has absolutely zero credibility on the subject of teacher evaluation due to the pervasive role they have played in promoting the terrible policies now sweeping the nation. I entered my dialogue with them last year hoping they were prepared to shift their views in meaningful ways. When it ended, they gave little reason to believe they had done so. To co-author anything with their representative means you are lending credibility and standing to them.

Yesterday Randi Weingarten tweeted this: “Here’s what @drvickip and I lay out as the do’s and don’ts of a qood teacher development and evaluation system: //bit.ly/15M0aeu

I replied: “So long as the Gates Foundation remains wedded to VAM as a significant part of teacher evals, they lack credibility.”

Weingarten replied: “I agree w/ you abt VAM-but the fact that Gates sees big errors in what’s going on now w/ evaluation is imp.”

So let’s take a look at what the article states. It starts with boilerplate that anyone would agree with, of the “teaching is important” variety.

Then the apparent concession:

... both the Gates Foundation and the AFT are concerned that states and districts are changing their teacher evaluation systems on the quick, instead of taking the time to do it right.

Then we get a short list of things that we should do to be sure evaluation is done properly, including this:

They use a balanced approach to assessing teacher performance and do not rely too heavily on test scores. These systems include multiple measures, such as observations, student work samples, student surveys, and student assessments.

This is the same vague language that has allowed states to impose the use of Value Added systems accounting for as much as 50% of a teacher’s evaluation. Furthermore, using unreliable and erratic VAM scores even for as little as 20% to 30% can be disastrous for teachers.

I have some experience discussing teacher evaluation with Dr. Phillips and the Gates Foundation. In fact, it was Phillips who authored the Gates Foundation’s post on the subject as part of our dialogue last August.

Much of what she wrote was, once again, hard to disagree with.

However, when we look at the practices that have flowed directly from the advocacy financed by the Gates Foundation, we hit a huge problem.

While Phillips and Weingarten take the Goldilocks approach to test scores - that we should use just the right amount, not too much or too little - the Gates Foundation has strongly pushed for the expansion of the use of test scores in evaluations. While they may voice vague concerns about some states moving recklessly, advocacy groups they sponsor have led the charge across the nation.

As I pointed out in my response to Phillips last August,

The Gates Foundation has for years been paying for various studies and think tanks that have aggressively promoted the use of merit pay as a means of promoting teacher effectiveness. Even as Florida teachers describe the new evaluation system there as "artificial" and "frustrating," Gates-funded outfits like the Southern Regional Education Board praise the state for their expanded data systems. The Gates-funded National Council on Teacher Quality is preparing a report that will grade schools of education based in part on their enthusiasm for test data, and the Gates-funded Data Quality Council exerts similar pressure on states to expand their investments in testing and data systems.

The Gates Foundation would apparently like to put some distance between itself and some of the atrocious evaluation practices being put into place across the nation. But they started these trains down the track, and shoveled coal in the engines. They have not taken any responsibility for their role in promoting VAM, pay for performance, and ever more tests with ever higher stakes. Their vaguely worded concerns do nothing to even slow the juggernaut they have propelled.

Under these circumstances, co-signing anything with representatives of the Gates Foundation is unwise for any representative of teachers.

What do you think? Does the Gates Foundation have value to add to the discussion around teacher evaluation?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.