Teaching Profession

Vicki Phillips, Outgoing K-12 Director at Gates, Reflects on Her Tenure, Priorities

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 28, 2015 5 min read
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The head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s K-12 grantmaking team, Vicki Phillips, announced this week that she will step down at the end of 2015.

“The baton was passed to me eight years ago. I have been honored to run my leg, and I am ready to hand the baton forward to the next leader,” she said in a letter to colleagues.

The metaphor is apt: Gates just this month announced that it plans to stay the course on its massive investments into efforts to improve teacher quality.

Phillips’ appointment as the director of the foundation’s College-Ready Education unit, in 2007, marked Gates’ pivot away from a focus on small high schools and the beginning of its focus on instruction. (Education Week has received several grants from the Gates Foundation over the past decade, most recently for coverage of implementation of college- and career-ready standards.)

In her letter, Phillips recalled being charged with finding a “strategic lever” for improving education. She and her team ultimately concluded that, despite lots of evidence that teachers played a critical role in boosting student achievement, little research was available about how to identify the best teachers and help them spread their knowledge.

Thus was born the foundation’s wide-ranging and controversial efforts to find out. Among other things, the foundation announced it would spend $45 million to identify measures of effective teaching, and hundreds of millions more to help three cities and a charter school consortium adopt aligned teacher-performance systems.

Education Week calculated that at the end of 2013, Gates’ teacher-quality initiatives totaled nearly $700 million; by now, the foundation estimates it’s spent more than $900 million on teacher-related grantmaking.

Just as importantly—and controversially—the foundation also poured millions into helping to underwrite the creation of the leaner, more focused Common Core State Standards, and to support teachers in states that adopted them.

Changing political realities have complicated some of those efforts. The teachers’ unions opposed the tying of student test scores to evaluations, and the common core became a political hot potato after the Education Department gave states incentives to adopt it.

In a telephone interview I had with her today, Phillips took questions about her departure, what’s next for her, and things she might have done differently given a second chance. Here’s a summary:

Why is she leaving the foundation?

Largely because after eight years—apparently the longest she’s been on a job—she wanted to take on a different challenge.

“Thinking about it over the course of the last few days, my biggest aspiration as I took different jobs was to have a bigger influence on larger numbers of kids. I’ve gone back and forth between what I could offer, and what I needed to learn,” she said. “I’ve gone back and forth between policy and practice, and now I think I need to go back and do a few more things.”

Does she have a new job lined up yet?

Not quite. Phillips said she had several offers on the table but couldn’t speak about them. But none of them is a job as a district superintendent or as a state chief, two jobs she’s held in the past (in Portland, Ore. and Pennsylvania, respectively).

Is there a timeline for her replacement at the Gates Foundation?

No firm answer on that yet. Allan Golston, the president of the foundation’s U.S. strategy, will fill the void for a bit.

What might Phillips have done differently, especially regarding the foundation’s strategies for boosting teacher effectiveness and underwriting the common core?

Some of what she had to say in response to this had to do with the sequencing of the foundation’s teacher-quality work and also on how it has communicated with the field.

“I think we would have put a faster emphasis on the alignment of teacher tools and support, and the redesign of professional development,” Phillips said. “I think educators are notoriously kind of bad communicators, and I think there was a time where we at the college-ready team did not do a great job communicating what we are about.”

For example, she thinks the foundation could have done a better job putting out knowledge about what grantees were learning as they were engaged in the field. (The foundation now has a new series of “Let’s Talk” briefs to help fill this role; find them here.)

What does she think were the foundation’s biggest successes and missteps during her tenure?

“One of the things I am most proud of in this job is the way we have worked to put teachers in the center of everything,” she said. “I am just really proud of teachers. When you give them the opportunity to work together, [their ideas] catch fire. And we as a country just need to be doing a lot more of putting teachers front and center. They are unafraid of testing and accountability if it’s done well. They’re just asking it to be done with thoughtfulness, quality, and some time to prepare.”

That said, Phillips said the foundation does have a bit of a mea culpa when it comes to teacher evaluation. (Bill Gates himself took to the newspaper pages to make a similar point back in 2013.)

“In the best of all worlds, everyone would have loved it if [the Measures of Effective Teaching study] had come out in time to inform all the changes and policies around teacher evaluation, so people didn’t jump too quickly and overemphasize one component over another,” she said. "... And as that happened and other things happened, people would think the Gates Foundation is only about evaluation of teachers, when we were, all along, about meaningful improvement and actionable feedback.”

What accounts for the foundation’s new emphasis on preservice teacher preparation?:

Phillips’ answer: “We felt like the timing was right now because of what’s happened in the field. Right now, districts and institutions of higher ed. can better define excellence, because of MET, because of the common core, because of the observation protocols that have been developed and the calibration tools to train leaders. There’s a lot we know now about how to make a teacher effective that we didn’t know five years ago. It gives us a better context for now investing in teacher preparation with those frameworks in place.”

Photo: Vicki Phillips meets with students at New Visions Charter High School in Bronx, N.Y., in 2013. Photo courtesy of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the state where Phillips served as schools chief.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.