Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

The Gates Foundation’s Imaginary World of School Reform Collides with Reality

By Anthony Cody — February 05, 2014 4 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

The Gates Foundation’s Director of Education, College Ready, Vicki Phillips, describes what she admits is the ideal implementation of Common Core and test-driven evaluations. In the “vast majority of cases,” these changes would be implemented carefully. The key principle would be that teachers and students would be given “time to adjust to new expectations before they face serious consequences for not meeting them.”

If implemented properly, Common Core “test scores shouldn’t be used to make consequential decisions, such as whether students should graduate, until we are sure we understand how to interpret the results.” Neither would schools or teachers be punished “until teachers have had a few years to get used to the new ways of working.”

Such a distinction between idealized implementation and reality would seem to be progress. Just when it seemed like the Gates Foundation was conceding that it is important to acknowledge the facts about their theories, however, Phillips showed she was just spouting rhetoric. Phillips claimed that the ideal state she described “with the exception of a few outliers,” is what is “actually happening across the country.”

OK, everyone participates in political spin, but this bait and switch is especially brazen. The Gates Foundation and other reformers claim that output-driven accountability is necessary because the old “input-driven” accountability was meaningless. It just measured the things that educators - and reformers - did, not whether student performance increased.

So, what was Phillips’ hard evidence for her incredible claim that the Gates Foundation’s “teacher quality” reforms are working? What improved outputs can she proclaim?

The evidence for Phillips’ claim was the classic “input” measures that the foundation derides. She cites the numbers of workshops attended, videos placed in libraries, polling data, and the number of visits to programs by Bill and Melinda Gates functionaries. True to the foundation’s ethos, some numbers were cited. According to Phillips, a survey of “several districts where our foundation is working closely, 78 percent of teachers agreed that their professional development experiences were focused on specific elements in their district’s teacher observation rubric.” She gives no evidence about whether that is a good or bad outcome in terms of improving instruction. Were teachers given specific usable advice, for instance, on better questioning strategies while guiding class discussions? Or, were they taught how to stay out of trouble when phrasing the class objective or similar methods of complying with mandates for drafting lesson plans?

Phillips brags that “43 percent said they received coaching to address the specific needs identified by their evaluation results.” When just over two out of five teachers in such a gold-plated initiative are getting the coaching they need for such a high-stakes endeavor, is that a high or low number?

Phillips had every opportunity to marshal whatever evidence she could obtain to show that teaching and learning was being improved, but that was all the evidence she offered. Based on those meager claims, she then makes a huge leap, editorializing about value-added teacher evaluations:

Given the reality of what’s happening on the ground in states across the country, I cannot understand those who are calling on states and districts to pause, stop or reverse these critical changes. Such a halt could undo the progress teachers, districts, and states have already made while stopping future progress in its tracks.

Despite her rejection of teachers’ desire to “pause, stop or reverse” corporate reform, Phillips includes the obligatory assertion that “we need to listen to input from everyone with a stake in the future of our schools, including state and local school officials, teacher unions, and parent groups.” But what is she hearing from us?

Phillips concludes that there are three types of voices out there. She rejects calls for the first option of pushing reforms recklessly. She claims that most districts and states are wisely heeding the second voice and following the Gates Foundation’s lead.

So, what is the third option?

It is to “not to push ahead at all.”

What?!?! Phillips can draw on the Gates Foundation’s data - the meaningless as well meaningful numbers. She can be guided by the foundation’s high-dollar public relations team. She can claim that all the sturm and drang and they imposed on teachers is welcome. But, she cannot dismiss educators as do-nothings and claim to respect us.

Phillips can start a public relations piece with a call to go slow, and end it with a warning against delay. She can try to reshape our profession, imposing high-stakes Common Core testing and doing at the pace that the billionaires demand, but she can’t make us believe their hype. And, they sure can’t sugarcoat their mandates and profess to respect teachers.

What do you think? Is that what Phillips and Gates hear from teachers? Does she really believe that those of us who oppose her test-driven reforms want to do nothing at all to improve schools? What does it say about the Gates Foundation’s interest in educators’ judgments when its director questions our desire to improve schools at the end of a statement that insults our intelligence in such a manner?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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.