For the last decade, in districts big and small, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has emerged as the largest private funder of educational efforts. This began with an initiative around small schools in the early to mid-2000s, mostly abandoned now, and has gained traction in the past few years in areas such as teacher evaluation, the Common Core State Standards and district-charter collaboration. At a time when schools are more strapped financially than ever, it’s hard for districts to refuse money from the foundation when offered, although it often comes with strings attached asking districts to follow reforms pushed by the foundation, including teacher evaluations and district-charter collaborations.
Bruce Hunter, associate executive director for advocacy and communications at the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), recalls sitting on a panel about a year ago discussing reductions in federal education spending when one of his fellow panelists joked, “If that [federal] funding goes, we’ll just go to the ‘other Department of Education.’ Nobody laughed because they recognized the truth of that statement,” he says. “It was the first time I heard anybody say out loud what everybody had been acknowledging.”
Don Shalvey, deputy director of U.S. programs in education for the Gates Foundation, laughs heartily in reaction to the “other Department of Education” remark. “I think that’s an enormous exaggeration,” he says. Shalvey, former superintendent of the San Carlos (Calif.) School District and co-founder of the Aspire network of charter schools, nevertheless readily acknowledges the foundation’s level of influence.
Hunter notes that former Gates employees are in influential positions all over Washington. “They’ve got people who worked for them planted in critical places— in think tanks, on Capitol Hill and in the [Obama] administration,” he says. “You’ve got to believe that was conscious. Nobody could be that lucky. Somebody sat down and said, ‘How do you influence federal policy decisions?’”
That’s potentially troubling to the National Education Association (NEA), according to a written statement from President Dennis Van Roekel. “Clearly, the philanthropy role in education is expanding, and no other organization has made a bigger commitment to education,” he says. “For everyone who hopes to make a meaningful and long-lasting commitment to education through philanthropy, you must be sure to include the educator voice in your planning and implementation.”
Jake Neuberg, co-founder and CEO of Revolution K12, which has helped implement teacher evaluation systems in more than 1,000 schools, some of which received Gates Foundation money, sees various positive impacts from the foundation’s work. “Gates brings a number of very positive things to K12 education,” he says. Besides money, Gates brings “smart, experienced people who are willing to do some real basic, firsthand research [into what makes teachers effective] in a way that hasn’t been happening in K12 as much as it could, Neuberg says.
Shalvey says the Gates Foundation has recruited influential and talented educators, and lost plenty of them, as well. Some include Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement in the U.S. Department of Education, and a former Gates program officer; and John Deasy, Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent and prior deputy director of education for Gates. “It’s not surprising that Arne Duncan would look to Jim Shelton. It’s not at all surprising to me that the foundation looked to John Deasy when he was in Prince George’s County (Md.), and not surprising that LAUSD would seek someone like John out. Individuals come to the foundation with influence from their own body of work, and then bring that to the next place they go.”
Gates’ level of influence, particularly with regard to issues like teacher evaluation and charter schools, greatly troubles Diane Ravitch, New York University education professor and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education (2010).
“In a time of austerity, a foundation as large as Gates has immense leverage with its discretionary dollars,” says Ravitch, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, in an emailed response.
Its charter-district collaboration grants give “an extra edge” to charters and enable them to access more of the district’s resources, she says. “The teacher evaluation spending has yet to prove itself,” Ravitch says. “Most teachers do not teach subjects that are tested.”
The foundation has been enormously influential in pushing ideas like the use of test scores in evaluating teachers. While Gates was touting the use of scores, researchers were publishing papers stating those test scores were unreliable in evaluating teachers, Hunter says. “The Department of Education people acted like they never heard that, and the Gates people blew right past it, and I will be stunned if they don’t get it written into federal law,” Hunter says. He sees this happening when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is reauthorized, at least as an option for states if not an outright mandate. “The Gates Foundation agenda and the Obama agenda are one and the same,” he says bluntly.
Shalvey agrees there is synergy between Gates and the President’s administration with regard to teacher evaluation, but he is less certain whether the Obama agenda includes the kind of district-charter collaboration that Gates has turned to recently. “The administration and most foundations are aligned around having highly effective teachers in front of youngsters every single year,” he says.
And what was once a big issue for the foundation—firing bad teachers—has been toned down, perhaps given the hundreds of thousands of school employees laid off in the past few years. “The language they’re using is ‘personnel decisions.’ That’s the code for that right now,” says Hunter. “Somebody realized that in a recession … [firing teachers] probably wasn’t something good to be talking about.”
Six districts—Denver, Pittsburgh, Tulsa, Atlanta, Memphis and Prince George’s County—and an additional network of four charter management organizations in Los Angeles, have received grants from the Gates Foundation to put into place a three-part teacher evaluation system that incorporates feedback from principals and peer evaluators along with measures of student achievement. The foundation also provides funding for veteran teachers to serve as full-time mentors for those new to the profession.
“We were definitely looking for collaboration in terms of the district, union and board,” says Ky Vu, program officer for teacher evaluation at Gates. “We were looking at, generally, what we thought their overall capacity was to work through their plans. We looked at issues of sustainability, we looked at their ability to communicate with and engage teachers, as well as the amount of community support and engagement that we thought each of these sites could bring to the work.”
Shalvey says Gates wanted to find a number of “archetypes” that other districts could use as templates. A district that has difficulty attracting human capital could look to Memphis, for example; a district in a “flyover state” might find out what Tulsa or Denver has been doing; a small district could talk with the charter networks; a large district could turn to Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools, the eighth-largest district in the country.
Hillsborough County received $100 million in September 2009 to be used over seven years. The district has used this money to train 120 peer evaluators, who will cycle in from the classroom every two or three years to keep their own teaching skills fresh, and 80 mentors during the 2010-2011 school year to implement its teacher evaluation system.
The new teacher ratings are based on 30 percent principal evaluation, 30 percent peer evaluation and 40 percent student achievement, says Steve Hegarty, communications officer for Hillsborough County Schools. “The peer evaluators are a completely new concept,” he says. “Until they became peer evaluators, they were high-achieving teachers. We picked the cream of the crop.”
The 30-30-40 evaluation breakdown is “a complex formula that tries to account for the fact that this teacher has kids whose parents are doctors and lawyers and went to college, and [also] has kids who didn’t get a good meal last night,” he adds.
Gates was impressed with Hillsborough’s union-district collaboration, consistency of leadership, openness to teacher and union input in drawing up the evaluation rubric, and the peer evaluator component. “They’ve been very thoughtful around, ‘How do you make better decisions using that evaluation data to realign your professional development systems?’ ” Vu says. “The fact that Hillsborough was clear from the outset that it wanted to have three years of data before making decisions on compensation relieved a lot of anxiety that other places feel when salaries are tied to evaluation from the get-go.”
Hillsborough has kept a collaborative relationship going with its teachers’ union, strengthened by the lack of layoffs or pay cuts even during the tough times of the past few years. Still, the new evaluation system is “absolutely not without controversy,” Hegarty says, as teachers used to receiving 99th-percentile ratings are landing in the 70s and 80s. The district has tried to emphasize that “80th percentile is pretty darn good,” he says, adding that it means merely, “you just have some areas to work on.”
“We are in no way claiming that the mentors are the sole reason for any increase,” he says. “But if we had a 14 percent drop, we would have had concerns. We’re giving [teachers] all the support we can. … Everybody loves having a big brother or big sister that’s assigned to them. They typically find a mentor somehow [informally]. It might be the teacher next door, or a relative who works for the district. This is much more formalized.”
Gates did not dictate the exact structure of anything Hillsborough has done; rather, the foundation just asked for a framework and plans to address evaluations, compensation and training. “They did not tell us what to do; they just gave us areas they thought we had to address,” he says. “They apparently liked [the district’s plans]. Hopefully, they still do.” The NEA applauds the energy Gates has put into teacher evaluation, but isn’t certain about some of the methodology. “While we can appreciate the significance and importance of their work to the overall discussion, we continue to reiterate the need to include multiple measures as part of the major framework for any evaluation system, as they too have come to understand,” Van Roekel says.
The American Association of School Administrators has mixed views on Gates’ initiatives on teacher evaluation and on charter-district collaboration, a new initiative rolled out nationally in the fall of 2011. “We’re very cautious about using student achievement to evaluate teachers,” Hunter says. “There will be a lot of mistakes, a lot of false positives and false negatives.”
When it comes to district-charter collaboration, Hunter simply doesn’t understand Gates’ purpose. “I guess it’s to make peace between people in the private sector operating charters and people in the public sector,” he says. “But it’s hard for a school district to operate very cozily with private sector organizations.”
About a dozen districts—including Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Spring Branch, Texas—are in the early stages of exploring such collaborations. Shalvey says the Dell Foundation and Walton Family Foundation are backing similar efforts—although the Obama administration does not appear to be focused closely on such initiatives at this time. Rochester (N.Y.) City Schools has received $100,000 over two years from Gates, and the district has especially focused on ensuring that charter schools are open to enrolling the district’s most challenging students, particularly those in special education.
Bolgen Vargas, interim superintendent of Rochester (N.Y.) City Schools, says the tricky part in moving forward with his district’s collaborative charter school efforts has been making sure charter companies are on board with serving the entire population of students. Rochester has a bilingual charter school, so that’s not a concern, but the district would like to see more collaboration around special education. “Right now, people [at the charter schools] are open to it, so [early collaboration efforts are] going well in that regard,” Vargas says. “It’s too early to tell, since we just got the grant, how much actual collaboration comes out of it.”
District and charter schools are also collaborating around best practices for family engagement, and Vargas believes that the bilingual school has the potential to provide great insights in reaching Latino families. “How do we serve families better?” he asks. “Does the district have any schools that have best practices in family engagement, particularly those families who are hard to reach? … What are [the bilingual school’s leaders] doing that we can learn from?”
The Rochester effort is typical of Gates’ District-Charter Collaboration Compact, a Gates endeavor that gives $100,000 planning grants to each of 16 school districts and plans to make announcements next fall on a total of $40 million to carry forward the most promising efforts. “We think there is potentially high value in charters and districts learning from one another,” Shalvey says. “Charter leaders are afraid they’re going to be controlled, and superintendents are afraid charters are going to ask for an inch and take the whole yard. It’s cautious in the beginning.”
The NEA wants to make sure that the new compact fosters a two-way street. “I’ve heard the comment that young charter leaders come in and act as if they know everything,” Van Roekel says. “Wisdom doesn’t mean a thing until you get some,” he adds. “On the other hand, I’ve heard charter leaders say they get bounced around and [district administrators] don’t respect our passions. In the beginning, it is a fragile ecology.”
Small Schools and Skepticism
The Council of the Great City Schools has received two grants from Gates: one for research and analysis into National Assessment of Educational Progress scores and one to help implement the Common Core State Standards. “This is probably the area the foundation has had its most important impact on,” says Michael Casserly, the organization’s executive director.
Gates also partnered with Carnegie Learning in August 2011 to provide million dollar support to the Shared Learning Collaborative, an initiative by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which aims to accelerate personalized learning across the U.S. while supporting the Common Core Standards.
But not every initiative that Gates has undertaken has had the desired impact. Neuberg credits the foundation for recognizing that fact and reacting accordingly. “One of their great strengths as an organization in general is that they’re the first to look at something they thought would be effective, and if it’s not effective, they say, ‘You know what? It doesn’t work. That’s why we’re doing the research.’ And then they move on. Small schools is a great example of that.”
Unlike its more recent efforts, the early to mid-2000s initiative to break up larger schools into smaller schools floundered. Hunter is not certain, however, that a solid research base undergirds the foundation’s more recent efforts of teacher evaluations and district-charter collaborations either. “In some ways I’m concerned, and in some ways I’m glad,” he says. “To the extent they pick ideas that have no research base, that’s a concern. To the extent they force us to consider new ideas, that’s a good thing.”