Gates Foundation learns humility — maybe

Bill and Melinda Gates, co-chairs of the world’s largest foundation, talk to reporters in New York on Feb. 22. Photo: Seth Wenig/Associated Press

After years of “setting America’s public school agenda,” the Gates Foundation is learning humility, concludes a Los Angeles Times editorial.

The foundation funded the creation of small high schools, until its researchers found that size isn’t a critical factor in student achievement.

It funded bonuses for high-performing teachers, coupled with a new evaluation system, but an experiment in Hillsborough County, Fla. proved costly and ineffective.

“Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards,” Desmond-Hellmann wrote. “We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators — particularly teachers — but also parents and communities, so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.

“This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.”

I’m not sure this is quite the mea culpa the Times thinks it is. Gates certainly isn’t abandoning the Common Core. The foundation will focus on providing high-quality Core-aligned learning materials and helping teachers choose from what’s available.

“If the knock on the hidebound education system is that it doesn’t change fast enough isn’t the knock on Gates that they change too fast?” responds Eduwonk. “Their small schools investments were not the disaster everyone thinks they were but they pivoted before the evaluations came in. . . . They soft peddled the results of their own evaluations of measures of teacher effectiveness. And while the rollout of Common Core has certainly been a political disaster and the assessment scene is something of a garbage fire, the standards themselves are pretty embedded.”

Popular ed tech is not disruptive — or effective

The most popular digital learning tools fit into existing classrooms without “disrupting” traditional ways of teaching, reports Benjamin Herold in Ed Week.

The most popular digital learning tools are the least effective, an SRI analysis found.

The most popular digital learning tools are the least effective, an SRI analysis found.

These tools may have little or no effect on student learning, warns an analysis by SRI’s Center for Technology in Learning. In fact, the most popular tools were the least effective and the most effective tools had the fewest users, researchers found.

SRI studied “complete online courses, peer-support platforms, and predictive analytics tools” funded by the Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Learning Challenge, reports Herold. “Most had no statistically significant impact on student outcomes,” the Gates-funded follow-up concluded.

Products that scaled most rapidly shared three factors:

. . . a promise of cost savings for schools, no requirements for face-to-face training, and an ability to be easily integrated into existing teaching and learning practices.

“To create an education technology tool that can have an impact, but also be adopted in many classrooms, requires thinking about supports for teachers, resources for instruction, and rethinking the way time is used within schools,” said Barbara Means, the director of the Center for Technology in Learning.

Comprehensive technology interventions are more effective, SRI found. They’re also less common.

Only a few large, more established companies have the resources and capacity to develop such products, then wait out K-12 schools’ glacial purchasing cycles. And some of the higher-profile initiatives, such as the complete K-12 digital curriculum that Pearson sold to the Los Angeles Unified district, turned into major flops.

K-12 educators often try to use technology products and services from multiple sources, said Sara Allan, the deputy director of K-12 programs at the Gates Foundation.

That’s difficult to do well, writes Herold. Schools may “end up with a hodgepodge in which the effectiveness of any one tool is limited by the confusion in the broader ecosystem.”

RAND: Personalized learning leads to progress

Gates-RAND ContinuedProgress-ChartIn schools using technology to personalize learning, students made greater academic progress than a control group, according to a RAND study for the Gates Foundation.

Students with the lowest prior achievement made the greatest gains in reading and math.

Researchers followed 11,000 students attending 62 K-12 charter and district schools.

Teachers and administrators are using data generated by personalized learning tools to adapt their teaching, according to the study, notes edSurge. The most successful schools use data to group students and give students the opportunity to discuss their data with their teachers. They also create spaces for personalized learning.

Charter schools using personalized learning saw strong effects, but district schools, a much smaller part of the sample, did not, Neerav Kingsland points out. Was it personalized learning — or just highly effective charter schools? I think that’s a valid point.

Teacher evaluation sticker shock in Florida

With hundreds of mentors and “peer evaluators,” big raises for teachers and consultants’ fees, teacher evaluation has become a budget buster in Hillsborough County, Florida, reports Marlene Sokol for the Tampa Bay Times.

The Gates Foundation offered $100 million to fund Empowering Effective Teachers if the district paid the other half. Although other foundations also contributed, the district’s share has ballooned to $124 million.

Frank Hannaway teaches music at MacFarlane Elementary in Hillsborough County, Florida. Credit: Willie J. Allen, Jr., Tampa Bay Times

Frank Hannaway teaches music at MacFarlane Elementary in Hillsborough County, Florida. Credit: Willie J. Allen, Jr., Tampa Bay Times

“With $200 million in private and public money to play with, it was as if the district dined out nightly, ordered lobster and never kept track of the mounting tab,” writes Sokol.

Teachers got raises for performance — and for seniority. Most of the big raises went to veteran teachers in suburban schools, while high-poverty schools continued to get the least experienced, lowest-paid teachers.

Test scores rose, but the district continues to lag on graduation rates.

Hillsborough may cut back on peer evaluators, instead asking high-performing teachers to provide “non-evaluative” feedback to colleagues.

Valerie Strauss is leading the chorus of sneers, writing, “Another Bill Gates-funded education reform project, starting with mountains of cash and sky-high promises, is crashing to Earth.”

Graph for press release.PNG

Forty-three states require that student achievement and growth be included in teacher evaluations, according to a National Council on Teacher Quality report. In 35 states, it’s a significant factor.

Only Alabama, New Hampshire and Texas have teacher effectiveness policies that exist only in waiver promises made to the U.S. Department of Education.

Teachers’ unions lose unity, clout

“The teachers unions now face an environment in which their traditional enemies are emboldened, their traditional allies are deserting, and some of their most devoted activists are questioning the leadership of their own officers,” writes Mike Antonucci of Education Intelligence Agency on Education Next. But,”even weakened, together the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) constitute the single most powerful force in American education policy.”

Both unions peaked in 2008 “with a combined membership approaching 4 million and annual revenues at all levels estimated at nearly $2 billion,” he writes.

Since then, NEA member has fallen by more than 9 percent. The AFT has held membership steady by affiliating with non-education unions, not by recruiting new teachers.

Today, a slight majority of teachers are not union members.

In both unions, a radical faction “wants to man the barricades, fight over every inch of territory, and take no prisoners” in the fight against education reform, writes Antonucci.

Union leaders want to appear to be “forward-thinking and innovative” rather than constantly rejecting reform. They need political allies.

While both national unions decry the corporate influence on education, they have partnerships with large corporations on many levels: sponsorships of union events, discount arrangements and credit cards as part of member benefits packages, funding for joint projects, etc.

. . . Union activists often depict the Gates Foundation as the mastermind behind corporate education reform. But in 2009, when the foundation announced it would award $335 million to a number of school districts and charter schools to promote teacher effectiveness, the union response was a far cry from the anticorporate rhetoric it regularly delivers to its internal audience.

. . . The NEA’s own foundation received $550,000 from the Gates Foundation to “improve labor-management collaboration.” The AFT accrued more than $10 million from the Gates Foundation, until internal pressures forced the union to end some of the grants.

The militant wing sees Common Core standards as part of the “corporate education-reform agenda,” while the establishment wing “has been forced to triangulate by defending the standards but attacking the way they have been implemented.”

The NEA and the AFT won’t disappear, concludes Antonucci. “But their days of dominating the education environment are on the wane.”

In an open letter to AFT President Randi Weingarten, Education Post’s Peter Cunningham critiques her Oct. 22 speech calling Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy a “John Wayne” autocrat. Deasy had just resigned.

Wrapped in aspirational language about “collaboration” was a clear signal to your members that organized resistance to reform is the real strategy, and that the AFT supports it. The equally clear signal to reform leaders across the country is that they could be targeted next if they are not sufficiently “collaborative.”

The public is losing confidence in district-run schools and “voting with their feet,” he warns.

Cities collaborate with charters

More than 20 school districts, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, are collaborating with charter schools on teacher training, ways to measure student progress and other issues, writes Richard Whitmire in Education Next.

Districts have signed “compacts” with charters — with funding from the Gates Foundation.

In Denver and in Aldine and Spring Branch, Texas, superintendents have invited high-performing charters to share space in schools. Charter and district principals and teachers interact with each other. Students take some classes together.

District superintendents want to import some of the charter classroom culture they see. At Northbrook Middle School in Spring Branch, students have adopted a new attitude about academic success. Now, “it’s cool to know the answers.”

Charter school leaders need building space, and access to students. Districts have helped charters coordinate services for special education students and by setting common performance metrics for low-performing charters.

Don Shalvey, who’s leading the compact initiative for Gates, is a former school superintendent and founder of the Aspire charter network.

In Denver, teachers from the charter school Highline Academy and the district school Cole Academy of Arts and Science collaborate on curriculum plans and interim assessments. Photo courtesy Denver Public Schools

In Denver, teachers from the charter school Highline Academy and the district school Cole Academy of Arts and Science collaborate on curriculum plans and interim assessments.
Photo courtesy Denver Public Schools

Spring Branch adopted SLANT (sit up, listen, ask and answer questions, nod for understanding and track the speaker) from its charter partner. Now they’re thinking of adopting YES Prep’s math curriculum.

Texas provides no facilities funding for charters, so YES Prep saves millions by co-locating. The district gets to report the charter’s higher test scores as its own.

Aldine plans to adopt YES Prep’s college-prep curriculum, writes Whitmire. Again, the charter gets shared space it would struggle to afford without the partnership.

In San Jose, Franklin-McKinley Superintendent John Porter invited Rocketship and KIPP to open schools in the low-income, heavily immigrant district. To compete for students, a district elementary school developed a science theme in partnership with the city’s Tech Museum.

AFT funds teachers to ‘rewrite’ standards

The American Federation of Teachers will give $4.4 million in grants to teachers to critique or rewrite Common Core standards.

The money to revise the standards will come from the AFT Innovation Fund, which formerly was funded by the Gates Foundation, notes At the Chalkface. The foundation also provided much of the funding to write Common Core standards.

Gates: Don’t use Core scores for 2 years

Common Core-aligned tests shouldn’t be used for  teacher evaluations and student promotions for two years, writes Vicki Phillips for the Gates Foundation. “The standards need time to work.”

Teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests, and offer their feedback.

. . . A rushed effort to apply the assessments could punish teachers as they’re trying new things, and any hiccups in the assessments could be seen as flaws in the standards.

That makes sense. But it comes a few days after a Washington Post story on the foundation’s support for the development and promotion of Common Core Standards — and its extensive links with the Obama administration.

The foundation backed off on high-stakes testing after “calls for congressional investigations” into the foundation and its administration allies, writes Susan Berry on Breitbart.

How Bill Gates sold the Common Core

Bill Gates put $200 million into Common Core standards.

Common Core State Standards were the brainchild of Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, reports Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post. The godfather was Bill Gates, who put more than $200 million into developing the Core and building support for it.

The Gates Foundation spread money across the political spectrum, to entities including the big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, and business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — groups that have clashed in the past but became vocal backers of the standards.

Money flowed to policy groups on the right and left, funding research by scholars of varying political persuasions who promoted the idea of common standards. Liberals at the Center for American Progress and conservatives affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council who routinely disagree on nearly every issue accepted Gates money and found common ground on the Common Core.

President Obama’s Education Department, “populated by former Gates Foundation staffers and associates”  used $4.3 billion in “stimulus funds to reward states that accepted the standards.” Forty-six states and the District of Columbia signed on, though some have jumped ship.

Even Catholic schools have adopted the standards, if only because it’s hard to find classroom materials or training that’s not aligned to the Common Core.

The speed of adoption by the states was staggering by normal standards. A process that typically can take five years was collapsed into a matter of months.

“You had dozens of states adopting before the standards even existed, with little or no discussion, coverage or controversy,” said Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, which has received $4 million from the Gates Foundation since 2007 to study education policy, including the Common Core. “States saw a chance to have a crack at a couple of million bucks if they made some promises.”

The Gates Foundation has put $3.4 billion into trying to improve K-12 education, reports the Post. (My other blog, Community College Spotlight is funded by the Hechinger Institute, which receives Gates Foundation grants.) It has enormous influence.

“Really rich guys can come up with ideas that they think are great, but there is a danger that everyone will tell them they’re great, even if they’re not,” said Jay Greene, who heads the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform.

Gates “sees himself as a technocrat” funding research in “new tools” to improve education. “Medicine — they spend a lot of money finding new tools. Software is a very R and D-oriented industry. The funding, in general, of what works in education . . . is tiny. It’s the lowest in this field than any field of human endeavor. Yet you could argue it should be the highest.”

Diane Ravitch wants Congress to investigate Gates’ role in the creation and marketing of Common Core standards.

The idea of “common national standards and tests goes back a long long way before Gates,” points out Alexander Russo. If the idea hadn’t already had broad appeal, Gates’ millions wouldn’t have been effective.

Most education philanthropy supports the status quo, adds Eduwonk. “In education there is very little change absent an infusion of marginal dollars and outside pressure.”

Personally, I think it’s crazy to suggest that Bill Gates has given $3.4 billion to education causes — and billions more to public health — because he wants to make more money. His policy ideas may be wrong. His motives are good.

Waltons fund — surprise! — charter schools

The Walmart heirs have put a lot of their donations into charter schools for low-income students, reports the New York Times. The foundation also supports Teach for America.

It’s not exactly hot news. The Gates Foundation spends much more, focuses on changing education policy and is very, very influential.

The Times signals its left-wing bias, notes Ira Stoll on Reason. The Walton Foundation has “many tentacles” and funds “divisive” ideas, reports the Times. 

“Walton’s Mr. Sternberg, who started his career in Teach for America and founded the Bronx Lab School, a public school in New York City, does not apologize for Walton’s commitment to charter schools and vouchers.”

“Why would he apologize?” asks Stoll. He’s “helping to make schools better.”

The New York Times Company and its foundation support P.S. 111, the Adolph S. Ochs School in Manhattan, named after the family patriarch, reports Stoll. The school earned a grade of “D” for its school environment. A quality review observes “the principal acknowledges that teachers have not received written feedback this year.” Only 19 percent of the school’s sixth graders pass the state English test and only 24 percent of the school’s fifth graders pass the state math test.