Gates Foundation Sends Reformers Scrambling

In the past two weeks, two big things have happened in the education reform battle.  First there was the decision in the Vergara vs. California case which declared that things like teacher tenure violate students’ rights.  Then, The Gates Foundation issued a statement that test scores from Common Core aligned tests should not factor into teacher evaluations for the next two years.

Most ‘reformers’ celebrated the Vergara ruling, though some were more cautious — possibly because they know it will likely get reversed.  Arne Duncan, StudentsFirst, and The New Teacher Project came out with celebratory posts, as did ‘reform’ friendly newspapers across the country.  Amazingly, Teach For America was silent about Vergara.

Though they didn’t say a lot about it during the trial, there was one retweet I saw from TFA co-CEO Matt Kramer during the trial:

Screen shot 2014-06-21 at 2.35.45 PMI responded to Kramers retweet, asking if this meant he was rooting against the teachers, but he did not respond back.  But it is clear that TFA is doing something smart here by not taking a public stance for or against the Vergara decision.

Two years ago I wrote a post called ‘The man who saved TFA’ where I advised TFA to be neutral on things like this.  My conclusion was “To TFA I’d implore you to start shifting into neutral as soon as possible.  You will have to do this eventually.  If you wait too long, it will be a lot trickier.”  I’m not saying that TFA actually took my advice.  They would never do that.  Instead they had to spend two years figuring out for themselves what I knew and suggested two years earlier.  Still, it is a wise move.

Then, a few days after the Vergara decision, the Gates Foundation dropped a bombshell.  In “A Letter to Our Partners:  Let’s Give Students and Teachers Time”, Vikki Phillips wrote “The Gates Foundation agrees with those who’ve decided that assessment results should not be taken into account in high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion for the next two years.”  Though Anthony Cody was still suspicious, and I’m inclined to agree with him, I still think that this was a very big deal.  Almost immediately in both New York and Washington D.C., value-added results based on student test scores were put on hold for two years.  Of course, two years will pass by before you know it, and then value-added may be back with a vengeance.

But this announcement has caused a rift among reformers where they now each have to choose which side they are on.  StudentsFirstNY came out with a statement that this was giving ineffective teachers a free pass, but Michelle Rhee has, so far, been silent about this.  The US department of education, just before they passed the resolution in Albany, had threatened to take away $292 million in Race To The Top funding if ‘student achievement’ wasn’t a ‘significant’ part of teacher evaluation scores, but when Washington D.C. — with Rhee’s old second-in-command, Kaya Henderson, in charge and many TFAers at high level positions — came out with their two year moratorium on using value-added as part of their IMPACT evaluation, we haven’t heard anything from Arne Duncan about this, or even Rhee’s The New Teacher Project.  Certainly Henderson is a big name in the reform world, and so is Andrew Cuomo, so a ‘reformer’ can be for or against these decisions, but they will have to commit to one side.

Teach For America has been, wisely again, silent so far, though one of their staff members who I sometimes communicate with on Twitter celebrated the decision:

Screen shot 2014-06-21 at 2.16.08 PMFrench is not someone I have a whole lot of respect for, as I don’t for anyone who has the lack of morals to work for TFA, but it is interesting that this decision is considered to be a “great move” by, at least, this staffer.  I asked the co-CEOs to comment on this, but haven’t heard anything yet.

So there are definitely two camps on this.  You’ve got Bill Gates, who is essentially the Secretary of Education in this country, saying to slow down on this.  And you have StudentsFirstNY, though not yet StudentsFirst, saying that slowing down is a mistake.  And maybe this is all for show, some good cops and some bad cops — as long as things continue to move in the ‘reform’ direction.

But I do think that the fact that any ‘reformers’ support a slow down is a big deal.  You see, if I were a ‘reformer’ and I had confidence in the golden calf known as value-added, I would be against the slow down.  Since the concept of value-added is that if it was already accurate enough to be 35% or 50% (in Denver) for teacher evaluations, then the harder (more ‘rigorous’) Common Core exams would not make it any less accurate.  This is the whole point of value-added.  It shouldn’t matter, to a value-added believer, if the new tests are more difficult.  Everyone is working under the same handicap so the value-added formulas should, in theory, account for that.

So anyone, like Gates, who is raising doubts about the accuracy of value-added now will, in two years have to explain why they are now for it again.  Of course it won’t be hard for them to say things like “Now that everyone’s had time to adjust to Common Core, it makes sense to use value-added for teacher evaluations again.”  But my sense is that the public is becoming so sick of standardized test driven education reform that politicians are beginning to see this as a bad thing to support.  In both New York City and Newark the mayoral election seems to have hinged on it.

My hope is that the Gates statement will be a sign to people in office that this aspect of corporate education reform is very dangerous.  Even if the politicians are stupid enough to believe that this type of reform is good for kids, I’m hoping that they will be smart enough (though dishonestly) to go against this for the sake of getting elected.

For sure the Vergara case was a bad loss for teachers and students.  But the Gates statement could be the start of some infighting and could expose more of the weak ‘science’ of value-added.  Two years may seem like a short amount of time, but it is about the length of time left in the Obama administration and the amount of time, surely, left in Arne Duncan’s tenure.  It should be interesting to see how this all plays out.

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12 Responses to Gates Foundation Sends Reformers Scrambling

  1. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

  2. Allie_Wall says:

    Gary, out here in L.A., E4E-L.A. (Educators for Excellence-Los Angeles) has been stuffing the mailboxes of our 35,000 LAUSD teachers / UTLA members trying to recruit members, who are uniformly furious about Vergara, and the moneyed interests who are pushing it.

    Thus, when it came time to issue a statement on Vergara, E4E-L.A. vomited up this gobble-dee-gook:

    Educators 4 Excellence–Los Angeles statement on verdict in “Vergara trial”
    June 10, 2014


    Contact: Joshua Goodman, 212-561-8730×226,

    June 10, 2014 (Los Angeles) —

    “The Los Angeles chapter of Educators 4 Excellence, a national organization that seeks to elevate the voices of teachers in education policy discussions, today released the following statement in response to Judge Rolf Treu’s ruling in Vergara v. California.

    “ ‘This case has ignited passions on all sides of the education spectrum. We hope today’s verdict will now spark conversations in local districts about how best to reshape education policies around critical issues like how we hire, evaluate, support and retain top talent to do the toughest and most important job on earth – teach our future.

    ” ‘While litigation and legislation provide important guardrails, Educators 4 Excellence believes those directly impacted by what happens in our classrooms should be proactively identifying better strategies to improve teaching and learning. Teachers, school leaders, and parents can and should lead the conversation about the incredibly important issues facing our classrooms and careers such as teacher evaluation and dismissal. This case can be a victory for everyone involved if adults respond in a way that organizes our priorities around the needs of California’s students. ‘ ”

    So which is it, guys? Is E4E for Vergara or against it? Or is E4E so maddeningly vague in its response as part of ploy not to alienate the suckers—err… I mean… current LAUSD teachers that E4E wants to recruit into its organization?

    EARTH-to-E4E: if Vergara survives its appeals, this means that teaching will then be downgraded from a profession—a la doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.—down to a low-paid, fired-at-will service job—a la fast food, retail sales cashier, office temping, etc. And at that point, no “conversations” amongst “teachers, school leaders, and parents” will be able to freakin’ change that. Furthermore, the only people celebrating a “victory” will be the money-motivated privatizers and union-busters who seek to profit from public education as it’s devoured by those same moneyed interests… the same interests, by the way, who’ve pumped millions into funding E4E, and are paying the salaries of all E4E staff, including the hack who wrote this maddeningly cryptic press release above.

    • Steve M says:

      This part of the spin tells you pretty clearly where Goodman and his associates stand:

      “This case can be a victory for everyone involved…”

      Unfortunately, Goodman is able to connect with a lot of young teachers who, because of their lack of experience and context, don’t know what is going on.

      • Allie_Wall says:

        The teachers in L.A. are utterly disgusted by Vergara… its origins, its goals, etc. Thus, E4E has to make this nebulous response, when in actuality, they are secretly celebrating it, but hiding those feelings so as not to turn off rank ‘n file teachers.

  3. Steve M says:

    This is the salient point:

    “It shouldn’t matter, to a value-added believer, if the new tests are more difficult. Everyone is working under the same handicap so the value-added formulas should, in theory, account for that.”

    It cuts to the quick and exposes value-added reformers’ lack of credibility. If value added models are so effective then it should not matter which tests are utilized in their value-added determinations. The reformers will say that they need two years to create a baseline from which everyone can be judged, but that is a complete lie. Value-added models do not utilize baseline data…they are instrumental variable models that use lagged achievement data (that is, peer data from the same instrument administered at the same time).

    What they need two years to accomplish is to adjust to, and then game, the system.

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