New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Education

Philanthropy and the End of Teacher Autonomy

Editors’ Note: Nicholas Tampio, author of the recently published Common Core: National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy, discusses the role the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation played in the establishment of Common Core.

I recently gave a talk at a local bookstore about my new book on the Common Core, a set of education standards that identify what students should be able to do in reading, writing, and mathematics at the end of each school year. Most states adopted the standards during the Obama administration, and though they have proven to be controversial, nearly every state still uses them to structure curriculum and assessment.

The most important Common Core standard is the first English Language Arts (ELA) anchor standard that demands that students “cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” Many Common Core assignments and tests give students a passage of text and ask them to answer questions about it using exact words from the text. It’s a representative demand: the Common Core, I argue, provides few opportunities for teachers or students to create new ideas or express their own thoughts.

After my talk, a mother in the front row raised her hand and said that she did not think that the Common Core necessarily has that effect in the classroom. When she was a teacher, until she retired in 2009, she could close her door and, within limits, teach the class how she wanted. She saw no reason why teachers still couldn’t ask their students to write poetry or creative fiction.

In this post, I wish to explain how the teaching profession has changed in the past decade, why the kind of professional autonomy this teacher enjoyed is disappearing, and what role philanthropy had in that change. Bill and Melinda Gates spent hundreds of millions of dollars for the writing and promotion of the Common Core. Less well known, perhaps, is the hundreds of millions they have also spent to transform teaching evaluation systems. Largely as a result of the Gateses’ advocacy of high-stakes testing, educators across the country must focus on teaching the Common Core or face unemployment.

The Gates Foundation and teacher evaluation systems

On social media, retiring teachers often reflect on all of the educational fads that they endured during their careers. What was to prevent the Common Core from becoming a fad? Melinda Gates told Education Week: “We could take the entire bolus, every dollar that’s in the foundation today, and spend it out in the state of California in two years and be out of business.” Instead of contributing directly to educational institutions, Bill and Melinda Gates, like other modern philanthropists, thought they could get more bang for their buck by changing education policy and budgets. Thus the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested $700-million on its teacher-quality agenda that would make it virtually impossible for teachers to ignore the Common Core.

First, the Gates Foundation spent $45 million on the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project. Led by Harvard Professor of Education Thomas Kane, the MET project laid the academic foundation for using value-added metrics (VAM) to evaluate teachers. AsKaneexplains, when people wish to lose weight, they use a scale and mirror. Likewise, to evaluate teachers, supervisors may use student test score growth and videotaped classroom observations. Though videotaping teachers has not (yet) become standard operating procedure for many schools, the use of value-added metrics to evaluate teachers has. Across the country, students take tests at the beginning and end of the year, and statisticians predict the test score growth given multiple characteristics of the students. Teachers whose students exceed the predicted student test score growth are identified as effective or highly effective, while teachers whosestudents do not test well at the end of the year are placed on probation or face therisk of being fired.

During the Obama administration, states across the country adopted the use of VAM to evaluate teachers. Why? Again, the Gates Foundation played a part by sending (former) employees to work for the US Department of Education and by helping states prepare their Race to the Top applications. Race to the Top was a competitive grant program that awarded over $5 billion to states that won a grant. States could earn points on their application if they adopted the Common Core standards, joined a testing consortium, and promised to use student achievement growth to inform personnel decisions. Race to the Top influenced the education priorities of most states, including those that did not win or even apply. Furthermore, Obama’s secretary of education threatened to withhold federal education funds—in the form of No Child Left Behind waivers—to states that did not go along with the administration’s favored teacher evaluation policies.

Things seem to have changed lately regarding teacher evaluations. The new major federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), specifies that states do not have to use student test score growth to evaluate teachers. And the Gates Foundation has recently announced that it is ending its funding for initiatives related to teacher evaluations. However, the Gates Foundation gave $44 million to states to help prepare their ESSA applications. And states have spent the past few years spending time, money, and energy building teacher evaluation systems using VAM. Because of what political scientists call “policy feedback,” it is hard to change a policy that many people now take for granted, for instance, when making personnel decisions.

Teacher evaluations and democratic education

 We could be having a different conversation about teacher quality. We could think more about how to mentor novice teachers and place them in situations where they can succeed. We could look harder at all of the environmental factors—including small class sizes, comfortable classrooms, healthy food, recess, play, a supportive work environment, and so forth—that influence how students do in school. We might appreciate the many ways that teachers and students excel beyond standardized test score growth. We might encourage communities, rather than centralized authorities, to make decisions about what makes for a good teacher in that school district.

Instead, however, the major criticism of VAM is that it is an imprecise science and thus is not a fair tool to evaluate teachers. According to American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, “Like predicting the weather, VAM is subject to many factors that influence the final result.” For VAM defenders, however, the science can become more precise over time as researchers collect more data and fine-tune their predictions. In the meantime, Kane and others recommend that decisionmakerscontinue to use student test score growth to make personnel decisions.

Even if VAM is a sham, as critics say, it remains a powerful tool to pressure educators to teach the Common Core. In 2011, David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core gave a speech about “Bringing the Common Core to Life” to an audience of New York teachers. He told them that Common Core close reading requires students to focus on the text and not on its background or their own criticism of it. Why? Because, he explained, “as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”  As I argue elsewhere, the Common Core expresses an anti-democratic philosophy of education that discourages young people from expressing their own thoughts. Unlike the teacher I met at the book talk, Coleman seems to show little interest in encouraging young people to think for themselves or express themselves creatively. Because of the Gates Foundation’s teacher-quality agenda, educators may lose their jobs if they teach anything other than Common Core close reading.

-Nicholas Tampio

Nicholas Tampio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Fordham University. He is the author of Common Core: National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2018).

One thought on “Philanthropy and the End of Teacher Autonomy

  1. So many punitive teach-to-a-test years have passed, now, that it impossible to see VAM evaluations as anything other than a strategic arm in ridding the system of teachers who resist the Big Money move to privatize a public system.

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