It’s a Blowout: Tom Vander Ark 4, New Gates PLDD Strategy 0

The research evidence continues to pile up that the old Gates strategy of promoting small schools of choice has proven effective according to rigorous random-assignment design studies, while the new Gates PLDD strategy of building a national system of standards, assessments, and consequences has virtually no rigorous evidence to support it.

Under Tom Vander Ark’s leadership the Gates Foundation not only pursued an agenda based on a plausible theory of school improvement, but also initiated a series of high-quality studies to assess the results.  Even though Gates has largely abandoned its old strategy, those results are now pouring in.  We previously saw positive outcomes from a study by Lisa Barrow, Amy Claessens, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of small schools in Chicago.  A non-Gates-funded analysis by my students, Anna Egalite and Brian Kisida, showed the same advantage for smaller schools in a national sample.  And in New York City, MDRC also demonstrated significant gains from small schools of choice.

Now MDRC has an updated analysis confirming that the benefits discovered earlier were extended and endured.  Randomly assigning students to small high schools “continue[s] to produce sustained positive effects, raising graduation rates by 9.5 percentage points.”  In addition, “more students are graduating ready for college: the [small high] schools raise by 6.8 percentage points the proportion of students scoring 75 or more on the English Regents exam, a critical measure of college readiness used by the City University of New York.”

What evidence do we have to support the new Gates PLDD strategy?  Umm, well, I’m sure Fordham can gather some of their friends together and give higher letter grades to states implementing the Gates PLDD strategy.  Over $6 million can buy some really good grades.

This is what the Gates Foundation has been reduced to — an organization that used to commission the most rigorous evaluations of their reform theory now invests overwhelmingly in the marketing and spinning of their new reform theory.  And they couldn’t even stick with the old reform theory of promoting small schools of choice long enough to see whether the rigorous evidence supported it.

Small schools?!?  That is like so 2007.  I think I’ll tweet my friends all about it, since Gates is now more interested in Twitter counts than random-assignment research.  Can Gates please put a grown-up in charge, like bringing back Tom Vander Ark?

[UPDATE — An alert reader notes that the score is actually 5-0.  I forgot this study of small schools designed as early college.  Also, note the comment I added clarifying the nature of my concern with the $6 million given by Gates to Fordham.]

4 Responses to It’s a Blowout: Tom Vander Ark 4, New Gates PLDD Strategy 0

  1. Jason Bedrick says:

    I’ll say it before Matt does: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!

  2. Let me clarify my remark about Fordham and the $6 million they’ve received from the Gates Foundation. I believe that Fordham is completely sincere in its support for national standards and Gates money has had no effect on their holding that view. As I’ve written before (at ): “I’ve long argued that in education policy debates we should focus on the merits of the arguments rather than the motives of the people involved in the argument. Whatever Fordham’s motives I think their arguments have to be addressed and I have done so here, among other places.

    But let me go further. I strongly doubt that Gates money has had any serious effect on Fordham’s stance on national standards. Fordham has always been in support of the idea, although it has often opposed specific proposals for standards that it thought were counter-productive. Gates decided to pour a mountain of money on Fordham because Fordham was already on board for the idea of national standards. The money would just help improve the efficacy of Fordham to advocate the view they already held. There was the danger that Fordham would have opposed the specific national standards backed by Gates, but Fordham has decided that these are good enough standards for them. Of course, Fordham may still change its mind (and is known for strategic reversals on policies, such as NCLB), but I have no doubt that Fordham is completely sincere in its support for national standards and assessment.”

    The problem arises when organizations like Fordham engage in the phony science of organizing expert panels to assign grades to things, which I’ve written about previously here: Unlike studies based on rigorous research designs, like random-assignment, expert panels are subject to every sort of conscious or unconscious external influence because there are no objective procedures for inviting your friends, inventing criteria, and assigning letter grades. As we’ve seen in the Tony Bennett controversy, subjective and post-hoc assignment of grades is fraught with real or perceived, intended or unintended manipulation.

    In the future I’ll avoid hassling Fordham about the money because it is clearly not what caused them to support national standards. Instead, I should focus on their use of phony science to advocate for those national standards, which could be influenced by a large donor. Fordham, like the Gates Foundation, needs to focus a lot more on producing rigorous social science and a lot less on marketing and spin.

  3. Ze'ev Wurman says:


    I agree with what you write yet I think you miss a point there.

    One can support a concept in a principled manner and even publicly offer support for it. Yet the moment one gets serious money to *promote* that idea, then *by definition* one becomes a paid lobbyist. There is nothing to say that many of the Washington’s registered lobbyist don’t believe in what they peddle — it’s just that it doesn’t matter for the purpose of their behavior. Once you are paid to promote something rather than just research something, you by definition become a lobbyist for that purpose. Further, there is nothing inherently evil in being a lobbyist — but we like to know who is and who is not.

    Some of the Gates’ grants to Fordham are listed under its “Global Policy and Advocacy” category, even if they may go to “general operating support.” Either Gates is mis-categorizing its grants, or Fordham gets the money with strings (i.e., “understanding”) attached.

  4. […] source of independent expertise on matters such as the Common Core”. Greene proudly harrumphed on his eponymous blog that “Over $6 million can buy some really good grades”; Greene […]

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