The Great Gates Political FAIL

The Gates Foundation’s education reform strategy is in the midst of the most catastrophic failure since the Annenberg Foundation blew $500 million in the 1990s.  The wheels are coming off Common Core, the center-piece of the Gates reform strategy.  Today’s front-page Wall Street Journal article documents how states and districts are abandoning the standards and their aligned tests and/or backing away from making the necessary expenditures to implement the new standards.  At this point only 23 states are still using one of the two Common Core assessments, putting me clearly in the lead on the Greene-Polikoff Wager.  The WSJ article paints a devastating picture of Common Core’s collapse.

Even local efforts by the Gates Foundation to implement its teacher quality strategy are falling apart.  Gates pledged $100 million to the Hillsborough School District in Tampa, Florida to make it the model of its reform strategy.  As the district is running out of Gates money and discovering the unsustainability of its own financial commitments, the whole effort of using new teacher evaluation methods, mentoring, and merit pay is about to be dismantled.

Despite all of this investment, Hillsborough is getting lousy academic results.  As can be seen in the table below, Hillsborough has been doing very poorly on the US Department of Ed’s Urban NAEP over the last 2 and 4 years.  Hillsborough has even lagged far behind the generally disappointing national results.  Nor is this a Florida problem as Hillsborough lags far behind the trend in Miami.  Of course, one cannot attribute these aggregate trends to any specific policy, but political interpretations do not hinge on these methodological niceties.  The obvious conclusion policymakers are drawing is that the Gates effort in Hillsborough cost a fortune, is not financially or politically sustainable, and is an academic flop.

Hillsborough Average for Large Urban Districts
Math 2015-2013 2015-2011 2015-2013 2015-2011
8th grade -8 -6 -2 0
4th grade 1 1 -1 1
8th grade -6 -3 -1 2
4th grade 2 1 2 3

The question is whether philanthropists and ed reformers are going to learn the right lessons from the unfolding Great Gates Political FAIL.  Some seem to have mistakenly concluded that the problem was just poor communication and messaging.  Others seem to think we just need to try harder to succeed with implementation.  I’m convinced that a top-down strategy that falsely invokes science to identify “best practices” and then attempts to impose those practices on our highly decentralized education system is always doomed to fail, regardless of how it is “messaged” and no matter how earnest we are about implementation.

There are no indications as of yet that folks at the Gates Foundation or other major reform organizations have learned the proper lessons.  Vicki Phillips just announced that she is leaving as the head of Gates education efforts, but the Foundation’s public statements indicate no change in strategy.  It’s unclear whether Phillips is leaving because of perceived failure, because of the repeated mis-representation of research, or just because it is time for a change after 8 years at the helm.  And other foundations seem to be drifting toward more top-down, high-regulation approaches.

Effective philanthropy is hard and education reform is even more challenging.  But unless the major organizations change their approach they are doomed to repeat this failure.

8 Responses to The Great Gates Political FAIL

  1. Mark Dynarski says:

    Promoting best practices in a top down way seems likely to be viewed as scientific hubris. A teacher with even average experience has spent thousands of hours in the classroom, and may bridle at the idea of being told the best way to teach by researchers who have spent comparatively little time in classrooms but have ‘studied’ practices.

    But investing in developing skills to identify and interpret evidence on practices might be welcomed by any teacher or administrator who is put in a position of having to make a decision and wondering what the evidence has to say on it. Empowering educators to read evidence is quite different from telling them what they should do.

    I am not sure if this kind of investment is top down or bottom up. Maybe it’s both.

    • Supporting and disseminating quality research is bottom up in the sense that people can make their own choices about how to or whether to use what they’ve learned from research. That’s not the game Gates is playing. They know what works and want to get everyone to do it. And Gates is discovering they neither have the money or political power to get everyone on board, even assuming Gates was right about what worked (which does not appear to be the case).

  2. sstotsky says:

    One can tell a wise from a dumb philanthopist by the kind of people they hire to advise them on education issues. So far, Bill Gates has put all his money on the wrong horses. There isn’t a one connected to his vast stable of beneficiaries who has improved any child’s academic record, so far as I can tell.

    But Gates is determined to spend his 64 billion to the bitter end. In MA, that means trying to get something called MCAS.2 as the recommendation to come from the state board of ed on November 17, when Mitchell Chester has to recommend to the party faithful whether to keep MCAS as the state’s official tests, switch completely to PARCC, or adopt a “blend” of the two–to be called MCAS.2. MCAS.2 will actually be PARCC in disguise (since today’s MCAS is also based on Common Core standards), but Gates is having a problem getting the party faithful in MA to see it that way.

    The debate will continue long after the Board’s vote–if indeed it doesn’t have enough sense to table any motion made until after the 2016 November election. Radio fans are listening to the debate on WBUR last Thursday (that’s our NPR station in Boston) or reading the latest Pioneer Institute report on PARCC’s reading and writing practice test items to understand what a poorly conceived test it is. Why it is such a poor test is something I had hoped one of the groups asked to compare PARCC and MCAS (e.g., Mathematica) would have analyzed. Mark McQuillan (former Commissioner in CT) and I were the first people to take those practice tests and to report on the problems in the test items for reading and writing. Don’t understand why.

  3. […] P. Greene commented on that article focusing on the billions spent unsuccessfully by the Gates Foundation to enact their education vision on America. Yes I meant to […]

  4. […] from the man whose edu­ca­tion reforms over the years have largely failed; the most recent exam­ple being Com­mon Core known for it’s ridicu­lously con­vo­luted math […]

  5. […] from the man whose education reforms over the years have largely failed; the most recent example being Common Core known for it’s ridiculously convoluted math […]

  6. Mindy Kornhaber says:

    The Greene-Polikoff wager results ought to be announced early. There appears to be no point waiting out the remaining years. Sorry, Morgan!

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