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|
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.