Skip to main content

Gary Rubinstein’s Blog: 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 PM

I 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 PM

French 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.

This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship. ...