Archives for category: Teacher Evaluations

I received the letter at the bottom of this post at the beginning of January. I thought it deserved a response.

This was my response:

Dear Jonah,

You don’t know me but I have followed your career. As the son of illustrious parents, much was expected of you.

Stand for Children was a great idea, when it actually defended children and public schools.

But somewhere along the way, you changed and Stand for Children changed. In 2007-08, you began to accept gifts of millions of dollars from “ultra-wealthy political donors,” and you began leading campaigns against teachers, their unions, and public schools. You demanded test-based evaluations of teachers, a useless metric that punished teachers who taught the neediest children. You boasted at an Aspen summer meeting in 2011 (which I attended) that you had outsmarted the Chicago Teachers Union by hiring all the best lobbyists. The big political donors gave you money to support pro-charter candidates in school board races.

Early supporters of Stand for Children started to call it “Stand on Children.”

I agree with all the goals you describe in your letter, and I must ask you if you will continue to promote charter schools, even though they drain money from public schools; whether you will continue to support test-based evaluation of teachers, even though it has consistently failed; whether you will continue to support school board candidates who favor charter schools and privatization.

If you truly intend to reject donations from “ultra-wealthy political donors,” if you truly reject all forms of privatization, including charter schools, if you truly mean to demand “that politicians at all levels do everything possible to protect and strengthen public education, support children and families’ well-being, and reduce the prevalence of racism,” then we can stand together. Please let me and the Network for Public Education know where you stand on the issues that could unite us.

Diane Ravitch


On Thu, Dec 30, 2021 at 10:36 AM Jonah Edelman <info@stand.org> wrote:

Diane,

Reflecting on 2021, I see reasons for hope. The widespread availability of vaccines. A return to in-person learning. An economy that rebounded with record speed due to bold government action.

At the same time, there is cause for grave concern. Tens of millions of children and young people are struggling to recover academically, socially, and emotionally from the pandemic. Tragically, instead of using their power to help children and young people get on track, politicians are passing bans on conversations about race and discrimination that deny children the honest and unbiased understanding of the past they need to create a better future. At the same time, extremists are targeting and harassing school board members, principals, teachers, parents, and even students who want an accurate portrayal of U.S. history with diverse viewpoints.DONATE

Public education is the pathway to economic opportunity and the backbone of a healthy democracy.

That is why we must stand together against the politicians, media moguls, and ultra-wealthy political donors who are stirring up fear and hate and conspiring to make public education a political battleground at the expense of our children’s learning and well-being.

And it is why, together, we must continue to use our collective voice and votes to ensure that politicians at all levels do everything possible to protect and strengthen public education, support children and families’ well-being, and reduce the prevalence of racism and the harm it does to us all.

We are deeply grateful for your partnership and support, and we hope you will continue to stand with us in 2022.

Standing together with you,

Jonah Edelman

Stand for Children

2121 SW Broadway #111

Portland, OR 97201

Who is responsible for the widespread teaching exodus? Who demoralized America’s teachers, the professionals who work tirelessly for low wages in oftentimes poor working conditions? Who smeared and discouraged an entire profession, one of the noblest of professions?

Let’s see:

Federal legislation, including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

George W. Bush; Margaret Spellings; Rod Paige (who likened the NEA to terrorists); the Congressional enablers of NCLB; Sandy Kress (the mastermind behind the harsh, punitive and ultimately failed NCLB).

Erik Hanushek, the economist who has long advocated for firing the teachers whose students get low test scores; the late William Sanders, the agricultural economist who created the methodology to rank teachers by their students’ scores; Raj Chetty, who produced a study with two other economists claiming that “one good teacher” would enhance the lifetime earnings of a class by more than $200,000; the reporters at the Los Angeles Times who dreamed up the scheme of rating teachers by student scores abd publishing their ratings, despite their lack of validity (one LA teacher committed suicide).

Davis Guggenheim, director of the deeply flawed “Waiting for Superman”; Bill Gates and his foundation, who funded the myth that the nation’s schools would dramatically improve by systematically firing low-ranking teachers (as judged by their students’ scores), funded “Waiting for Superman,” funded the Common Core, funded NBC’s “Education Nation,” which gave the public school bashers a national platform for a few days every year, until viewers got bored and the program died; and funded anything that was harmful to public schools and their teachers; President Obama and Arne Duncan, whose Race to the Top required states to evaluate teachers by their students’ scores and required states to adopt the Common Core and to increase the number of charter schools; Jeb Bush, for unleashing the Florida “model” of punitive accountability; and many more.

We now know that ranking teachers by their students’ test scores does not identify the best and the worst teachers. It is ineffective and profoundly demoralizing.

We now know that charter schools do not outperform public schools, as many studies and NAEP data show.

We now know that public schools are superior to voucher schools, and that the voucher schools have high attrition rates.

We now know that Teach for America is not a good substitute for well-prepared professional teachers.

Who did I leave out?

We have long known that students need experienced teachers and reasonable class sizes (ideally less than 25) to do their best.

Given the vitriolic attacks on teachers and public schools for more than 20 years, it almost seems as though there is a purposeful effort to demoralize teachers and replace them with technology.

Gary Rubinstein writes here about the new leadership of the New York City Department of Education.

He begins:

Eric Adams will become the next Mayor of New York City on January 1st. He will hire David Banks as the new schools Chancellor. And Banks will bring in Dan Weisberg as his top deputy.

Dan Weisberg

Unfortunately Dan Weisberg is one of the most dangerous people in the country who could rise to be the second highest ranking administrator in New York City…

In the article from Chalkbeat, NY, Alex Zimmerman tries hard to sugarcoat the background of this controversial pick. He writes:

He has tapped Dan Weisberg — who runs an organization focused on teacher quality and handled labor issues under Mayor Michael Bloomberg — to be his top deputy. That move is likely to raise eyebrows with the city’s teachers union, which has previously clashed with Weisberg.

So what is this “organization focused on teacher quality”? Well it is TNTP which once stood for The New Teacher Project. TNTP was founded by Michelle Rhee in 1997. What started out as a Teach For America type program for training career changers to become teachers quickly became an education reform propaganda organization. In 2009 they got into funding ‘research’ and their first publication was called ‘The Widget Effect’ which argued the benefits of merit pay for teachers based on standardized test scores. This publication is still often quoted despite very shoddy statistical practices. Dan Weisberg was the lead author of ‘The Widget Effect.’ More recently they put out something called “The Opportunity Myth” about how most teachers have low expectations because they do activities that don’t completely adhere to the researcher’s interpretation of the Common Core Standards.

Fifteen years ago there were plenty of Michelle Rhee type reformers in leadership positions in school districts around the country. As that brand of reform failed to deliver results, those reformers took positions in think tanks where they could make a lot more money but where they would not have such direct power over school systems.

Back in the Bloomberg/Klein days, people like Weisberg would celebrate judicial rulings where parents would fight to not have their children’s schools shut down. Charter schools, in the wake of ‘Waiting For Superman’, were supposedly proving that all you needed to turn around a school was to staff them with non-unionized teachers. Teacher bashing was all the rage, they even had their own Walton funded movie flop ‘Won’t Back Down.’

But things are different now. Reformers are not as brazen as they once were. The charter bubble has burst a bit, though Bloomberg has $750 million that says he can revive it. But it will be hard. With the failures of projects like The Achievement District in Tennessee, it will a a tougher sell to say that we need to replicate their accomplishments. Back in the day, there would be so much talk of charters that were beating the odds with 100% graduation rates or 100% college acceptance rates. Those stores were debunked so often that even The74 hardly runs stories like that anymore. Does anyone know whatever happened to KIPP? The only charter chain that can even claim to get good test scores is Success Academy, and even reformers hardly like to talk about them since they boot (or discourage from enrolling) so many kids who might bring down their precious test scores.

So where does a teacher basher fit into the current system? As a New York City teacher with two kids in the system, I’m a bit scared to find out.

Gary follows up with anti-teacher, anti-union tweets by Weisberg, as well as congratulatory tweets from the hardcore reformers.

Hold on, tight, NYC teachers. You are in for a rough ride.

Education Week reported that a decade of “reforms” focused on tougher teacher evaluations produced no improvement in student test scores.

More than a decade ago, policymakers made a multi-billion-dollar bet that strengthening teacher evaluation would lead to better teaching, which in turn would boost student achievement. But new research shows that, overall, those efforts failed: Nationally, teacher evaluation reforms over the past decade had no impact on student test scores or educational attainment.

The research is the latest indictment of a massive push between 2009 and 2017, spurred by federal incentives, philanthropic investments, and a nationwide drive for accountability in K-12 education, to implement high-stakes teacher evaluation systems in nearly every state.

Prior to the reforms, nearly all teachers received satisfactory ratings in their evaluations. So policymakers from both political parties introduced more-robust classroom observations and student-growth measures—including standardized test scores—into teachers’ ratings, and then linked the performance ratings to personnel decisions and compensation.

“There was a tremendous amount of time and billions of dollars invested in putting these systems into place, and they didn’t have the positive effects reformers were hoping for,” said Joshua Bleiberg, an author of the study and a postdoctoral research associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. “There’s not a null effect in every place where teacher evaluation [reform] happened. … [But] on average, [the effect on student achievement] is pretty close to zero.”

The evaluation reforms were largely unpopular among teachers and their unions, who argued that incorporating certain metrics, like student test scores, was unfair and would drive good educators out of the profession. Yet proponents—including the Obama administration—argued that tougher evaluations could identify, and potentially weed out, the weakest teachers while elevating the strongest ones…

A team of researchers from several universities analyzed the data, starting when states adopted the new teacher evaluations incorporating student test scores. They looked not only at changes in scores but high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates.

Tougher teacher-evaluation systems can work, Petrilli said—but there was no political will to act on the results at the time of the reforms. Teachers’ unions resisted firing teachers who received poor results, and districts were unwilling or unable to pay great teachers more, he said.

At a time of acute teacher shortages, what school district is eager to fire teachers based on their students’ test scores?

The failed reforms were in large part a response to the demands of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, which required states to adopt test-based evaluation to be eligible for a share of $4.35 billion in federal money. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised such teacher evaluations loudly and frequently.

As I wrote in my 2020 book SLAYING GOLIATH, test-based teacher evaluation was never tried before it was imposed on almost every state in the nation. It had no evidence to support its use. Many scholars and professional groups warned against it, but Duncan plunged forward, belittling anyone who dared to disparage his Big Reform.

Obama and Duncan found support in a 2011 study led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, but his glowing predictions about the benefits of test-based evaluation didn’t pan out. His paper on value-added teacher assessment won him a front page story in the New York Times, a story on the PBS Newshour, and a laudatory mention in President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address. Chetty et al concluded that better teachers caused students to get higher test scores, to graduate more frequently, to earn more income over their lifetimes, and—for girls, to be less likely to have out-of-wedlock births. As one of the authors told the New York Times, the message of our study is that bad teachers should be fired sooner rather than later.

But despite the cheerleading of Arne Duncan and the seemingly definitive conclusions of Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff, value-added teacher evaluations failed.

How many good and great teachers left their profession because of this ill-fated “reform”?

Sarah Reckhow of Michigan State University University and Megan Tompkins-Stange of the University of Michigan studied the ways in which foundations fund research that advances policies they believe in. They use the issue of teacher quality, specifically, to demonstrate how the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation underwrote research that provided evidence for evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students (VAM, or value-added modeling). The research supported a policy that the Obama administration wanted to implement.

VAM turned out to be highly ineffective and demoralized teachers, but the big foundations gave the Obama administration the back-up the administration needed for their demand that teachers be evaluated by their students’ test scores. The American Statistical Association warned that VAM was an invalid measure of individual teachers, as did other scholarly and professional organizations, but Obama and Duncan ignored the naysayers.

Reckhow and Tompkins-Stange write:

After the Obama Administration took office in 2009, a number of former Gates Foundation officials assumed senior roles in the Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan, and were influential in drafting Race to the Top, a $4.3 billion competitive grant program designed to induce states to comply with specific policy reforms, including the use of value-added methods in evaluation programs. The Department of Education’s call for proposals stated that Race to the Top grant winners would focus on advancing four specific reforms:

Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy; building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction; Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining eective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and turning around our lowest-achieving schools.”

These implicit and explicit references to value-added measures and the need to evaluate and compensate teachers based on their eectiveness are evidence of the emergent debates around using student test scores to determine teacher pay—another plank of the education reformers’ theory of change. An interviewee from a foundation commented on the fact that after Race to the Top, states were required to “put together evaluation systems for teachers and states would begin to link this to hiring and firing.” The fact that this particular reform had acquired such political capital in a relatively short time was, in the words of this interviewee, “remarkable.”

Creating an evidence base

In addition to maintaining close networks with policy elites, foundations actively engaged in commissioning original research designed to provide an evidence base relevant to their policy priorities. Foundations make grants to intermediary organizations to conduct “advocacy research,” which has the explicit objective of being injected into policy discourse to be cited as empirical justification for desired reforms (Lubienski et al. 2009). Unlike traditional peer-reviewed research, which may pose uncertain conclusions regarding policy implications, advocacy research is shaped by specific policy objectives and political strategy and is typically produced by think tanks and nonprofit organizations, rather than universities (Shaker and Heilman 2004). The level of empirical rigor in advocacy research exists on a spectrum, from employing highly rigorous methods and considerations of external and internal validity, to omitting discussion of methods entirely.

While foundation-funded advocacy research is by no means the only source of policy-influential research in the teacher quality debate, it is central in Congressional hearings during our study period. Between 2000 and 2016, only nine research reports were cited three or more times by witnesses (and only one of which was peer-reviewed). The fourth-most cited report, which was consistently referenced in our interviews, was a 2009 advocacy research report by The New Teacher Project entitled The Widget Eect—a call to arms about the need for systematic teacher evaluation systems in order to distinguish between low-quality and high-quality teachers using test score-based evaluation methods. The report stated that “institutional indierence to variations in teacher performance” resulted in systems that perpetuated low-quality teaching across the country, taking aim at evaluation systems that relied predominantly on observational meth-ods as opposed to econometric approaches (Weisberg et al. 2009). Several education reform-oriented foundations including the Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Robertson Foundation, and Joyce Foundation funded the report. Within a month of its release in 2009, Secretary Duncan made the following statement about the report in a speech:

“These policies…have produced an industrial factory model of education that treats all teachers like interchangeable widgets. A recent report from the New Teacher Project found that almost all teachers are rated the same. Who in their right mind really believes that? We need to work together to change this.

The Widget Eect was praised by many interviewees as a triumph of advocacy research—a clear proposal and message, presented in a comprehensible and digestible format, that made a complicated issue more palatable. More importantly, however, the report was also a triumph for the policy networks surround-ing teacher quality discourse—within a month, the report had had such impact that Secretary Duncan was referencing it in major speeches, which was accomplished by disseminating it through policy networks among actors with shared preferences.

The widespread recognition of The Widget Eect was emblematic of the rising prominence of advocacy research in policy debates. In the last ten years, education policy scholars have observed a shift toward targeted advocacy research funded by foundations, particularly surrounding issues of market-based policy interventions (Henig 2009; Lubienski et al. 2009). Contemporary examples of advocacy research contest the traditional conceptualization of expert researchers being separate and distinct from politics. According to Kingdon (2011, p. 228):

“The policy community concentrates on matters like technical detail, cost-benefit analyses, gathering data, conducting studies, and honing proposals. The political people, by contrast, paint with a broad brush, are involved in many more issue areas than the policy people are, and concentrate on winning elections, promoting parties, and mobilizing support in the larger pol-ity.”

In current education policy networks, however, the converse is true, as researchers and advocates may overlap. One interviewee, a sta member of an education advocacy organization, described her role on a Gates Foundation-funded advocacy research project: “We saw a need to be more involved, not just from putting ideas out there but to help guide the conversation more hands-on.” Foundations, particularly those that endorse common education reform priorities, are now more likely to reject the traditional model of funding basic research in universities intended for diusion into policy networks, but without the added leverage of a dedicated marketing structure to ensure, rather than impute, that the research reaches its intended audience.This is particularly true for foundations that identify as strategic philanthropies who are more likely to assertively use research as a tool to advance their policy goals. Strategic philanthropy is structured around the managerial concept of strategic planning, emphasizing clearly articulated goals from the outset of an initiative, the use of research to substantiate decisions, accountability from grantees in the form of benchmarks and deliverables as measured in incremental outcomes, and evaluation to assess progress toward milestones (Brest and Harvey 2008).

Strategic funders also prioritize measurable returns on investments. Applying this formulation, basic research can appear very costly, with high levels of uncertainty or ambiguous returns, while targeted advocacy research promises better yield.Interviewees described strategic foundations—most notably, the Gates and Broad Foundations—as highly influential leaders within the teacher qual-ity policy network and depicted foundations’ theory of change as based on the assumption that teacher evaluation was necessary to advance other education reform goals, such as pay for performance and alternative teacher certifications. They also focused on these foundations’ use of research evidence as political in nature, departing from the “expert-led model of change” that Clemens and Lee (2010) describe and moving toward a model wherein researchers and advo-cates pursued similar goals: to inject policy ideas into political discourse more directly than their traditional philanthropic approaches.

The authors go on to describe the Gates Foundation’s big investment in the MET program (Measures of Effective Teaching). As several interviewees comment, the research started out with a desired outcome, then sought the evidence to back it.

The research paper was published in 2018 and remains timely.

What we don’t know yet is whether the Gates Foundation learned anything from its multiple failures in the field of education.

Peter Greene wonders if you have missed Michelle Rhee, once the Wonder Woman of the edreform biz, but recently absent from the national scene. After her meteoric rise to national prominence, when she was selected to be chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools after two years of TFA teaching, she was a colossus: on the cover of TIME as a miracle worker, featured in the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” frequently interviewed on national TV. Her tenure in D.C. was controversial and stormy: she fired teachers and principals and made bold claims about test scores. When Adrian Fenty, the mayor who appointed her, was defeated, she left and started an organization called StudentsFirst, which she said would raise $1 billion and recruit one million members. she never reached either goal, but she traveled the country advocating for charters and vouchers and against teachers’ unions. She allied with Jeb Bush and other school choice advocates. as her star faded, she disappeared from public view.

Peter Greene says she is making a return public appearance at a Sacramento State University event on September27, where she is the keynote speaker. You can watch on Zoom.

Jeff Bryant is a journalist who specializes in education. In a recent issue of The Progressive, he details the many failures of what is falsely called “education reform.” The term for many has been a ruse for privatization via charter schools and vouchers. Instead of “reform,” it should be called disruption and destruction. Bryant leads the Progressive’s Public School Advocate project. This is a good-news story. Ed Reform has no successful strategies or ideas, but it’s billionaire funders and the U.S. Department of Education continue to fund its failed ideas.

He begins:

It was telling that few people noticed when Chicago’s Board of Education announced in late May that it was closing down its school turnaround program and folding the thirty-one campuses operated by a private management company back into the district.

The turnaround program had been a cornerstone of “Renaissance 2010,” the education reform policy led by former Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, who became U.S. Secretary of Education during the Obama Administration. As the news outlet Catalyst Chicago reported, Duncan used the core principles of Renaissance 2010 as the basis for “Race to the Top,” his signature policy that he rolled out to the nation.

Race to the Top, a successor to former President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program, included holding schools accountable for higher scores on standardized tests, inserting private management companies into district administration, and ramping up charter schools to compete with public schools.

Another news event affecting Chicago public schools that got very little national attention was the decision by the Illinois state legislature to rescind mayoral control of Chicago schools and bring back a democratically elected school board. The plan is backed by the state’s Democratic governor, J.B. Pritzker (and, predictably, opposed by Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot). For years, prominent Democratic leaders—including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and former Chicago mayor and previously Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel—touted mayoral control and a rejection of school board governance.

A third story from the Chicago education scene was that, in December, Noble Charter Network, the city’s largest charter school chain, disavowed its “no excuses” approach to educating Black and brown students because of the racist implications. Noble’s decision added to other reports of no-excuses charter chains dropping their harsh behavioral control and discipline policies during the past year.

These stories highlight the waning of three “school improvement” approaches: strict accountability with private management, mayoral control, and no-excuses charter schools. Each approach was among the pillars of “education reform” favored by previous presidential administrations and heartily endorsed by Washington, D.C., policy shops, such as the Center for American Progress.

Taken in unison, the three stories also contribute to the much larger narrative of how the once all-pervasive and generously funded policy movement known as education reform has ended—not with a bang, but a whimper.

Other policy directives of the reform movement that are also being relegated to the dustbin of history include state takeovers of low-performing schools, evaluating teachers based on student test scores, and flunking third-graders who score below a certain threshold on reading exams.

Please open the link and read on.

Andrea Gabor is the Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch College, which is part of the City University of New York. Gabor has written insightful articles about education in the New York Times and at Bloomberg.com. She is the author of After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Education Reform.

The following is a summary of a chapter in her forthcoming book, MEDIA CAPTURE: HOW MONEY, DIGITAL PLATFORMS, AND GOVERNMENTS CONTROL THE NEWS, which will be published by Columbia University Press in June. She prepared this excerpt for this blog.

She writes:

For the past twenty years, American K-12 education has been on the receiving end of Big Philanthropy’s efforts to reengineer public schools based on free-market ideas, with foundation-funded private operators taking over large swaths of school districts in cities like Los Angeles and New Orleans.

Between 2000 and 2005 alone, three foundations—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation—quadrupled their spending on K–12 education to $400 million. By 2010, the top 15 foundations had spent $844 million on public education.

Moreover, these Big Philanthropies coordinated their spending, investing in what Harvard’s Jal Mehta and Johns Hopkins’s Steven Teles call “jurisdictional challengers”—efforts aimed atupending traditional educational institutions, in particular public schools and school boards. Instead, the foundations funded a range of private and public institutions, including charter-management organizations and alternative teacher-development institutions such as Teach for America, as well as school-board candidates who would back the philanthropists’ reform agenda and help break the “monopoly” of public-school districts.

Diane Ravitch and a slew of other academics, bloggers and writers have documented the growing influence of Big Philanthropy and its convergence with federal education policies, especially under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, creating what the political scientist Sarah Reckhow calls “a perfect storm.”

As part of its soup-to-nuts strategy designed to maximize the impact of its gifts and expand its influence, Big Philanthropy has expanded its reach to universities, think tanks, government institutions, and the news media.

My chapter, “Media Capture and the Corporate Education-Reform Philanthropies,” in Media Capture, explores the efforts of the Big Philanthropy to shape public opinion by ratcheting up its spending on advocacy and, in particular, by investing in local news organizations. The philanthropies have supported education coverage at a range of mainstream publications—investments that often helped promote the foundations’ education-reform agenda. In addition, they have founded publications specifically dedicated to selling their market-oriented approach to education.

For the news media, battered by internet companies such as Craigslist and Facebook, which have siphoned off advertising revenue, funding from philanthropies comes at an opportune time. Nor can private foundations be faulted for supporting the news media, especially given the rise of “alternative facts” and demagoguery during the Trump era. Foundation funding has long been important to a range of respected news organizations such as The New York Times and National Public Radio, as well as established education publications, such as Education Week.This is not to say that this funding has unleashed a spate of pro-reform coverage. Indeed, I have published essays critical of the education-reform philanthropies in many foundation-funded publications. However, logic suggests that publications desirous of repeat tranches of funding will at least moderate their critical coverage.

What is particularly troubling are the large contributions to local news organizations—many of them earmarked specifically for education coverage—by foundations that explicitly support the takeover of local schools and districts by private operators. My chapter explores how philanthropic support of news organizations—including new publications founded and run by education-reform advocates—is aimed at creating a receptive audience for the foundations’ education-reform agenda.

The Gates Foundation’s effort to influence local and national policy via the news media is a case in point.

The Gates Foundation alone devoted $1 billion in the decade from 2000 to 2010 to so-called policy and advocacy, a tenth of the foundation’s $3 billion-a-year spending, according to an investigation by The Seattle Times.

Although much of that money went to analyze policy questions—such as the efficacy of vaccine-funding strategies—“the ‘advocacy’ side of the equation is essentially public relations: an attempt to influence decision-makers and sway public opinion.”

In 2011, The Seattle Times published an exhaustive article about its leading hometown philanthropic organization and asked: “Does Gates funding of media taint objectivity?” (At the time, the Gates Foundation also was bankrolling a slew of education policies, including the common core, and building political support for “one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history.”)

The Seattle Times showed how the Gates Foundation funding goes far beyond providing general support for cash-strapped news organizations:

“To garner attention for the issues it cares about, the foundation has invested millions in training programs for journalists. It funds research on the most effective ways to craft media messages. Gates-backed think tanks turn out media fact sheets and newspaper opinion pieces. Magazines and scientific journals get Gates money to publish research and articles. Experts coached in Gates-funded programs write columns that appear in media outlets from The New York Times to The Huffington Post, while digital portals blur the line between journalism and spin.”

Indeed, Gates usually “stipulates” that its funding be used for reporting on issues the philanthropy supports—whether curing diseases such as HIV or improving U.S. education. And although Gates does not appear to dictate specific stories, the Seattle Times noted: “Few of the news organizations that get Gates money have produced any critical coverage of foundation programs.”

The Seattle Times story was written before the newspaper accepted a $530,000 grant, in 2013, the bulk of it from the Gates Foundation, to launch the Education Lab. The paper described the venture as “a partnership between The Seattle Times and Solutions Journalism Network” that will explore “promising programs and innovations inside early-education programs, K–12 schools and colleges that are addressing some of the biggest challenges facing public education.” The Gates Foundation contributed $450,000, with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funding the rest.

In a blog post, the newspaper addressed the potential conflict of interest posed by the grant: “The Seattle Times would neither seek nor accept a grant that did not give us full editorial control over what is published. Generally, when a grant is made, there is agreement on a specific project or a broad area of reporting it will support.” The newspaper earmarked its funding for so-called “solutions journalism.”

It may be laudable for a publication to focus on “solutions” to societal problems. But almost by definition, a mission that effectively targets “success stories” diminishes journalism’s vital watchdog role.

Then too, Gates’s influence extends well beyond Seattle. The Associated Press documented the Gates foundation’s soup-to-nuts effort, in 2015, to influence education policy in Tennessee.

“In Tennessee, a Gates-funded advocacy group had a say in the state’s new education plan, with its leader sitting on an important advising committee. A media outlet given money by Gates to cover the new law then published a story about research funded by Gates. And many Gates-funded groups have become the de facto experts who lead the conversation in local communities. Gates also dedicated millions of dollars to protect Common Core as the new law unfolded.”

Meanwhile, the same year in Los Angeles, fellow philanthropist,Eli Broad, identified Gates as a key potential investor in his $490 million plan to dramatically grow the city’s charter-school sector. The plan included a six-year $21.4 million “investment” in “organizing and advocacy,” including “engaging the media”and “strategic messaging.” (The charter-expansion plan itself followed an $800,000 investment by a Broad-led group of philanthropists to fund an initiative at The Los Angeles Times to expand the paper’s coverage of K–12 education.) In 2016, Gates invested close to $25 million in Broad’s charter-expansion plan.

The Gates Foundation also served as a junior partner in one of the most audacious, coordinated efforts by Big Philanthropy to influence coverage of the education-reform story—the establishment, in 2015, of The 74 Million, which has become the house organ of the education-reform movement. The 74 has been a reliable voice in favor of the charter-school movement, and against teachers’ unions. In 2016, it published The Founders, a hagiography of the education-reform movement. And it has served as a Greek chorus of praise for the education reforms in New Orleans, the nation’s first all-charter district, while ignoring the experiment’s considerable failings.

Key contributors to the publication, which boasts a $4 million-annual budget, were the Walton Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Carnegie Foundation, and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. Soon after it’s founding, The 74 acquired a local education publication, the L.A. School Report, which itself had been heavily funded by Broad. In 2016, Gatescontributed, albeit a relatively modest $26,000, to The 74.

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David C. Berliner, one of our nation’s most honored researchers of education, shared this essay for readers of the blog.

                                             A Hug for Jennifer

          I met Jennifer for the first time at a party. She taught elementary school to mostly white, mostly middle-class kids in a suburb of San Francisco. We chatted about education for a while and she invited me to visit her class. I like visiting classes, in part, because they are always so difficult to understand. It is an enormous intellectual challenge to witness and make sense of the interaction of teachers and students with curriculum materials in a classroom setting. Sometimes, with teachers you come to admire, it is like trying to put together a recipe after  tasting  a delicious food. It’s hard to figure out the ingredients that made it so special. 

More frequently, my observations struck me as a bit like trying to study what comes out the end of a funnel–without much confidence that you know all about what went into the funnel. It’s hard to figure out the ingredients—the stuff that makes a classroom hum or fail. Some of the things that are sure to have entered the funnel are: all of society’s values; the pop culture of today, particularly as represented on television; the individual child-rearing practices of 25 or so different families; the economic, physical and mental health of the people in the neighborhood around the school; the teaching skills, content knowledge, prejudices and personal family concerns of the individual teacher; the leadership skills of the principal; the educational directives issued by the school district and the state; and so forth. After the large, open-end of the funnel receives a thousand items of this type, I wander into a classroom to observe a teacher attempting to create something sensible and unique out of whatever comes tumbling out the small end of the funnel. You really never know what you’ll see and hear when you go to observe a classroom. 

         Besides the challenge of trying to unravel what goes on in such  complex environments, I also visited classes regularly for another reason. It was because of my profound distaste for the many people who freely comment about education but spend no significant amounts of time visiting schools and classes. These education bashers regularly provide the media with false descriptions of America’s schools, inadequate critiques of the educational system, and unfeasible suggestions for school improvement. So, I took Jennifer up on her offer and I began to occasionally drop in on her class since her school was on the way to my work. On one of those visits, now many years ago, I learned a lesson about teachers and observing in classrooms that affected the rest of my career.

         Jennifer taught fourth grade. She had the self-confidence to let me drop in any time, unannounced, to observe her class. I timed one of my visits so I could avoid the taking of attendance, the principals’ announcements, and other morning housekeeping activities. As I had planned, I arrived just as reading was about to start. From the seating chart Jennifer had given me I soon identified Alec. He had caught my eye, though I was not yet sure why. Alec sat at the side of the class, his face a blank– impassive, masklike. I somehow was compelled to watch him a lot throughout the reading period.  Despite the generally upbeat lesson in which the class was involved, Alec displayed no emotions. He seemed to barely follow what was going on around him.  I was surprised that Jennifer, who usually was so equitable in her interactions with the children, seemed to be ignoring Alec. When reading was finished, and the children went out for recess, Alec remained in the class, the same blank look on his face, and with Jennifer still showing the same pleasant, but unconcerned manner. 

When the children returned from their break, no one talked to Alec. To his teacher and his classmates, Alec seemed not to exist. To me, the outside observer, it looked like a modern version of an old punishment–Alec was being shunned!  I was losing my curiosity about what was happening and, instead, began to get angry at Jennifer and the other children.

       Mathematics work began and Jennifer called small groups of children to the desk where she presented some new concepts, while most of the rest of the class did problems in their workbooks. Alec did nothing. He never took out his workbook and Jennifer never criticized him, and she never invited him to the desk, as she did the other students. I couldn’t stop myself from focussing on this situation, to the exclusion of whatever else was happening in the class. I grieved for this child, remembering my worst days as a school boy and my terror of being ostracized, even for a short time. I remembered the games we sometimes played, games in which we were so cruel to one another. My memory filled suddenly with an event from junior high school. A time when we once had “Don’t talk to Bobby day!”–a day when my classmates and I purposely set out to hurt another child. But never had I seen a teacher join in, as seemed to be the case here. As my fantasies about Alec’s plight merged with my own resurrected childhood fears and embarrassment, I began to get angrier and angrier at Jennifer. When the lunch bell finally rang, and the children filed out with Alec, still alone, but now among them, I approached Jennifer’s desk. I tried to keep the anger I felt under control and I pushed away, to the farthest reaches of my mind, the shame and the embarrassment I felt about being both perpetrator and victim of such exclusionary practices in the past. I said to Jennifer, in as controlled a manner as possible, that Alec did not seem to be participating much in classroom activities. 

         When Jennifer responded, I learned a lesson about the importance of understanding the intentions, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of the persons you intend to study. It is difficult, of course, in any communication setting, to genuinely understand another person’s thoughts and feelings. But when you try to be a social scientist, and are not just an ordinary person chatting with others, this commonplace problem in interpersonal communication looms much larger. A lack of understanding, or a misunderstanding of another person’s intentions, can lead a social scientist to make dangerously flawed inferences about that persons behavior.  

      Jennifer responded to me, saying that Alec’s brother had been shot and killed by the police the night before– a rarity in the middle class neighborhood the school served. And it happened at home, in front of Alec. Before I had arrived that morning Jennifer had taken Alec aside and told him how sorry she was for his whole family. She thought the day might be a tough one for him, so she told Alec that he should feel free to participate or not that day, to do whatever he felt like. She would let him decide how he wanted to use his time. She also told him how glad they all were that he was in the class and when he felt like getting involved with everything again to just start doing so. The other students had all heard about what had happened and were not shunning Alec, but giving him some breathing room. My anger, of course, was gone. In its place was a sense of wonder.

      How many incidents like this one did Jennifer have to deal with per week or per month, on top of her academic responsibilities? Who taught her to confront this awful event in such a straightforward and sensible manner? Actually, I am still not sure it was the best response to Alec’s loss and sadness, but it sure seemed to be a sensible response to me. Did she have such sensitivity to youngsters when she first started teaching, or is this part of what teachers learn as they gain experience? How could I have been so blind as to what was going on that I grew angry at Jennifer? How many other times have I observed classes and reached completely wrong conclusions about what was going on?

         After this incident, when I was working in classrooms, I was sure that I had become a better social scientist. I tried always to understand the intentions of the teachers that I studied. I spent time with them, trying to learn what they were going to teach, what special constraints they were under, and what they thought I should know before I began watching them. When I did this, I was sure that my conclusions about what occurred in their classrooms were different than before I had met Jennifer. More importantly, however, is that my views about observation in classrooms had changed. I once thought that some kind of “raw” observation was possible, that a kind of neutral, objective mirror of classroom life could be obtained. But Jennifer taught me that is just not true.

          Observations can be relatively undistorted, relatively objective, but never completely so. In fact, it is likely that observations and interpretations of classroom life without understanding teachers and their intentions, are likely to be more distorted than observations and interpretations made with such knowledge. I believe this despite the obvious loss of objectivity and neutrality that must occur as teachers and researchers get to know each other better. I’ll say it clearly: Interpretations of a teachers’ behavior without knowledge of the teachers’ intentions are either useless or, worse, inaccurate and unjust. My visit to Jennifer’s classroom that particular day, as an outsider, had led me to inaccurate and unjust conclusions about what was going on. It was sobering.

         There is also a bigger issue to which this incident is relevant. Since we cannot adequately interpret life in classrooms unless we have an insider’s understanding of that classroom, how is it possible for principals, department heads, and others who evaluate teachers, to do so when they visit a teacher’s classroom infrequently, stay for only the briefest period of time, and try to distance themselves from the teacher to maintain a goal of objectivity? The unbiased observations of the outsider may be a requirement in physics, chemistry, oncology, and other natural and biological sciences. Doing “good science” certainly requires the illusion of total objectivity, even though the best of scientists acknowledge that such a goal is impossible to achieve. But in areas of social behavior and especially those research areas concerned with classrooms and schools, such calls for objectivity are probably misplaced. Perhaps the only way to understand life in classrooms is to visit frequently, stay for a lengthy period of time, and have a shared vision with the teacher of what is intended. Evaluations of teachers that rely too heavily on formal observation instruments, notions of objectivity, and the outsider’s view of the classroom are likely to report, as I might have, that Jennifer was an insensitive, uncaring, human being. A more appropriate evaluation system would have caused the observer to hug Jennifer and give thanks that she chose to teach children rather than sell computers.

DAVID C. BERLINER is Regents Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

Gary Rubinstein is well known to readers of this blog, as I have posted almost all of his blogs. He is a career high school math teacher in the New York City public schools. I met Gary about ten years ago, when I had made a complete turnaround in my views about testing and choice. I was working on an article about “miracle schools” that fudged their data and discovered that Gary was an expert on reviewing school-level data and exposing frauds. He helped me write an article (“Waiting for a Miracle School”) that appeared in the New York Times in 2011, and he has continued to be a friend ever since. Gary’s analytical skills have been invaluable in fighting off idiotic “reforms,” like evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores (known as VAM). In his multiple posts on that subject, he showed its many flaws. For example, an elementary teacher might get a high score in reading and a low score in math, posing the dilemma of whether the district could fire her in one subject while giving her a bonus in the other. I confess that I am a person of The Word, and I have never taken the time to learn how to put graphics into my posts. I can’t even reproduce charts. I only do words. So when I need to post a pdf or a graphic or anything else that is not words, I turn to Gary for help and he is always there for me. In addition to being a math and computer whiz, Gary is an author. As most of you know, Gary began his career working for Teach for America. As he explains below, he became disillusioned with the “reform” spin just as I became disillusioned with the propaganda about testing and choice. Gary writes about how strange it is to be frequently attacked on Twitter and other social media by “reformers.” My admiration for him is boundless.

Gary writes:

I got into blogging almost exactly ten years ago, just after the Teach For America 20 anniversary alumni summit.  Until that time, I was unaware of the politics of education and the emerging education reform movement.  I had seen ‘Waiting For Superman’ and knew it was propaganda, but I didn’t quite understand who was benefiting from it or what the possible negative side effects of it could be.

But at that conference it became very clear to me what was going on during a ‘Waiting For Superman’ reunion panel discussion.  I watched as Michelle Rhee, whom I had known from years earlier when we worked together at the Teach For America training institute, and Dave Levin, who I had known for a lot of years from when we were teaching in Houston around the same time.  At the end of the conference, Arne Duncan made an odd speech about how great it was that he shut down a school and fired all the teachers and now it is a charter school in which every student supposedly graduated and got into college.

It sounded fishy to me.  Having worked, by that time, at three different schools that had low standardized test scores, I knew that a school can have good teachers but still have low test scores.  I suspected that there was more to the story than Arne Duncan was saying so I did my first investigation.  Little did I know that it would lead to a ten year adventure that would give me the opportunity to be an investigative journalist and help save the world.  As an added bonus, I made a lot of friends, got a following to read my writing, appeared on NPR and also on a TV show called ‘Adam Ruins Everything.’  But there was a downside to this attention because I also became a target of various known and unknown internet personalities who have attacked, ridiculed, and slandered me.  I think that on balance the good outweighed the bad, but it is sad to me that I have had blog posts about what an awful person I am and there have been podcasts about how I don’t believe in the potential of all children.  Students of mine have googled me and located some of these smears and asked me about them.  It’s hard to explain to them that I’m embroiled in a strange war where the FOX news of education wants to vilify me for telling the truth.

Here is a recent example where Chris ‘Citizen’ Stewart, the CEO of the Education Post website, compares my views with those of Charles Murray of ‘The Bell Curve’ fame.

I suppose my story is that I was the right person at the right time and in the right place.  The small group of resistors to the misguided bipartisan teacher-bashing agenda needed someone like me.  I was a Teach For America alum so I had that whole ‘war veteran against the war’ kind of credibility.  I was very patient and able to comb through state data.  I was a math major in college so I was able to do some basic statistics and make the scatter plots that helped the cause so much.  You may or may not know that I have slowed down a lot on my blogging.  After about 7 years of intense blogging, I started to burn out.  Fortunately other bloggers came on the scene and took up the cause and have been great.  I do try to blog from time to time still, but I have also been doing other projects, like my recent effort to explain all the essentials of elementary school, middle school, and high school math in one ten hour YouTube playlist.  These efforts come from the same source — the desire to help students learn.  Whether it is by fighting off a destructive element or in providing a free resource that anyone in the world can access, I am very proud of what I’ve accomplished in the last ten years.

I want to thank the great Diane Ravitch for taking me under her wing and for being a great mentor and friend.  I wish for her a speedy recovery from her surgery.

Here is a presentation I did at Tufts University describing my journey from teacher to crusader: