By Anthony Cody.

Sue Desmond-Hellmann, the CEO of the Gates Foundation, has released her first annual letter, describing the foundation’s work in a number of arenas around the world. In the US, their focus has been K-12 education, so here we have their appraisal of their own work. This summary is notable more for what it leaves out than for what it actually says.

Desmond-Hellmann begins with what is presumably the brightest spot she can find in regards to the Common Core: Kentucky. She writes:

We’ve begun to see signs of improvement in student performance in some of the states that have embraced the Common Core. Kentucky, the first state to adopt the standards, is a prime example.

To implement the Common Core, Kentucky engaged the community and worked with parents, teachers and school leaders to build an interconnected system of standards, teacher feedback and support, and measurement over time. As a result, Kentucky has increased from 27 percent to 33 percent students meeting three out of four ACT benchmarks for college readiness since 2011. The same metric nationally has remained flat since 2011, so a 6 percentage point increase is a sign of real progress.

A recent story in the Hechinger Report (which, incidentally, receives funding from the Gates Foundation) tells us:

Despite that improvement, within those numbers are hidden divisions that have existed for decades. Breaking the scores down shows that African-American students fare much worse than their white peers.

In spring 2015, in the elementary grades, 33 percent of black students were proficient in reading, versus 58 percent of white students; in math, the breakdown was 31 percent to 52 percent, according to Kentucky Department of Education figures.

And those gaps, in many cases, have widened, according to an analysis of state testing data by The Hechinger Report and the Courier-Journal.

Since one of the main stated goals of standardized-test-based reform has been to close these gaps, this should be cause for major concern.

Diane Ravitch commented:

There is still no evidence, despite the billions spent on Common Core, that it raises achievement or closes gaps between races. Common sense would suggest that making tests harder would cause the kids who are already scoring low to score even lower. A student who can’t clear a four-foot bar is going to be in big trouble if you raise the bar to six feet.

Beyond this, it is remarkable that we are six years into the Common Core, and the brightest spot that the Gates Foundation can find in the entire nation is a measly six point jump in achievement in a single state. Meanwhile, national NAEP scores have been flat or declined in recent years, which undermines any claims the Gates Foundation might make about the impact of the Common Core.

Desmond-Hellmann does express a bit of contrition about the way the Gates Foundation handled the Common Core.

Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards. We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators – particularly teachers – but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.

So we have the old “implementation” problem, compounded by a lack of sufficient effort at persuasion. Desmond-Hellmann goes on to say that one of the best parts of her job is getting to hear from educators, but apparently she did not hear the very real and substantive concerns educators have shared regarding the Common Core.

The Gates Foundation is not done promoting the Common Core. Desmond-Hellmann indicates that:

[the Gates Foundation is] supporting a partnership with, the Consumer Reports of K-12 curriculum, to provide free and open-access teacher-led reviews and evidence on instructional materials. This will increase the capacity of educators across the country to seek, develop, and demand high-quality, aligned instructional materials.

EdReports asserts that they offer “Independent Reviews of Educational Materials.” They are presumably independent of the vendors, but not of the influence of their partners at the Gates Foundation. The focus of their reviews is to see how well they are aligned to the Common Core, which is assumed to be the ideal. The intro to their Methodology document states:

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), informed by three decades of knowledge around learning, create an unprecedented opportunity to improve student achievement nationwide. However, simply adopting the Common Core and working with teachers on the instructional shifts—as over 40-plus states are doing—will not directly translate into student success. Evidence indicates that instructional materials have a significant effect on student outcomes

But what is more remarkable from this letter is what is missing. The Common Core was indeed a big focus for the Gates Foundation – and they invested hundreds of millions of dollars to sponsor the project. But the Gates Foundation has some other huge priorities in K-12 education that are not mentioned here at all.

For years, we have heard from the Gates Foundation that teacher effectiveness is the lever that will move mountains in student achievement. The whole idea of the Common Core was that we would get national standards and tests, and then the scores for every student and teacher would become data which could be used at every level to monitor and “reward” great teachers, and get rid of the bad ones dragging the whole system downwards. The Gates Foundation invested $45 million in research through their own Measures of Effective Teaching program. They funded the Data Quality Council to convince everyone that all this data would yield systemic improvements. The Gates Foundation funded advocacy groups that demanded teachers be evaluated and paid based on student test scores. Race to the Top incentives made sure that VAM based algorithms were put in place across the country.

But this bet has failed to pay off. We do not see any evidence that making teacher evaluations tougher results in better teaching. In fact, we see morale collapsing and teachers leaving, as this Georgia survey indicated. I worked with teachers around the country to create a more detailed portrait of what has happened to teacher evaluation in recent years and it is not a pretty picture. The report, Teachers Talk Back: Educators on the Impact of Teacher Evaluation, was released last month, and can be accessed here.

These concerns are being acted upon, and the Gates agenda around teacher effectiveness based on test scores is being rolled back. Just this week we hear that two states, Hawaii and Oklahoma, have passed legislation that removes the requirement that test scores be used in teacher evaluations.

When I visited with Gates Foundation leaders in Seattle in 2012, they wanted to tell me about the dramatic changes being made in Hillsborough County, Florida, as a result of their receipt of $100 million in Gates funding. This money was used to convince the District to overhaul their evaluation system and put in place peer evaluators. Late last year, however, the Gates Foundation pulled the last $20 million in funding, and the entire project was dismantled.  We have yet to understand the lessons the Gates Foundation has drawn from this expensive debacle.

The Gates Foundation has pushed for the expansion of charter schools, which often replace democratically controlled public schools with ones under the opaque governance of a privately appointed board. But Desmond-Hellmann does not mention this.

The Gates Foundation has also actively pushed for greater use of educational technologies. For years we have heard of the great advances that will come from videotaped lectures, or cameras in the classroom, or “personalized learning,” Gates even spoke recently about the way that chatbots can help students learn. But few ed-tech initiatives have showed much in the way of results. In 2014, Gates himself speculated on why. According to a report on a discussion in Los Alamos, he said this:

New technology to engage students holds some promise, but Gates says it tends to only benefit those who are motivated.

“And the one thing we have a lot of in the United States is unmotivated students,” Gates said.

Desmond-Hellmann has been at the helm of the Gates Foundation for less than two years, and has a background in health, not education. In an interview at the time of her appointment as CEO, she expressed a valuable sentiment in relation to international work:

As a western academician, as a Gates Foundation person, the first thing you should be doing is listening and learning. And have a huge sense of humility about what you don’t know.

The Gates Foundation has no shortage of experiences to reflect upon, and should be able to muster a bit of humility to match the task. Unfortunately we have yet to see this disposition applied to K12 education. Thus far, the interventions promoted by the Gates Foundation have caused more harm than benefit for teachers and students. This latest letter from Desmond-Hellmann does not suggest that much reflection is underway.

What do you think? What experiences should Gates Foundation leaders be reflecting on?

Featured image by Nam-ho Park, used with Creative Commons license, modified by the addition of the words “With Accountability to None”.


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. Peter Isackson    

    If anything this reminds me of the invasion of Iraq. It wasn’t the invasion that was wrong — we are told — it’s that we underestimated the resources to make it work. Maybe the Foundation will soon be proposing a “surge”!

  2. Arthur Camins    

    What if all of the money large foundations spent on education– in ways they determined– was instead collected in taxes so that its use could be democratically decided? What if instead of accumulating vast sums in overseas tax shelters they paid their fair share of US taxes? What if instead of funding high-stakes testing, performance pay and charter schools the funds went to offset resource inequities. Should we even be lamenting whether or not private foundation employees and directors are learning from their mistakes. Elected officials make plenty of “mistakes” too (sometimes under the influence of large donors), but at least they can be voted out. Democracy (or rather voting) may not produce informed equity-driven decisions with any regularity, but I would prefer to work at improving democracy than rely on the largess or judgement of the few.

  3. Michelle Skigen    

    This stuff from the Gates Foundation reminds me of the marketing tricks I learned selling on-air advertising to communities on the edge of a radio station’s signal reach. Instead of looking at how many people in the community actually listened to that station, that small group’s demographics and preferences were broken down into stats – because “60% of our local listeners want to buy shoes soon,” looks much better than “there are five people who happen to listen to our station in this town who want to buy shoes.” The report looks so much like that it was nauseating. This isn’t shoes, but kids’ futures.

  4. Susan Lee Schwartz    

    Cross posted at

    With this comment –
    Submitted on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 at 9:24:14 AM- from a post at the Ravitch Blog,

    WE never hear about things like this:

    The anti-privatization website “In the Public Interest” reports on an interesting development:

    The Department of Education issued a press release boasting of its commitment to transparency and noting that the agency had committed $1.5 billion to support new charter schools since 2006. When the CMD requested a list of the schools that had been closed or never opened, the Department claimed it did not have any information. Some transparency.

    National: The Center for Media and Democracy files an appeal against the Department of Education’s claim that it has no records about closed or never-opened charter schools referenced in its “Commitment to Transparency” press release. “It strains credulity and common sense that, despite spending billions in taxpayer dollars on charters and putting out this press release–among several–on the accomplishments of the Charter Schools Program, the Department claims to have no databases, no data analyses, and no internal communications about the program mentioned in its press release,” CMD said in its appeal letter.

  5. steve wozniak    

    “Unmotivated students”? Now there is a brilliant insight that could only be gained through the logical deductions of a predatory capitalist billionaire – or any teacher with real experience in the inner city. Chatbots will never be able to help students recognize the value of a rigorous education or instill a love of learning any more than a standardized test will accurately assess the effectiveness of a teacher. Perhaps valid assessments of teacher effectiveness were never the real objective of the tests in the first place.
    Rather than address the “lack of opportunity” as the true root of the problem, the Gates Foundation has focused only on destroying the professionalism of teachers. Blame teacher unions, due process, and teacher education programs – the same game-plan as the Thomas Fordham Institute. Why gain informed insights from those with the most experience in the field of teaching when the reform decisions can be made by those who enjoy the privileges of gluttonous wealth?

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