By Anthony Cody.
Researchers Sarah Reckhow and Megan Tompkins-Stange have released a paper titled “Singing from the Same Hymnbook”: Education Policy Advocacy at Gates and Broad.
The paper was shared last Thursday at a fascinating event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. The event was a forum, called “Is the ‘new’ education philanthropy good for schools? Examining foundation-funded school reform.” While the panels were a bit weighted with inside players, and did not include a single actual educator, there is some useful information here, starting with the research by Reckhow and Tompkins-Stange.
I have been writing about the widening influence of the Gates Foundation since it became apparent around 2010. But Gates officials have been reluctant to acknowledge their influence, pointing out that their grants are a small fraction of the total amount spent on K12 education in the US. This paper should clear up this confusion for once and for all.
The authors use several different methods to investigate Gates and Broad influence, as they explain:
First, we collected data on grant distributions at each foundation. Second, we analyzed the testimony of foundation-funded witnesses in Congressional hearings. Third, we drew upon an original set of interviews with foundation officials, conducted between 2010 and 2012, to contextualize and extend our analysis.
Here is what they discovered:
We find that after 2008, Gates and Broad deliberately pursued funding strategies that prioritized federal policy and advocacy initiatives, sometimes in partnership with one another through purposeful convergence.i Specifically, we find that since 2008, Gates and Broad shifted funds from local education groups to national advocacy organizations and from discrete project-based initiatives to systemic reform efforts. We also show that Congressional testimony on teacher quality by Gates-funded and Broad-funded grantees has increased over time, indicating that these foundations have identified this strategy as a source of significant policy influence.
Finally, we demonstrate that the foundations utilized two distinct strategies within their advocacy funding efforts. First, the foundations closely aligned themselves with high-level officials at the federal Department of Education. Second, they funded a broad range of education interest groups that provided testimony to policymakers, disseminated research, and promoted a common set of policy goals. We argue that these targeted strategies led to a dominant narrative emerging within policy debates regarding teacher quality, specifically the concept of “value-added” teacher evaluation.
I first wrote about this strategy back in 2011, in an essay entitled “Bill Gates’ Big Play: How Much Can Money Buy in Education?”
Here we are, four years later, with a partial answer.
The authors’ first discovery was that there has been a marked shift away from funding local initiatives and towards advocacy in the policy arena:
Grant dollars for local nonprofits dropped by 59 percent, adjusted for inflation, while national advocacy funding more than doubled, growing by 140 percent. National advocacy grants reached nearly $60 million in 2010. The types of organizations supported by Gates and Broad funding include key players in national-level education politics, such as major multi-issue think tanks (the American Enterprise Institute, Brookings, and Center for American Progress) and organizations focused specifically on education issues (Education Trust, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and the James B. Hunt Institute). The Gates Foundation also funds organizations that represent racial and ethnic minority groups, including National Council of La Raza, National Urban League, and the National Indian Education Association; these organizations received grants between $250,000 and $500,000.
Reckhow and Tomkins-Stange note that the election of Obama marked a significant shift for Gates and Broad. Arne Duncan had received Gates funding in his prior post as Chicago schools CEO, and additional high level Gates staff like Joanne Weiss and Jim Shelton took prominent posts at Department of Ed. They quote a Gates Foundation informant who told them,
The support that the foundation gave to the department [of education] either directly or indirectly, both financially and through intermediaries, greatly affected how some of the early Obama education initiatives were formulated and implemented.
The authors also looked at the rate at which representatives from various organizations providing expert testimony to Congress on the subject of teacher quality were funded by Gates and Broad. They found that in 2003, only about 15% of such witnesses were recipients of Gates funding, but by 2011, nearly 60% were on the Gates payroll.
The nature of the “research” and testimony this sort of funding buys is revealed by a quote from a Gates Foundation informant:
It’s within [a] sort of fairly narrow orbit that you manufacture the [research] reports. You hire somebody to write a report. There’s going to be a commission, there’s going to be a lot of research, there’s going to be a lot of vetting and so forth and so on, but you pretty much know what the report is going to say before you go through the exercise.
The authors show that many of these witnesses converged in their perspective, often citing a few key reports that supported the Gates agenda around the use of VAM systems for teacher evaluation and pay.
Within a small orbit of think tanks, some university-based researchers, advocacy groups, and philanthropic funders, an argument favoring new evaluation systems and pay for performance to transform teacher quality was widely shared and transmitted in national policy arenas. Our analysis of Congressional testimony suggests that alternate perspectives did not share the same level of coherence and cross-referencing among a broad set of actors. Thus, Gates and Broad were able to amplify a message regarding teacher performance evaluation that did not face a rigorous and coordinated critique at the federal level.
I wrote about this phenomenon back in 2012, in a post entitled “Technocratic Groupthink Inflates the Testing Bubble.”
And the concept of technocracy is really central to the way the Gates Foundation has positioned its work. They have placed themselves ABOVE a political process, and advanced as “evidence-based” a host of technical solutions such as VAM-based teacher evaluation systems. But in point of fact, the evidence supporting these models is very weak, and there is a lot of countervailing evidence that was simply pushed aside by the convergent consensus created by Gates funded advocacy.
The authors note:
The circumvention of public debate is often accomplished by framing desired reforms as “evidence-based” and thus as unbiased and politically neutral based on their empirical legitimacy.
Reckhow and Tompkins-Stange point out that in spite of the prodigious policy advances won by this strategy, their long-term success is very much in doubt. And the absence of genuine public debate – which was deliberately circumvented by Foundation strategists, is the Achilles heel for the project. In the absence of this debate, valid criticisms are ignored and poor decisions are made. None worse, perhaps, than the unabated drive to use test scores to evaluate teachers.
What do you think? Have the Gates and Broad foundations used their money to advance policy objectives in ways that circumvent public debate?
Image by Vancouver 125 — The City of Vancouver, used with Creative Commons License.