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Thompson: Reckhow's and Tompkins-Stange's Analysis of Edu-Philanthropic Convergence

Sarah Reckhow’s and Megan Tompkins-Stange’s 'Singing from the Same Hymnbook': Education Policy Advocacy at Gates and Broad begins in the glory days of test-driven, market driven reform, from 2008 to 2010, when the Broad Foundation  proclaimed,  “We feel the stars have finally aligned. With an agenda that echoes our decade of investments—charter schools, performance pay for teachers, accountability, expanded learning time and national standards—the Obama administration is poised to cultivate and bring to fruition the seeds we and other reformers have planted.” 

Reckhow’s and Tompkins-Stange’s excellent contribution to the American Enterprise Institute’s conference of edu-philanthropy, Is the ‘New’ Education Philanthropy Good for Schools?, ends with an illustration of the power of Broad and Gates Foundations’ “purposeful convergence” on advancing their accountability-driven beliefs. They quote a Gates Foundation insider:

There was a twinkle in the eye of one of our US advocacy directors when the Obama administration's...education policy framework came out...this person said...“aren’t we lucky that the Obama Administration’s education agenda is so compatible with ours, you know?”...We wouldn’t take credit...out loud even amongst ourselves....But, you know, the twinkle… 

Rechkow and Tompkins-Stange add that “the notion of a “twinkle”—rather than claiming credit more openly—highlights one of the more problematic aspects of the concentrated influence of Gates, Broad, and other foundations in the policy realm.”

The Gates Foundation had been reluctant to commit to a coordinated federal advocacy campaign until the election of President Barack Obama and the appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Their Ed in ’08 campaign had fizzled but, during the Obama years, 2/3rds of the states made significant changes to their teacher evaluation process.

'Singing from the Same Hymnbook': Education Policy Advocacy at Gates and Broad shows that this dramatic change was conducted in the “absence of a robust public debate.”

It is beyond the scope of Rechkow's and Tompkins-Stange's study but after reading their work, I wonder even more how it would have been possible for the Gates Foundation to have engaged in an adequate, private discussion of the costs and benefits of their favored policy. Behind closed doors, insiders may or may not have exchanged their opinions on value-added evaluations, but since the evidence required for a meaningful debate over the real world effects of those evaluations did not exist, I wonder if the lack of research on the policy implications of value-added was considered. 

Reckhow and Tompkins-Stange chart the public effort by Gates and Broad to “amplify a message regarding teacher performance evaluation” without submitting their ideas to “a rigorous and coordinated critique at the federal level.” They identified 96 congressional hearings with substantive content on teacher quality and 470 witnesses who cited more than 400 published research items. They identified the cluster of witnesses who were Broad and Gates grantees who supported value-added evaluations. Reckhow and Stange found a “remarkable consistency in the content of their testimony.”

On the other hand, university-based experts with different perspectives were few and far between, and they were the only ones to mention perhaps the premier source on school improvement, the Consortium on Chicago School Research’s (CCSR) Organizing Schools for Improvement.

Many of us have long suspected that true believers in the philanthropic strategy of “convergence,” banding together with everyone “suddenly singing from the same hymnbook,” engaged in a hurried process that couldn’t allow for appropriate, evidence-based policy discussions.  I wish I could have been a fly on the wall to see whether the CCSR's research was mentioned. 

Reckhow and Tompkins-Stange also cite an insider said, this was a time when edu-philanthropic advocacy “evolved with respect to its place in the organizational food chain. Its change of status was ascendant and rapid.” 

Another Gates’ insider explained: 

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.

Reckhow and Stange are professional and restrained when addressing the question in the AEI conference's title: Is the ‘New’ Education Philanthropy Good for Schools? They make no effort to challenge the sincerity of Gates, Broad, Duncan, or their like-minded staffs. They simply document the facts and how little effort was made to answer the question of whether their key policies would be good for schools. In doing so, Reckhow and Stange leave me ambivalent about the future of this top-down pressure for social change.

An educator would hope that even the Gates and Broad Foundation’s would now think again about the test-driven policies they pushed, without taking time to listen to practitioners' opinions on the subject. But, how do we interpret the critique of a Gates insider? He mused: “We have this enormous power to sway the public conversations about things like effective teaching or standards and mobilizing lots of resources in their favor without real robust debate...I mean, it’s striking to me, really.”

Someday, I hope that Gates insiders will ask themselves why they thought they should take advantage of that power and leap to their risky conclusions.-JT (drjohnthompson) 



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