As Gates Moves Forward on K-12, Can It Rebuild Trust to be a "Neutral Broker"?

The terrain of K-12 policymaking is changing. Not only does the latest incarnation of federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), return more authority over schooling to the states, but the most likely next U.S. president, Hillary Clinton, isn't nearly as friendly to ed reformers as Barack Obama has been.

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The most important K-12 funder—the Gates Foundation—seems to be changing, too. Its leaders have lately delivered several mea culpas about its past strong-arm, top-down tactics, and it's hired a new director for its K-12 program, Bob Hughes, who is known for his skillful collaborating with diverse stakeholders to improve schools. As we've reported, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, is among those cautiously optimistic that the foundation is turning over a new leaf.

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But make no mistake: Gates has no intention of backing off from its activist role in shaping K-12 across the United States, with an agenda that includes pushing the Common Core, teacher evaluations and charters. And with the battlefield changing, the foundation is keen on stepping up its work in the states, where more of the action will be.

All this was crystal clear in a speech last week by Melinda Gates to the National Conference of State Legislatures, an organization that works closely with public officials. 

“I would say stay the course," Gates told the Washington Post in a related interview. "We’re not even close to finished."

In recent years, some Gates' education investments have been marked by controversy and decidedly mixed returns. The funder poured many millions of dollars into development and advocacy for the Common Core State Standards, which encountered fierce opposition from parents and educators in some states.

The foundation—which prides itself on being a "learning organization"—has said that it is evolving as result of it past missteps. Its CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellman, made this point in her most recent annual letter, as we've reported.

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Melinda Gates said the same thing last week, telling the Post that the foundation learned a lot of lessons from the debate over Common Core. The funder's biggest takeaway is the importance of parent and teacher buy-in for such an initiative to be successful. “Community buy-in is huge,” Melinda Gates said. “It means that in some ways, you have to go more slowly.”

In terms of actual substance, though, Gates is sticking to its education agenda. It will continue its support of the Common Core and the development of materials to help teachers teach to those standards. The funder also plans to continue promoting personalized learning through the use of digital tools designed to target individual students' needs. Most of all, Gates will continue its focus on teacher quality, which includes teacher preparation, professional development, and teacher evaluation systems.

Related: Great Teachers Are Made, and Gates Wants to Make More of Them

The latter may be a test of whether Gates has learned the value of attracting stakeholder support. Evaluation systems that give significant weight to students' test scores have encountered widespread resistance and criticism from teachers across the country, who point out that student scores are affected by a wide range of factors, many of them beyond the control of teachers and schools. Gates continues to believe that test scores should play a role in teacher evaluation systems, but it has struck a more flexible and responsive tone in this area, stressing that states need to listen to teachers when creating and using these systems. "That’s the biggest lesson learned in this,” she said. “States need to listen to their teachers when they’re designing a teacher evaluation system, and they don’t all have to look alike.”

Speaking more broadly about the Gates Foundation's role on K-12, Gates said she hopes the funder will be a "neutral broker" that would present the evidence of what is and is not working in education.

Bill Gates has often said the same thing, presenting the foundation as a research and development operation that's testing different education ideas to see what works. This is an appealing idea in theory, given how little money government spends on R&D in the education space despite the huge stakes of getting policy right.

In practice, though, the Gates Foundation is far from being perceived as a neutral broker. Rather, it's been widely viewed as a strong advocate for certain approaches and is distrusted by many in the K-12 sector. If the foundation really does want to play an impartial role, it has a lot of repair work to do. One way to interpret its recent statements and actions is that it understands this, and is now engaged in a course correction intended to rebuild trust. It will be interesting to watch its next moves in that regard.

Meanwhile, ESSA is in the early stages of implementation, with the U.S. Department of Education developing rules and regulations. What states' authority will ultimately look like remains to be seen.