A Change in Leadership on K-12 for the Gates Foundation, But Not Direction

The U.S. Department of Education is not the only big player in K-12 policy undergoing a change of leadership.

Vicki Phillips announced recently that she would step down from her position as head of the K-12 program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the end of 2015. Phillips has been with the funder since 2007, occupying one of the most powerful positions in education philanthropy. Her appointment marked the funder's shift away from a focus on smaller high schools to an emphasis on instruction and teacher quality.

"The baton was passed to me eight years ago," Phillips wrote in a letter announcing her resignation. "I have been honored to run my leg, and I am ready to hand the baton forward to the next leader." Phillips' announcement comes only a few weeks after Arne Duncan announced his resignation as U.S. Secretary of Education. Duncan, appointed to the post by President Obama in 2009, plans to return to Chicago to spend more time with his family.

Tasked with identifying a strategic lever for improving U.S. education, Phillips and her team at Gates concluded that despite a mountain of evidence that teachers played the most crucial in-school role in driving student achievement, little research existed regarding how to identify the best teachers. That led to the Gates-funded Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, a multi-year study that used videotaped observations, surveys, and extensive academic data to identify the measures most associated with effective teaching. Since beginning MET in 2009, Gates has spent an estimated $900 million on grantmaking in the area of teacher effectiveness, according to Education Week.

It was under Phillips' leadership that Gates embarked on another ambitious endeavor: underwriting the development of the Common Core State Standards in reading and math, which have since been adopted by more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Both initiatives have attracted their share of controversy. Teachers' unions opposed tying standardized test scores to teacher evaluations, while the Common Core has attracted political opposition from both the right and the left.

Looking back on her tenure leading education grantmaking at Gates, Phillips told Education Week that the foundation could have done a better job sequencing and communicating its teacher quality work. She said that she and her team should have put greater emphasis on aligning teacher tools and support, as well as redesigning professional development. The funder also could have done a better job of communicating what grantees were learning as they engaged in the teacher effectiveness work.

Phillips also said she is proud of the funder's efforts to put teachers front and center in its education strategy. Contrary to political opponents' claims, Phillips said teachers are not afraid of testing and accountability, provided these activities are done well. In a perfect world, she added, the MET study would have come out in time to inform all policies around teacher evaluation "so people didn't jump too quickly and overemphasize one component over another."

Phillips has not said said what she will do next after leaving her post at Gates. She was superintendent of the Portland Public Schools in Oregon before joining the funder. Gates' U.S. program head, Allan Golston, will stand in until Phillips' successor is named.

So what will change with Phillips' departure? Probably not much. In October remarks at an education forum in Seattle, Bill Gates affirmed his foundation's plan to stick closely to its core education strategies around teacher effectiveness and high academic standards. Like Phillips, he admitted the foundation could have pursued these strategies better. Gates' education work will also see a greater emphasis on early childhood education. It has funded early learning since 2005 in its home state of Washington, but in 2014, the foundation expanded its work nationally in this area. Future work on this crucial challenge is apparently still in the design phase, but the possibilities are exciting for EC educators and advocates.