On a cool, February morning in Scottsdale, Ariz., last year, 250 teachers gathered in a hotel ballroom at the biggest conference for teachers the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had likely ever held.
A few principals and superintendents were in the room, too, along with people from advocacy groups, but the vast majority were classroom teachers, mostly from Tampa, Pittsburgh, Memphis and other school districts with big Gates grants.
Many felt a little out of place in such a fancy hotel, with its 10 swimming pools and a seven-acre lake, and every meal amply provided. It felt good, they said, to be treated like other, more highly paid professionals, even if it was a little intimidating to be the guest of one of the richest men in the world.
Irvin Scott, a then-new Gates Foundation official and former high-school teacher, stepped to the front of the stage and counted backward, slowly, from 10 — a teacher trick for quieting a room.
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He didn’t talk much about any of the foundation’s initiatives. He didn’t even mention the one that’s alienated teachers the most — the test-score measures of teacher performance the foundation has pushed in the second phase of its richly financed mission to overhaul America’s public schools.
Instead, Scott told a heartfelt story about how his high-school English teacher, Ms. Scritchfield, taught him to love poetry, setting him on a path to becoming a teacher. He talked about the importance of teaching, how much the foundation values teachers and wants to help them raise the prestige of their profession.
Though widely viewed as a critic of teachers and their unions, the world’s largest foundation has begun reaching out to them in new ways, sending the message it wants to be their friend — and their champion.
“We’re trying to start a movement,” Scott told the teachers in Scottsdale. “A movement started by you. A movement you’re leading.”
The overture is being watched with hope, but also wariness, with questions about whether the foundation truly wants teachers to help shape its agenda, or just to advance it.
Feeling under attack
Although foundation officials — and Bill Gates himself — have always been careful to say teaching is challenging work and most teachers do their jobs well, the foundation’s work over the past five years added up to what many teachers considered an attack.
Through its initiatives and the groups it has funded, the foundation painted a picture of a profession with too many bad teachers, too little accountability, and too much mediocre instruction that robbed students, especially poor students, of a chance to succeed.
It pushed for policies that would make it easier to fire teachers, to base pay and layoffs on performance rather than seniority and — most controversially — to use student test scores to help judge teacher performance.
Perhaps most galling to many teachers, the foundation spent $2 million to promote the movie “Waiting for Superman,” a film in which Gates himself made an appearance, and which placed the blame for the woes of American public education squarely on teachers unions and, by extension, teachers.
Yet now the foundation had flown all these teachers to a luxury hotel, saying it wanted to celebrate, honor and support them. And just the day before, Gates, in an opinion piece in The New York Times, sided with New York teachers in a bitter battle over whether that city’s school district should publicly share teachers’ ratings based on their students’ test performance.
Gates followed that piece with a second one in The Washington Post last month in which he said some of the new ways that states and districts are measuring teacher performance make no sense — a view also held by many teachers.
Months after the Scottsdale conference, Allan Golston, president of the foundation’s U.S. programs, acknowledged the foundation had, early in its education work, erred by dreaming up ideas with so-called education reformers and not including teachers in those discussions.
The conference, he said, was a manifestation of that lesson, and the beginning of much more to come.
“We are very clear — your voices have to be at the table,” he told the teachers in Scottsdale. “We want to make sure you are at the center of the dialogue.”
Signs of new thinking
There is some evidence the foundation, as Golston asserts, is listening and learning.
The foundation, for example, is putting less emphasis on test-score metrics, and it strongly supports the notion that a fair evaluation of teachers requires a number of measures.
About five years ago, Gates thought the best way to improve teachers was to “get rid of 10-20-30 percent of the bottom and just keep doing that,” said Jeanne Harmon of the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession in Washington state.
Now the message is one of supporting teachers so they can improve.
“They’ve broadened their perspective,” Harmon said.
But the foundation also is known for searching out and backing people who can help advance its efforts, raising questions about whether all its teacher-courting is simply a way to gain more clout.
Critics look skeptically even at Gates’ newspaper pieces, calling them disingenuous.
The opinion articles “are a garden hose trying to put out a fire he helped start,” said Jack Jennings, who has been involved in education policy for more than four decades in Congress and with the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, which he founded.
“It’s a belated acknowledgment that they were going down the wrong path.”
The foundation may also be motivated by pragmatism.
Two years ago, just as “Waiting for Superman” hit theaters, Gates told an audience at an Aspen Institute event that the battle to improve teaching had to be fought inside teachers unions, which he said unfortunately focused too much on protecting teachers, too little on helping them improve.
“You have to create within that group a battle of ‘what do we stand for.’ ” he said.
What’s clear: the foundation wants teachers’ help more than ever before.
“We get that moving this work forward without them will not be sustainable,” Scott said recently. “It won’t be owned by teachers, and when our investments go away, so will the effort.
“That’s why there is so much urgency in engaging them directly.”
A career educator
As a leader of what the foundation is calling “teacher voice and professionalism,” Scott has credentials most teachers can respect.
Before he joined Gates, he served as chief academic officer in Boston, but he had spent most of his career as a popular teacher and principal in his home state of Pennsylvania. That’s where he met Vicki Phillips, then superintendent of schools in Lancaster, and now director of K-12 giving for the Gates Foundation.
Phillips recruited Scott for the Gates job, telling him she could use his help in an effort to work more closely with teachers, a mission he embraced, saying he had grown alarmed at the tenor of the national debate about them, believing the finger-pointing and blame had become destructive.
He knows some believe the foundation is out to co-opt teachers, and he acknowledges that part of the new initiative is aimed at supporting teachers who embrace the foundation’s ideas.
“We’re definitely trying to empower teachers who we feel are going in the right direction,” he said.
But he also says the foundation is sincere in its desire to work with teachers.
In Scottsdale, he made teachers promise to be candid.
“Honest feedback,” he asked them to chant.
“Honest feedback,” they echoed. “Honest feedback.”
Union leaders hopeful
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers,
one of the nation’s two big teachers unions, sees hope in the foundation’s increased attention to teachers.
So does Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union — and the largest union — in the nation.
“Nothing but good can come out of that,” Van Roekel said.
Weingarten makes it clear she and the foundation have their disagreements on issues such as charter schools and test-score ratings, which she says are flawed.
But she’s willing to work with the foundation in areas where they do agree, and they agree teachers need to be involved in policy discussions.
While other foundations still “think they can go around teachers,” she said, “Gates is in a place where they believe they have to engage with teachers.” And that, she said, is “a very big step.”
But the foundation has not moved nearly enough for critics such as Jennings and Anthony Cody, a former California teacher and blogger for Education Week, a newsweekly.
Cody sees Gates’ softer stances toward teachers as a P.R. effort in response to “a tremendous backlash to his unfortunate ideas.” He’ll believe the foundation is changing, he said, when Gates apologizes for setting in motion some of the very policies the foundation is now criticizing.
Gates “is posing as the good cop here, but he’s responsible for the bad cops,” he said.
He’ll believe the foundation is listening to teachers when there’s evidence it is working with a wide range of teachers, not just those involved in Gates-funded projects.
Cody doesn’t want to accuse such teachers of cowing to the foundation, but talking to them, he said, “is not the same as going and really listening to unfiltered teacher viewpoints.”
Next steps unclear
Since the Scottsdale conference, the foundation has held similar gatherings around the country and assembled a group of 50 teachers to advise it on all its education initiatives, which go well beyond its efforts to improve teaching.
It continues to require that unions play a leadership role in the districts that have big Gates grants, and continues to support a number of new teacher groups — some of which its money helped establish — that lobby for some of the same policies that Gates supports. One of those is in Seattle.
Just what the foundation’s new teacher initiatives will look like is not yet clear.
Scott won’t provide details, but he does say big new grants will be announced this year. They may involve teacher preparation and training, he said, and they will be aimed at elevating the profession and “making sure teachers are leading it.”
In Scottsdale, teachers soaked up the attention and praise he and others showered on them.
“They are giving us the benefit of the doubt, that most of us are good and willing to get better. That’s new,” said Naomi Poindexter, an eighth-grade English teacher from Oklahoma.
The first morning, as Scott finished his speech and teachers headed for the doors, he called out to them, making sure they’d seen the sheet of paper that had been carefully placed at each seat before they arrived.
It was a photocopy of the
commentary by Gates published the day before, criticizing the decision to release the teacher ratings in New York.
Without prompting, the teachers cheered.
Linda Shaw reported much of this story as a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University Journalism School in 2011-12.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @LShawST