How the Bush Foundation wasted $45 million and 10 years on an ill-conceived assault on teachers
The foundation famously promised 50% more students in post-secondary education in three states, erasure of so-called 'achievement gaps,' and a fancy new evaluation tool. Ten years later there are actually fewer students in college, 'achievement gaps' are the same or worse, and its hyped $2 million VAM evaluation tool is up in flames - but the foundation is undaunted – proud of its failure
Ten years ago the St Paul-based Bush Foundation embarked on what was at the time its most expensive and ambitious project ever: a 10-year, $45 million effort called the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative (TEI). The advent of the TEI coincided with the implementation of a new operating model at the foundation. Beginning in 2009 it would mostly would run its own programs, focusing on three main areas: .
Bush foundation president Peter Hutchinson told a news conference that the initiative would “increase by 50 percent the number of students in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota who go to college.”
The Teacher Effectiveness Initiative was the foundation's real-world application of its broad educational philosophy. Peter Hutchinson, the foundation's president at the time, told a news conference announcing the plan that the initiative would “increase by 50 percent the number of students in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota who go to college.” How was this miraculous achievement to be done? By “[enabling] the redesign of teacher-preparation programs” at a range of higher educational institutions where teachers are educated in the three-state area.
The foundation also said that, through “Consistent, effective teaching" it would "close the achievement gap.” It would achieve these goals by “producing 25,000 new, effective teachers by 2018.”
Not only was the Bush Foundation going to do all these things, but they would prove it with metrics. It contracted with an organization called the Value Added Research Center (VARC) to expand its Value Added Model (VAM) to track test scores of students who were taught by teachers graduated from one of its programs. The foundation, which paid VARC more than $2 million for its work, would use those test scores to rate the teachers 'produced' – even giving $1,000 bonuses to the programs for each 'effective' teacher.
10 years later: Fewer students in college, 'achievement gap' unchanged
By just about any measure the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative was a failure. Some of the top-line goals were missed by wide margins. The promise of 50% more college students in the tri-state area over the 10 years of the project? In reality, in Minnesota alone the number of post-secondary students enrolled actually dropped from almost 450,000 in 2009 to 421,000 in 2017 – a decline of about six percent.
In terms of addressing the so-called 'achievement gap' in the state among White, Black and Hispanic students not much changed in the era. For Black students in particular the test score proficiency gaps either stayed the same or got worse. For eighth grade math scores, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the 'Nation's Report Card' – the spread between Whites and Blacks increased 20% from 2009 to 2017. The same is true for fourth grade math, where the gap increased 21%.
The only gaps that decreased over the period were between White students and Hispanic students in fourth and eighth grade reading, where the gaps fell 27% and 17%, respectively. But in math the story was much different as gaps grew between White students and Hispanic students both in eighth and fourth grade math. For eighth grade the gap grew six percent, and for fourth grade it grew 17%.
In all fairness it would be wrong to pin these trends on the Bush Foundation, just as it would have been wrong to credit them if they had turned out differently. Either way we would never know from listening to the foundation itself, which abandoned its VAM program evaluation tool early on in the project because of what it euphemistically called data collection problems. This was supposed to be the evaluation system where the foundation could determine whether or not the changes had created 'effective' teachers – versus the implied previously 'produced' ineffective teachers. So there was no way to evaluate whether this particular metric had been met, although the foundation does say in one of its publications that it fell short of the 25,000 number.
Like most failures this one began at its very inception, when the foundation decided that improving teacher education schools was the best route to a 50% increase in college-bound students and a reduction in the achievement gaps between demographic groups.
It's hard to know exactly how the foundation decided to focus on teaching, but a 2014 review of the project noted that “Participants in a design lab recommended we approach this goal by focusing on teaching, citing research that teachers matter more to student achievement than any other school-based factor.” A spokesperson for the foundation refused to divulge information about this 'design lab' and its members.
The foundation said that through “Consistent, effective teaching...[it would] close the achievement gap.”
At the outset, the foundation was so confident that the reforms would be successful that not only would they be funded by the institutions themselves, but they would also be adopted nationwide in a sort of viral affirmation of its vision.
The Bush Foundation didn't make up this focus on teachers. Foundations nationwide had begun a pig pile that lay the blame for racial test score gaps squarely on teachers. The same year TEI launched, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced its own project, where it would spend “$335 Million to Promote Effective Teaching and Raise Student Achievement.” A 2018 Rand Corporation analysis of the Gates initiative predictably found that results “generally were null to negative across a variety of outcomes.”
At the time the Gates Foundation effectively ran the US Department of Education. They funded so many advocacy, policy, media, academic and implementation organizations that a reporter who was trying to document the software magnate's influence on education policy had to give up the story because virtually everyone connected with education discourse was taking his money. It was as if all the major philanthropies in the country had gotten together with all their grantees and decided that the problem with education was teachers.
Stories in popular media at the time were filled with tales of how “one year with an effective teacher” can provide x number of learning years for children. Proposals were made in states across the country to fire the “bottom x percent” of teachers every year.
All this opprobrium heaped upon teachers came from a few wrong-headed studies that used the invalid VAM system of rating teachers, then compounded those mistakes with logical errors. Control of education reporting by the same foundations pushing VAM ensured that these mistakes made their way into popular culture.
And make no mistake about it: The measures the Bush Foundation planned to use to judge the success or failure of its project were all about test scores. But what does the scholarly research on the factors that influence test scores say? A 2013 report by the Educational Testing Service found that teachers, on average, account for about 10% of differences on student test scores. As they reported, “...if the goal is to dramatically change patterns of U.S. student achievement, then identifying and removing low-performing teachers will not be nearly enough.”
Other in-school factors, such as the classroom and the school itself account for an equal or greater share of influence on student test scores. Those influences are dwarfed by out-of-school factors, such as family wealth and socio-economic status, which account for 60-70% of test scores. Another 20-30% or so of variation is due to 'unexplained' factors, which gives you an idea of the reliability of VAM, a system first invented to increase the productivity of animal husbandry! Another study from 2004 found an even lower level of teacher influence, pegging it at 7% for reading scores.
In 2010 the Economic Policy Institute released a report on VAM that found
“... across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%.”
“Surprisingly, [this 2010 study] found that students’ fifth grade teachers were good predictors of their fourth grade test scores. Inasmuch as a student’s later fifth grade teacher cannot possibly have influenced that student’s fourth grade performance, this curious result can only mean that VAM results are based on factors other than teachers’ actual effectiveness.”
How does this square with the Bush Foundation's grandiose aims of its TEI? It doesn't. It was pure fantasy and ignorance. Furthermore, where is/was the proof that so-called bad teachers were responsible for test score differences? There is none, and there never was.
If the foundation had really been concerned about educational attainment they could have looked to proven methods, such as lowering class sizes, or attacking poverty. And there are things other than test scores that matter. But that's not how the education reform movement works these days. Reformers, rather, are in a constant quest for silver bullets that will increase achievement without 1) Increasing the costs of primary and secondary education, and 2) Adding more, presumably unionized teachers.
But there are no shortcuts, and the era of No Child Left Behind and Every Child Succeeds Act has been a disaster for education in Minnesota, where test score proficiency has stagnated for 15 years.
Instead of doing the hard thinking on education the foundation added its weight to the heap of blame piled onto teachers. After all – if merely improving a few teacher education programs could wipe out deficiencies in the system the problem must reside in teachers themselves.
But it's actually much worse than that. The foundation not only chose to hinge its program on discredited VAM studies, it took this foolishness one step further – by evaluating teacher preparation programs – not just teachers - by tracking the test scores of students taught by their graduates.
This extension of the VAM model had never even been tried before, which is why the foundation contracted with a place called the Value Added Research Center (VARC) to construct this system. This attempt at extending an already discredited method blew up in the foundation's face, and by the time of its mid-project evaluation it already admitted defeat and ended its contract with VARC.
Effective teaching vs. Effective philanthropy
In a move that seems more like a whitewash that an autopsy the Bush Foundation hired its prime contractor, FHI360, a “...nonprofit human development organization...” that had received at least $4.5 million for its work on the project, to write a final report of the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative.
The report highlights grave problems with the TEI that could and should have been foreseen, but ignores the lofty promises made at the project’s outset. For instance, how many “effective” teachers were “produced” ? We'll never know. The report simply says “...the initiative fell short of the aspirational goal of 25,000 effective new teachers in the region by 2020...”
What happened to the “achievement gap” during the project period? Addressing it is mentioned in the original goals in the report, then not mentioned again! What about the the 50% increase in college students that foundation president Peter Hutchinson had promised in 2009? Not even mentioned in the report. Was the whole premise of the project justified – are schools of education really the way to increase educational attainment and decrease 'achievement gaps'? Unaddressed.
Still, FHI360 did identify several problems with the project, including
But FHI360 never passes judgment on the fundamental questions: Was the project a good idea? Did the Bush Foundation, or its main contractor, ever think about how teachers might react to the program?
The timing of all this provides a critical backdrop. The year 2010 arguably represented a high water mark for anti-teacher and anti-public education agitation in the ranks of education reformers.
And that came with costs. By 2015, halfway through the TEI, national polls showed teacher morale at an all-time low amid the “push for high-stakes testing and a centralized control of education,” and a decade or more of stagnant or decreasing wages and the ever-changing edicts of reformers. A 2012 MetLife Survey of Teachers found that
“teacher job satisfaction declined from 62% of teachers feeling “very satisfied” in 2008 to 39% by 2012. This was the lowest in the 25-year history of the survey.”
In an in-house magazine article this past Spring titled “Goals for a decade revisited,” Jen Ford Reedy, president of the foundation, was more candid than the FHI360 reporting, admitting that
“We certainly did not achieve the goal of eliminating racial disparities in education outcomes. We also did not achieve our goal-within-the-goal of producing 25,000 measurably effective teachers — both in terms of quantity or in terms of our ability to measure value-added effectiveness.”
While the TEI went off the tracks the Bush Foundation was also granting millions of dollars to other education projects.
One odd example is the almost $3 million given to Teach for America by the Bush Foundation since 2012. Put another way, in the middle of its biggest project ever – one on Teacher Effectiveness - the foundation was pumping huge amounts of money into a program that put teachers in classrooms after a six-week cram course!
As the foundation was purportedly working to earn the trust of both teachers and academics, it also gave nearly a quarter million dollars to Educators 4 Excellence, an astroturf teacher organization meant to counter the authentic voice of teachers' unions. The foundation gave another $340,000 to MinnCan, a charter school advocacy operation now known as Ed Allies.
It awarded another $200,000 to Charter School Partners (CSP), a virtual arm of the Minneapolis Foundation that funneled Walton Family Foundation money into charter school startups in Minnesota, many of them segregated and in areas of concentrated racial poverty.
Foundation president Reedy offered up a bold summary of the TEI: “We are proud of what we helped to make happen!”
When CSP morphed into Minnesota Comeback, the Bush Foundation gave it $100,000 as “...support for the launch of an education policy advocacy nonprofit in Minnesota serving the local education ecosystem.” In truth it wasn't so much a “launch” as a re-branding, as the leadership, funding and board pretty much stayed the same.
Along with the name change Minnesota Comeback changed its strategy a bit. It had been in the middle of a five year plan to open 20 new charter schools in Minneapolis.
Now it would aim to create 30,000 new charter school 'seats' in Minneapolis. In a system with 36,000 students that's basically a plan to kill the Minneapolis Public School District. This is the Bush Foundation's idea of “serving the local education ecosystem.”
The Bush Foundation also gave $230,000 to the Minneapolis Foundation, the maestro of the charter school movement. The money was for its so-called Education Transformation Initiative (ETI) – a program that birthed Minnesota Comeback and Great MN Schools.
One $2 million grant to the Minneapolis Foundation in 2015 was earmarked to the Great MN Schools Fund “...To grow the number of seats available at high-performing schools serving students of color.” Great MN Schools was later spun off as its own entity, completely under the corporate control of Minnesota Comeback. Great MN Schools is the school-funding arm of the Minneapolis Foundation's charter school influence campaign.
To mask its animosity toward conventional public schools, Minnesota Comeback says in its 2016 IRS 990 that it makes “...GRANTS TO PUBLIC SCHOOLS, PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOLS, AND INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS...” That purported equanimity is not reflected by how it has doled out money. In total about 98% of the grants awarded by Great MN Schools have gone to charter schools.
So the TEI was a failure. Did the foundation learn its lesson? Was this misguided foray into education a one-off mistake? With $45 million and 10 years of effort down the drain, were lessons learned? Sadly, no. Near the end of foundation president Reedy's look back at the TEI, she offers up a bold summary: “We [the Bush Foundation] are proud of what we helped to make happen!”
MORE ORIGINAL RESEARCH
A simplified animation of how the introduction of charter schools into a public school district can lead to its extinction, through a cycle of draining students, inability to quickly react, program cuts and school closings.
Though specifics vary, across the nation charter schools are draining the students and finances of public school districts, creating distress in many. In Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Foundation is trying this very strategy with its created entity, Minnesota Comeback, whose goal is 30,000 new charter seats in the city.
Getting Minnesota charter school history wrong, again.
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Beating the odds, or beating the test?
“Odds-beating charter school.” Those words are like an impenetrable shield for those who operate such places. They are also the holy grail of the education reform movement, which is constantly seeking shortcuts to radically increase measures of educational achievement, which these days is pretty much defined by increased math and language test scores.