Whatever Happened To the Non-Graded School?

Ask a teacher, principal, superintendent, or school board member about the non-graded school and you will get a “huh” or perhaps a blank stare. The educator might whip out a smart phone and tap away at the tiny keyboard, wait a few seconds and then get a raft of websites and definitions. The non-graded school does exist. Few know about it, however.

This post is part of a continuing series about what happened to educational innovations that spread virally at first (before there was Twitter) but within a few years nearly disappeared from the U.S. landscape of schooling.

Where and When Did the Idea Originate?

Throughout the 19th century, non-graded schools were everywhere. At that time, such places were called the one-room school. Children and youth from age 6 to 14 or so gathered in the schoolhouse every morning and over the course of the day, the teacher taught different subjects to individuals and small groups that kept changing as the content changed. By the late-19th century, however, the innovation of the age-graded school of eight classrooms with a teacher in each one room transmitting a portion of the curriculum to children grouped by age–six year olds in the first grade, eight year olds in the third grade took hold initially in urban districts and then in the emerging suburbs. By the middle of the 20th century, urban, suburban, and rural schools were age-graded and the one-room schoolhouse had nearly disappeared.

Beginning in the 1950s, scholars and practitioners seeing the shortcomings of the age-graded school (e.g., students failing and repeating a year, all students do not learn at the same speed) and wanting individual children to master content of different subject at their own pace and in mixed-age groups started a small number of elementary non-graded schools (see here and here). Throughout the next decade and a half, such schools flourished in both talk and action (see here and here).  Few secondary schools became non-graded. One that was highlighted in the 1960s was Melbourne High School in Brevard County (FLA)–see here and here.

What Problems Did the non-Graded School Intend To Solve?

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by their ages to school “grades”; it sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks to be annually promoted (or retained). Obviously, students do not learn at the same pace. If some fail to learn fractions in the allotted time, then algebra becomes a serious problem later in their school career. And just as obviously, all teachers do not cover the assigned content and skills within the time allowed. So students then become unprepared for the next grade or sequence of academic subjects. These students became “misfits.”

Educators called them: pupils of low, I.Q., ne’er-do-wells, laggards, slow learners, occupational learners, slow learners, mental deviates.

The message of the labels was clear: There were students who simply did not have
smarts, and the pedagogical answer was to teach them different things in a different way
in a different place (see here).

The non-graded organization tries to solve these problems inherent to the age-graded organization.

What Does a Non-Graded School Look Like?

Three features capture non-graded schools. Multi-age grouping, team teaching, and small group and individual work on academic content and skills until each student masters both. Students are not assigned to classrooms or centers strictly on the basis of age. The galvanizing idea is that students will make “continuous progress” as they proceed through language arts, math, science, and social studies. That said, there are many variations of non-graded schools now as there have been in the past. In fact, even parts of age-graded schools can have primary non-graded (e.g., ages 6-9 being taught by a group of teachers). See here

At Madrona School in the Edmunds district (WA), school staff inform parents about non-graded schooling:

Facts about Madrona: Q & A

Q:  What does “nongraded” mean?

A: Madrona is called a “nongraded” school not because no grades are issued, but because children are not put into traditional Grades as in most other schools.  Instead, children are put into “Centers”, which are multiage classrooms that hold 3 grade levels.

Q:  What is a Center?

A:  A Center is a classroom consisting of 2 teachers who team-teach around 50 kids, covering 3 grade levels.  A Primary Center consists of grades 1 – 3; an Intermediate Center covers grades 4 – 6; Middle School comprises 7th and 8th grades….

Q:  What’s the difference between nongraded and combined classrooms?

A: Combined classrooms consist of 2 or more groups that are each being taught their grade-level curriculum.  Nongraded classrooms contain children who are learning at one or more grade level.  For example, a child may excel at math, but be not very strong in reading.  In a Primary classroom, a first year student might therefore be learning math with second year kids, but read with other first year students.  Social studies, science, and art are taught on a 3-year rotation, so each child experiences that portion of his/her education only once.

Q:  Are 7th and 8th Grades handled the same way as Primary and Intermediate centers?

A:  At Madrona’s Middle School, with the exception of math, all classes are taught on a 2-year rotation.  Placement in math classes is dependent on standardized test performance and classroom performance in the lower grades….”

Did Non-Graded Schools Work?

The research and evaluation of non-graded school achievement, as one has come to expect in assessing the worth of educational innovations–is mixed. Studies that show academic gains as measured by achievement test scores in math and reading have been published as have studies that show no difference between non-graded and age-graded students. See here, here, here, here, and here.

As frequent readers of this blog know, adoption of an innovation in schooling has less to do with what the research says and far more about what school leaders and practitioners believe about students, teaching, learning, and knowledge. In the case of non-graded schools, even were the research and evaluation evidence to be overwhelmingly in favor of such an organization, getting teachers, parents, and district officials on board the train to introduce multi-age grouping of students, team teaching, and “continuous progress” is an instance of switching train tracks of one gauge to another in a railroad yard. Politically and organizationally, regardless of what the research says, that is one tough task to complete.

What Happened to Non-Graded Schools?

The age-graded school continues to reign across U.S. schools. The brief spurt of non-graded schools–nearly always elementary–in the 1960s and 1970s died a slow death in following decade but has not totally disappeared.

For example, as part of a state reform, Kentucky ungraded all of its primary grades in the 1990s. But this reform and other ungrading plans in elementary schools across the nation soon gave way to test-driven accountability. Still amid standards based testing for the past three decades, ungraded public schools and classrooms soldier on. There is the Sycamore Elementary School in Claremont, Calif., a school that has done multiage grouping ever since it opened in 1890, the above Madrona school, The Northern Cass school district (ND) that embarked on competency based learning,  Hodgkins elementary in Westminister (CO),  and many others scattered across the nation.




Filed under Uncategorized

Remoralization of the Market (David Brooks)

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. This op-ed appeared January 11, 2019.

In many of the posts over the past nine years I have pointed out how schools reflect the larger society especially when policy elites press upon the schools reforms that are solutions to larger political, economic, and social issues in the U.S. For nearly four decades the drumbeat of reform has been for schools to be harnessed to the larger economy by producing “human capital,” i.e., high school and college graduates ready for a post-industrial, information-based market economy. Other purposes for tax-supported public schools have been subordinated to this economic imperative. 

David Brooks’s piece which does not mention schools once describes accurately the extreme (and amoral) focus since the 1970s on economic gains with inequality seen as just desserts for those who are not the best and the brightest. This ascendancy of judging everything through an economic lens, he argues, is bad for democracy and, I would add, for the nation’s public schools.

For those policymakers, politicians, practitioners, and parents who applaud for or rail against schools becoming strictly vocational in cranking out graduates who enter the workplace prepared for the New Economy, the context Brooks describes for this profound shift in schooling explains the power of policy elites to use tax-supported education to solve larger national problems.


Suddenly economic populism is all the rage. In his now famous monologue on Fox News, Tucker Carlson argued that American elites are using ruthless market forces to enrich themselves and immiserate everyone else. On the campaign trail, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are telling left-wing versions of the same story.

In an era of tribal emotionalism, you’re always going to be able to make a splash reducing a complex problem to a simple narrative that separates the world into the virtuous us, and the evil them (the bankers). But I’d tell a third story about our current plight, which is neither economic populism nor free-market fundamentalism.

My story begins in the 1970s. The economy was sick. Corporations were bloated. Unions got greedy. Tax rates were too high and regulations were too tight. We needed to restore economic dynamism.

So in 1978, Jimmy Carter signed a tax bill that reduced individual and corporate tax rates. Senator Ted Kennedy led the effort to deregulate the airline and trucking industries. When he came into office, Ronald Reagan took it up another notch.

It basically worked. We’ve had four long economic booms since then. But there was an interesting cultural shift that happened along the way. In a healthy society, people try to balance a whole bunch of different priorities: economic, social, moral, familial. Somehow over the past 40 years economic priorities took the top spot and obliterated everything else. As a matter of policy, we privileged economics and then eventually no longer could even see that there could be other priorities.

For example, there’s been a striking shift in how corporations see themselves. In normal times, corporations serve a lot of stakeholders — customers, employees, the towns in which they are located. But these days corporations see themselves as serving one purpose and one stakeholder — maximizing shareholder value. Activist investors demand that every company ruthlessly cut the cost of its employees and ruthlessly screw its hometown if it will raise the short-term stock price.

We turned off the moral lens. You probably know the example of the Israeli day care centers. Parents kept showing up late to pick up their kids. To address the problem, the centers experimented with fining the late parents. But the number of late pickups doubled. Before, coming to pick up your kid on time was a moral obligation — to be fair to the day care workers. After, it was seen as an economic transaction. Parents were happy to pay to be late. We more or less did this as an entire society — we switched to a purely economic lens.

A deadly combination of right-wing free-market fundamentalism and left-wing moral relativism led to a withering away of moral norms and shared codes of decent conduct. We ripped the market out of its moral and social context and let it operate purely by its own rules. We made the market its own priest and confessor.

Society came to be seen as an atomized collection of individual economic units pursuing self-interest. Selfishness was normalized. As Steven Pearlstein puts it in his outstanding book, “Can American Capitalism Survive?” “Old-fashioned norms around loyalty, cooperation, honesty, equality, fairness and compassion no longer seem to apply in the economic sphere.”

Anything you could legally do to make money was deemed O.K. A billion-dollar salary for a hedge fund manager? Perfectly acceptable. The Apple corporation exists because of American institutions. But, as Pearlstein notes, Apple parked its intellectual property in an Irish subsidiary so it could avoid paying taxes in America and support those institutions. It saved $9 billion in 2012 alone. This is clearly sleazy behavior. Apple employees should be humiliated and ashamed.

But today the amoralism of the trading floor governs corporate decision-making. Pearlstein quotes Carl Icahn: “I don’t believe in the word ‘fair.’” So Apple paid no reputational price when it stiffed its own country.

Social trust arises from a covenant: I give to my company, my town and my government, and they give back to me. But that covenant was ripped. Now the general perception is: When I give, they take. As we disembedded individuals from traditional moral norms we disembedded companies from social ones. Human beings are moral animals, and suddenly American moral animals found themselves in an amoral economic system, which felt increasingly alienating and gross.

We wound up with the secession of the successful, and in many parts of the country we wound up decimating the social trust that is actually a prerequisite for economic prosperity.

Capitalism is a wonderful system. The populists are perpetually living in 2008, when the financial crisis vindicated all their prejudices. They ignore everything since — the 19 million jobs that have been created, the way wages are now rising at 3.2 percent.

But capitalism needs to be embedded in moral norms and it needs to serve a larger social good. Remoralizing and resocializing the market is the great project of the moment. The crucial question is not: How can we have a good economy? It’s: How can we have a good society? How can we have a society in which it’s easier to be a good person?


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

The Grand Scam: The Economy’s Turned Around But Where Is the Praise for Schools?*

Why is it that now with a bustling economy, rising productivity, and shrinking unemployment American public schools are not receiving credit for the turnaround? In light of scathing criticism of poorly performing public schools, the question sounds foolish. It isn’t if you consider the Great School Scam of the 1980’s.

For the last decade, U.S. Presidents, corporate leaders, and critics blasted public schools for a globally less competitive economy, sinking productivity, and jobs lost to other nations. The United States, as one highly popular report put it in 1983, had educationally disarmed itself in a hostile economic war. “If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets,” the report said, “we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system.”

And school reforms have spilled over the country since the early 1980’s. States legislated higher graduation requirements, a longer school year, new curricula, and more tests for students. This year, national school reformers using this belief in better schools as an engine for a better economy crowned their efforts with strong bipartisan support for President Clinton’s education bill setting eight national goals while establishing standards and tests to prod 15,000 school districts to reach those goals.

Reforms have occurred. More students take academic subjects than in the 1970’s. Scores on tests of basic skills are higher now than in previous decades. More students go to college than ever before. That is why I ask: Now that America outstrips Japan and Germany in labor productivity, economic growth, and share of world merchandising exports, why haven’t public schools received the educational equivalent of the Oscars?

Not even a cheaply framed certificate of merit is in the offing for public schools. For the myth of better schools as the engine for a leaner, stronger economy was a scam from the very beginning. Even though few reputable economists ever equated declining test scores with declining global competitiveness–critics of public schools did. Even though most corporate leaders knew that falling productivity was connected to shifting technologies, restructured industries, and poor managerial judgments–they joined business round tables to lobby for school reforms. Even though Presidents Bush and Clinton knew that stimulating economic growth depended far more on fiscal and monetary policies than turning around schools–they pressed for national goals and standards. The bumper sticker was: Better schools, a better economy! Thus the lack of praise for the performance of public schools as the economy has brightened exposes the deceitful political logic of a decade of school reform.

When business leaders and national public officials blamed schools for an unhealthy economy, they avoided harsher public judgments about inept governmental and corporate policies and helplessness in the face of intransigent economic cycles. The political appeal of cunningly simplistic solutions for intractable problems is not, of course, confined to public schools. The current frenzy for three-strikes-you’re-out legislation to rid streets of dangerous criminals, for example, or anti-crime bills that fund more prisons are instances of public officials desperately seeking policies that masquerade as action but have little promise of eliminating the problems that initially triggered the bleak search for solutions. Gulling the public with ersatz solutions remains politically attractive.

What makes the educational swindle tricky to uncover is that no conspirators hatched the fraud. No covey of grifters dreamed up the scam over a few beers. Business leaders, national and state policymakers, and practitioners saw the obvious political appeal of harnessing schools to building a stronger economy and dreamed that such concerted efforts to improve schools would indeed improve the economy. The media amplified the delusion. What occurred was a widespread, self-inflicted, but politically useful deception anchored in deep confusion over the many purposes public schools serve in a democracy.

For almost two centuries the public has wanted its schools to do many things. Schools have been expected to take safe care of children while they are in school six to 12 or more hours a day. Schools have been expected to bend children’s minds toward the values that each community prizes and away from behaviors like drug abuse, careless sexual activity, and other destructive acts that adults have trouble controlling. Schools have been expected to create communities of children where learning and decency are valued. Furthermore, schools have been expected to create literate citizens who can make wise public judgments, contribute to their communities, and become useful workers and entrepreneurs in the economy. Note, then, that among the many purposes schools are expected to achieve, one is clearly economic. The scam begins here with a sleight of hand regarding these purposes.

No one seriously expects 15,000 school districts to set fiscal and monetary policy for the nation’s economy. No one seriously expects schools to generate millions of high-wage jobs. No one seriously expects schools to make pricing or factory-relocation decisions. What most Americans expect of their schools is to equip students adequately for future entry into the workplace. For there is a clear connection between schooling and the benefits accruing to individual students.

Few doubt the compelling statistics that the more formal schooling an individual completes, the higher the lifetime earnings. High school dropouts, on average, earn less than high school graduates, who earn less than those who complete college. While such figures vary by gender, class, and race the link between years of schooling and income has remained strong. Confusing the individual benefits of schooling with the alleged collective benefits that schools confer upon the larger economy is the shell game that has been played out over the last decade.

Thus, state and federal school policies that enhance the chances of teenagers to enter the job market, such as apprenticeships and business-school partnerships, especially in cities, are consistent with the school’s role in helping individual students. But other governmental policies setting national goals, curriculum, and tests stem from the illusory belief that such goals, standards, and tests in public schools will improve the economy. Such reforms have little to do with increased productivity, job growth, low annual rates of inflation, and other economic indicators. They have little to do with helping impoverished youths in cities get jobs.

The lack of praise for the work done by schools after a decade of energetic school reform reveals so clearly the skillfully concocted deception about the causal connection between better schools and a healthier economy. The scam may be politically appealing but, undebated or ignored, it remains a swindle that further diminishes public confidence in schools.


*I wrote this commentary for Education Week, June  15, 1994. Twenty-five years later, with updated references, I could ask the same question.



Filed under Reforming schools

Donors Reforming Schools in the U.S. (Part 4)

As a teacher, superintendent, and professor I have been fortunate in receiving grants from donors over the decades. Small, middle-sized, and large grants came to support and expand my efforts in classrooms (e.g., Teacher Innovation Fund in Washington, D.C.), district (e.g., helping non-English speaking immigrants in Arlington, VA) and research I and colleagues did in schools and districts near Stanford University (e.g., Spencer Foundation, Hewlett and Packard Foundations). I enjoyed the benefits that flowed from having funds that I could use for classroom, school, and district innovations and classroom research with no strings attached.

Over the past decade, I have also been involved in researching the awards that donors have made (and continue to do so) to improve schools in the U.S. I and others have written extensively and critically about philanthropy and occasional over-reaching in prodding schools to improve (see here, here, here, and here).

I have experienced mixed feelings about these small and large grants to schools to try out different approaches to helping both teachers and students improve their performance. When, for example, the Gates Foundation stopped funding small high schools in 2008, gave large amounts to propagate Common Core Standards in 2010, and underwrote IPET (see parts 1, 2, and 3), my initial reaction was, hey, these foundation officers had not thought through carefully the complexity of schooling or the familiar perverse consequences that accrue to “innovations” that do belly-flops. Sure, foundation officials consulted with smart people before giving away money to schools and districts but they seldom consulted with people who do the daily work or experienced practitioners who know the system from the inside (see for example the history of the Annenberg Challenge in the 1990s and Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million dollar gift to Newark (NJ).

So I saw such public and private disappointments in foundations stumbling and donors admitting defeat as no more than chickens coming home to roost. Sharp-minded, well-intentioned donors spent lots of money to get improved test scores and schools and for that time and money getting no more than scratch marks in the ground that disappear after the first rain. Arrogant over-reaching in pressing upon schools a magical solution was common. Turning their backs on local expertise and getting little return, I felt, was well deserved.

The second reason I didn’t like donors dispensing large gobs of cash to schools was that the federal government encouraged and subsidized donor gifts. Rob Reich* in Just Giving has this to say in an interview about his book:

The public policies in the United States, and in many other countries, confer enormous privileges on philanthropists. Private foundations are largely unaccountable – no one can be unelected in a foundation, and there are no competitors to put them out of business. They are frequently nontransparent – more than 90 percent of the roughly 100,000 private foundations in the U.S. have no website. And they are donor-directed, and by default exist in perpetuity. Finally, it might seem that philanthropy is just the exercise of the liberty of people to give away their money. But philanthropy is generously tax subsidized, costing the U.S. Treasury more than $50 billion in forgone revenue last year.

Even though I have benefited from donor grants over the years, there is much I do not like in the ways private donors have pursued school improvement in hop-scotch ways, unaccountable to anyone but their self-selected boards and handsomely subsidized through federal tax deductions. Still there is an argument to be made in support of unaccountable private philanthropy seeking public good in a democracy.

Rob Reich makes those arguments and they are worth paying attention to.

First, donors can give grants to organizations and individuals who seek to increase social capital in cities, rural, and suburban areas. When hurricanes and earthquakes occur and government and non-government responses are either weak or delayed, strangers and neighbors band together to help. At other times, social capital is built through school PTAs, softball leagues, church congregations, neighborhood crime watch groups, collective efforts to build a corner playground, get traffic signals at dangerous intersections and similar activities across a city create networks of cooperation.

Building trust and cooperation within neighborhoods and across divisive groups, strengthening norms that bring people together to work toward a more diverse and healthier community is a job that governments and market capitalism often can’t or won’t do. There is, then, a role for philanthropy to help Americans engage in collective efforts to strengthen networks that glue groups and individuals to one another in building trust and trying to solve serious problems (see here, here, and here).

Second, donors can take risks in experimenting with their money that government and the market can’t or won’t. Keep in mind that democracies have a short-term horizon and are anchored in the present. Elected officials are held accountable at the ballot box every few years and therefore respond to immediate problems with solutions that are built in the here and now. They take care of the problem as quickly as possible. Thus, democracies seldom look to future generations. And here is where, Reich, argues philanthropy can play a part by giving money to individuals and organizations that have a long-term horizon and are concerned about the future. Wealthy entrepreneurs have set up cancer and heart research foundations to fast-track cures in recent years. Ditto for the arts and education. From funding climate change research and dissemination to trying out innovations in non-coal energy alternatives to underwriting experiments in health care and schooling–donors can take risks with their money to strengthen and enhance public goods that elected officials and entrepreneurial investors can’t or won’t do.

While I continue to have mixed feelings about private donors pursuing public good such as school improvement, the arguments that Reich makes have given me pause to think further about the value in a democracy of unaccountable and federally subsidized educational philanthropy.



*Full disclosure: I have known Rob Reich since he was a graduate student in a class on the history of school reform that David Tyack and I taught two decades ago. He and I have stayed in touch ever since.


Filed under Reforming schools

Did the IPET Initiative Fail? (Part 3)

Did the Gates-funded initiative to alter how teachers get evaluated in three school districts and four charter networks between 2009-2016, fail?

A local newspaper and the RAND corporation’s independent evaluation reached similar conclusions when it came to achieving the goals of improving low-income minority students’ test scores. Both concluded that the project did not meet that goal. New policies of identifying effective teachers and having those teachers work with low-income minority students also failed to yield the promised outcomes of the donor initiative. The dominant criterion used to judge “success” and “failure in U.S. public schools for the past generation has been effectiveness, that is, were the goals of the project achieved? Yes or no. Up or down. A binary answer. Using this criterion, the initiative failed.

Yet–frequent readers of this blog know that a “yet” or “but” soon arrives–there is evidence of a mixed verdict on the “success” and “failure” of IPET. Consider the following points:

*With Gates prior funding of research on measures of teaching effectiveness, support of the Obama administration, and school districts and charter networks eager to take the money and put these ideas into practice, the process part of IPET policymaking was clearly a political “success.” IPET mobilized federal, state, and local officials to consider the project and then adopt it with accompanying funding. A donor’s huge grant to school districts and charter networks converged with federal policies. That’s no easy task and it happened.

*And the IPET program was a political success. It is clear that the federally-funded Race to the Top’s inclusion of teachers being evaluated through test scores and the Gates grant for IPET persuaded many states to pass legislation, prod local districts, and provide resources for school systems to alter their traditional ways of evaluating teachers. Over 40 states, varying as they do in their evaluation requirements, still put these programs on the radar screens of local districts and these districts, over time, have worked out varied ways of enacting different forms of teacher evaluation. A fair person could conclude that such fallout from the initiative makes IPET a precarious “success” teetering on the edge of “failure. Since data continue to come in from states and districts on what is occurring in schools, what may be down the road insofar as teacher evaluation remains unclear.

*Another political success occurred during and after the IPET initiative. Grasping multiple threads that make up policy making, influential and richly funded political coalitions came together to support government intervention to get teacher accountability for student outcomes. States and districts chose to adopt and implement particular policies. And repercussions vibrated within school districts where teachers and principals were expected to implement these policies while outside schools parents and community organizations sought and acquired private resources to press teachers to be held responsible for student performance. All of these are political actions occurring in the wake of adopting teacher evaluation policies relying on student test scores. These political facts cannot be avoided or side-stepped because they do not neatly fit into the binary conclusion policy analysts and elites would prefer to use of “success” or “failure”.

Yes, at the end of the project, student outcomes fell short of what donors and districts wanted. Yes, few low-income minority students got to be taught by those teachers rated effective. These results do matter when they appeared. However, were another independent evaluator to enter the schools participating in IPET in 2021, five years after the project ended, would the results be the same. Probably yes, but possibly no.

Some reforms require more time as policies permeate organizations. Think of the Gates funded Small Schools Project (2000-2009) that the donors stopped  because academic achievement and graduation rates failed to improve yet after the money went away, later evaluators found that high school graduation rates had actually increased over time in those schools that were part of the small schools initiative.

So it may be for IPET. The strong push to hold teachers accountable for student outcomes persisted in state laws. Moreover, many districts scrambled to gain teacher support of using test scores by having multiple measures including principal observation and peer evaluation (see here and here)

In considering the political repercussions of IPET and state-driven teacher-accountability reforms, the picture is not one of unvarnished “failure” but a mixed one. depending on which criteria are used to make judgments, partial “successes” salted with visible “failures” doesn’t fit neatly into an absolute judgment of “success” or “failure.”

What is far better, as Allan McConnell suggests, is a spectrum that runs from: “program success, resilient success, conflicted success, precarious success.” Program “failure,” insofar as degree of implementation of program objectives, how much of desired outcomes were achieved, distribution of benefits to target group, and presence or absence of opposition to program becomes again a mixed picture. In short, policy and program outcomes are cluttered. Making judgments is untidy rather than neat when it comes to policy being put into practice and the rippling political consequences of implementing programs. IPET is an example of that untidiness in making judgments about “success” and “failure.”

The final post of this series looks at the role of donors in a democracy when they plow huge amounts of cash into such  initiatives and shape national reforms. For the U.S. system provides tax subsidies to philanthropists through allowing them tax-exempt status and there are no ways now to hold foundations accountable for their actions.




Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, school reform policies

Donors Reform Schooling: Evaluating Teachers (Part 2)

In Part 1, I described a Gates Foundation initiative aimed at identifying effective teachers as measured in part by their students’ test scores, rewarding such stellar teachers with cash, and giving poor and minority children access to their classrooms. Called Institute Program for Effective Teaching, the Foundation had mobilized sufficient political support for the huge grant to find and fund three school districts and four charter school networks across the nation. IPET launched in 2009 and closed it doors (and funding) in 2016.

A brief look at the largest partner in the project, Florida’s Hillsborough County district, over the span of the grant gives a peek at how early exhilaration over the project morphed into opposition over rising program costs that had to be absorbed by the district’s regular budget, and then key district and school staff’s growing disillusion over the project’s direction and disappointing results for students. Consider what the Tampa Bay Times, a local paper, found in 2015 after a lengthy investigation into the grant. [i]

  • The Gates-funded program — which required Hillsborough to raise its own $100 million — ballooned beyond the district’s ability to afford it, creating a new bureaucracy of mentors and “peer evaluators” who no longer work with students.
  • Nearly 3,000 employees got one-year raises of more than $8,000. Some were as high as $15,000, or 25 percent.
  • Raises went to a wider group than envisioned, including close to 500 people who don’t work in the classroom full time, if at all.
  • The greatest share of large raises went to veteran teachers in stable suburban schools, despite the program’s stated goal of channeling better and better-paid teachers into high-needs schools.
  • More than $23 million of the Gates money went to consultants.
  • The program’s total cost has risen from $202 million to $271 million when related projects are factored in, with some of the money coming from private foundations in addition to Gates. The district’s share now comes to $124 million.
  • Millions of dollars were pledged to parts of the program that educators now doubt. After investing in an elaborate system of peer evaluations to improve teaching, district leaders are considering a retreat from that model. And Gates is withholding $20 million after deciding it does not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses — a major change in philosophy.
  • The end product — results in the classroom — is a mixed bag.

Hillsborough’s graduation rate still lags behind other large school districts. Racial and economic achievement gaps remain pronounced, especially in middle school.

And poor schools still wind up with the newest, greenest teachers.

Not a pretty picture. RAND’s formal evaluation covering the life of the grant and across the three districts and four charter networks used less judgmental language but reached a similar conclusion on school outcomes that the Tampa Bay Times had for these county schools.

Overall, the initiative did not achieve its stated goals for students,

particularly LIM [low-income minority]students. By the end of 2014–2015, student outcomes were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not

participate in the IP initiative. Furthermore, in the sites where these analyses

could be conducted, we did not find improvement in the effectiveness

of newly hired teachers relative to experienced teachers; we found very few

instances of improvement in the effectiveness of the teaching force overall;

we found no evidence that LIM students had greater access than non-LIM students to effective teaching; and we found no increase in the retention of effective teachers, although we did find declines in the retention of ineffective teachers in most sites. [ii]

As with the history of such innovative projects in public schools over the past century, RAND evaluators found that districts and charter school networks fell short in achieving IPET because of uneven and incomplete implementation of the program.

We also examined variation in implementation and outcomes across

sites. Although sites varied in context and in the ways in which they

approached the levers, these differences did not translate into differences

in ultimate outcomes. Although the sites implemented the same levers, they

gave different degrees of emphasis to different levers, and none of the sites achieved strong implementation or outcomes across the board. [iii]

But the absolutist judgment of “failure” in achieving aims of this donor-funded initiative hides the rippling effects of this effort to reform teaching and learning in these districts and charter networks. For example, during the Obama administration, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s initiative of Race to the Top invited states to compete for grants of millions of dollars if they committed themselves to the Common Core standards—another Gates-funded initiative–and included, as did IPET, different ways of evaluating teachers. [iv]

Now over 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted plans to evaluate teachers on the basis of student test scores. How much student test scores should weigh in the overall determination of a teacher’s effectiveness varies by state and local districts as does the autonomy local districts have in putting their signature on state requirements in evaluating teachers. For example, from half of the total judgment of the teacher to one-third or one-fourth, test scores have become a significant variable in assessing a teacher’s effectiveness. Even as testing experts and academic evaluators have raised significant flags about the instability, inaccuracy, and unfairness of such district and state evaluation policies based upon student scores being put into practice, they remain on the books and have been implemented in various districts. Because the amount of time is such an important factor in putting these policies into practice, states will go through trial and error as they implement these policies possibly leading to more (or less) political acceptance from teachers and principals, key participants in the venture.[v]

While there has been a noticeable dulling of the reform glow for evaluating teachers on the basis of student performance—note the Gates Foundation pulling back on their use in evaluating teachers as part of the half-billion dollar Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching—the rise and fall in enthusiasm in using test scores, intentionally or unintentionally, has focused policy discussions on teachers as the source of school “failure” and inequalities among students.  In pressing for teachers to be held accountable, policy elites have largely ignored other factors that influence both teacher and student performance that are deeply connected to economic and social inequalities outside the school such as poverty, neighborhood crime, discriminatory labor and housing practices, and lack of access to health centers.

By donors helping to frame an agenda for turning around “failing” U.S. schools or, more generously, improving equal opportunity for children and youth, these philanthropists —unaccountable to anyone and receiving tax subsidies from the federal government–as members of policy elites spotlight teachers as both the problem and solution to school improvement. Surely, teachers are the most important in-school factor—perhaps 10 percent of the variation in student achievement. Yet over 60 percent of the variation in student academic performance is attributed to out-of-school factors such as the family. [vi]

This Gates-funded Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching is an example, then, of policy elites shaping a reform agenda for the nation’s schools using teacher effectiveness as a primary criterion and having enormous direct and indirect influence in advocating and enacting other pet reforms.

Did, then, Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching “fail?” Part 3 answers that question.


[i] (Marlene Sokol, “Sticker Shock: How Hillsborough County’s Gates Grant Became a Budget Buster,” October 23, 2015 )

[ii] RAND evaluation; implementation quote, p. 488.

[iii]  William Howell, “Results of President Obama’s Race to the Top,” Education Next, 2015, 15 (4), at: https://www.educationnext.org/results-president-obama-race-to-the-top-reform/

[iv] ibid.

[v] Eduardo Porter, “Grading Teachers by the Test,” New York Times, March 24, 2015; Rachel Cohen, “Teachers Tests Test Teachers,” American Prospect, July 18, 2017; Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead, For Good Measure? Teacher Evaluation Policy in the ESSA Era, Bellwether Education Partners, December 2016; Edward Haertel, “Reliability and Validity of Inferences about Teachers Based on Student Test Scores,” William Angoff Memorial Lecture, Washington D.C., March 22, 2013; Matthew Di Carlo, “Why Teacher evaluation Reform Is Not a Failure,” August 23, 2018 at: http://www.shankerinstitute.org/blog/why-teacher-evaluation-reform-not-failure

[vi] Edward Haertel, “Reliability and Validity of Inferences about Teachers Based on Student Test Scores,” William Angoff Memorial Lecture, Washington D.C., March 22, 2013



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies

Donors Reform Schooling: Evaluating Teachers (Part 1)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching  aimed at identifying effective teachers whose practices raised students’ test scores, giving minority and poor students access to such teachers, and creating new ways of evaluating teachers than currently exist. I offer this example to illustrate how policy elites (top public education officials, civic and business leaders including donors) influence every step of the policy process: framing the problems to be solved, proposing top-down solutions, relying (or not relying) on research, and making requisite policy changes that ripple through the entire decentralized system of U.S. schooling.

Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching

Between 2009 and 2016, three school districts (Hillsborough County, Florida; Memphis City Schools, Tennessee; Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pennsylvania) and four California-based charter networks (Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, Aspire, Green Dot, and Partnerships to Uplift Communities) spent over a half-billion dollars of which Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributed $213 million in creating IPET policies that would identify, recruit, train, and evaluate effective teachers while giving low-income minority children and youth access to those effective teachers. Giving children heretofore excluded from having the best teachers would offer equal opportunity to children and youth, one goal of the project. [i]

Teachers would learn how to do peer evaluations, collaborate with other teachers, receive professional development and dollar bonuses if their students scored well on tests. Finally, the project would determine whether student test scores, graduation rates, and attendance in college improved as a result of these policies.

Money would go to those teachers who meet the criteria (i.e., student test score gains, highest ratings from peer and supervisor observations). Such money-loaded programs spur many individual teachers to secure the highest ratings from evaluators. That such programs also encourage collaboration through peer evaluation, that is, teachers learning together how to judge fellow teachers while giving every teacher the chance to participate in such efforts reveals the values embedded in the process of determining “successful” teachers. [ii]

These years then brought together national policymakers and donors to push ahead on programs that policy elites determined were the best levers to improve the performance of U.S. public schools. Even prior to this, the Gates Foundation had funded research to identify valid measures of effective teaching that were then incorporated into proposed policies that participating districts and charter networks could put into practice.

In the first decade of the 21st century, then, there was a convergence of the largest U.S. foundation investing in both research on effective teaching and the Common Core curriculum standards intersecting with President Obama’s educational initiative –designed and shepherded by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan–for a competitive Race to the Top, and the policy elite’s passion for holding teachers accountable by evaluating teachers using test scores. The dollar-infused IPET partnership of districts and charter networks fueled by sponsored research into effective teaching was a top-down initiative that national and state policymakers enthusiastically endorsed. To keep tabs on this massive effort, the Gates Foundation funded the RAND corporation to independently evaluate the reform.

In short, then, reigning educational policy elites embraced and enacted targeted teacher accountability as the lever for lifting public schools out of the morass of mediocrity. Part 2 looks at what happened to this initiative when it got implemented in schools.


[i] Brian Stecher, et. al., “Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching Enhanced How Teachers Are Evaluated But Had Little Effect on Student Outcomes,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018, p. 3; Matt Barnum, Chalkbeat

[ii] Brian Stecher, et. al., “Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching Enhanced How Teachers Are Evaluated But Had Little Effect on Student Outcomes,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018





Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies