Press Room




Vicki Phillips - A Forum on Education in America

November 11, 2008

Prepared Remarks by Vicki Phillips, Director, Education, United States Program

Good morning.  I am deeply honored to be in the room with so many people whose work has been an inspiration to my own. Thank you for coming to Seattle to talk with us about the next wave of our work together in schools.    

Like all of you, I take this work personally. I’ve worked as a teacher, a superintendent, a state secretary of education, and now as education director at the Gates Foundation. But the greatest inspiration for my work comes from my time as a student.  

I grew up in a small, poor, but well-named rural Kentucky town called: Falls of Rough. And rough it could be. But I didn’t feel any sense of disprivilege–our outhouse was just as nice as anybody’s.  No one expected me to amount to much because no one expected anybody to amount to much. 

So I wasn't pushed very hard in school–because that would have been cruel.  After all, I was too poor to succeed. But I did well enough. And by the time I was in high school, I became friends with a girl in my business class who pushed me to think about college. 

In the curious ways of my family, going off to college was almost an act of disloyalty. My family pretty nearly disowned me when I left, though I was going only 90 minutes away.  They were worried I wasn’t ready, but mostly they worried that I was abandoning their values–and college for their daughter was not one of them.

Nevertheless, I went.  My life was changed by a chance friendship with a young woman who wanted me to go to college and who was unwilling to accept the inequities between us. To this day, it infuriates me when people write off students who grew up in circumstances similar to mine. They make the education of our young people a matter of luck–dependent on the income and education of their parents, the zip code they live in, the passion and energy of their teachers. Our young people deserve the opportunity to succeed by design, not by luck.  

The goal of our education work here at the Gates Foundation is to dramatically increase by design the number of low-income and minority students who get postsecondary degrees that let them earn a living wage. This requires a big jump in the number of students who graduate from high school ready for college. 

Bill just described for you the gains in graduation rates that were achieved in schools we helped to fund in New York City and the college-ready gains achieved in schools like YES in Houston.  As he explained, our work in cities and states across the country taught us some valuable lessons about what we need to do in combination. When we relied on changes in structure alone–and we didn’t work directly on what happens between kids and teachers–we fell short. But when we worked with superintendents and school leaders to change what happens in the classroom, we got much more dramatic results. While the gains we achieved did not spread beyond the schools we worked in, the results gave us confidence that we can take great results to scale–if we can fill the schools with effective teachers and put good tools in effective teachers’ hands. 

Fill the schools with effective teachers and put good tools in their hands–nothing  that sounds so straightforward could be more complex.  

Let’s say you were trying to increase our access to alternative energy–working to do a little good in the world. What if you were one of thousands of scientists and engineers working to make solar electricity or some other alternative cheaper than coal-fired electricity, but you couldn’t get any information from the others. They all were testing different hypotheses, so you couldn’t apply their findings to your experiments. And their systems of measurement were different, so even if you found something comparable, you couldn’t make sense of it. You were all on your own.  

That’s how our teachers often feel–all on their own. Thousands of people all speaking a different language would make it impossible to learn what works in science.  Not surprisingly, millions of people all speaking a different language makes it impossible to learn what works in schools. 

It’s time to develop a common language in public education.

Teachers everywhere are eager for clearer, more compelling standards that take the mystery out of what they’re supposed to be teaching.  They’re eager for assessments that more accurately reflect what students are supposed to be learning–and the kinds of curriculum tools, coaching, and professional development that gives them the best possible results. All of these advances build on each other. We at the foundation haven’t pushed for them all at once before–but that’s what we’re going to do now. This morning, I want to describe our upcoming work:

  • Building common standards and better assessments.
  • Making great curriculum and other core supports more accessible to teachers and students and rewarding excellence and improvement in the classroom.
  • Using data and research to understand and more rapidly spread what works.
  • And creating next-generation models of learning and schools that meet kids where they are and how they learn in this century.

Standards and Assessments

Standards are the starting point for serious education reform. When I became superintendent in Portland, I did a transcript analysis of the last four years of graduating seniors. I found that nearly all of them had the required number of credits to graduate, but only half of them had the kinds of courses that it took to go on with postsecondary education.  It was obvious that we had to have higher standards. 

But it’s not going to help if we have higher standards that are unclear or too numerous.   Here is one of my all-time favorite standard –this one for high school math:  

"Students use a variety of representations (concrete, pictorial, numerical, symbolic, graphical, and verbal), tools, and technology (including, but not limited to, calculators with graphing capabilities, data collection devices, and computers) to model functions and equations and solve real-life problems."

If you can imagine 150 passages like this one strung end to end, then you have imagined the “Essential Knowledge and Skills for Mathematics” for high schools in one of our 50 states. I can assure you–more people wrote these standards than have ever read them.

We all know that when standards become too disparate and numerous, assessments become shallow, textbooks get too big, teachers run out of time, and students suffer. 

Since it is Veterans Day, let me give you a prime example. One of our partners, the Military Child Education Coalition, is an organization that promotes quality educational opportunities for children in military families. There are more than 2 million children of U.S. military service members. On average, these children will move six to nine times as they go from kindergarten to 12th grade. And mobility is a not just a problem for military children; it is also a problem for poor and migrant children throughout this country. Inconsistencies in state standards and assessments can make the path to college and career readiness even more challenging for these students. Common standards can play a role in their success. The Military Child Education Coalition is in a special position to shine a light on a very real problem with an attainable solution.

We need fewer, clearer, higher standards that are internationally benchmarked and really driving toward college readiness.

We will support our partners in building these standards, and fortunately, we won’t have to start from scratch. A series of groups–including teachers–are calling for fewer, more focused standards and we think it is time they were heard.

Powerful common standards also will let us confront the crisis testing faces on the ground today. Let’s admit that we have given testing a bad name in this country among many teachers and parents, but the answer can’t be to fly blind. As a country we have spent far too much time and money having each state and district design their own assessments from scratch-rather than in investing in high quality assessment that teachers and parents can trust and that give them real insight into what students know. We can’t dispense with assessment, nor can we keep adding more tests of a low quality that don’t align with college readiness.

This is why–with core standards in hand–we will support the development of high quality assessments that test those standards. Ultimately, the tough decisions about which standards are indispensable and which can be left out should be made on the basis of empirical evidence:   so we will sponsor research, administering the assessments to large samples of college students and young workers and test which standards predict college and career success. We will then make the corresponding standards and assessment items available for states to use at no cost.

Supporting What Works

The development of common standards will give us the power to do phenomenal new research into what works.  They will enable us to follow the evidence across state lines and compare how similar groups of students fare on different curricular materials. We can really get at the question that teachers, administrators, and policy makers have been struggling with for a long time: What works best?

Among other things, we will support the creation of a “National Teacher Corps,” asking great teachers in traditional and charter schools across the country to help identify what works.  We will ask these teachers to use a common set of interim assessments and to report on the curricula they’re using, the professional development they’re receiving, the learning gains they are achieving using different methods and materials. The result–a sort of Consumer Reports for the education sector–created by and for teachers. 

We will focus as well on what best helps students to acquire the habits of academic work that are essential to college success, such as the ability to study independently, to sustain concentration on a task, to use evidence to defend a point of view, and to self-correct in response to feedback. We will invest in the development of high-quality high school assignments and other supports that demonstrably enhance and extend students' capacity to work independently and productively.  In particular, we will focus this support at the periods of transition that make such an impact on student performance and their willingness to persist in school–such as the transition from 8th to 9th grade.


Improving our ability to design and evaluate curriculum is just one step in creating the larger-scale system we need for evaluating what works. It is time to insist on fact-based decision-making in education and to invest our resources accordingly.  

Everyone talks about using research to measure what works. But very few districts have the data they need to evaluate how they’re doing.  This hit home with me again recently when Melinda, Allan, and I asked our education group to summarize lessons learned from our past work. Ironically, one lesson we learned is that school districts could not provide us with the full picture we needed to have a stronger story about what worked and what did not. If we at the foundation are having trouble fleshing out a more nuanced picture, it should hardly be surprising that school superintendents and principals have been unable to generate the rapid gains in achievement we need. Schools can’t learn without better feedback loops.

And, what data we do have, we often misuse. Let’s be honest, one of the main things we do with data is make ourselves look good. Didn’t I hear at some point that clothes designers for women changed the numbering system so the same dresses looked smaller? (I hope that is just an ugly rumor.)

Is that so different from states lowering their standards so that their student performance looks better? We have a big problem when kids are looking great on state tests and then can’t get into college. Over the next five years we will invest up to $500 million in research and data.

Among other things, we will continue to support the Data Quality Campaign, a project of the National Center for Educational Achievement, to get the 50 states and the District of Columbia to implement a longitudinal data system. This would let educators and policy makers track individual student progress and begin gathering facts about college readiness and practices that make a significant difference in student achievement.

We also recently approved a grant to the National Student Clearinghouse—a nonprofit whose database contains enrollment records for more than 90 percent of college students in the United States. Those data are used primarily to verify college enrollment for banks participating in the guaranteed student loan programs. We will enable them to provide that data to high schools and school districts so they know which of their students are attending college and whether or not they are completing degrees.

We also will work with a number of states beginning with our long-time partner, the State of Texas, as it makes ambitious changes to its statewide data system. Their system was cutting edge when they established it 20 years ago. It allowed Texas to run a statewide, standard-based accountability system. But Texas leaders want a system that will inform not just state policy, but improve classroom practice. We will to work with educators to take stock of the most advanced data systems and uses, bring higher education to the table, and craft a system that can answer crucial questions like: How do our students perform in college? What specific core math and reading knowledge is most required for college readiness? What middle school courses best prepare students for high school?

Evidence-based decision making is essential in business–as a matter of survival. It’s long past time that we start making evidence-based decisions when it comes to the business of educating our kids.
Effective Teaching

Common standards, strong curricula and assessments, and sophisticated data systems all combine to give us a game-changing ability we’ve never really had before:  the ability to identify effective teaching based on what really matters–student performance.  

This will allow us to establish policies to keep the most effective teachers in our classrooms and to set a clear standard for teaching excellence. Even though teachers differ enormously in their impact on students, our compensation systems pretend that teachers are all the same. We do far too little to honor our best teachers and to retain them in our poorest schools, where they’re needed most. The combination of changes we are working on will give us the opportunity to fix this–not just in a cluster of schools in one or two regions, but in school districts across the country.

The foundation plans to commit more than $7 million to an unprecedented collaboration between three national research groups—the Educational Testing Service, the RAND Corporation, and the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. This coalition will examine common approaches for evaluating teachers and compare the results to student learning gains.

Our goal is to create a next generation of fairer, more powerful, and more reliable means for measuring teacher effectiveness that can be agreed to by both teachers and researchers.

Most of our research into identifying and rewarding effective teachers will take place in what we’re calling “deep dive” sites.  These are the sites where we’ll be able to test (and study the effects of) a large number of these strategies at the same time in the same place.  
Over the next five years, we will work with a handful of urban districts and their unions–as well as networks of charter schools–that are willing to try to define what it means to be an effective teacher; to figure out how to identify, develop, evaluate, and reward those teachers; and, yes, how to get ineffective teachers out of the classroom. We will work with the deep dive sites to find ways to reward teachers who meet more rigorous standards for tenure, and ensure that there are incentives for effective teachers who choose to work in high-need schools. We will fund intermediaries to work with the deep dive sites to ensure an adequate supply of new teachers. And we will work with those partners to see if increasing the number of highly effective teachers in a school district produces comparable changes in student learning.

Helping Teachers Improve–Teacher Supports

We will invest $500 million in these “deep dive” sites and what really excites me about them is not just the chance to identify and reward great teachers, but the chance to give all teachers the support they need to improve. Some people may oversell the idea that we’re somehow going to get millions of great new teachers in the system to replace ineffective teachers. There will certainly be some of that, and the right compensation system can draw talented people into the profession. But the real, game-changing results will come from standards, assessments, data, and teacher supports that help every teacher get better.

One reason I was eager to come to the foundation is that I realized that after traveling from Kentucky to Pennsylvania to Portland, it was just insane how much energy my team and I spent assembling core instructional tools for teachers. We can change that. Overworked teachers and department heads ought to have at their fingertips phenomenal tools and evidence-based instructional supports that will help them become better teachers. We haven’t even begun to unlock the gains for our students that will come from helping C teachers become A teachers.  

In the 1990s, the United Kingdom used teacher effectiveness as a centerpiece of reform.  They implemented a national curriculum; they developed assessments aligned to those standards; they recruited new teachers and provided national training programs focused on best practices. In just one measure–reading–by 2000, the lowest-performing schools were beating the 1997 average.   

This is what can happen when you give teachers the means to get better. I saw it myself in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where better teacher supports drove better student performance.   Lancaster is a high needs district, where 67% of students live in poverty. In 1998, we instituted mandatory professional development for teachers and focused everyone around the same core math curriculum. Interim assessments were aligned with that curriculum, and we were relentless in making sure that the work students did every day was aligned with the math they needed to learn. Three years later, the results in Lancaster schools were dramatic. The number of kids who were “below basic” in one school had gone from 72 percent to 16 percent –and other schools had similar gains. At the same time, the percentage of advanced students increase–by a factor of 10! It shows we can move some students to proficiency and move other students to advanced levels at the same time. The dilemma of serving one group of students at the expense of another is a false choice. If we combine the pressure for results with the supports to deliver, we can raise overall achievement for everyone.    

I smile every time I think of a recent conversation I had with a teacher at a Green Dot school in Los Angeles. She was overjoyed with her job. She felt she was finally part of a great partnership. She was getting more data about her students, stronger curriculum supports, and more time to focus on her work in the classroom and collaborate with other teachers. She was working harder and loving it more. Now that she can see the data and the impact she’s having, she’s more motivated to improve her performance. You shouldn’t have to work at a Green Dot school to feel that thrill; every teacher in the country ought to have that same solid support–and it’s our long-range goal, with your help, to give it to them. 

Innovation: Next Generation Models of Learning 

When schools and districts around the country align standards and curriculum and assessments, and we expand our data systems, we will have the evidence we need to improve our practice. But there is another huge advantage to this alignmen –it will throw open the doors to innovation. 

Aligning standards and assessments will help us tap the power of market forces to create breakthrough tools, and next generation models of teaching and learning. Common technology standards led to the explosion of the Internet. The Internet moved us away from private networks with their own standards to a public network with shared standards that allow innovations to be shared very quickly.

Fragmented standards make it hard for business to sell into the education market. Let’s say a software genius with a passion for education develops an amazing tool that teaches kids advanced math concepts while they barely notice–because the software is so entertaining.   So he tries to sell it–but everyone has different standards, different assessments; every potential buyer is a small buyer, and has to check with someone else. So he has to repeat the process a thousand times because there’s no wide scale market and pretty soon it becomes more advantageous to just sell to another industry.
We have to make sure our schools and our students get the benefits of the innovative  genius in this country. There is an entire sector of innovators and inventors that doesn’t even study the challenges of education because–to drive innovation, you need some kind of functioning market. We will advocate for a new level of federal involvement in research and development. We will create incentive funds for products that can develop college-ready competencies based on proficiency, not just seat-time. We will work to pool the demand among districts to support promising new approaches. Imagine the competition we could create if all states demanded materials aligned to common standards:  we would get better tests, better textbooks, better teaching tools, and ultimately, better student performance. And isn’t it time that we meet kids where and how they learn and in places and spaces they could more comfortably call “school” so we will incubate a next generation of school designs with the potential to get step-change outcomes for kids.


We are excited to share our thinking with you today and in the coming months with our grantees at three regional convenings in D.C., Chicago, and Seattle.

As I close out my remarks, I want to introduce you to the College Ready Leadership Team:

  • Many of you know Steve Seleznow, Jim Shelton, and Stefanie Sanford. They have worked tirelessly to bring us to where we are today and have been your good partners. Steve will continue to lead our state and district work and our work with the school networks we have scaled; Jim is taking on our work in Innovation, helping to create next generation schools and new models for accelerating learning, and Stefanie continues to lead our advocacy work from her position in U.S. Advocacy.
  • And of course many of you know Margot Rogers who has often led our work on the ground (e.g., Chicago and North Carolina). Margot now serves as my Special Assistant and most recently co-led our work on the strategy you have just heard described.
  • Please meet three new members of the Team: Carina Wong, who will lead our standards, assessment, curriculum, and student support initiatives; John Deasy, who is here today in his capacity as superintendent of Prince George’s County Public Schools, but come January will lead our work on teacher effectiveness; and Michael Allio, who is our strategy and management lead.
  • And finally I want you to meet Tom Kane, who is on contract with us from Harvard and is shaping our research and data agenda.

The last three decades of school reforms have generated many insights and success stories, but not nearly the gains the country has been hoping for. According to the McKinsey Report on the world’s best schools:  “Between 1980 and 2005, public spending per student increased by 73 percent in the U.S. after allowing for inflation. Over the same period, the U.S. employed more teachers, the student-to-teacher ratio fell by 18 percent and by 2005, class sizes in the nation’s public schools were the smallest they had ever been...

Our most innovative and creative school and district leaders are clear about what they need to ensure that every student is successful. The evidence points pretty clearly to what is required. The question is whether we, as a collective, can deliver. It will take bold and courageous action by all of us, but we turned an important historical page last week in this country, and working together we can turn another for our children. 

As I indicated earlier, nothing could sound more straightforward, yet be so complex. To get to the heart of education–effective teachers and powerful learning–we have to change all these things, and we have to do it together, district by district, state by state, across the country, by design:  fewer, clearer, higher standards, aligned curriculum, strong assessments, proven teacher and student supports, better data systems, and incentives for high performance and for teaching at low-income schools. This is the path we’re on, building on the path we’ve traveled. And we are going where the evidence leads, as quickly as we can, because we don’t have one minute–or one child–to lose.

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