The Passing of the Baton


By Vicki Phillips, Former Director of Education, US Programs

I am writing with a heart filled with gratitude, sadness and excitement to tell you I will be leaving the Foundation at the end of the year to pursue our common work for students and teachers from another venue.

It has been thrilling from day one—in August of 2007—when I was hired as the director of the K-12 Education team. The team was given one year to assess the foundation’s work and propose a strategy for the next phase. We were given this advice:  when you take on a cause where government is spending a lot of money, philanthropy can make the biggest impact by finding a strategic lever that others are missing.

Two months later, we took a small group of experts to meet with Bill Gates and point out one thing that people were definitely missing. We had compelling evidence that the most powerful in-school factor in student success was an effective teacher. But we had no evidence on what made teachers effective. The research hadn’t been done. The field didn’t know.

Bill and Melinda insisted we find out.  If we could identify the most effective teachers, figure out what they do well and spread it to other teachers, it could have a striking impact on student achievement.

It was a bold idea. Some people didn’t want to talk about effective teaching. They said it would be too disruptive to say that some teachers were great, some good, and some not so good. Teacher evaluations at that time ducked the subject by declaring almost everyone good or great, and rarely giving teachers any guidance about how to get better.  Instead, people talked about Master’s degrees, or seniority, or certification—even though there is no link between these credentials and the teachers whose students make outstanding gains every year.

So Bill and Melinda called on the field to identify excellence—excellence in what students are expected to learn, and excellence in how teachers can help them get there.

Everything we’ve done in the past eight years has flowed from this—supporting the development of fewer, clearer higher standards to guide teachers in what students need to know; funding a massive research project called “Measures of Effective Teaching” (MET) to identify what makes teachers great; supporting school districts and states whose teachers set up feedback and improvement systems to help every teacher get better; and—crucially—helping to elevate the role of teachers as they define excellence in teaching, design the tools that make the most of their skills, and shape the systems that improve their practice.

Our work is about the relationship between the teacher and student and ensuring teachers have what they need. The proof is in the Math and Literacy Design Collaboratives tools that are demonstrating significant impact and being used by hundreds of thousands of teachers across the country to help students master the Common Core State Standards. It’s in the vibrant classrooms in Hillsborough County, Denver, Pittsburgh and Shelby County, whereteachers are collaborating to improve their practice. And the proof of this success—and that of our grantees and partners—is in improved graduation rates and increases in college readiness among our nation’s young people. I have been so fortunate to be at the foundation at a time when the field has made such tremendous strides.  I’ve seen state and district leaders step up with courage and change old patterns. I have watched large numbers of teachers catch fire, improve their practice, and change kids’ lives.

I have worked with people whose passion for this cause inspires my own—talented individuals with diverse perspectives who understand the meaning of team, who have shared my joy and passion for the work, and who know this work is first, foremost and always about kids.

We said from the beginning that we were running a long-distance race. We have covered important ground. As Bill said at the Education Learning Forum this month, we believe we are on the right track. “Everything we have seen in the past seven years tells us that the strategy we settled on in 2008 remains the best lever for raising student achievement. Effective teachers raise student achievement, and strong teacher feedback and improvement systems are the best way to create and support effective teachers.”

But there is still much to do, and the race is too long to be left to one leader. The baton was passed to me eight years ago. I have been honored to run my leg, and I am ready to hand the baton forward to the next leader. At the end of the year, I will step down as the director of the College Ready strategy confident that the strategy is sound and team is strong.

This is an emotional parting.  I have been in this position longer than any other of my career—and that’s a testament to the power of the mission and the joy of working at the foundation.  Let me close with this:

I have spent a lifetime in schools, as a student, a teacher, a superintendent, a policy maker, a state secretary for education, and now as a director at the foundation.  From my decades of experience, I can tell you two things:

First, the path from a change in school practice to a rise in student achievement is a long one.  It takes time and patience and persistence.

Second, it is easy in education—if this is your aim —to make a small difference on the margins and receive warm thanks and praise. But if you try to find the lever at the center that will lift up every student in every school, you’re going to get criticized before you see success.

This is as certain as the sunrise. Bill and Melinda know this, but it never deters them—and that is how they have built not just a large foundation, but a great one.  Money and strategy will never be enough unless you also have the courage to use those resources in daring ways, against the most intractable problems, to do the most good for the largest number of people.  They have shown that courage, repeatedly.  It’s why their good works reach beyond the people we’re working to benefit and gives us here at the foundation a chance to live our dreams.

I will forever be grateful to them, and to all of you.

With love and respect,