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Gates Foundation-funded education-reform group to close

Communities for Teaching Excellence, the national organization based in L.A., plans to close next month after its board voted to shutter it and the Gates philanthropy ended financial support.

October 19, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

The Gates Foundation, the country's most influential education-policy organization, has quietly ended financial support for a national group formed to push for favored reforms, including an overhaul of teacher evaluations.

Communities for Teaching Excellence, headed by former L.A. school board member Yolie Flores, is planning to close its doors next month. Although based in Los Angeles, the group had a presence in Hillsborough County, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; and in Pittsburgh — all locations where the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has funded the development of new teacher-evaluation systems.

The group was formed in 2010 to influence public opinion and exert pressure on public officials to adopt sometimes controversial policies. Since then, a number of other groups have taken up a similar mission; Gates has helped fund some of those as well.

When the organization started, Flores said, "there was not much going on in terms of advocacy. Fast forward three years, it's a pretty crowded space and it's a good thing."

But Communities for Teaching Excellence was not hitting its marks in terms of generating press coverage and building community coalitions, said Amy Wilkins, chairwoman of the board of directors. She said the board voted to shutter the organization; the Seattle-based Gates Foundation agreed with the decision.

"The field was more complex … and building these partnerships was more difficult than anybody had imagined," Wilkins said. "The inventors of this organization had envisioned more robust activity at the local level than we were achieving."

Perceptions also were an issue: The group was depending on Gates for 75% of its budget.

"Gates was such a big part of the funding," Wilkins said. "That made some of the partners and other funders nervous. How do you look like an independent actor? You have to show broad public support so you're not seen as a phony-baloney front for Gates. People criticized the organization for that and they didn't move closer to shaking that label."

Wilkins praised Flores and her staff, but said that the "model" of a national advocacy organization wasn't working and that it made more sense for Gates to support local groups engaged in comparable work. (Wilkins also has ties to Gates funding as an official with Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust, for which the foundation has provided substantial support.)

Flores' group brought together community organizations and activists in the different cities over issues including teacher tenure and seniority. Such a coalition kept pressure on the Los Angeles Unified School District to evaluate teachers on multiple measures, including students' standardized test scores. The district remains in negotiations with the teachers union over such an evaluation system.

The group coordinated media campaigns and, at times, helped recruit a small army of parents who descended on school board meetings. Many of these parents were recruited from independently managed local charter schools, even though those campuses can enforce their own evaluation rules and were not directly affected.

The group "was very effective at coalition building," said Ryan Smith, director of education, programs and policy for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. "There's definitely a space that is still needed for that kind of work."

Although Flores said test results are not the only way to gauge achievement, she said other options are not generally available and that such an objective measure has a necessary role in teacher reviews.

Such positions prompted opposition from the teachers union in L.A. and others but have been supported by the Obama administration through grants and other incentives. Across the country, many school systems are revamping teacher evaluations as well as tenure and seniority rules.

In the L.A. area, Gates has pledged $60 million to a consortium of charter-school groups for new teacher evaluations. The grants for other regions totaled $230 million.

In Hillsborough County this year, new bonuses will be paid to teachers who raise the achievement of low-performing students. In Memphis, for the first time, student improvement on test scores makes up 35% of a teacher's evaluation. Pittsburgh will add such measures next year.

Flores, 49, became the founding director of Communities for Teaching Excellence after a frequently stormy, four-year tenure on the L.A. Board of Education. Flores was frequently criticized by the teachers union and hailed by charter-school advocates and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, among others. Her policy initiatives included a plan to allow charter schools and other groups to bid for control of new and low-performing campuses.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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