‘Hurricane Vicki’

The Gates Foundation hires Portland's former superintendent as its new head of education

By Beth Slovic

Illustrator: Cameron Browne

Vicki Phillips at a school board meeting in Portland, Ore.
Photo: Cameron Browne

The new education director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation left her previous job as the superintendent of Portland (Ore.) Public Schools in June. But a picture of Vicki Phillips, who arrived in Oregon in August 2004, still hangs on the wall of my cubicle not far from the Portland school district’s headquarters.

The picture is a still shot of Phillips’ profile taken from a televised public meeting that occurred in the spring of 2005, and the timing is important.

It’s the height of a school-closures storm led by the superintendent, whom my newspaper in Portland would later nickname “Hurricane Vicki,” and Phillips is walking in front of a slide from her presentation that evening. Her audience is an angry and tearful group of parents, teachers, and community members, who’ve only recently learned about the imminent closure of some of their neighborhood schools. Little did they know the whirlwind changes under Phillips were just beginning.

To some of those same teachers, parents, and community activists, the words floating above Phillips’ head in the image from that night perfectly summarize the superintendent’s three-year tenure in Portland.

“So why believe me?” the bold black letters declare.

Unfortunately for Portland, Phillips was never very good at publicly answering her own questions let alone other people’s, especially critical teachers’. In her time in the famously progressive, consensus-driven city, she closed six schools, merged nearly two dozen others through K-8 conversions, pushed to standardize the district’s curriculum, and championed new and controversial measures for testing the district’s 46,000 children-all mostly without stopping for long enough to adequately address the concerns her changes generated in the neighborhoods and schools where they played out.

During her three years in Portland, Phillips’ name became synonymous with top-down management, corporate-style reforms, and a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. If Phillips’ time in Portland offers any sort of preview on what’s to come from the Gates Foundation in the coming years, the country’s educators could face a new era of well-funded curriculum standardization, support for business-like initiatives, and additional, test-driven programs that may not serve individual school districts well.

Three years ago, that’s not what Portland educators were expecting.

“In the beginning it was such a breath of fresh air,” says Patty Braunger, a Portland elementary school reading specialist and a 30-year veteran of the district. “But I definitely think she had an agenda, and it had nothing to do with who was sitting in front of her . . . I don’t think she looked at what was working well in Portland.”

Yet business leaders in Portland for the most part crooned. They called Phillips a strong leader in a time of near crisis. (Portland’s student population was shrinking. The city, she said, had too many buildings to support. And money was, as always, tight.) She was, in their eyes, “a rising star.” “She’s decisive, she’s fact-based, she’s inclusive, she listens, and she’s not afraid to change her mind when the facts tell her to change her mind,” Sandra McDonough, president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance, told Willamette Week last February.

Many teachers, however, had an entirely different view. From the elementary schools to the high schools, longtime teachers decried Phillips’ efforts as “top-down” and disingenuously urgent. “Her vision of the ideal school system was one with a powerful centralized office that was always reacting to problems with new mandates-sometimes, it felt, capriciously,” says Karl Meiner, a high school English teacher in the district.

Still more teachers said Phillips was “contemptuous” of teachers’ expertise. They were skeptical of her reliance on high-paid consultants who parachuted into the district from out of state. And they worried aloud that the effects of her reforms would be a wholesale dumbing down of Portland’s schools. On several occasions, throngs of teachers showed up at school-board meetings to speak to their concerns. They wore handmade buttons and carried signs that warned against creating “cookie cutter” schools as Phillips pushed for what she called equity and teachers called sameness. They walked away feeling as if they hadn’t been heard. “Once she knew what she wanted to do, she just did it no matter what,” says Hyung Nam, a high school social studies teacher in Portland and a Rethinking Schools editorial associate.

Privately, teachers questioned whether Phillips’ reforms were good for kids-or simply good for Phillips’ career. 
Earlier this year, those teachers got at least a partial answer. And now their question has national implications.

In August, Phillips succeeded Thomas Vander Ark as the new education director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a position that earned Vander Ark a salary of $340,000 in 2005. Overnight, Phillips went from overseeing an organization with a budget of $400 million to one with a purse of $3.4 billion, a sum far greater than the discretionary funds in the U.S. Department of Education’s 2008 budget.

As education activist Susan Ohanian puts it on her website (susanohanian.org), that makes Phillips a force to be reckoned with: “Truly, because money talks so loudly in this country, it makes her, by default, the nation’s Director of Education, in control of $3 billion smackers.”

The Gates Foundation isn’t allowing Phillips to grant interviews during her first few months on the job, according to Education Week. But in news accounts relating Vander Ark’s departure and Gates’ future goals, it’s clear the foundation is at a turning point, that it’s searching for methods to improve schools that go beyond breaking comprehensive schools into smaller academies.

At the forefront of that effort to reshape the Gates Foundation’s education platform will be “Hurricane Vicki,” ambitious, attuned to the concerns of business, with a legacy of top-down decisions, and standardization offered with a rhetoric of equity.


Twice divorced and without children, Phillips grew up poor, according to her accounts. She was raised without indoor plumbing in a rural community in Kentucky, where no one expected her to go on to college, she says.

That’s a story Phillips, 49, has shared numerous times with audiences in Portland.

“Two grade schools fed into the high school-one rich, one poor,” she writes in When You Were 15, an anthology of short biographies written by adults in the Portland area. “When teachers found out I went to McQuady, they knew I came from poverty. In my entire high school career, not one adult talked to me about going to college-no teacher, no counselor, not the principal. I had straight A’s, and I graduated in the top 10 percent of my class, but they thought that because I was from Falls of Rough, I would never go to college. My friend Cindi thought otherwise.”

That’s also a story Phillips shared in her first speech as the education director for the Gates Foundation, at their annual convention in Seattle in July.

Phillips, of course, went on to get not only a bachelor’s degree, from Western Kentucky University, but a Ph.D. in educational leadership and management as well, from England’s University of Lincoln in 2002. In addition to serving as Portland’s schools superintendent, she led the Lancaster School District in Pennsylvania from 1998 to 2003 and was briefly the Pennsylvania secretary of education under Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, before moving to Portland in 2004.

Portland teachers’ first official introduction to Phillips would prove to be a memorable event. On a weekday morning shortly after her arrival in the city, Phillips gathered the district’s 3,700 educators in the Memorial Coliseum, an indoor arena, donned a microphone á la Madonna, and proceeded to give a presentation outlining “the buckets of work” she saw in front of her in Portland.

What came next wasn’t just show. In her first year on the job, Phillips announced a new strategy for measuring student achievement in addition to the state’s writing and portfolio assessments. Sometimes called “anchor papers”-dubbed “anger papers” by some teachers-the additional common assessments gave observers outside the school district the impression Phillips was implementing new tests to gauge student progress. Insiders wondered whether she even knew about the state’s robust writing system and saw these new mandates more as a way of collecting data to compare teachers and schools than as assessments that would provide useful information on student learning. Assignments were scored from 1 to 4, but in one category on the eighth-grade scoring guide the difference between a score of 3 and a score of 4, the highest, was the difference between striking “a balance between own ideas and references from the text” and striking “an effective balance between own ideas and references from the text.”

How the assignments were unrolled upset teachers as much as what they pretended to achieve. Like a sudden rainstorm, the idea for the new assessments, which were to be put in place across grade levels and in multiple subjects at all schools, came from above with little warning. Teachers immediately spotted numerous problems: the assessments were redundant, they were developed without teacher input, and the prompts on the assignments referred to classes not even taught in Portland.

The scores were ultimately meaningless to teachers since the final grade on a student’s work provided no indication of his or her weaknesses. “She was completely unaccountable for all of that,” says Hyung Nam, the social studies teacher, speaking about the anchor assignments. “She basically ignored our concerns.”

Tumult ensued in the months to come when Phillips proposed closing several schools and reconfiguring several more, creating K-8 campuses out of elementary and middle schools. Parents were divided along a spectrum, but there were two visible camps. On one side, there were those who applauded her bold attempts to get a handle on the school district’s finances. And on the other were parents who saw her efforts as shortsighted and hurried. Phillips’ administrators claimed the changes would promote student learning. “It was sold to us as the end-all-be-all for achievement,” says Mark Hansen, a second-grade teacher formerly at Portland’s Clarendon Elementary. One of Hansen’s students told him recently, “I used to feel like Clarendon was my home, now I feel like I’ve been kidnapped.”

When teachers questioned the research behind Phillips’ proposal and her belief that K-8 schools were the answer for Portland, her administration’s answers provoked more skepticism. For one thing, Phillips and her staff repeatedly pointed to a single source for evidence to support the decision. “You couldn’t get a straight answer from anybody,” Hansen says. “They were there to sell it.”

Jeff Miller, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, is similarly critical.

“The process was characteristic in several ways of the originator,” Miller says. “It was based on trendy and superficial thinking about schools and teaching and learning. The whole K-8 process seemed intended more to promote the reputation of certain adults than to do anything meaningful to improve teaching and learning in Portland Public Schools.”

Miller notes, too, that the schools that were eventually reconfigured sat in the less affluent neighborhoods of Portland, raising questions about why the move was good for some children and not, apparently, others.

But when Phillips emerged from that process triumphant, she embarked on a new one: A massive retooling of Portland’s K-12 curriculum, a project that included purchasing thousands of new textbooks for all grade levels (so that all schools would have the same ones) and an attempt to mandate the order in which different schools offered their courses to students (so that all schools did it the same way). “What we intend is to offer enough guidance to be sure that kids are getting common outcomes but by no means to tie teachers’ hands,” Phillips told Willamette Week last winter.

Phillips did include teachers on committees to evaluate the choices in this matter, but they were asked to choose from a selection of materials from publishing giants that were pre-screened. As a result, Phillips’ invitation to teachers felt to some like an offer to join the superintendent at McDonalds-not the grocery store. “All four options that were up were bad,” says Patty Braunger, the reading specialist. “It was a quick fix to make Vicki Phillips look good.”

But teachers weren’t the only ones to object to Phillips’ plan. Parents also raised their voices-to urge Phillips to slow down and to question the substance of her reforms. “The cost of adopting new, untested textbooks across the board is huge and less effective than the targeted adoption of textbooks for specific classes,” a petition to Phillips and the school board, which was signed by 625 people, read. “As taxpayers, we ask that you show us clear evidence that our investments in the district will be used effectively.”

Phillips, though, forged ahead.

And after teachers resisted her efforts in public meetings and privately at their own schools, Portland principals were given copies of Harvard business professor John Kotter’s 160-page book Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions, a book the New York Times called one of “a growing number of business best sellers that try to explain management or economic ideas in simpler, more reader-friendly language.” (That’s the kind of thinking that caused Phillips to adopt business jargon over educationese at times, opting for financial terms like Q1, Q2, Q3, instead of “quarters” in the school calendar.)

The gist of the book was this: In order to create change, leaders must tell their followers how urgently it is needed.

But some Portland teachers felt as if the problems had never been identified precisely under Phillips.

This year, Portland Public Schools has the new textbooks Phillips wanted. For the youngest readers, that means Reading Street from Pearson Scott Foresman. “It’s like we’ve become Scott Foresman Public Schools,” Braunger says.

And while one principal in the district was asked last winter to dress up as a penguin from Our Iceberg Is Melting and enact a skit whose backdrop was the global warming crisis, those new textbooks don’t convey the same sense of urgency on the topic. The global studies textbook Phillips approved, McDougal Littell’s Modern World History, has less than a page on that inconvenient truth.

Beth Slovic (bslovic@wweek.com) is a reporter for Willamette Week in Portland, Ore.