GATES FOCUS ON TEACHING
AFEW months ago, Bill Gates wrote an Op-Ed article in this newspaper objecting to New York City’s plan to make public the performance rankings of its teachers. His central point was that this kind of public shaming was hardly going to bring about better teaching.
In the course of the article, Gates mentioned that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which spends around $450 million a year on education programs, had begun working with school districts to help design evaluation systems that would, in his words, “improve the overall quality of teaching.” That caught my attention.
Wanting to learn more, I went to Seattle two weeks ago to talk to Bill Gates about evaluating teachers.
Although the Gates Foundation is perhaps best-known for its health initiatives in Africa, it has long played an important role in the educational reform movement here at home. It was an early, enthusiastic backer of charter schools.
Around the year 2000, it also became enamoured with the idea that students would do better in smaller schools than bigger ones.
By 2008, however, despite spending around $2 billion helping school districts replace large high schools with small ones, Gates had become disenchanted. Although the data showed that small schools reduced violence, actual achievement gains were modest.
Concluding that the foundation had made an expensive mistake in putting so many of its eggs in that one basket, Bill and Melinda Gates decided to switch direction.
All along, Gates says, he had been asking questions about teacher effectiveness. How do you measure it? What are the skills that make a teacher great? “It was mind-blowing how little it had been studied,” he told me. So, with the help of Thomas Kane, an education professor at Harvard, the Gates Foundation began videotaping some 3,000 teachers across the country. It also collected lots of other data to measure whether a teacher was effective. All of this work, Kane says, was aimed at “identifying the practices that are associated with student achievement.” With a wealth of data now in hand, the Gates Foundation was ready for the next step: trying to create a personnel system that not only measured teacher effectiveness but helped teachers improve.
Although pilot projects have been announced in four school districts, the one that is furthest along is in Hillsborough County, Fla. That district, which is dominated by Tampa, is in the second year of a seven-year, $100 million grant.
There are several important things to point out about the Gates approach. The first is that in order for the district to be eligible for the grant, the Hillsborough County teachers’ union had to be a willing participant. Although Gates remains a supporter of charter schools, he realises that charter schools alone will not solve the crisis in American education. “Even with rapid growth, it won’t reach 10 percent” of students, he says. True education reform requires engaging all of the country’s teachers.
Second, in Hillsborough, test scores are only a small part of a teacher’s scorecard. The combination of peer review and principal review comprise 60 percent of the evaluation. And students are also asked questions aimed at eliciting how well their teachers are instructing them. (Gates and Kane both say that the student feedback is an extremely reliable indicator.) While Gates does not dismiss the need for test scores – “you do have to know whether equations are being learned,” he said – he views them as the least important in terms of helping teachers improve.
A test score, he said, “is not very diagnostic. You usually give them at the end of the year, so they don’t help you during the year.” Far more important, he believes, are the peer teachers, who are paid with the foundation’s money and whose job is to work with teachers on the nuts and bolts of teaching.
And that’s the final point. In business, employee evaluation systems are aimed at improving employee performance. Yes, sometimes they lead to an underperformer being fired, but that is really not their primary purpose.
Teaching has never really had the kind of sensible evaluation system that business takes for granted.
Seniority used to be all that mattered.
Now, test scores have become dominant. Neither system has had as its goal getting teachers to improve what they do in the classroom. That is what Gates is trying to change.
“We’re technocrats,” Gates said toward the end of the interview. By that he means that for all its might and wealth, the Gates Foundation can only hope to try things – through experiments like in Hillsborough – that school districts across the country will want to adopt broadly. It is early yet, and the possibility certainly exists that the Hillsborough pilot project will founder, just as the small-school initiative did.
But the signs, so far, are promising.
And it sure makes a lot more sense than shaming teachers on the Internet.