Gates Foundation Staying the Course on Teacher Effectiveness, High Standards
During a conference keynote speech Wednesday morning, Bill Gates recommitted the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to its current work in supporting the use of high academic standards and helping teachers improve through evaluation systems that provide useful feedback.
"I believe we are on the right track," Gates said in prepared remarks at the U.S. Education Learning Forum here. "For today, and for the coming years, this is our vision: Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal. And all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests."
Test scores should be a part of teacher evaluation systems, Gates said, but just a part. Classroom observations and student surveys can also offer meaningful information about how teachers can improve, he said.
(Note: Education Week has received Gates Foundation funding over the years for news coverage and other projects.)
In a phone interview, Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank and Gates grantee, who was not in attendance, said continuing the current work is not a bad idea for the Gates foundation.
"I think when you're doing something that's complicated and is about deep and sustainable change, it takes a while, and foundations which change strategy or focus every half-dozen years don't do themselves or the kids any favors," he said. "American education has far more faddism and short-term bandwagon-jumping than it needs."
However, Hess said that he hopes that "part of staying the course is backing away from grandiose efforts to make everybody do this right now the same way, and supporting efforts for states, districts and schools to do these things in smart, nuanced ways."
Teacher Evaluation Model
Gates first laid out the foundation's teacher-effectiveness strategy during a similar speech in 2008. Since then, the foundation has been involved in a variety of projects related to teacher quality, including the Measures of Effective Teaching project, in which researchers analyzed 13,000 videos of classroom teachers to try to find patterns among effective educators.
In his latest speech, Gates highlighted the teacher evaluation system in Denver, which combines observations, student surveys, and test scores, as a model.
"This isn't a system for sorting teachers into groups; it's a framework for moving up the learning line together," Gates said in prepared remarks. "The principal can visit the class, discuss it with the teacher, and decide together where the teacher stands. If they're not satisfied, they can settle on a plan for getting better, including coaching from fellow teachers. It's a clear path to growth."
But in a phone interview, Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, a vocal critic of the foundation, called the speech "prattle" and accused Gates of "cherry picking" data.
"The Gates reforms of [Common Core State Standards] plus testing plus teacher evaluation based on test scores has been a disaster in New York" where she used to be a principal, she said.
Linking test scores to evaluations has been especially problematic, according to Burris. "There's a reason that over 220,000 students opted out of the common-core exams," she said. "If you talk to parents in the opt-out movement ... what they say universally is they do not want their teachers evaluated by test scores because they understand that when they are, there's a hyper-focus on teaching to the test."
Gates acknowledged that the use of test scores is controversial, but emphasized that they are just one of multiple measures being used in evaluations. "No state uses them for more than 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation. Eight don't require test scores at all, and everyone else is somewhere between zero and 50," he said at the conference.
Backing Common Core
As for the common-core standards, which the foundation has adamantly backed since conception, Gates praised them as well. "We view them as quite fundamental. It's unfortunate that many of the attacks about the common core have drowned out the factsand the fact is, the standards are starting to work for students and teachers."
He said the standards have made it easier for teachers to find materials online that meet their needs, and given educators a common taxonomy.
Overall, the speech made clear that the foundation will stay the course on teacher effectiveness for many years to come. "If we stay focused on this goal we can help all teachers rise to the top together and change the lives of millions of students," said Gates.
Image: Bill Gates gives his keynote address at the U.S. Education Learning Forum put on by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Bellevue, Wash. Ian C. Bates for Education Week
For more news and information on reading, math, and STEM instruction: Follow @LianaHeitin
And sign up here to get alerts in your email inbox when stories are published on Curriculum Matters.