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Bill Gates Talks Teacher Evaluation, Common Core at ECS Forum

Among the elements of a good teacher evaluation system, some of the "most surprising" results can come from what students say about their teachers on surveys, said Microsoft founder Bill Gates, speaking at the Education Commission of the States' National Forum on Education Policy in Atlanta today.

Delivering the keynote speech on support for high-quality teachers, Gates said, "Asking the students the right question is very, very diagnostic." He cited surveys as among the three components that can go into a good teacher evaluation system, along with supervisor observations and test scores.

And he stressed the importance of identifying and replicating the practices of excellent teaching, saying that if he had to pick one thing that would give the United States the best chance of a strong future, "I would pick great teaching in America's classroom."

Gates spent much of his speech and subsequent discussion talking about the particulars of a good evaluation system. He said that when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation started an initiative to develop fair and reliable measures of effective teachers, he was surprised to find a lack of research into evaluations and an absence of effective teacher evaluation models. Ideally, he said, the foundation would simply have copied a successful state teacher evaluation system, but was unable to find such a system.

Despite concerns about the costs of such systems and tough budget circumstances, Gates said good teacher evaluation and feedback systems would cost 1.5 to 2 percent of overall budgets, although he didn't specify if he was referring to district or state budgets.

In support of teachers' work, he singled out the Common Core State Standards, citing the standards' complexity and depth and would help teachers avoid simply having students recite facts without understanding. He also said the common core can help states by creating common ground for educational innovation.

"It is a substantial step forward in what should be taught," Gates said.

He also came out in support of flipped classrooms and teachers' use of videos of their classroom instruction to identify at what points students became bored and when change their instructional approaches. He compared it to Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt's statement that he would watch video of himself to see where he erred after a particularly slow race.

In additional remarks, Gates stressed that it is a "big mistake" to design an evaluation and feedback model without the "heavy involvement" of teachers and getting them to understand and accept whatever system is being put in place beforehand. The evaluation systems should focus on where teachers can do better, he argued.

"Actually ranking them isn't what counts so much," Gates said.

However, when it comes to tying compensation to the results of the evaluations, Gates was more circumspect. He said there was "not one answer" for bonus pay based on evaluation results, and stressed that an evaluation system should be "strong" and "non-capricious," although he allowed for one possible exception. Over time, he said, "You will want more of the compensation awards to go into those inner city schools," to reverse the monetary incentives teachers have to work in more affluent districts.

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