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Gates' 2009 Letter Focuses on Teachers


The Gates Foundation has a must-read letter up for teacher-policy folks. Check it out.

My colleague Erik Robelen has reported on the basic contours of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's new approach to education reform here and here. But there are some really interesting tidbits to cull out from this letter. For one, it's clear that Gates is going to go whole hog on the teacher-quality issue, particularly on the teacher-effectiveness front. In the letter, Gates writes:

"Whenever I talk to teachers, it is clear that they want to be great, but they need better tools so they can measure their progress and keep improving. So our new strategy focuses on learning why some teachers are so much more effective than others and how best practices can be spread throughout the education system so that the average quality goes up. We will work with some of the best teachers to put their lectures online as a model for other teachers and as a resource for students."

Maybe we'll finally get some information on how to improve teacher effectiveness, including some of the controversial topics in that area. These include whether or not evaluations should use student test-score data or "value-added" teacher data, as in Tennessee; whether measures of teacher effectiveness include a performance-based rubric, such as that designed by consultant Charlotte Danielson or the four-tiered model now being piloted in Georgia; and whether such measures include peer review, which is advocated by the American Federation of Teachers.

For two, the letter makes a big deal about the success of certain charter school models and notes the caps that exist in many states on the number of charters. Gates writes: "Educational innovation and overall improvement will go a lot faster if the charter school limits and funding rules are changed."

The letter notes that most successful charters have extended school days, but I wonder whether the teacher-effectiveness research will also, ultimately, focus on charters. The great majority of charters are not unionized, presumably making experimentation with things like pay, evaluation and professional development somewhat easier that they would be in a school with a bargained contract.

Finally, an aside: Gates seems close to giving up on the small schools agenda. As colleague Debbie Viadero writes here, the Foundation suspended its own research agenda on this topic back in 2006. But part me wonders what that data would have looked like, and whether it might have been useful paired with the new focus on teacher effectiveness. Why? Some experts like Eric Hanushek have argued that the missing link in the small-schools, smaller-class-size movement is that teachers need to be explicitly trained to make use of smaller class sizes or smaller schools.


Improving teacher effectiveness sounds good, but now if we are talking about constantly evaluating teachers using quantified metrics are we going to get into another "teaching to the test" thing? Is this consistent with the way other professionals - doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists - are evaluated?

Until the Gates Foundation learns how to manage its strategy properly, I doubt we're going to see any progress on any front. Throwing unsupervised money at states and entities does not guarantee success.

Mr. Gates’ goal of providing “everyone with a great education” is of course laudable. But he and his foundation – like other prominent education reform leaders – have no chance of achieving this goal until they recognize and focus on the proverbial elephant in the room: the model of secondary school education that continues to persist in this country (and which increasingly is permeating down to the elementary level) is, as Mr. Gates himself once correctly stated, "obsolete."

At best, the successes highlighted by Mr. Gates represent incremental or systemic change that will continue to prop up a 20th century education model that is fatally flawed in both its ends and means. Before the change we really need in education can emerge, we must acknowledge the huge, increasing disconnect that exists between this outdated school model – to which even the best suburban public and private schools, as well as the best charter schools, cling – and the realities of today’s world. In short, the future of our children, and our nation, depends on the introduction of a genuinely new model of education, designed in and fit for the 21st century.

By many measures much of the rest of the industrialized world has caught or passed by us in secondary education. The good news, however, is that those who are beating us in the education race are doing so with the same old model we use; that is, they’re doing old style better than us. They too haven’t moved into the 21st century. So, if we move now to take the initiative to create a new, 21st century secondary school model, then our high school graduates can once again become the best educated in the world. We simply cannot afford to continue our myopic focus on attempts (noble and otherwise) to fix that which clearly needs replacing.

In short, transformational change in secondary education is needed on two fronts. On one hand (which is currently being neglected), we need to re-define our goals, standards, models, methodology, and curriculum to match the challenges and opportunities of today’s world – that is, we must determine everything the best 21st century school should be, and then create those schools. On the other hand (which is where the current focus lies), we need to elevate every school, everywhere, to be as close to the best as possible.

Alan Shusterman, J.D., C.S.C.
School for Tomorrow
Opening in 9/09 in Rockville, MD

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