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Governors Take the Measure of Gates

By guest blogger Ross Brenneman

The National Governors Association's 2011 Winter Meeting (or if you work inside the Beltway, "State Awareness Week") closed on Monday with a plenary session on education led by Bill Gates.

The Microsoft founder's advocacy of teacher merit pay is well known, but he also used his NGA platform to advance another use of teacher effectiveness: determining class size.

Under the Gates model, outlined briefly in a Washington Post op-ed published the morning of his speech, a school's most-effective teachers would be given an additional four to five students, so the best teachers would teach more students. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ran a study in 2008 suggesting that 83 percent of teachers would support increasing their class sizes for additional compensation.

Gates added that less-effective teachers could then work with smaller classes and receive professional development—or, he explained, they could find a more appropriate profession.

Pegging class size to effectiveness is not a new idea. In 2009, the Goldwater Institute released a report that also argued for tying teacher effectiveness to a higher student-teacher ratio (and a higher salary).

But the endorsement by Gates, reinforced by his NGA presentation, will presumably push the class-size proposal into mainstream thought, given the level of support shown him by his primary audience.

"You're the ultimate example of why capitalism works," proclaimed Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat.

The governors peppered Gates with both praise and questions, the latter tending to take the form of, "Can you fix my state's problems?"

In a post-plenary interview, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, said Gates made "a lot of sense."

"All of our students have to read at a grade-appropriate level," Fallin said. She noted that Oklahoma has embraced a pay-for-performance model, and that "social promotion" of teachers needs to end.

Yet while Gates has advocated for tying salary to teacher effectiveness, North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, pointed out that no actual standard of what constitutes teacher effectiveness exists.

Now that all but seven states have adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which was spearheaded by the NGA and the Council of Chief State School Officers, Perdue suggested that designing a national teacher evaluation system is the NGA's next logical step.

"I hoped very quickly to join the other governors on a common evaluation system so we all know where we're going, rather than spending the hundreds of millions of dollars we're spending in-between states on ... evaluation," Perdue said.

While Gates demurred on any specifics of an effectiveness model, he agreed that it was a "key priority."

"Right now, because you don't have a measure, so many things don't operate," Gates said. "Your schools of education aren't motivated to do anything spectacular, because they don't have a measure that would tell them 'doing this is good, doing this is not good.' "

If any of the governors disagreed with Gates, they didn't take the opportunity to debate him. Only 19 governors actually attended the plenary event, and the bipartisan group seemed largely supportive of Gates, indicating that the NGA will continue developing his proposals when they next meet this summer in Utah.


Ross Brenneman is an intern at Education Week

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