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Nothing New about Teaching from Bill Gates

One of the perks of being a billionaire is that anything you submit to a newspaper is definitely going to be published. No one has been more successful in this respect than Bill Gates opining about education. His latest essay, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal, was nothing more than a rehash of what others have proposed as a way of improving educational quality ("Grading the Teachers," Oct. 22). Yet Gates believes that he has broken new ground.

The heart of his claim is based on a recent survey of teachers undertaken with Scholastic. It found that "teachers are desperate for more support. Three kinds rose to the top: more involvement from parents, more engagement from school leaders and higher quality materials to use in the classroom." Higher salaries came in 11th on the list.

I don't know why any one of these findings is considered noteworthy. For example, a survey of 2,000 California teachers released in April 2007 by the Center for Teacher Quality at California State University, Sacramento found that when teaching and learning conditions are bad, teachers see their compensation as inadequate. But when the same conditions are good, they view their compensation not only as adequate but also as a reason for staying in their schools.

By the same token, Gates's claim that teachers believe student growth should be part of how their performance is measured is not news. Teachers unions have supported the use of multiple measures for some time. For example, Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, told the Los Angeles Times in Aug. 2010 that progress on standardized test scores should be "part of a well-rounded evaluation of a teacher's performance" ("Union leader says parents should know teachers' ratings").

Finally, the claim that "nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them (teachers) so outstanding" is hardly new either. Inspired teaching is an art - not a science. Gilbert Highet made this point in 1989 in The Art of Teaching (Vintage Books). Gates believes that videotaping such teachers in action and scoring their lessons by experts under a project called Measures of Effective Teaching are an innovative strategy. But such teachers are essentially virtuosos. Their techniques can be analyzed by experts till the cows come home, but it is highly unlikely that other teachers can benefit nearly as much as Gates believes. Can art students who study Rembrandt ever be able to duplicate his work? Can music students who study Mozart ever be able to reproduce his work?

The only remarkable comment that Gates made is that teachers want to be treated like professionals and that the existing system doesn't do so. Curiously, however, he makes no mention of the inordinate role that the high-stakes tests he supports play in undermining this goal. I await his next essay.

Amplification: The Art of Teaching was copyrighted in 1950. The Vintage Books edition was published in 1989.

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