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The Gates Foundation Responds: How do we Build the Teaching Profession


Guest post by Irvin Scott.

This is a response to Anthony Cody's post of a week ago, Dialogue with the Gates Foundation: How do we Build the Teaching Profession. This is also posted at the Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimist blog.

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Tough, complicated issues like education often don't get the kind of debate they deserve. People who disagree don't see where they have common ground. Each side isn't willing to concede that the other has a valid point of view. So it is especially gratifying that against this often vitriolic backdrop Anthony Cody was willing to come to the Gates Foundation and participate in a dialogue about our work and our shared concerns. Like him, we agree that the education debate often deteriorates to shouting past one another so we welcome the opportunity to engage in a public dialogue about some of the areas where we have common ground. Our goal here is to better understand the perspectives of those with whom we occasionally disagree and to more clearly state where we stand and where we simply just don't know the answers.

In his first blog in this series (also posted here on Impatient Optimists), Mr. Cody raised the issue of building the teaching profession. This is a goal we share. To be clear, we believe that an elevated teaching profession is critical to our goal of accelerating the growth and learning of America's current and future students. We hope to hear from others, as well, so the proposed solutions can be tested and improved upon over time.

One of the common criticisms of the foundation is that Bill Gates isn't a teacher so he couldn't possibly know the first thing about reforming education or helping the teaching profession. Leaving aside what I think is an erroneous notion that education can only be improved by teachers (after all, they shouldn't have to do everything by themselves), I was a teacher. Many of my colleagues at the foundation have been teachers. My boss, Vicki Phillips, was a teacher and a district superintendent.

I taught an assortment of kids and classes for 15 years - from ninth grade English classes to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate English. I went on to be a principal and a district leader before coming to the foundation. That experience has given me a broad perspective on the challenges teachers face across the board. It's through that lens that I am passionate about elevating the teaching profession.

I admit that I had some skepticism about the Gates Foundation before I came to work here. What I was hearing about the work sounded like it was being done to teachers instead of with them. But rather than standing on the outside and being critical, I wanted to join and work from within. The disconnect between what critics of the foundation said and what is really going on within the walls of the building was profound. I see teachers collaborating across the country to design lessons aligned to the common core state standards. I see other teachers volunteering to be a part of a pioneering study to determine ways to measure effective teaching to help all teachers improve their practice. I witnessed hundreds of teachers giving feedback to a major publishing company as the company designed digital curriculum aligned to the common core.

Our focus is to ensure that every teacher is demonstrably effective in improving student learning. It seems that some of our critics think we favor an approach that involves just looking at a list of test scores and insisting that every teacher with poor student test scores gets fired. That's not only false; it's foolish. We can't get to our goal without helping teachers improve through targeted, continual professional development. And a test score is but one piece of a complex puzzle.

When it comes to how to build teaching to the level of respect and prestige it deserves, we share a lot more similarities with Mr. Cody than one might think. And the vision we have for teaching shares some things in common with other prestigious professions. For example, doctors and nurses are treated as professionals and their profession has research, rigor, accountability, and shared knowledge at its core. Recently, this reality became all too clear to me when I had surgery to repair my torn, right Achilles tendon. Unfortunately, this was not the first time I had this experience. Three years earlier, I had needed the same surgery for my left Achilles tendon. While the surgeries were similar, the recovery process was very different. When I questioned my surgeon, he informed me that the field had advanced. In three years, they had new, proven techniques for speeding up the healing process. Teaching should be no different because the stakes are just as high.

At the same time, I think it's worth pointing out that the medical field has evolved as a profession. For example, while nursing is viewed as a noble, worthy and competitive career path, that wasn't always the case. Up until the mid-1800s, nursing was in fact not considered a profession at all, but instead was a role fulfilled by nuns as part of a religious calling to show love to the weak, or by low ranking members of the military to treat those wounded on the battlefield.

Now, as we know, there are rigorous training programs, standards, and accountability in nursing - all supported by a wide and ever-evolving body of evidence. There are also various career paths one can follow as a nurse. As my surgeon put it, there are nurses that he talks to as though they are physicians. I am convinced that similar shifts must and can happen within the teaching profession.

We believe that elevating the teaching profession requires multiple things working in tandem. As you will see, there is some alignment with Anthony Cody's thinking.

  1. A shared body of knowledge about effective practice and how to improve. This includes systematic, living knowledge of what, how and in what contexts to teach based on evolving evidence. It also includes evidence-based programs and tools that enable teachers to develop and apply this knowledge in ways that lead to personalized learning for students, and data about students and their learning that informs when and how teachers should apply knowledge. In my estimation, it will be difficult to elevate the profession if every teacher has to constantly discover what effective practice looks like on his or her own. The Common Core State Standards in conjunction with emerging technologies provide an opportunity for teachers all across America to develop, test, and share excellent practice.
  2. A Culture of collective improvement of practice: This includes shared, measurable goals for students in the schools; collaboration led by teachers that supports continuous improvement in pursuit of students goals; and embedded processes and strong leadership that support reflection, dialogue, and innovation in practice.
Mr. Cody writes eloquently about the value of teacher communities that he has seen and been a part of. I am also a fan of such communities. I have been a part of groups like Critical Friends Groups and Professional Learning Communities. However, I have found them to be most effective when data on student performance are combined with shared knowledge and standards about effective practice. Without these three things teachers often don't have enough focus for their collaboration time together, which is limited enough as it is. To make the best use of that time, we believe a steer in the right direction is important.
3. Shared standards and measures for effective teaching practice. This includes a shared definition of effective teaching practice; measures and measurement systems that reliably identify effective teaching practice; and frequent, meaningful information about effectiveness based on multiple measures, not just test scores. I think most of our critics think the Gates Foundation focuses entirely on this piece. But while it's vitally important and has been largely absent in the profession for many years, it is interdependent with the other areas outlined here. And it should evolve as we learn new things.
4. Recognition and accountability for effectiveness, including tenure based on demonstrated effectiveness; career pathways that reward effectiveness and offer opportunities to demonstrate and share expertise; and compensation and nonmonetary benefits (prestige, advanced certification) aligned with effectiveness. As we find in other professions, an effective teacher should have more opportunities to "advance" and take on additional responsibilities while remaining a teacher. We are witnessing examples of this in places like Hillsborough County Public Schools, with their peer mentor and peer evaluator teachers, as well as Pittsburgh Public Schools, with their career ladder teachers.

Some, including Mr. Cody, may disagree with us on some of this, but research indicates teachers are here already on the issue of tenure. A recent survey conducted by Scholastic indicated 92 percent of teachers either partially or strongly agreed that tenure should not protect ineffective teachers; 89 percent said that tenure should reflect evaluations of teacher effectiveness; and 80 percent thought once tenure was granted, it should be re-evaluated at regular intervals.

But, at the same time, we believe that principal and teacher leadership is critically important here. A principal with the right priorities brings his or her teachers along the path, with a comprehensive evaluation system that provides a roadmap to effectiveness.


5. High caliber candidates and rigorous training and selection. This includes a high quality pipeline of candidates entering teacher preparation programs; rigorous training in evidence-based practices; extensive field-based practice with effective supports; enculturation that breeds agency, responsibility, and learning orientation; rigorous selection based on demonstrated effectiveness. To my mind, that means the best candidates from any background.


I think the elevation of the teaching profession we seek not only can happen - it's already happening. Over the past year, I have had the honor of meeting and engaging with hundreds and hundreds of teachers across the country. From these experiences, three things have become very apparent. First, teachers are not monolithic in their views and perspectives. This is why it has been so important for us at the foundation to engage with many teachers as frequently as possible. Second, while teachers may not all share the same views on how to build the profession, most seem to believe that the challenges faced by our students and teachers warrant significant shifts in the profession. Finally, teachers welcome the opportunity to play key roles in building the profession. The foundation will do all that we can to ensure that this happens.


Irvin Scott, Deputy Director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's US Programs Education initiative, leads grant making for Empowering Effective Teachers as well as Teacher Voice / Professionalism. Irvin focuses on the foundation's work in Intensive Partnership Sites and Accelerated Partnership Sites, a cluster of communities with significant investments focused on transforming how teachers are recruited, developed, retained and rewarded.

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