Few have done so much to help finance the school reform movement — and explain the economic reasons why all children need a high-quality education — as Bill Gates has done over the past two decades. For that, the Microsoft billionaire and cofounder of the foundation which share his (and his wife Melinda’s) name deserves plenty of praise.
But even Bill Gates gets it wrong. This was clear last month when a report from research outfit MRDC vindicated the small high schools effort his foundation championed (during education technology guru Tom Vander Ark’s time running its education philanthropy operations) and then largely abandoned when it didn’t immediately bear fruit. (Your editor also got it partly wrong too as did other reformers.) Same is true for the Gates Foundation’s continued support of including classroom observations in its so-called “multiple measures” approach to evaluating teachers — even as data from its latest Measures of Effective Teaching report reveals that doing so actually makes evaluations even less useful for teachers and students alike. And on the pages of the New York Times, Gates (or, more likely, the Gates Foundation’s communications department) takes the wrong approach on publishing data on the performance of teachers.
The latest round of this discussion was prompted by last week’s ruling by a New York State appellate court allowing New York City to release teacher performance data based on Value-Added analysis of student test score data. The American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple local had fought tooth-and-nail against the move tooth. With New York City officials preparing to release the data on a series of Excel spreadsheets (when it could have actually done a better job by creating a simple interactive database), the release of the data should be championed by reformers such as Gates as great news for families — who need to know the quality of the teachers in whose care they leave their children — and good-to-great teachers (who can now get the recognition they deserve for high-quality work that often gets lost in cultures of mediocrity that do more to reward laggard counterparts). And this form of sunlight is the best sort of disinfectant, shedding light on low quality teaching, the faulty school leadership that enables it through in myriad ways, and the ed schools that fail to equip aspiring teachers with the tools needed for successfully helping their students.
Yet in his op-ed, Gates is far more concerned with the feelings of teachers than with promoting such systematic reform. He argues that publishing teacher data does little more than “shame” poor performing teachers without giving them the “specific feedback” they need in order to either improve or leave the profession. From where he sits, publishing the data will only harm efforts the Gates Foundation is pushing to overhaul teacher evaluation systems
Gates is hardly alone in this view. Within the past couple of years, Dropout Nation has criticized American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess, and others in the Beltway reform crowd (as well as operations-oriented reformers such as Wendy Kopp of Teach For America), for opposing the publishing of Value-Added teacher performance data. The fact that many of these so-called “bold” reformers are unwilling to actually be bold when the opportunity presents itself is one reason why deserved to be called on the carpet. But another reason why their thinking deserves criticism is that on this subject, they lose focus on the concerns that matter most: That of families and high-quality teachers. They constantly approach this issue from the perspective of school leaders, and operators (whose roles in the human capital arena include evaluating performance and fostering strong school cultures) instead of from the perspective of parents (who as guardians of those who Clare consumers in education, only care about helping their kids achieve lifelong success) or good-to-great teachers as individual professionals (who as much want to be recognized and rewarded for their work as they want to get solid feedback from principals). And this is the mistake Gates makes as well.
Gates is right about the need of evaluation systems to provide teachers with “specific feedback”. In fact, the lack of specific feedback is (along with the absence of data on how teachers improve student achievement) is why traditional evaluations are so abysmal — and why a multiple measures approach of some form must be at the heart of overall teacher evaluations. (Whether that involves using inaccurate and far too subjective classroom observations is a different matter entirely.) But the specific feedback issue is a concern only for principals and superintendents, and, to a lesser extent, researchers, think tankers, and those involved in training aspiring teachers.
From where the consumers of education — children and the parents who advocate for them — sit, the more-important issue is whether the teacher can actually nurture their inherent genius and help them improve achievement over time. They should be the lead decision-makers in education, but, save for leading school overhauls through using Parent Trigger laws or even starting their own schools, actually structuring operations may not always be a matter with which they want to be concerned. Their bigger concern lies with the ability of teachers to improve student achievement over time, and whether those instructors care for — and empathize with — every child, regardless of who they are or where they live.
Given that the quality of a child’s education can vary from classroom to classroom, being able to choose the right teacher for their child matters more than an instructor’s tender mercies. And when one considers that at the elementary level, teacher quality can vary among teachers from one subject to another, parents should know how well a teacher does in the classroom — and be able to use the data to force schools to improve the quality of instruction in every classroom.
High-quality data on all aspects of education — especially teacher performance — is critical to helping families become real consumers and lead decisionmakers in education. It is also key in causing the kind of disruptions that have helped begin the first steps in systemically reforming American public education. And this is what Gates (whose own fortunes were made thanks to consumers making informed choices about computers, software, and operating systems) and other reformers should want.
As for good-to-great teachers? Their concerns about specific feedback being a component of professional development is balanced by their own concerns for actually being recognized for their work. After all, they often go without the proper recognition — in the form of wider arrays of compensation and career opportunities — that they so richly deserve. More importantly, as the Los Angeles Times demonstrated two years ago in its series revealing the performance data of teachers in the City of Angels’ school district, high-quality teachers are often forced by lower-performing colleagues to remain quiet about their achievements. And as seen in the case of John Taylor Gatto and the legendary Jaime Escalante, forced out of the profession because of jealousy within the ranks. Revealing this data can help push the reforms needed to help make teaching a stronger, sophisticated, and more-rewarding profession.
One can understand where Gates comes from on the issue of publishing teacher Value-Added data. But he and other Beltway and operation-oriented reformers are taking the wrong stance on this issue. Our kids, families, and teachers need and deserve to have this data. Because knowledge is key to fostering the very reforms Gates and others are championing that can help all of our children.