Where Gates Gets it Right on Education. . .

First, many apologies for slogging this week.  I usually only slack off over here on the Radical when school is a complete zoo—and the weeks leading up to the holiday break definitely qualify as high-pressure times for any teacher.  I just couldn’t find any free minutes to write!

I did find time, though, to read this interesting Newsweek interview between Jonathan Alter and Bill Gates on the best ways to reform education.  What surprised (impressed?) me the most was that ol’ rich Billy is using some of his considerable clout to push for changes that I think I can believe in.  Most interesting is Gates’ insistence on reforming how teachers are rewarded for their work.

As Alter describes it:

Betraying his own professional background, Gates shakes his head in dismay at the
idea of secondary schools and colleges trying to function at all without simple software that offers them basic statistical information about how students and teachers are performing over time (for-profit colleges are an exception). Everyone in education knows why: unions have simply prevented teachers from being judged, even in part, on whether their students improve during the course of the year. It’s no surprise that Gates is a believer in merit pay and incentive pay and has little use for teachers colleges as presently constituted because there’s no evidence that having a master’s degree improves teacher performance. You never hear Gates or his people talk about highly qualified teachers, only highly effective ones.

I couldn’t agree with Gates more.  Our commitment as a profession to master’s degrees as a form of identifying–and then differentiating pay for—accomplished teachers has simply outlived its usefulness.  While there may have been a time when elevating the academic accomplishments of classroom teachers served to elevate the profession in the eyes of critics and to elevate the qualifications of those who’d chosen to spend their careers in the classrooms, differentiating pay for master’s degrees at this point is an inefficient and under-informed practice.

Let me give you an example (which I’ve mentioned on the Radical before):  My master’s degree is in “advanced teaching techniques.”  I earned it in 1997.  Do you think that the strategies I learned from college professors who hadn’t been in classrooms since the early ’80s in 1997 would still qualify as “advanced teaching today?”

I sure don’t.

Yet I’ll continue to collect a 10% salary supplement from my state—one of the only ways teachers can differentiate their pay here in North Carolina—for the remaining 14 years in my career.  As a classroom teacher scraping nickels together to adopt a child, I’m thankful.  As a fiscally conservative taxpayer, though, I’m miffed!

I also love hearing Gates and Company talk about highly effective—rather than highly qualified—teachers.  That places the emphasis of our attentions where they belong:  On a teacher’s ability to drive change in the classroom versus their ability to jump through the political hoops defined by states in response to the federal government’s No Child Left Behind legislation.

I was caught in that meat grinder a few years back.  Having earned my teaching license in North Carolina in a time when GRE scores were considered adequate evidence of qualification, I’d never taken any kind of subject area exam in order to be certified.  Now, I had taught successfully for 12 years, had earned a Master’s Degree and certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and had been named a State Regional Teacher of the Year.

But according to the “highly qualified” definitions for teachers with elementary certifications in our state, I didn’t meet minimum expectations for competence in the classroom.  I ended up wrestling with an unfortunate loophole that emphasized paper over performance when determining my qualifications.

With a ton of help from hard-working people in my district and state certification offices, I was able to document my qualifications and was granted ‘highly-qualified’ status, but the entire experience left a sour taste in my mouth.  “If someone would just come and watch me teach, they’d figure out pretty quickly that I’m highly qualified!” I’d rant.  “They can observe me any time they’d like.  Quit pushing paper and come and see what schooling is all about.”

Now the only caveat that I’ll throw into my unconditional support for Gates’ thoughts on differentiating pay based on performance is a simple one:  I also hope that Bill and the Boys will take some time to spotlight alternative compensation programs that define “effective” as something more than producing results on standardized tests.  While standardized tests are a quick and easy way to compare performance across classrooms at the school, district and state level, they are also an oversimplified and overused measure that have changed teaching for the worse in the past two decades.

I know how tempting it is to do a bit of mystical math and churn out “value-added” indicators of a teacher’s contributions to the growth of their students.  It just plain feels right, doesn’t it?  Why shouldn’t we look at a kid’s performance on standardized exams one year, compare those scores to their performance in the next year, and attribute the results to the classroom teacher?

The answer is simple:  Dozens of other factors influence a student’s performance in any given year.

Think about middle schoolers—the grade level that I teach.  Developmentally, these little buggers are unpredictable times ten.  One day, they’ll show mastery of a particular skill and the next, it’s like they’d never learned a thing!  That’s not an unexplainable phenomena.  It’s a sign of the continuing development of the neural connections in their brains.

Then, consider the emotional and physical changes that the kids in my classrooms are working through.  Searching for acceptance during a time when everything—brains and bodies—is growing at different speeds consumes a ton of the mental and physical energies of the students that I serve.  This reality definitely impacts performance—and my own standing as ‘effective.’

Finally, consider the fact that my students work with dozens of different teachers each day, yet we only test math and reading skills.  How do we determine the ‘effectiveness’ of the art teacher?  The band teacher?  The guidance counselor?  The science teacher?  And how do their contributions impact student performance in my classroom?  If they end up assigned to the social studies teacher who has great skill at incorporating nonfiction reading and writing lessons into his/her instruction, won’t it make me look more effective than I really am?

This doesn’t mean I’m against performance pay for teachers.

Heck, I write about it all the time—and take guff for it from colleagues every time that I do.  And it doesn’t mean that I stand opposed to the suggestions made by Mr. Gates on how we can best drive change for the children in our public schools.  In fact, I’m completely jazzed that he’s so interested in the conversation.  With the dollar signs that he can put behind projects, we’re likely to find some of the most salient solutions for education in generations.

I’m just hoping that he’ll channel some of his attention towards the ways that we define effectiveness.  That’s a solution that is long overdue in education—and one that might just be the golden ticket to sustained change.

13 thoughts on “Where Gates Gets it Right on Education. . .

  1. Phil

    I am a teacher who is big on merit pay, have been following Bill Gates’ desire to change education for a while now. It is a powerful statement when he calls many teacher education programs “irrelevant”.
    The problem with this blog is it leaves with more questions than answers. If I have read one educational article that does this, then I have read 100.
    Real change will happen when teachers are held accountable (like most other professions by the way). This means getting the unions out of education.
    While this sounds all bad, good teachers like the “Tempered Radical” will get a nice pay increase. I imagine every parent will want their child in his class. I teacher computers at the middle school level. I love it when students ask me if they have me next semester. I am good at what I do. I hold myself accountable. Now if I could get paid like a teach…nope, unions won’t let me do that.

  2. Marsha Ratzel

    Like you, Bill, I long for the days when how well we teach will be the measuring stick for our compensation. It seems to me that the impending economic crisis could be the moving force behind reform.
    I just read a quote not too long ago that talked about when our memories exceed our dreams, then we’ve lost our way and are doomed to repeat history. So much of our inaction is because constituencies try to protect the status quo.
    What if we stop thinking about a system that is structured as it has always been structured? What if our system, for example, allowed “time” not to be the constant variable….what kinds of reform could we create and what kinds of compensation would be appropriate for those forms of teaching?
    Maybe we’ve not only outgrown our compensation system but our mode of delivering education to students.

  3. John Ferriter

    Bill,
    It seems to me that I’m seeing an awful lot of comments from highly effective teachers who are readily willing to complain about the current state of affairs while at the same time unwilling or unable to do anything about it. People like Ms. Moran should never have to suffer the indignity of an administrator like the one who threw her under the bus. What I don’t get, however is why all these good people don’t get together and define highly effective for the rest of us. Surely if anyone can do it.. this group could; Don’t you think?

  4. Alina Moran

    For two decades I have been guiding students to soci-academic excellence quite successfully as a self-created educator. My students k-12 in three countries have excelled in and outside the classroom walls without sacrificing values and character. They hold prosperous careers which they deeply enjoy. I know this first hand because they continue to keep in touch over the years. In fact Mr. Gates met a few of my students studying in the Dominican Republic.
    Unfortunately, I endured years of underpayments not to mention the unethical occurance this past May. After shining brightly as Lead 2nd Teacher for three years, the Headmaster refused to renew my contract without reason or explanation. The teachers hired to replace me have BA’s and Masters yet are lacking in so many ways… They are unable to read or write correctly. They lack knowledge of their culture and have no exposue to foreign cultures. They are unable to perceive students’strenghts and areas in need of improvement. They haven’t a clue about motivation which hinders engaging the children proactively in learning experiences.
    It is very sad and troubling that educators aren’t reviewed and validated based on their students’performances and on their wisdom and ability to use it to engage students in this cooperative/global, self discovery experience I’ll call learning XXI.
    Fondly,
    Alina Morán

  5. Natalie

    I think this is overdue. Too many universities are turning out teachers that should not be members of our profession, in addition to the teachers that are holding out for their retirement. I get so sick of working with people that are mediocre and don’t care for kids! If effectiveness determined their pay they may think twice before entering a classroom!

  6. Maggie

    I agree that pay-for-performance is not a bad thing at all. It’s only bad if it’s based on ONE test score. What about the teacher who motivates a student who is usually absent to start coming to school? What about the teacher who gets a student who never does any work to start doing SOME work? Ask anyone…the teacher they remember/admire/like most is usually connected to the relationship, not the content. These are the teachers who inspire as well as improve test scores.Somehow this piece of the “art” of teaching has to be included in pay-for-performance.

  7. Annie

    Your post has me thiking about alternatives to teacher evaluation… you mention having someone come observe you to see that you’re a good teacher.
    It seems like the answer, doesn’t it? It’s just the implementation that is tough. If you only have one person judging, it seems unfair and subjective. Throw more people into the works and it gets too complicated.
    I wonder if a collaborative tally of peer review, administrative review, union review and district evaluation is possible?
    It just seems like people know who the ineffective teachers in their school are, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

  8. cburell

    Bill, Great arguments all the way through – and greater for the admission there are no easy answers.
    I had a conversation last week about merit pay, and why I didn’t believe in it. I said it pissed me off to no end that I _knew_ from all sorts of objective observations that I worked harder and more successfully than many of my colleagues, yet earned nothing more for it – BUT, until a system was implemented that could determine what we mean by ‘merit,’ and avoid causing all of us to teach to tests and thus damage student learning, I was still against it.
    What’s the best solution to this dilemma that you’ve thought or read?

  9. KJ

    I love the quote “How do we determine the effectiveness of the Art teacher?” I think that the definition of teacher effectiveness and learning need to be redefined according to current brain research and long-term portfolio-style evaluations. These evaluations need to be completed by peers in our respective content areas. We need the public in general to understand that the business world model of “value added” does not apply to learning as we are beginning to understand it. It’s like the art world- people with business backgrounds do not understand how it works; this is because it is filled with its own traditions, rules, customs and history. We cannot expect education as a field to be the same or measurable with the same tools as the business, art, science, or law fields. I’m not saying that learning cannot be measured- I’m saying that we need to research tools that will help us measure learning and the practice of teaching without attempting to squeeze education into models that are designed for OTHER professions.

  10. Adam

    Bill,
    I read the same article and had the same reaction. If you could design a program that would adequately measure “highly effective” what would you do? What would the components be? How would you communicate this to the public?

  11. ms_teacher

    I firmly believe that teachers and our unions need to be at the forefront of this issue. We should not have our fingers stuck in our ears waiting for it to go away. I think that is one of the biggest reasons teacher unions have such a bad rap is because we are so opposed to any change that we fear may harm our members, even if some of them don’t belong in the classroom in the first place!

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