Friday, July 23, 2010

Bill Gates: Teachers' Pest?

The title of the cover article of the July 19-25, 2010 edition of Businessweek was Teachers’ Pest. Note the lack of a question mark in the title. This article discusses the plans and goals of the Gates Foundation in the area of education. As of the end of last year the foundation had assets of $33.9B. The intention is to spend about $3B on education in the next five to seven years. That is comparable to the amount congress made available for the "Race to the Top" program. In fact, as the article points out, one could argue that these are two funding lines for the same effort.

The Gates Foundation and the Department of Education are both interested in funding experiments in improved teaching procedures. Gates is focused on teacher performance. His goal is to provide incentives for teachers to investigate and apply the best teaching practices available. Teachers will be graded by a combination of peer and supervisor review, and student test scores. Test performance will contribute 40% to the performance evaluation. The remainder will be split equally between principal evaluation and peer evaluation. Gates is planning to fund trials at school systems in Tampa, Memphis, Pittsburg and Los Angeles. The program (Intensive Partnerships for Effective teaching) provides funds that can be used to financially reward high performing teachers.

The Gates Foundation has a number of other efforts ongoing. There is a trial program to videotape teachers in the classroom so that there techniques can be evaluated in hopes of providing improvement. The foundation provided funds to assist states prepare proposals for "Race to the Top" funds. It is also supporting the development of proposals for a common curriculum that could be applied nationally. There is certainly a lot more going on than was mentioned in the article. Gates has close ties with the Secretary of Education and appears to cooperate closely with his efforts.

This all sounds like a good thing. Something needs to be done so let’s try what we think has the greatest chance of succeeding and see where that takes us.

While this article provided some useful information, it was rather biased. It begins by attacking Gates’ credibility by labeling the foundation’s first foray into education, smaller school sizes, as a failure. Then Gates is left to be the only voice to support the current initiative. He then gave the platform to just about every critic he could find, including Diane Ravitch. To her is attributed the inane notion that Gates’ money would be better spent giving it to parochial schools which seem to perform well as a class. She is a frequent critic of charter schools because they have student selection options available to them that public schools do not have. What in the world does she think happens at parochial schools?

The author devoted most of his effort to criticizing the use of test scores as part of the evaluation process. He trotted out all the standard objections and treated the tests as if that was the only thing teachers would be graded on. He ignored the fact that past experience with using test scores might have provided some guidance as to how to proceed in the future.

The author describes the situation at one of the school districts selected by the Gates Foundation for the trials, Hillsborough, in Tampa.
"Hillsborough currently terminates one-half of one percent of its teaching force annually. More than 99 percent of Hillsborough teachers were rated satisfactory or outstanding in 2007-2008, and 98 percent of those eligible received tenure."That data is absurd. With 99.5% retention you aren’t even weeding out the addicts and pedophiles. In any population of professionals you will find wide disparities in motivation, ambition, training, intelligence, and just about any other trait that will contribute to performance. It is the school system’s job to come up with appropriate criteria so that individual teachers can be ranked against their peers. Who better to do that than the teachers themselves? Of course it will be difficult. Of course it will be subjective. Of course test scores alone are not sufficient. Of course it will not always be fair. Monetary compensation is a great motivator. Most other professionals are on merit pay systems and face the same issues. It can be made to work, so join the program and quit complaining.

Props to the Gates Foundation and the Obama administration for their attention to the problems in our educational system and for the empirical approach they are taking.

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