Published Online: October 17, 2013

Q&A: Melinda Gates Talks Teacher Quality

Melinda Gates listens to a reporter's question during an interview with Education Week at the headquarters of Scholastic publications in New York.
—Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

Education Week Assistant Editor Stephen Sawchuk sat down last week in New York City with Melinda Gates, the co-chair and a trustee of the foundation that bears her and her husband’s names, to discuss its investments in teacher quality and other matters related to its work in the K-12 sphere.

Ms. Gates was in New York to visit New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II, in the Bronx, and to talk with local teachers about professional development and implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

Also on hand and answering some questions was Vicki Phillips, the director of college-ready education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Seattle-based philanthropy is the nation’s largest foundation—with some $38 billion in assets, according to its website—and has put hundreds of millions of dollars into projects and supports to reshape the teaching profession. (The Gates Foundation also provides support for coverage of business and K-12 innovation in Education Week.)

Below, edited for length and clarity, are excerpts from the Oct. 9 interview. Among other issues, Ms. Gates addressed criticism of the foundation’s work, how its support for new teacher-evaluation systems has played out on the ground, and the foundation’s possible next steps in education philanthropy.

Education Week: The ballpark figure we came u­­p with for the amount you’ve spent on the intensive partnerships, the Measures of Effective Teaching research, professional-development [projects], and “teacher voice” groups is about $600 million. It’s a lot of money, and in our corner of the universe, it has generated concern about one foundation doing too much to shape education policy. How would you respond to that charge?

Gates: First of all, investing in teachers is just the right thing to do. If we’re going to support teachers in the classroom so they can teach students in an effective way, we’ve got to spend money on that. We’ve got to update a lot of things that are going on. We’ve got to figure out how to support world-class professional development.

So while the grants may look large when you add all of them up, ... they’re actually not that large in some sense. The way I like to think about our education spending is to say, what [does] the state of California spend on education every year? We could take the entire bolus, every dollar that’s in the foundation today, and spend it out in the state of California in two years and be out of business.

You have to take the money we have and pinpoint it in certain ways to try new things, and show ways of doing new things, and then hope those practices get spread. So that’s the point of those investments. But to me, they’re small when you think about the kinds of things we’re trying to do.

Education Week: Your husband has written a few op-eds expressing reservations with some of the ways states and districts are carrying out teacher evaluation­—publishing of scores, for instance. With that in mind, and with the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you’d go back and do differently in your teacher-quality grantmaking?

Gates: I’m not sure it would be done differently, [but] there are sequencing [concerns].

When you’re trying to do new work in a space, you sequence things. As soon as the [Measures of Effective Teaching] data would come out, people were implementing it really fast. I think when we come out with new research and new data, we can’t necessarily control how it spreads, nor should we. So I think what’s happening was the implementation sometimes was going too fast. People were actually implementing sometimes ahead of the data.

It would have been nice and neat and tidy if we could have said, “Wait until the very last day when it comes out, and this is the way to go.” But I think some states went a little fast.

Melinda Gates responds during an interview with Education Week at the headquarters of Scholastic publications in New York.
—Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

But I’m also seeing fine-tuning happening in states and listening happening. The whole goal is to have a robust, effective teacher-evaluation system to make teachers better, and I’m still hopeful that’s going to happen from what we’re seeing across the country.

Education Week: What comes next? What teacher-quality investments might you consider making in the future?

Gates: We don’t usually talk ahead about what I think we’re going to do, but I’ll say this: Some of the things Vicki [Phillips] and I heard in the last 48 hours ... about the difference good-quality [professional development] makes, and how unbelievably time-constrained teachers are, ... I think we’ll probably go deeper in that.

We’re learning some very interesting things already, and my sense is we’ll probably have to spread it to even more places and get more feedback before we’re ready to say, “This is the exact way to do professional development; these five things work.”

Education Week: You visited a school in the Bronx and spoke to teachers today. What were the top two things you heard from teachers about the work you’re doing?

Gates: I just met with a group of teachers who are using social media in incredible ways. ... One of the teachers said, “All I had to do is write and say I’m teaching a lesson on fractions, and I get five great responses back.” So [it’s insightful] to hear teachers using social media in deep ways that can really help them, not this scattered way of having to try to find things and not knowing whether they’re really good.

The other thing I heard is a lot about their own continuous learning, and one of the things about the common core is that it’s forcing them to go back to learning themselves. ... They’re using the [Literacy Design Collaborative] materials and [Mathematics Design Collaborative] to help them teach the common core. [The two networks are funded by the Gates Foundation.] They’re saying we should be continuous learners, like our students, ... and there’s a lot of excitement around that. I hadn’t really thought about how invigorated they would be by those new tools.

They’re not saying it’s easy. They’re saying, “It’s hard work, and I have to have time to do it, and I need to learn from another teacher who’s doing it.” But they’re saying it makes them excited about their craft, and it’s elevating their craft, and it’s going to help them be better teachers because of it.

Education Week: The Gates Foundation provided support to the groups who helped write the Common Core State Standards. What does the foundation make about the political battles over common core, some of which have targeted the foundation’s involvement?

Gates: I think we should listen to the teachers more. We had a survey from the [National Education Association], one from the [American Federation of Teachers], and one from Scholastic with 20,000 teachers, and the majority of teachers, 75 percent of teachers, are saying this is the right thing for our students. I think that’s who we need to listen to. Somehow we’ve got to elevate their voices to the national discourse about this, because they’re the ones who are there in the classroom.

They’re saying, realistically, it’s not easy to implement. Teachers whose districts are implementing well have a lot of comfort with it. If they don’t think their district is implementing well, they’re more concerned.

We’ve got to put that reality into the national discourse, and we’re just not doing that today. To me, that doesn’t make any sense.

Education Week: Many teachers are concerned about the fact that new [common-core-aligned] tests are going to come online, new tests that may be incorporated into their evaluations. What’s your thought on the transition time to the new standards, or as some have suggested, having a pause for using the test results for accountability?

Gates: There are two questions: Do you test against the common-core standards to know whether your students got the gains and are on track to move on to the next level? That has to be done, and again it’s not going to be necessarily pretty when the results come out. We’ve seen that in some states, because the kids are scoring lower, but that needs to be done and, again, there’s going to be some angst when that’s being done.

Separately, there’s the evaluation piece. Do I think we should pause on evaluation? No. I think we need to keep going on evaluation, but we’ve got to get the evaluation piece done right. I think where you’re seeing the most concerns are the states where teachers feel, rightfully so, that the test is too much a part of evaluation—they’re not taking the multiple measures [into account]. So I think those states need to look and say, “Hey, do we need to give some flexibility to put multiple measures into our evaluation systems, like other great states are doing on this?”

I think we will overcome some of this angst, though, after things get rolled out and are being implemented well. It’s difficult in some places, the timing and sequencing of common core and evaluation, but we’re definitely seeing districts where it’s going well.

Education Week: What have you learned about the four districts, and the charter school network, funded through your Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching [a $290 million grant program to redesign teacher hiring, evaluation, and pay structures]? Do you have any results that seem promising?

Vicki Phillips: I think we’ve learned a lot from those sites. Are we yet at the point in time where we might see whether that’s going to materialize into student gains? I think we’re on the cusp of that. But have we learned a lot about how you redesign a system around teachers that focuses on improvement, uses multiple measures, all the things Melinda just talked about? I personally don’t think [the Measures of Effective Teaching research] would have been nearly as effective in the country if we hadn’t paired it with the wisdom of practice in the field.

Gates: Absolutely.

Phillips: Those places have iterated and done a great job of it in some extraordinary circumstances. Look at what Memphis and Shelby County [Tenn.] have been able to do, hold the same things steady in the face of a big merger and a lot of issues. There’s a lot of learning to be unpacked there.

Education Week: One thing a lot of readers want to know is why you chose to focus so specifically on teacher quality. Why not pour it into early-childhood education, or do pilots around that?

Gates: Good research shows that the very best thing you can do for students is having an effective teacher in the front of a classroom. That is the most important thing in terms of getting student gains and getting great student learning. If you don’t have an effective teacher, the outcomes are just completely different. ...

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Parents inherently know [this]. As a parent, I clamor to get my kid if I can with that best teacher. I can remember, and you can remember, who your best teacher is.

It is a human resource issue. It’s the place where you’ve got to figure out what can be done to make sure every student has an effective teacher in front of the classroom. Otherwise, we’re not going to make progress as a nation.

Education Week: Your work with teachers predates the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, but there was a lot of compatibility between the aims of that federal initiative and your grants. Now the Obama administration is facing tough political times, and the stimulus money is gone. Does that affect the foundation’s ability to have an impact?

Gates: What got started with Race to the Top and allowed progress to happen with the school districts [is] some rolling momentum, and so that will continue on. ... I think the momentum will keep rolling in the states, and I think we’re just on the cusp of a lot of great things happening.

Phillips: The great thing about Bill and Melinda is that they’re in this for the long haul, and they know how challenging the work is. So what happens is we work across administrations because we know we want to be in this for the long run, and you use the synergy and the acceleration where you can get it.

Race to the Top was a great accelerant, and that momentum is going to continue. Now, it’s about how do you build the support system to make that feedback fall on great fertile ground in terms of their professional development.

Gates: The foundation will always be in the education space, always, in the U.S.

Philips: Our strategy is not going to significantly change at any time in the near future.

Gates: It doesn’t matter which administration comes in.

Education Week: Of everything you’ve done relating to teacher quality, what’s the most surprising or enlightening thing you’ve learned?

Gates: I think it comes down to the students. What strikes me, what inspires me is the group of students I was with yesterday in the South Bronx. You know, a few years ago, I’d have people come up to me and kind of ask me on the side, “You don’t really think we can teach all kids to be ready to go to college?” Yeah, I think we should get all kids to go to college!

When I sat with these students yesterday, they talked about their circumstances at home: “I’m the first of my family to go to school, my brother told me about this school,” or how they got to where they are. And when I actually sat in the classroom with those kids and heard them debating about the [industrial] revolution that happened in England back in the 1800s, and they’re debating, and critiquing, and taking passages apart, you want to say to everybody, “Yeah, all kids can learn. These kids can learn just like anybody else can.’’

When you see great teaching in the classroom, it’s what’s [engaging] those students. It’s motivating them and allowing them to reach their potential.

That’s not really a surprise to me because we’ve been at this work more than a decade, but it keeps inspiring me, and it reminds me to poke back at those people who say, “Are we really going to teach all kids?” Yeah, we are really going to teach all kids, and it’s great when you see it happening because of great teaching.

Vol. 33, Issue 09

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