Gates’ 2009 Letter Focuses on Teachers

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 26, 2009 2 min read

The Gates Foundation has a must-read letter up for teacher-policy folks. Check it out.

My colleague Erik Robelen has reported on the basic contours of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s new approach to education reform here and here. But there are some really interesting tidbits to cull out from this letter. For one, it’s clear that Gates is going to go whole hog on the teacher-quality issue, particularly on the teacher-effectiveness front. In the letter, Gates writes:

“Whenever I talk to teachers, it is clear that they want to be great, but they need better tools so they can measure their progress and keep improving. So our new strategy focuses on learning why some teachers are so much more effective than others and how best practices can be spread throughout the education system so that the average quality goes up. We will work with some of the best teachers to put their lectures online as a model for other teachers and as a resource for students.”

Maybe we’ll finally get some information on how to improve teacher effectiveness, including some of the controversial topics in that area. These include whether or not evaluations should use student test-score data or “value-added” teacher data, as in Tennessee; whether measures of teacher effectiveness include a performance-based rubric, such as that designed by consultant Charlotte Danielson or the four-tiered model now being piloted in Georgia; and whether such measures include peer review, which is advocated by the American Federation of Teachers.

For two, the letter makes a big deal about the success of certain charter school models and notes the caps that exist in many states on the number of charters. Gates writes: “Educational innovation and overall improvement will go a lot faster if the charter school limits and funding rules are changed.”

The letter notes that most successful charters have extended school days, but I wonder whether the teacher-effectiveness research will also, ultimately, focus on charters. The great majority of charters are not unionized, presumably making experimentation with things like pay, evaluation and professional development somewhat easier that they would be in a school with a bargained contract.

Finally, an aside: Gates seems close to giving up on the small schools agenda. As colleague Debbie Viadero writes here, the Foundation suspended its own research agenda on this topic back in 2006. But part me wonders what that data would have looked like, and whether it might have been useful paired with the new focus on teacher effectiveness. Why? Some experts like Eric Hanushek have argued that the missing link in the small-schools, smaller-class-size movement is that teachers need to be explicitly trained to make use of smaller class sizes or smaller schools.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.