Education Opinion

Bill Gates’s School Panopticon, Part 2

By Walt Gardner — May 20, 2013 3 min read
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The responses to my blog about Bill Gates’s proposal to spend $5 billion to create a teacher evaluation system oriented heavily around videotaping teachers’ lessons indicate that I hit a nerve (“Bill Gates’s Panopticon, Apr. 26). Because Gates’s supporters maintain that the remarks he made about his plan were misinterpreted, I went back to review them (“Teachers need real feedback,” ted.com). I’d like to devote the balance of this column to my conclusions in the hope that doing so will help clarify matters.

My greatest concern is about the usefulness of the videos. I agree with Gates that feedback is indispensable to improvement in any human endeavor. But feedback is only as valuable as the qualifications of those providing it. Unless the observers are thoroughly trained in the nuances of classroom instruction and are certified in the subject being taught, I have reservations about the success of the strategy. It’s not enough for observers to be generalists. Instead, they need to be specialists. I emphasize this point because I would not want a principal or a teacher with minimal knowledge of the subject I was teaching to evaluate me. How does it help students if they are given incorrect knowledge about a topic even though the teacher is pedagogically superb? Gates is vague about this point.

I’m also concerned about expecting so much from observing gifted teachers in action. Gates believes that when ordinary or sub-par teachers scrutinize outstanding teachers, they can emulate them to improve their effectiveness. But as W. James Popham has written, inspired teachers are virtuosos. They can violate almost every principle of effective instruction and somehow still get remarkable results (Testing! Testing! Allyn & Bacon, 2000). There’s something about their personalities and style that accounts for their success. That’s why the Measures of Effective Teaching that Gates has funded have limited application. I’m not saying that teachers can’t improve by trying to incorporate the techniques they see in great teachers. On the contrary. But inspired teaching is an art - not a science. If it were not, then schools of music would graduate Mozarts, and medical schools would turn out doctors with a bedside manner.

Looking at what teachers are doing is also misguided because it overlooks what students are doing. Video cameras that teachers place in their classroom to capture what they believe are their best lessons say nothing about learning. That’s why instructional objectives are stated in terms of what students will be doing at the conclusion of the lesson. Moreover, stationary video cameras do not film students who may be dozing or doodling while the teacher is teaching. The point is that in order for inferences to be valid, there must be evidence to support them. A teacher can be dazzling in front of a class, and yet students can be learning very little. In other words, you can’t always tell. Gates fails to grasp the distinction.

Finally, not all teachers are open to critical feedback. Gates began his address by saying that everyone needs a coach. That’s true, but not all teachers are coachable, as David Ginsburg stressed when talking about efforts to improve instruction (“Coachability: A Key to Performing up to Capability,” edweek.org, Nov. 30, 2012). Some teachers become defensive when confronted with evidence about their ineffectiveness. Video cameras can be helpful, but I doubt that the results would be “phenomenal,” as Gates asserts.

So what’s the takeaway? It’s tempting to assume that strategies helpful to practitioners in other fields will work in education. But this is not necessarily the case. Remember merit pay? It was supposed to motivate teachers to even greater effort. But experience has shown that has not happened. That’s why I urge caution before placing too much hope in Gates’s plan. Teaching is far more complex than non-teachers can possibly comprehend.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.