Education Opinion

John Thompson: Bill Gates Speech Merits a Serious Response

By Anthony Cody — July 16, 2012 6 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

Bill Gates made two valid, though somewhat contradictory points, in his address to the Education Commission of the States. Both of Gates’ differing pieces of advice deserve a serious response.

The text of Gates’ speech gives no hint of irony as he proclaims, “The first and most important feature of a strong evaluation and development system is heavy teacher involvement throughout - from the conceptual stage, to the roll out, to revising the program once it’s underway. If someone wants to rush an evaluation system into place - and they think they can speed it through by doing it without the teachers - that is a grave mistake. The system will be low-quality, and will never get buy-in from the teachers.”

Whether Gates is aware of it or not, value-added evaluations were conceived in frustration, nurtured by teacher-bashing, and scaled up as a means of rapidly destroying the “status quo” that resisted test-driven accountability. Applying stakes to value-added has been a key component of the “brass knuckles” school of “reform.” The rush to value-added evaluations flew in the face of protests by social scientists and practitioners, and it has been compared to the construction of an airplane while it was already in flight.

After investing tens of millions of dollars in the Measuring Effective Teaching (MET) process, Gates and his scholars must be chastened by the modest results that the value-added portion of the project has yielded. To his credit, Gates now advises, “A new teacher evaluation system is not automatically a good thing. If states and school districts feel pressured to rush out new systems, those systems could evaluate teachers unfairly and fail to help teachers improve.” He warns that, “a flawed execution of a good idea could convince people it is a bad idea - and that could kill this push for reform.”

It is at this point that Gates should heed his own words, slow down, and think through the full complexity of school reform. Gates says that the “heart of our work” is “funding pilot programs in five urban school districts, working with them to develop teacher evaluation and improvement systems.” But, pilot programs are different. When millions of dollars of funding are hanging in the balance, systems are motivated to keep their abusive administrators in check. In my experience, school districts are like other institutions. They tend to operate on a “good cop/bad cop” basis. As long as donors are watching, the good cops gain control and collaboration results. In systems that do not enjoy such bounty, it is far more likely that “the past is prologue.” Their bad cops are likely to dominate the teacher evaluation process. Certainly, that is what I am witnessing.

It would be hard to deny that value-added has been used as a political weapon, as well as a possible educational tool. We can agree or disagree about whether the value-added methods being tested in pilot studies should be scaled up. But, clearly, value-added, used in ways it was not originally designed for, has been wielded as a club to either get teachers’ attention, or to beat us into submission when we oppose test-driven policies.

Gates, Arne Duncan, and other “reformers” encouraged all types of systems to buy a loaded gun, known as value-added evaluations. The purchase of a trigger lock was optional. Districts were urged to not misuse their new weapon, but philanthropists and the federal government did not take the time to institute checks and balances to deter abuses.

Another problem is that they did not realize that the time it takes to build a cooperative school culture is the time that it takes to build a collaborative school culture. There are no “silver bullets.” Except in the case of pilot projects, Gates et. al rushed ahead and incentivized risky innovations, without laying the cultural foundation necessary for school improvement efforts to succeed.

The point of the first half of Gates speech is that reformers need to slow down the rush to implement evaluation systems. The second half, however, is vintage Gates, as it proclaims that the latest quick fix, Common Core, “could be the educational equivalent of the Big Bang.” Then, Gates apparently refers to his pilot programs when he cryptically mentions our educational civil war (“we have people who used to oppose each other now pushing together ...”), and raises the possibility of a truce. Then, Gates argues, as Common Core creates a standard metric, innovators can unleash the disruptive force of innovation.

Gates makes some good points. The next five years could be pivotal. Just as Gates should have thought twice before imposing his initial preferences on education policy, it would be silly for me to question his appraisal of the potential of digital technology. Gates, however, seems to only recognize the barriers to scaling up technology that are similar to those that he sees in his world. So, he now needs the wisdom of education and labor historians who have studied the impediments to rapid diffusion of technology, as well as the lessons of previous disappointing reforms.

One problem with technology in an age of “accountability,” is that is hard to embrace tools that have dual uses. Technology that could be used to make schools better is equally likely to be used as cost-saving gimmicks that damage students and the teaching profession. Once again, reformers are in too much of a hurry to take the time to institutionalize the checks and balances that must be in place before educators embrace technologies that could be used to enrich student learning or to dump poor children into teacher-less classrooms.

Worse, the testing mania of the last generation has created demand for primitive teach-to-the-bubble-in-test computer systems, not interactive programs that liberate children’s imaginations. For instance, if Gates would really listen to teachers, he would understand that bogus “credit recovery” programs, designed to jack up accountability numbers, illustrate a key dynamic that has slowed technology. It is one of many examples of data-driven systems spending billions to jack up meaningless statistics, while shunning real innovations.

So, I appreciate Gates’ expressions of respect for teachers, and urge him to not repeat the same mistakes in his current effort to “flip the classroom.” And, educators should join Gates and together we should, “imagine if kids poured their time and passion into a video game that taught the math concepts.” Teachers should also imagine classrooms where we cede much of our control (to students, if not administrators), even to the point where it is frightening to us. Educators should even imagine school systems where lions and lambs, management and teachers, sit down together.

At the same time, Gates should imagine our realistic fears about such an arrangement. As he funds innovations that can only work properly when administrators and teachers are collaborative partners, he should remember that systems are complex. Real world, they also function in terms of management and labor. If he wants teacher buy-in, he must understand that we also are employees of systems that often function in an abusive manner. As Gates invites us to the table, he needs to help create practical assurances so that we - and our students - don’t end up on his allies’ menu.

What do you think of Bill Gates’speech? Do his comments show that he is deepening his understanding of the realities of our schools?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.