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Gates Calls Teacher Grants a Risk

Philanthropist says evaluations should help educators improve.

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In his 2010 annual letter, Bill Gates describes his foundation’s recent $335 million investment in developing evaluation systems to improve teacher effectiveness, saying there is a “high risk” the work could fail.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made grants in Hillsborough County, Fla.; Los Angeles; Pittsburgh; and Memphis, Tenn., to create systems that primarily will help teachers, he says.

“A key point of contention about an evaluation system is how much it will identify teachers who are not good and don’t improve,” Mr. Gates writes. “A better system should certainly identify the small minority who don’t belong in teaching, but its key benefit is that it will help most teachers improve.”

Mr. Gates, who co-chairs the Seattle-based foundation with his wife, Melinda, notes that in each of the four sites, “the involvement and support of the union representatives .... was a key part of their selection.”

The projects require both creating an innovation—ways to evaluate teachers and help them improve—and delivering the innovation, he writes, which requires teachers to embrace changes to personnel systems.

“If most of the teachers in these locations like the new approach and they share their positive experience, then these evaluation practices will spread,” Mr. Gates says. “The goal is for them to become standard practice nationwide.”

“Previous efforts along these lines seemed to thrive for a few years,” he says, “but if the system is not well run or if teachers reject differentiation, it gets shut down.”

The letter covers all the areas in which the foundation makes grants. (Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week, is among its grantees.)

Mr. Gates discusses online learning, which he says the foundation is just beginning to explore. The chairman of the Microsoft Corp. says that he and others believe the Internet is poised to change formal education, especially in combination with face-to-face learning.

“With the escalating costs of education, an advance here would be very timely,” he writes.

Vol. 29, Issue 20

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