School & District Management Opinion

Dialogue With the Gates Foundation: How Do We Build the Teaching Profession?

By Anthony Cody — July 23, 2012 10 min read
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Post #1 of 5 in this dialogue.

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Two weeks ago I traveled to Seattle and spent most of the day meeting with leaders of the Gates Foundation, discussing their work around education reform. I have been critical of the impact their agenda has had, but they expressed an interest in opening up a dialogue. This blog post will be the first in a series of exchanges that will explore some of the key issues in education. We plan a process where we will take turns posting our perspective on a given theme, followed by a response from the other party. All posts will be carried here, and at the Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog. We will ask everyone to join in a lively discussion. The education reform debate has deteriorated at times—our goal is to engage in a constructive conversation, to turn down the heat, and to seek a bit more light.

In the weeks to come we will get into some nitty gritty issues, such as what it means to “measure” teacher effectiveness? What is the role of poverty in relationship to education reform? What is the purpose of a k-12 education? And what role should the drive for profit play in our schools? But as our starting point, we are going to take a narrower focus, and tackle something a bit more concrete. This first exchange will focus on these questions: How can educators create a strong professional culture in our schools? How do we build the teaching profession?

The Gates Foundation has presented effective teaching as the focus of its education work for the past few years. Unfortunately much of the reform work of the past few years has focused on the negative side of the teacher-effectiveness equation. Reports like “The Widget Effect” have built up the idea that American schools are places where nobody is ever fired. Films like “Waiting for Superman” have reinforced the concept that due process for teachers means we have “jobs for life.” The Gates Foundation, I believe, has actively promoted these ideas, and in 2010, Bill Gates stated on Oprah that if we could get rid of bad teachers, “our schools would shoot from the bottom of these (international) rankings to the top.”

But there seems to be a growing awareness that real growth will not come from this strategy of rooting out the bottom 5 percent of performers. We will need to do some heavy lifting to reverse some of the counterproductive work that has been done to advance that agenda—but we will save that for another post. For this discussion, I want to explore what a healthy collaborative culture looks like, and how it relates to teacher evaluation.

Let’s take a look at the best model of collaboration I have seen in recent years, the teachers at New Highland Academy in East Oakland. This team of teachers worked with the support of a team at Mills College to engage in thoughtful inquiry into their practice. They met regularly to look at student work and talk about where their students were struggling. When they looked at their students’ work, they saw that while the curriculum they were using was helping the students learn to decode, their comprehension was lagging. They chose a set of strategies to help their students to find meaning in what they read, and worked across the school to try this out.

Here is how teacher leader Aija Simmons explained it:

The Answers" are what we all problematize. Because what "the answer" is for me in this moment might not be the answer two years from now. So the good thing about inquiry is that I'm constantly understanding that there's a new question, this is a new group of students, it might work better than the last thing but I'm continuing to probe myself, so that I'm pushing myself to deeper understandings about how my students learn, and I'm coming back to the question. I have had several inquiry projects that I've looked at over the course of multiple years, but I use them as professional developments. People have the same question that you have, and as you come together, and you begin to think more and share your ideas of inquiry, and get more tools, we're moving ourselves forward.

They saw tremendous results. But the biggest lesson was not just the result, but the ownership these teachers had of their own expertise. By engaging in this process, where THEY figured out the big challenge before them, and THEY figured out what to do about it, and how to monitor their students’ learning, they were acting as professionals. The energy you see in these teachers is what happens when you give people autonomy and the time to use it. This energy is destroyed when mandates and models of professional growth are imposed from above.

This sort of research allows teacher to give one another feedback, and reflect on their practice. This feedback and reflection is most productive in a teacher-led collaborative context. It does not NEED to be a part of an evaluative process in order for teachers to learn and grow. Of course, evaluations should recognize and encourage this sort of work. But the most productive collaboration is peer-to-peer, of the sort done by the teachers at New Highland Academy.

When we look at our schools, we have to ask, what does it take to support this kind of innovation?

Confidence in teachers: The principal at this school trusted these teachers to take on this challenge.

Active partners, and a model of inquiry: These teachers were supported by the Mills Teacher Scholars program, which helped them learn how to investigate their practice using the teacher inquiry process. Other models that I have seen work well are Lesson Study and the National Board’s Take One process.

Autonomy and choice. These teachers actively chose the form of inquiry they would pursue, and thoughtfully determined the line of inquiry they would follow.
Stability: This project was led by experienced, expert teachers. This sort of thing will not succeed in a school with high turnover.

Small class sizes. Special funding has kept class sizes small at this high poverty school, which has made this work much more possible.
Time for collaboration: Teachers cannot do this sort of work without dedicated time for collaboration.

This school has been supported by the Quality Education Investment Act, a state funding program developed by the California Teachers Association. These funds allow for smaller class size, and that big essential, time for teachers to meet and reflect together.

This sort of process is destroyed by high-stakes tests and the micromanagement that comes with top-down mandates.
It is crucial that teachers at any given site have the autonomy to choose the model of collaborative inquiry that fits their culture and the challenges they face. Every time I have seen extraordinary leadership emerge from a staff it has been when this autonomy was given. And every time I have seen top-down reforms come along, the energy drains away. We will not get this sort of professional culture without trusting and empowering our teachers to behave as true professionals.

Another model of professional growth was a mentoring program I started in Oakland, called TeamScience. Now entering its fifth year, this project pairs veteran science teachers with novices, in order to boost their effectiveness and retain them. This program has been needed because of the district’s reliance on programs like Teach For America to fill vacancies, epecially in science, math and special education. Unfortunately, research has shown that 57 percent of the people entering TFA do not intend to make teaching their career, and in fact, three years after they start, three fourths of these teachers are gone from our schools. Although we made a dent in the turnover rate, high numbers of these novices continue to rotate through our schools. Providing them with mentors has some short term benefit, in terms of the quality of their instruction. But this investment is lost if these temporary teachers leave, taking their expertise with them.

Recent research on teacher turnover has revealed the high cost of instability:

For each analysis, students taught by teachers in the same grade-level team in the same school did worse in years where turnover rates were higher, compared with years in which there was less teacher turnover. 

An increase in teacher turnover by 1 standard deviation corresponded with a decrease in math achievement of 2 percent of a standard deviation; students in grade levels with 100 percent turnover were especially affected, with lower test scores by anywhere from 6 percent to 10 percent of a standard deviation based on the content area.

The negative effect of turnover on student achievement was larger in schools with more low-achieving and black students.

To build the teaching profession we must recruit people who want to make a serious commitment to teaching, then support them with meaningful training.
Why not subsidize people who choose to become teachers, and allow them to serve as half-time apprentices alongside excellent mentors? They could use the other half of their time to take courses in child development and pedagogy. Urban teacher residency programs offer models along these lines, but are not well-supported.

Unfortunately the Gates Foundation has been a big supporter of Teach For America in the past. If we are going to build the profession, and sustain solid collaboration at our toughest schools, we need to place a high priority on stability. Any program that encourages people to enter the classroom without a desire to stay beyond two years is a tremendous waste of time and energy.

What about teacher evaluation?

In a post I wrote earlier this year, I tried to create a portrait of what a constructive evaluation process might look like:

A teacher meets with his or her evaluator. They review the professional standards in use, and look for areas in need of growth. Maybe it is a focus on literacy and writing skills. Maybe it is bringing the English learners level of engagement and participation up. They discuss strategies the teacher might try to address these things, and they also discuss the forms of evidence they will look at over the year to see what is happening in this area. Assessment, especially of the classroom-based formative sort, is a powerful tool. How is a teacher assessing his or her students' abilities? How are they using that information to give feedback and give the student appropriate, challenging work? This is where teachers use genuine assessment grounded in their understanding of their students. When this sort of assessment data is shared with an evaluator, a comprehensive portrait of how this teacher is helping students to grow can emerge.
Once an area of focus has been defined, the teacher and evaluator find some professional development resources that might help as well -- maybe a conference to attend, some books that might be read, a grade-level team that might come observe a lesson here and there and offer feedback, a colleague that is expert in this area to go observe. Then over the year, the teacher collects student work samples that provide evidence of learning. They document how they have designed instruction to help students learn, and show where they have provided feedback. The evaluator observes, a few times at random, and a few times by request, to see particular lessons. This evidence would be appropriate to the goal that has been set. It could include some test data, but test data would just be one source of evidence among many.

In Bill Gates’ recent speech in Atlanta, he framed the problem this way:

Developing a great teacher improvement system is truly difficult—because there are no models. The country's teachers have been working in systems where almost everyone gets a good evaluation—and almost no one gets any feedback. That's the key point. Our teachers get no feedback—no guidance on how to get better.

I disagree with this dismal appraisal.
There is certainly room for improvement in teacher evaluation, but to say there are “no models” whatsoever is wrong. Take a look at the report I worked on several years ago with fellow members of Accomplished California Teachers. The model I described above is in action in the schools of Santa Clara, California.

Another model with which I have some experience is Peer Assistance and Review (PAR). I served for two years as a Consulting Teacher in Oakland’s PAR program. I was tasked with observing and assisting teachers who had received poor evaluations. I was in their classrooms every week, and met often with them, offering feedback and resources to help them improve. I also took notes on what I observed, and in the spring wrote a report which was used as the basis of a recommendation from a joint union/administration committee as to the teacher’s continued status. In most cases, the referred teachers were convinced to leave the system.

I discovered doing this work that, in most cases, my observations matched up with those of the evaluator. However, there were a few occasions where this was not true. Perhaps a personality clash or power struggle had led to an unfair evaluation. In several cases the teacher in question transferred and was successful under a new administrator. The PAR program provides some essential elements that are needed to create a trustworthy evaluation system.

1. An initial check on the quality of the evaluations, which was often very uneven.
2. Another pair of eyes, with expertise, observing a teacher’s practice not just once or twice, but many times.
3. A chance for improvement—specific feedback, resources and time to make changes.

Teachers who are referred to PAR can indeed be terminated if they do not succeed in the program, and the majority of those referred left the system one way or another, although many chose to take early retirement or resign rather than go through the termination process. (The low number of actual terminations is at least part of the reason reports like “The Widget Effect” are so critical of Peer Assistance and Review—but this is deceptive.)

The PAR program gives crucial credibility to the entire evaluation process, as part of a system of due process. If you have chosen teaching as a career, you ought to have a real process before that career is ended by a few years of low VAM scores, or the un-verified opinion of one administrator.

The evaluation system I described from Santa Clara and the PAR program are not new discoveries for the profession, though Mr. Gates is apparently unfamiliar with them. We educators need to elevate and share these effective practices, and create powerful themes for strong evaluations. We need to look at the places where these practices are in place, and share them. I believe we will find these models are undermined, not enhanced, by the use of VAM and other test-driven reforms.

Even as educators move to improve evaluations, we should discard the idea that useful feedback can only come in the context of a high-stakes evaluation. Just as our students learn best when we shift the focus of feedback away from grades, teachers learn best when feedback and reflection is developed in the context of peer-to-peer collaboration, not in the context of them being rated, ranked or categorized in an evaluation system.

So to summarize my views:

We need to pursue the conditions necessary for solid reflective, collaborative cultures at schools. These are dynamic processes that rely on the leadership and inspiration of everyone involved. They require trust to be invested in our school leaders, who in turn need to trust their teachers to engage in this often open-ended work. Constant pressure to raise test scores and top-down mandates destroy this. These external pressures do not add coherence—they subtract it. Teachers need autonomy and time, and they need support, access to partners, the use of strong models of collaboration, and small class sizes so they are not overwhelmed every day. We need to strengthen, not eliminate due process, when we ask teachers to open their classroom practices to one another and reflect honestly about their practice.

[Editors’ Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation helps support coverage of business and innovation in Education Week.]

Update: The Mills Teacher Scholars has just released this video showcasing their work with 90 teachers across the Oakland/Berkeley area.

What do you think about the models of professional growth and evaluation described here? How should we build a strong teaching profession?

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.