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Education Funding Opinion

A Small Request for My Friends at Gates

By Rick Hess — March 05, 2014 2 min read
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At an Al Shanker Institute forum a few weeks back, at the AFT’s DC headquarters, I aggressively defended the good intentions and fair-mindedness of foundation staff working on education (you can see the event here). I offered my own criticisms, but I mostly told an audience very skeptical of Gates/Walton/Broad/et al. that the people I know at these foundations are smart, well-intentioned, and entirely willing to hear and benefit from criticism, so long as it’s offered up constructively and in a spirit of mutual respect. The problem, I said, was how rarely skeptics reached out in that spirit.

Indeed, I said that if critics did so and hit a wall, I’d be willing to see if I could help. Well, John Thompson, blogger and award-winning teacher, wrote to say he has a few suggestions for the Measures of Effective Teaching team at the Gates Foundation but doesn’t know how to connect with them. I’ve known Thompson for a while now and, throughout our various disagreements, I’ve found him smart and thoughtful. He asked if I’d share his ideas. Because I thought the whole exercise a healthy one, I thought I’d do it this way.

Thompson, in his words, “respectfully proposes” that Gates consider the following, when it comes to determining whether good teaching looks the same in high- and low-poverty schools. He writes:

1. "[Gates] should follow their standard procedure and observation rubric in high-challenge classrooms. That will be the control. They'd then follow the same procedures with other evaluators, but only after briefing those evaluators on the students' disciplinary and criminal justice records, IEP and ELL status, and the school's policies on enforcing its code of conduct. The question is how much that would change observation outcomes. 2. Run the value-added of schools, controlled by the hour of the day. Then, compare the value-added of the same teachers, with the same students, and compare them by hour. Do they achieve the same value-added first hour and after lunch, as during the middle of the morning? (When my school was the lowest-ranked in Oklahoma, kids got off the morning buses carrying on disputes from the neighborhood. By second hour, we looked like an effective school and most teachers taught effectively. As lunch approached, we started to fall apart, and during lunch, every day, the school spun out of control--but not because of anything a given teacher did or didn't do). My hypothesis is that both of these tests would show that both the value-added and the observational rubric are likely to be biased against teachers in the toughest schools. 3. Take the data that is already available on the Teacher Transfer Initiative. Compare the value-added of top teachers recruited to transfer and see whether it dropped when leaving high-performing for low-performing schools. It would be doubly valuable to do so in multiple districts, to see if the ideology of the administration makes a difference."

Now, I’m the last guy to suggest any foundation is obliged to do something just because someone else would like them to. And I’m not suggesting that I necessarily agree with Thompson on any of this. But the point is that an outspoken veteran educator, who’s been publicly critical of “reform,” is constructively engaging around questions and suggestions that have a lot of traction among teachers right now.

Foundation thinking can be insular (the same is true in think tanks and in schools, of course). For foundations, the risk is especially high when critics resort to insulting language that makes them easy to tune out. So it behooves staff to seize on productive openings. Gates staff may view Thompson’s queries as off-the-mark, naïve, or what-have-you, but here’s a chance to explain why that’s so and demonstrate receptivity to contrary views. If the Measures of Effective Teaching team thinks they’ve already addressed these questions, that they’re misguided, or that they’ve moved on in another direction, that’s cool--e-mail Thompson (johnt4853@sbcglobal.net) to tell him that, explain why, and seize an opportunity to more productively discuss all this with MET skeptics. My hope? That enough modest steps like this might help boost the amount of reasoned discussion in the space, and dial back the amount of motive-questioning invective.

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