Teaching Profession

Gates Ends Investment in Teacher Evaluation: What That Means for the Field

By Liana Loewus — October 23, 2017 3 min read
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Last week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced it was changing course in its K-12 education investments, including by ending funding for initiatives related to teacher evaluations.

The group, co-founded by billionaire entrepreneur Bill Gates, has been undeniably influential in shifting how states and districts have approached teacher quality over the last decade.

Between about 2008 and 2013, the group spent $700 million in grantmaking toward its teacher agenda. (Its total education grantmaking budget was about $2 billion.) That included about $45 million for its Measures of Effective Teaching study, which looked at different ways of gauging teacher effectiveness, including by using student test scores.

(Education Week receives financial support from the Gates Foundation for coverage of continuous improvement strategies in education. Education Week retains sole editorial control of its content.)

Early results from the teacher evaluation research showed that a mixture of classroom observations, student input, and measures of student growth could provide an accurate picture of teacher performance.

So if Gates has been so influential here, what does it mean that the foundation is pulling out of this teacher evaluation work?

Well, in the immediate sense, probably not too much. The majority of states currently have laws on the books requiring the sorts of teacher evaluation reforms that Gates was championing.

But other factors—mainly, the new federal education law—may soon cause real changes in this space.

Federal Incentives Push State Change

Here’s a bit of back story: While Gates’ MET research fueled interest in using student test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation, states were already headed in that direction for several other reasons.

Back in 2009, TNTP (formerly called the New Teacher Project) published “The Widget Effect"—a seminal report finding that 99 percent of teachers were being rated as satisfactory. Many began to question the validity of these evaluation systems. At the end of that year, the federal Race to the Top program began offering states incentives to rework their evaluation systems, including by incorporating student test data. (The multiyear MET study got going at right about the same time.)

A couple years later, the federal government strengthened its push for including student achievement measures in teacher evaluations through its waiver system. In order to get relief from some of the mandates in No Child Left Behind, which was then the main federal education law, states had to commit to linking student outcomes to their teacher evaluation systems. Most states got those waivers.

As of right now, 39 states are using objective student measures (including test scores) in their teacher evaluation systems. That’s up from 15 states in 2009, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Many teachers and their unions have been sharply critical of using student achievement measures to rate teachers, claiming doing so is an inexact science and causes too much emphasis on testing.

The latest federal education law, the Every Student Succeds Act, passed in December 2015, allows states to back off on using student growth measures to gauge teacher effectiveness.

Over the last two years, six states—Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—have moved away from including student growth measures, according to NCTQ. (And a couple of other states have strengthened their commitment to it.)

Whether more states will back off remains to be seen. But if they do, it’s probably a consequence of the federal education law—and not so much a result of the end of the Gates funding stream.

And an important side note in any conversation about teacher evaluation: Research shows that even in states that have significantly overhauled their evaluation systems, nearly all teachers continue to be rated as effective.

Image: Bill Gates, during an interview last May in Omaha, Neb. —Nati Harnik/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.