Gates Foundation Staying the Course on Teacher Effectiveness, High Standards

By Liana Loewus — October 07, 2015 5 min read
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Bellevue, Wash.

During a conference keynote speech Wednesday morning, Bill Gates recommitted the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to its current work in supporting the use of high academic standards and helping teachers improve through evaluation systems that provide useful feedback.

“I believe we are on the right track,” Gates said in prepared remarks at the U.S. Education Learning Forum here. “For today, and for the coming years, this is our vision: Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal. And all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests.”

Test scores should be a part of teacher evaluation systems, Gates said, but just a part. Classroom observations and student surveys can also offer meaningful information about how teachers can improve, he said.

(Note: Education Week has received Gates Foundation funding over the years for news coverage and other projects.)

In a phone interview, Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank and Gates grantee, who was not in attendance, said continuing the current work is not a bad idea for the Gates foundation.

“I think when you’re doing something that’s complicated and is about deep and sustainable change, it takes a while, and foundations which change strategy or focus every half-dozen years don’t do themselves or the kids any favors,” he said. “American education has far more faddism and short-term bandwagon-jumping than it needs.”

However, Hess said that he hopes that “part of staying the course is backing away from grandiose efforts to make everybody do this right now the same way, and supporting efforts for states, districts and schools to do these things in smart, nuanced ways.”

Teacher Evaluation Model

Gates first laid out the foundation’s teacher-effectiveness strategy during a similar speech in 2008. Since then, the foundation has been involved in a variety of projects related to teacher quality, including the Measures of Effective Teaching project, in which researchers analyzed 13,000 videos of classroom teachers to try to find patterns among effective educators.

In his latest speech, Gates highlighted the teacher evaluation system in Denver, which combines observations, student surveys, and test scores, as a model.

“This isn’t a system for sorting teachers into groups; it’s a framework for moving up the learning line together,” Gates said in prepared remarks. “The principal can visit the class, discuss it with the teacher, and decide together where the teacher stands. If they’re not satisfied, they can settle on a plan for getting better, including coaching from fellow teachers. It’s a clear path to growth.”

But in a phone interview, Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, a vocal critic of the foundation, called the speech “prattle” and accused Gates of “cherry picking” data.

“The Gates reforms of [Common Core State Standards] plus testing plus teacher evaluation based on test scores has been a disaster in New York” where she used to be a principal, she said.

Linking test scores to evaluations has been especially problematic, according to Burris. “There’s a reason that over 220,000 students opted out of the common-core exams,” she said. “If you talk to parents in the opt-out movement ... what they say universally is they do not want their teachers evaluated by test scores because they understand that when they are, there’s a hyper-focus on teaching to the test.”

Gates acknowledged that the use of test scores is controversial, but emphasized that they are just one of multiple measures being used in evaluations. “No state uses them for more than 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. Eight don’t require test scores at all, and everyone else is somewhere between zero and 50,” he said at the conference.

Funding Buckets

Since the evaluation policies are up to the states, the foundation’s goal is to “put our shoulder into making sure the feedback teachers get is actionable,” Vicki Phillips, the director of the foundation’s college-ready program, explained in an interview after the speech.

The foundation’s investments in teacher effectiveness fall into several buckets, Phillips said. Those include professional learning, teacher tools and supports, increased time for planning and collaboration, and teacher voice.

“The No. 1 thing teachers tell us they need is time. We’re figuring out how they can get more time to collaborate,” she said, pointing to grants in Fresno and Long Beach, Calif., and Bridgeport, Conn., that support teacher professional development.

The “math and literacy collaboratives,” which are designed to help teachers implement the Common Core State Standards, are an example of the kinds of tools the foundation is investing in, she said. The foundation is also waiting on the results from a RAND study on personalized learning, due in November, that could affect funding priorities.

Phillips declined to offer financial details on future grantmaking, except to say, “We set our priorities and invest around that. ... We’re still investing healthy numbers as we have been doing.” (You can find a list of the foundation’s teacher-quality related grants here. As my colleague Stephen Sawchuk wrote, the foundation had spent $700 million on its teaching agenda between 2008 and 2013.)

Backing Common Core

As for the common-core standards, which the foundation has adamantly backed since conception, Gates praised them as well. “We view them as quite fundamental. It’s unfortunate that many of the attacks about the common core have drowned out the facts—and the fact is, the standards are starting to work for students and teachers.”

He said the standards have made it easier for teachers to find materials online that meet their needs, and given educators a common taxonomy.

Overall, the speech made clear that the foundation will stay the course on teacher effectiveness for many years to come. “If we stay focused on this goal we can help all teachers rise to the top together and change the lives of millions of students,” said Gates.

Andrea Prejean, the director of teacher quality for the National Education Association, whose foundation has received Gates funding in the past, said in a statement, “We see that Mr. Gates’ comments center on in-school factors, but we believe that we must discuss these issues as part of a system where all students have what they need both inside and outside the school building.”

The American Federation of Teachers, which stopped taking Gates money for its innovation fund in 2013, declined to comment on Gates’ speech.

Image: Bill Gates gives his keynote address at the U.S. Education Learning Forum put on by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Bellevue, Wash. —Ian C. Bates for Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.