In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bill and Melinda Gates expound on their foundation’s efforts to identify and improve teacher effectiveness. In doing so, they offer a comparison to the practices they used in running a software giant:
At Microsoft, we believed in giving our employees the best chance to succeed, and then we insisted on success. We measured excellence, rewarded those who achieved it and were candid with those who did not. Teachers don't work in anything like this kind of environment, and they want a new bargain.
As evidence for this, they cite a survey the Gates Foundation conducted with Scholastic, in which 85 percent of teachers said annual student growth should factor into evaluations and 80 percent said teacher tenure “should be re-evaluated regularly.” Teachers want support in the form of parental involvement, engagement from school leaders, and better resources, they write. And teachers want to be held accountable, as long as the measurement system is fair.
The hitch is this:
The field of education doesn't know very much at all about effective teaching. We have all known terrific teachers. You watch them at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they've mastered the craft. But nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them so outstanding.
The philanthropists then make the case for their foundation’s massive Measures of Effective Teaching research project. More than 3,000 teachers have volunteered to have their lessons videotaped and analyzed for the MET project, which is aimed at finding predictors of student success. “The end goal is to have a better sense of what makes teaching work so that school districts can start to hire, train and promote based on meaningful standards,” they write.
The couple has received plenty of criticism when speaking on teacher issues—mainly from educators who think billionaire businessmen should not be informing education policy—and this piece is no exception. (Many commenters were particularly bothered by the comparison of teaching kids to working at Microsoft.) In one response, retired teacher Walt Gardner contends that their emphasis on the use of high-stakes tests ultimately undermines their objective of treating teachers like true professionals.
In this piece, however, the philanthropists stress that they “realize it’s impossible to capture everything in a single metric.” But they also refuse to accept that teaching is “so nuanced that it is simply impossible to measure.”
What’s your view?
Editors Note: Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week Teacher, is a recipient of Gates Foundation funding.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.