Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Bill Gates, On the Record

By Anthony Cody — February 18, 2014 6 min read
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As I wrote over the weekend, it has been announced that Bill Gates will be among the keynote speakers at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ Teaching and Learning conference next month. I have closely watched as Gates has become the most powerful figure in American education over the past decade, as a result of focused investments in research, advocacy, and non-profit organizations like the National Board. (In 2012, I had an extended dialogue with the Gates Foundation.)

Given the audience and Gates’ recent statements, we can anticipate what he is likely to say. But I am less interested in the praise that he will heap on the accomplished educators in the room than in what he has said and done in the past, when speaking to altogether different audiences. So like Marley’s ghost on Christmas eve, I want to take us on a bit of a tour of the echoes of Gates’ past, lest we forget what this man has wrought on the schools of America.

On what we know about effective teaching, Bill and Melinda Gates wrote in 2011,

It may surprise you--it was certainly surprising to us--but 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. This ignorance has serious ramifications. We can't give teachers the right kind of support because there's no way to distinguish the right kind from the wrong kind. We can't evaluate teaching because we are not consistent in what we're looking for. We can't spread best practices because we can't capture them in the first place.

It should certainly surprise any NBCTs that the field of education knows nothing about effective teaching, since the entire mission of the NBPTS has been built around this understanding, and here the Gates’ have basically stated that this work is of no value.

Why did Mr. Gates ignore the work of the National Board? This 2010 speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) gives us some clues. The CCSSO is a non-profit organization in which the Gates Foundation has invested millions of dollars. He addressed the complex issue of salary, and provided us with a clear means to determine where money ought to be spent:

Our pay structures don't identify or reward great teaching, and they don't support it through training or new technology. Instead we spend a lot of money on things that have little effect on teaching or learning - like seniority. It's reasonable to suppose that teachers who have served longer are more effective - you only have to assume that skill improves over time. But the evidence says it's not true. This chart shows that teacher seniority has only a modest effect on student achievement over the first five years and none thereafter. Yet, seniority is the single most expensive teacher-contract provision. The pay increases that teachers get for years of service account for 10 percent of total school expenditures. On a budget of $500 billion, that means $50 billion is paid out every year for something that has little correlation with student achievement. Another feature of school budgets is a bump in pay for master's degrees. But a master's degree has almost no impact on achievement. Nevertheless, my own state of Washington has an average salary bump of nearly $11,000 for a master's degree - and more than half of our teachers get it. That's more than $300 million every year that doesn't help kids. And that's just one state. As a country, we spend $9 billion a year for master's degrees. When we need higher student achievement on lower budgets, we're obliged to review all the money we're spending and ask: does this buy better student achievement?

Remember, in Gates’ world, better student achievement means higher test scores.

When I received National Board certification in the year 2000, the state of California gave every public school teacher who certified a bonus of $10,000. Those who worked in low performing schools were eligible for an additional $5,000 a year for four years. What has happened to these bonuses? In state after state, policymakers will say that there is not enough evidence that NBCTs have higher test scores. Due in part to relentless pressure from Gates-funded research and advocacy, every bit of spending must somehow be justified by an increase in test scores, and the far more nuanced definition of teacher effectiveness provided by the National Board has largely been overwhelmed. See this analysis from Georgia to see the position this approach has placed us in.

As the realities of the teacher evaluation systems championed by Gates-funded research and advocacy have become apparent, Bill Gates has tried to distance himself from the most obviously flawed models. Last April, he wrote:

This is one reason there is a backlash against standardized tests -- in particular, using student test scores as the primary basis for making decisions about firing, promoting and compensating teachers. I'm all for accountability, but I understand teachers' concerns and frustrations. Even in subjects where the assessments have been validated, such as literacy and math, test scores don't show a teacher areas in which they need to improve.

The cure for this frustration is the familiar phrase “multiple measures.” What this means in practice varies, but the most common scenario is that some system is used to calculate the “value” a teacher has added to their students’ test scores (VAM). This must be accorded “significant” weight, to meet Department of Education requirements. That means at least 30% or more of a teacher evaluation must be based on VAM scores. The balance can be principal observations, student surveys, or whatever. Note that the principal’s evaluation must also be based in significant part on school-wide test scores, so a teachers’ test scores will certainly be a factor in this judgment as well.

To be clear, these assessment systems, and the VAM scores derived from them, have NOT truly been validated in literacy and math, or anywhere else. Researchers have time and again shown systematic biases in VAM models that work against teachers of English Learners, special education students, and children who live in high levels of poverty. As this report suggested:

Adopting an invalid teacher evaluation system and tying it to rewards and sanctions is likely to lead to inaccurate personnel decisions and to demoralize teachers, causing talented teachers to avoid high-needs students and schools, or to leave the profession entirely, and discouraging potentially effective teachers from entering it. Legislatures should not mandate a test-based approach to teacher evaluation that is unproven and likely to harm not only teachers, but also the children they instruct.

We are going to hear all sorts of talk about multiple measures, student surveys and principal feedback. But the single largest emphasis of the Gates Foundation over the past decade has been to push relentlessly for the primacy of test score data in education, and the inclusion of other factors does not make bogus VAM scores go away.

Facing pushback against the Common Core, it can be anticipated that Mr. Gates will speak of how it is not a curriculum, and how it is not going to interfere with teacher autonomy. But here is what he said in that same speech to the CCSSO in 2010:

Aligning teaching with the common core - and building common data standards - will help us define excellence, measure progress, test new methods, and compare results. Finally, we will apply the tools of science to school reform.

Gates applied this scientific logic to class size as well. Speaking to the nation’s governors a few years ago, Gates pushed for “top” teachers to have bigger classes:

What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise.

And presumably we can use test scores to identify who these top teachers are. The research on class size does NOT support Mr. Gates on his basic idea. National Board certified teachers know that the most precious thing we can build is a classroom community where each and every child feels cared for, and has their academic, social and emotional needs met. This is lost when class sizes are pushed upwards, and no amount of money can compensate for that. The idea that we would want to trade the ability to meet our students’ needs for money is an insult.

The fourth of the National Board’s Five Core Propositions may offer NBCTs some guidance as they encounter the latest rhetoric from Mr. Gates:

Proposition 4: Teachers Think Systematically about Their Practice and Learn from Experience.

  • NBCTs model what it means to be an educated person - they read, they question, they create and they are willing to try new things.
  • They are familiar with learning theories and instructional strategies and stay abreast of current issues in American education.
  • They critically examine their practice on a regular basis to deepen knowledge, expand their repertoire of skills, and incorporate new findings into their practice.

We can learn from any experience, so I hope those who listen to Bill Gates speak next month take advantage of that opportunity. But I also hope the NBCTs there take seriously their roles as guardians of our profession, and recognize the nature of the systematic attack it has been under. Speeches change according to one’s audience. The speeches and grant funding that laid the groundwork for the current disaster in our education system were given to other, more powerful audiences.

I know that the level of saturation that Gates and his money has achieved make his influence almost like the air that we breath. For that reason, it is all the more important to have a sober assessment of this reality. Scientist Carl Sagan wrote some years ago,

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It's simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we've been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

Bill Gates is a charlatan as far as education is concerned. He has discarded the expertise of educators as if it were trash, because it did not align with his concept of how learning ought to be measured and improved. In its place, he has fostered a worship of almighty data. He will come to the National Board singing the praises of accomplished teachers, because he wants to bring leading educators to his side, even as he devalues their expertise and autonomy.

As Sagan suggests, this recognition is a painful one. But our students are the ones paying the highest price for the misguided substitution of test scores for real learning. Who better than NBCTs to stick up for them, at long last?

What do you think? Is it worth recalling past statements from Bill Gates? How should NBCTs respond to his speech next month?

(Note: Education Week has received funding from the Gates Foundation.)

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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.