Bill Gates is listening to teachers on evaluations

Recently, Bill Gates published an op-ed in the Washington Post, "A fairer way to evaluate teachers." Skeptically, I clicked the link. I wasn't sure if I would read the typical education reform buzzwords with little depth to the issue, or if Gates would actually move the debate forward.

Photo by jurvetson on Flickr.

Sure, the title infers that he wants us to fairly evaluate teachers, but in this chapter of education reform, teachers and former teachers like myself have come to brace ourselves for suggestions from people who haven't actually experienced what it's like to teach.

However, to my surprise, Bill Gates made it clear that he's been listening to teachers or at least he now wants to not only listen, but seriously take the suggestions of teachers and put them on table. Below are some of the concerns he brought up.

Data gone wild: States are rushing to develop standardized tests for any and everything without giving much thought to whether that's even the best way to assess that particular subject. Gates worries about this trend:

One glaring example is the rush to develop new assessments in grades and subjects not currently covered by state tests. Some states and districts are talking about developing tests for all subjects, including choir and gym, just so they have something to measure.
Teaching purposefully: Just how do the yearly standardized tests help teachers improve their practice? Currently, teachers are unable to analyze standardized test data to look for student trends. If teachers were able to receive data on which objectives where students scored poorly, teachers would know how to problem-solve around it and plan purposefully for that unit for the next school year.

Also, if teachers received data on which objectives students performed well, they would know that that unit and lesson plans were an effective way to teach those standards. Gates said:

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.
Myth busting: Contrary to what many people outside the profession may think, teachers want to be evaluated. However, like Gates is emphasizing, teachers want to be evaluated fairly using multiple measure—not student performance at one point of the year on one standardized test. They deserve to see their professional growth throughout the school year and over many years of teaching.
The fact is, teachers want to be accountable to their students. What the country needs are thoughtfully developed teacher evaluation systems that include multiple measures of performance, such as student surveys, classroom observations by experienced colleagues and student test results.
Teachers aren't in it for the money: I know plenty of teachers who seek out teaching positions in low-income communities because they know there's a need for high-quality teachers in those schools. However, when teachers decide to teach in a high-need school, districts and schools need to ensure that those schools have a strong curriculum, on-going and tailored professional development, and transformative leadership. Once at the school, it's up to the teachers and staff to build and maintain a strong culture.
Teachers also tell me that while compensation is important, so are factors such as high-quality professional development opportunities, a strong school leader, engaged families and the chance to work with like-minded colleagues.
A path to school leadership: We need to rethink the teacher career ladder. There are many schools that are beginning to shift focus on ways to keep teachers in the classroom while also giving them opportunities to lead in various areas such as school culture, professional development, and student enrichment. Gates said:
In top-performing education systems in other parts of the world, such as Singapore and Shanghai, accomplished teachers earn more by taking on additional responsibilities such as coaching and mentoring other teachers and helping to capture and spread effective teaching techniques. Such systems are a way to attract, retain and reward the best teachers; make great use of their skills; and honor the collaborative nature of work in schools.
It's refreshing to read Bill Gates' thoughts. Still, these are the same things that teachers have said for years. Read the education blogs, check out different education chats on Twitter, go sit down with teachers in the school lounge, and you'll hear that these views time and time again. The real question is, will these concerns make it into policy? Only time will tell.
Darla Bunting taught for 4 years. She's working towards a Masters of Education at American University & is the Manager of Volunteer and Alumni Engagement at @CollegeSummit. She co-leads @FirstBookDC which provides teachers and schools and children in need with high-quality books and is Capital Director of @Capital_Cause, which engages young professionals through collective giving and service. 


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I'm not sure if Gates is ready to act on what he says but this is encouraging. After the Rhee era of blaming teachers and the focus on standardized tests, maybe this is the natural progression of things. It is interesting, however, that many of the things he talks about here are indeed what many educators (and those in spirit) have been saying for the past several years now.

by HogWash on Apr 5, 2013 10:05 am • linkreport

"teachers want to be evaluated fairly using multiple measure—not student performance at one point of the year on one standardized test."

Great piece, and I think it's great that individual teachers want to collaborate in the school reform process. That's key.

But there's a difference in goals between individual teachers and teachers unions. Often the core mandate of the union is to protect the rights of individual teachers. This ultimately boils down to aggressively protecting individuals from accountability.

As far as basing teacher evaluations on "student performance at one point of the year on one standardized test", is there any school system in the country that does this? It's certainly not the case in DCPS. (Especially post-IMPACT).

If it were, 90% of all DCPS teachers would be fired every year.

by oboe on Apr 5, 2013 10:18 am • linkreport

Agree with oboe - the focus of many critics is on "high-stakes testing" but that is only 30% of DCPS teacher evaluations. The weight of testing in the evaluations was recently decreased, yet DCPS got basically zero credit from the critics for doing that. The other part is evaluations by master educators and the teacher's principal - something like six of them throughout the year.

by MLD on Apr 5, 2013 10:58 am • linkreport

When are we going to start talking about evaluating principals and admin in general? E.g. useless mandatory professional development provided by people who have zero experience teaching-or years less than the people they are supposed to be providing PD to, and useless busywork demanded by admin that will not be used for anything and has nothing to do with preparing for the classroom.

@oboe-I disagree that the union is there solely to protect teachers from accountability. As far as teachers being able to honestly evaluate their principals when the critique is negative, the union does not provide cover for the teacher. Any teacher who openly critiques the principal can expect to receive bad evaluations until s/he is fired or otherwise have his/her worklife be made miserable. Principals have too much power.

by Tina on Apr 5, 2013 11:05 am • linkreport

Often the core mandate of the union is to protect the rights of individual teachers. This ultimately boils down to aggressively protecting individuals from accountability.

While any membership organization's "purpose" is to advocate for its members, it's always been a stretch to suggest that the operate to the exclusion of any accountability. It's simply a line of attack often employed as a way to assign blame.

Agree w/Tina about evaluating principles and am surprised it doesn't currently happen. I don't believe the same should apply for administrators though.

by HogWash on Apr 5, 2013 11:23 am • linkreport

@HogWash -principals are administrators; thats what I meant. Anyone with power over what a teachers' tasks are that effect how that teacher will be evaluated -currently in DCPS many of those tasks do not help with the education process and in fact hinder it by requiring teachers to provide useless paperwork to administrators, the production of which is time robbed from a)tutoring after school; b)calling parents; c)preparing lessons; d)grading, etc. all tasks that are directly related to the education process.

by Tina on Apr 5, 2013 11:42 am • linkreport

"Principals have too much power."

But I'm not sure how it could be otherwise. At the end of the day, the principal needs to be ultimately accountable for the performance of the school. So there's a certain amount of autocracy. If you've got a principal in place that isn't capable of using that power judiciously, they need to go. But that whoop is going to be a failure so long as that principal is in place. Neutering their authority in some way isn't likely to be an effective solution.

We're lucky enough to belong to a high-functioning DCPS school (also high poverty, so test scores are poor). But the principal is a treasure: tireless, a unifying personality for the school, and a true partner for the school's parents.

I'm not sure what it would look like if her powers was severely curtailed, but it's not likely to be an improvement.

Obviously, we're extremely lucky, but for schools with an ineffective principal, the answer has go to be to get rid of that principal.

by oboe on Apr 5, 2013 11:42 am • linkreport

"whoop" = "school"

by oboe on Apr 5, 2013 11:43 am • linkreport

@oboe-I know a principle who declined to hold back a child to repeat 5th grade when the teacher recommended and there was no objection from parents,teacher said s/he'd take the child into his/her classroom, liked the child, had faith in the child but didn't think he was ready for middle school. The principle refused b/c it made HIM look bad to have a child repeat. Your school and the teachers there is very fortunate to have a good principle. But how would you get rid of her if she weren't good? How would you even know if teachers aren't empowered to evaluate honestly?

by Tina on Apr 5, 2013 11:48 am • linkreport

Why would teacher evaluations go to the principal in the first place? Why not send them to the central office and anonymize them?

Obviously having a toxic principal is much greater problem than having a bad teacher. Getting them out of the profession (or at least out of DCPS) is even more important as weeding out bad teachers.

by oboe on Apr 5, 2013 11:56 am • linkreport

@ Oboe - understand that you are interested and committed to removing toxic principals. My daugher has had a year of elementary school with a toxic teacher. I found that as objectionable for the school and stunting for my daughter and all her classmates. So i'm thinking getting rid of toxic principals, teachers, and others seems fairly equally important. Also, if they are NOT EFFECTIVE -- they should go and i hope they will find another line of work. They should not BE IN FRONT OF CHILDREN IN OUR SCHOOLS IF THEY ARE NOT EFFECTIVE. I agree with your comment about responsibility/authority of principals. I work in a nonprofit and I've also worked in a company. My supervisor was responsible and had authority over performance in our unit as the CEO/COO did for the company overall. In a school building, if there is NOT point responsibility, there is in fact no one to hold accountable. I

by Tom M on Apr 5, 2013 12:08 pm • linkreport

@oboe I agree having a toxic principal is much greater problem than having a bad teacher.

No one should be able to be a principal w/o at least 5 years teaching experience in the type of school s/he will administrate. Or at least some way for teachers to honestly evaluate principals. the problem w/ even anonymous is that if teacher gives specific examples of bad leadership it is very easy to determine who wrote it.

by Tina on Apr 5, 2013 12:09 pm • linkreport

@Tom M -ok a good teacher can benefit the classroom even if s/he is toiling under a bad principle -but that teacher will be departing soon. A good principle will recognize a truly bad teacher and work to correct it, even if it means him/her putting in extra time in the classroom him/herself to help take up the slack until teacher improves/is gone.

by Tina on Apr 5, 2013 12:18 pm • linkreport

@Tom M -I think its a mistake to think of a principle as a CEO. They need to understand Education (with a capital E) the classroom and the burden of teaching first and foremeost -not how to maximize profits for shareholders. Some of the worst principles I know of were hand picked by Rhee b/c they had business experience. its not a business -its child development.

by Tina on Apr 5, 2013 12:22 pm • linkreport

Tina - I think you're arguing against a straw man, at least in DCPS. Principals and APs are appointed on one-year terms, and it's quite common for principals to fail to receive reappointments if they don't meet standards in DC.

Principals also have a set of performance standards and measurable targets this year in their own version of the IMPACT evaluation, which (along with standardized test results) will inform whether they're invited back to a school.

by Schools Watch on Apr 5, 2013 1:01 pm • linkreport

@Schools Watch-are you a teacher with a bad principle? Are you the confident of any teachers who trust you to express freely their true feelings about their principles and give examples of what has led to their frustration? If not then i don't think you understand the problem.

Part of the evaluation of principles you reference resulted in the exact example i gave up-thread about a principle forbidding a child to repeat 5th grade -against the recommendation of child's teacher, w/ no objection from parents. This can happen b/c principles are evaluated on rate of students rising to next level and aren't held accountable for an action like the one described -an action that had potentially life altering disastrous results for that student -a student who had the care and backing of a teacher who was willing to work with him. This is one example of one principle from one school who has held position for multiple years.

by Tina on Apr 5, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

While upward feedback is a good practice, I don't think I agree that it's the most important element of evaluating managers. Principals are evaluated, and I want to be clear that they are held accountable to various standards, at least in DCPS.

In your example, I'm not sure it's fair to judge the principal based on your story. It's possible that the parents weren't actually okay with holding a student back; perhaps the principal feared the student would disrupt first-time fifth grades or considered statistics for students who were held back. Or maybe none of those things, and the principal just wanted to look good, as you said.

In any case, the story still allows for the possibility that the principal was being evaluated fairly, even if their evaluation was not based on upward feedback from teachers.

PS: I hate to be pedantic, but it's principal when you're referring to a school leader, principle when you're referring to an ideal.

by Schools Watch on Apr 5, 2013 1:58 pm • linkreport

@ Oboe and Tina -- I have never agreed with the idea that only a member of the guild has any real standing to assess the performance of other members of the guild. In other important areas of life, medicine, law, social services, and in areas that are both non profit and for profit, managers and supervisors who may have NEVER served in positions that work on their team are responsible and accountable for managing, assessing, and ultimately whether to promote, keep, or separate individuals. I have been a teacher in a public school system. I left primarily because it was completely demoralizing to have a sizable group of colleagues who did not put in very much effort, were not committed to continuing to improve in their profession, and more concerned with preserving protections for their colleagues than getting teachers who were not effective out of the classroom. All professions have people underperforming. According to a NYTimes article this weekend, 95%+ of teachers are assessed as effective or better on assessment approaches put in place by the education "reformers" (who ever THEY might be). Frankly, that was not my experience as either a teacher or a parent with a child in DCPS. So the public has this challenge -- how can we ensure bad or poor teachers leave or are told to leave the classrooms?

by Tom M on Apr 5, 2013 2:30 pm • linkreport

@Schools Watch -one standard by which principals are held accountable is the rate at which students rise to t he next level -thus they have an incentive to not hold students back when when appropriate. This principal was not evaluated by the success/failure of this student in middle school.

In my example the parents were/are non-English speakers, immigrants from a war, illiterate in their own language with a child who had NEVER attended school before until he arrived at this school in the 4th grade, upon which he had the same teacher for two years in a row. The teacher was/is bilingual and could communicate with the student and the parents; no so the principal. The parents were fine with the teachers' recommendation and in fact weren't paying close attention to the educational process of the child anyway -how could they be expected to? Again -this teacher knew this student-had him in class before; was willing to take him back; liked him! Thought he was smart -just suffered from lack of formal education.

Why are you defending this principal? Why are you second guessing this teacher? Are you a principal who doesn't trust teachers?

There is a problem with principal evaluation whether you see it or not. This is ONE example from one principal in one school where this principal has held position for multiple years. There are many many more examples. Teachers have to toil under this kind of BS and be evaluated by people like this and have their whole careers depend on principals like this.

I'm sick of teacher bashing. I only know good and great teachers. I know several lousy principals who push good teachers out. "here have 35 students this year, with no extra help; serve breakfast during classroom instruction time, with no help; take on some special ed students-even though you aren't a qualified special ed teacher, with no help; come to a mandatory meeting during your scheduled planning time; come to mandatory BS PD during your scheduled planning time; fill out this BS paperwork after your 5 days of 12 hour days-and if its late it will effect your evaluation; etc. etc. etc."

by Tina on Apr 5, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

@Tom M-I have experience w/ DCPS too. I agree there were and still are bad teachers. I think most of the really bad ones are gone by now. I think you are wrong that there is a good system to hold principals accountable. Bad principals push good teachers out. Look at the rate of retention of teachers in DCPS. Most stay <5 years. Its disruptive to have teachers leaving all the time. Its bad for the students, the school, the system.

by Tina on Apr 5, 2013 2:46 pm • linkreport

Tina - I don't mean to belabor the point, but your example doesn't prove that this was a bad principal. It just proves that this was a principal who promoted a student, one who you believe wasn't ready for middle school. For all that either of us know, the principal's evaluation marked him/her down because of that social promotion practice, but s/he was kept on despite that because of other strengths.

by Schools Watch on Apr 5, 2013 3:18 pm • linkreport

@Schools Watch - one who you believe wasn't ready for middle school.
He wasn't my student. it was the assessment of his experienced 5th grade teacher-who said s/he would take him in his/her classroom again. Its ONE example over many years from this principal.

I don't know what this means: the principal's evaluation marked him/her down because of that social promotion practice, but s/he was kept on despite that because of other strengths.

I gave concrete examples to illustrate my assertion that principals aren't evaluated fairly and as support to my belief that there is too much teacher bashing and not enough spotlight shined on administrators. You are arguing that principals are evaluated fairly by picking apart my concrete examples.

Please tell me how a teacher can critique a principal negatively without the principal knowing who gave the critique.

by Tina on Apr 5, 2013 4:17 pm • linkreport

The Gates article is pretty slim on the actual 'teacher evaluation' mechanisms. Especially since the recent publication of Gates Foundation funded study came out with a recommendation of 33-50% 'state tests', aka 'high stakes testing', student surveys and observations by multiple observers.

The 'student surveys' was equally good predictor of teacher quality as measured by year-on-year improvement in the randomized assignment research.

The major problem is that the high stakes test are almost always severly flawed.

Many standardized tests (DCPS for example) contain test questions on things that are barely in the curriculum and are of minimal value to student key concepts and skills (DC math test has lots of these problem questions).
Many of the tests have questions written in language that is AT GRADE LEVEL, which means that any child not reading at grade level will fail, even if they know the math concepts.
The 'Core Curriculum' is getting implemented in flawed assessment instruments this year. This will transform a good idea (core curriculum with multiple ways to learn core concepts and deep investigation leading to mastery of analysis and concepts) into standardized, testable crap. The easily captured 'accountability data' will then be used to fire good teachers who are not carefully managing their 'accountability data' by teaching to the test (or cheating).

None of this shows up in Gates' pablum op-ed.

The GF funded study (Measuring Teacher Effectiveness) research links are here, page 7.

A quote from the report,
"effective teachers not only caused students to perform better on state tests, but they also caused students to score higher on other, more cognitively challenging assessments in math and English." highlights the key differences between the Gates philosophy and most teachers. Gates cares about the 'state tests', good teachers are all about doing better on more cognitively challenging assessments rather than standardized tests.

Also worth noting that the standardized tests are time consuming (best practice would include an assessment test at beginning of the year although this is perhaps not being done currently, teaching the test taking process, a pre-test, a second familiarizing pre-test, the final high-stakes test), not grade appropriate (kindergarten, first and second grade), do not cover all disciplines that we send our kids to school to learn (e.g. foreign language, art, social studies, science).

The time lost to inappropriate testing and documenting student the student performance is huge. However, is is essential to spend the time because measures must be produced to provide accountability. Wrong measures -> bad accountability. The principal evaluation instance mentioned up-thread where holding back a student for the student's learning runs counter to the accountability measure for the principal shows how this works in practice; teachers and administrators are willing to sacrifice the kid and parents' interests if necessary to retain the teacher/administrator job. Teachers MUST produce good accountability measures.

I would love to see the Gates Foundation spend the big bucks on creating better testing processes -- unfortunately, this is a pipe-dream. The race to create the 'common' test with which to reap tremendous financial returns as the licensed test is taken by all students, year after year, is won not by the quality of the test but by the speed with which it can become the new standard.

by easy-data-points winners and losers on Apr 7, 2013 9:34 pm • linkreport

I would love to see the Gates Foundation spend the big bucks on creating better testing processes -- unfortunately, this is a pipe-dream.

I'm curious: is there any conceivable evaluation process that measures student achievement? I'm honestly asking. While it's obvious there are better and worse systems, it doesn't seem like the previous method of just assuming everyone was doing a great job was optimal either.

So what's the alternative, other than "do it better"?

(And as far as "teacher accountability" goes, there always seems to be this false dynamic presented where the "evil school principal" is motivated by nothing more than "firing good teachers". That seems nutty on the face of it to me. Bu if that's the case, we should have more peer review introduced into the process. In my limited experience, everyone knows who the awful teachers are--especially their peers.)

by oboe on Apr 8, 2013 9:25 am • linkreport

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