A partial response to Bill Gates’ op-ed about teachers

Today’s Washington Post features an op-ed by Bill Gates titled How teacher development could revolutionize our schools.  Teachers are the latest focus of Gates and his foundation.  Before I respond to anything in this particular piece, let me remind readers that the last time Bill Gates got enthused about something in education, it was small schools.   His foundations sank a huge amount of money into getting districts to create small schools while ignoring the research that had been done by those who had focused on the issue for years.  The result was that the endeavor was not all that successful, the foundation has now pulled out of the effort, in some cases pulling the plug on ongoing efforts it had encouraged, and unfortunately tarnishing the concept and making it more difficult for those attempting to do it right.

Gates is now pushing a focus on teachers and teaching.  That in itself would not be bad, except that as seems part and parcel of his approach, he has already locked himself in to certain approaches that are not necessarily going to help students all that much.  And in the process, some of what he is advocating has the potential, especially in the times in which we find ourselves, to do great damage to teaching and thus to the learning of the students.

I will not explore all of the op ed.  I simply have more important things – my students – to which I have to pay attention.  I will focus on only one of his suggestions, which addresses the issue of class size, while combining it with merit pay, all of which is presumably based on some measure of teacher effectiveness.

Gates wants to do away with longevity increases.  He does not want to pay more for advanced degrees.   His arguments against these is largely based on test scores, not even value added test scores, since there is not a lot of other material currently available in the peer reviewed research.  He is paying to develop better measures of teacher effectiveness, including working on a protocol to evaluate teachers by rating videotaped lessons.  Part of the approach being used is the evaluation protocol used by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, in which evaluation of video tapes of PARTS of two lessons is PART of the overall process of determining if a teacher qualifies for National Board Certification -  disclosure:  I am a National Board Certified Teacher.   I worry in reading Gates that his approach seems to be taking PART of that process and attempting to turn it in to the only measure, or at least to magnify it as a measure out of proportion to the other parts of the process.

That said, Gates apparently does not even want to wait to fully pilot this process.  Thus we read two key paragraphs: 

Perhaps the most expensive assumption embedded in school budgets – and one of the most unchallenged – is the view that reducing class size is the best way to improve student achievement. This belief has driven school budget increases for more than 50 years. U.S. schools have almost twice as many teachers per student as they did in 1960, yet achievement is roughly the same.

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. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.

Let me just focus on this.   In theory, it might make more sense to give the “better” teachers more students, but Gates ignores the fact that many of us already teach too many students.   And the proposal ignores the fact that in many school systems class sizes are already increasing for all teachers because of the financial pressures local and state governments are experiencing.  We recently heard that high school class sizes in Detroit could go up to as many as 60 students.

And yes, as teachers have had salaries frozen -  in our districts we have gone more than a year without step increases – or even worse, experienced cuts – in my case, loss of 7,000 in national board stipends and four furlough days – some desperately need any additional money they can earn to pay their bills.  Believe me, I know.

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