Photo by jurvetson on Flickr.
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.
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.