2010 Annual Letter from Bill Gates: Helping Teachers Improve | http://bit.ly/aYeFyS
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $335 million in teacher performance/merit pay – some of it in Los Angeles Gates: “The benefits of this would be unbelievably large, which is why we are pursuing it even though we know there is a high risk that it could fail. Previous efforts along these lines seemed to thrive for a few years, but if the system is not well run or if teachers reject differentiation, it gets shut down.”
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $335 million in teacher performance/merit pay – some of it in Los AngelesGates: “The benefits of this would be unbelievably large, which is why we are pursuing it even though we know there is a high risk that it could fail. Previous efforts along these lines seemed to thrive for a few years, but if the system is not well run or if teachers reject differentiation, it gets shut down.”
The foundation works on health in poor countries because we think it’s the best way to improve lives globally. In the United States, we believe the best way to improve lives is to improve public education. America’s education system has been fundamental to its success as a nation. But the way we prepare students has barely changed in 100 years. If we don’t start innovating in education to make it better and more accessible, we won’t fulfill our commitment to equal opportunity, and our competitiveness will fall behind that of other countries.
From left: Visiting an Algebra I class at West Charlotte High School with Melinda (Charlotte, North Carolina, 2009); Living Environment science class at the Urban Assembly Academy of Government and Law (New York, New York, 2008).
In last year’s letter I wrote about the evidence that helping teachers teach more effectively is the best way to improve high schools. It is incredible how much the top quartile of teachers can improve the skills of even students who are quite far behind. This was a new effort for us at the time, so in 2009 I spent a lot of time trying to understand more about teaching: How do you identify the best teachers? How can they help other teachers be as good as they are? What investments are made to raise the average quality of teaching?
It is amazing how little feedback teachers get to help them improve, especially when you think about how much feedback their students get. Students regularly have their skills measured with tests. The results show how they compare to other students. Students know how to improve because they see where they did well and where they didn’t. They can talk to other students and learn from those who mastered the material.
Students get more feedback on their work than people in most jobs. One job where the worker is provided almost no feedback is the teacher at the front of the class. In a teacher’s personnel file there is rarely anything specific about where the teacher is strong or weak. Often there is just a checklist of basic things like showing up on time and keeping the classroom clean. In places where there is a rating system at all, 99 percent of teachers are rated satisfactory. Although this personnel system has the benefit of low overhead and predictability, it doesn’t help identify best practices and drive improvement.
The alternative is a system where time and money are invested in evaluation with the goal of helping teachers improve. Making this work requires both resources and trust. A new system needs to be predictable and help teachers identify weaknesses and give them ways to improve, and it should not make capable teachers afraid of capricious results.
A key point of contention about an evaluation system is how much it will identify teachers who are not good and don’t improve. A better system should certainly identify the small minority who don’t belong in teaching, but its key benefit is that it will help most teachers improve.
A new system requires more than just taking the test scores of the students and seeing how they improve after a year with a teacher. It also involves things like feedback from students, parents, and peer teachers and an investment of time in reviewing actual teaching. Tools like video can be used so that a teacher can send peers a video showing him trying to do something hard, like keeping a class focused, and ask for advice. Instead of people coming into the classroom, which is quite invasive, a webcam can be used to gather samples for evaluation.
To help develop an evaluation system to improve teacher effectiveness, in November we committed $335 million to partnerships in Memphis, Tennessee; Hillsborough County, Florida; Pittsburgh; and Los Angeles. The involvement and support of the union representatives in each of these locations was a key part of their selection.
This is an instance where there isn’t a clean separation between the creation of the innovation—ways to evaluate teachers and help them improve—and the delivery of the innovation, which requires teachers to embrace a change to the personnel system. We are working on both at the same time. Teachers will be evaluated and given incentive pay based on excellence. If most of the teachers in these locations like the new approach and they share their positive experience, then these evaluation practices will spread. The goal is for them to become standard practice nationwide. The benefits of this would be unbelievably large, which is why we are pursuing it even though we know there is a high risk that it could fail. Previous efforts along these lines seemed to thrive for a few years, but if the system is not well run or if teachers reject differentiation, it gets shut down.
The filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, who directed An Inconvenient Truth, has a new documentary about American education coming out this year. Waiting for Superman tells the story of several kids trying to get into schools with high-quality teaching—it’s literally a lottery that will decide the fate of these young people. Although I may be biased because I appear in the movie, I think it is fantastic and hope it will galvanize a lot more political will to improve teaching effectiveness.
From left: Student at the Durham Performance Learning Center, Durham Public Schools (Durham, North Carolina, 2009); speaking with Danny Gilfort, principal of the Durham Performance Learning Center (Durham, North Carolina, 2009).
Melinda and I visited a number of schools in North Carolina during the fall and had a chance to see some amazing principals and teachers. In one inner-city Charlotte school, teachers look at test results each week to understand who is teaching which concepts the best way so they can learn from each other. In Durham, we visited a special high school called the Performance Learning Center , which is for kids who have dropped out of a typical public school but want to get their high school degree. One reason we visited them was to see how they use online learning. There are no lectures, and kids can move ahead at their own pace. A lot of the kids start out making progress more slowly than they would in a traditional class, but with the support of the teachers in the school and as they get used to the online approach, almost all of them move through the courses a lot faster than normal classes would let them. This is very motivational to the kids because they can do more than a year’s worth of schoolwork in a single year.