Friday, February 04, 2011

Gates Chats Education at WaPo

Bill Gates stopped by the Washington Post the other day to chat about his polio eradication program, when the education staff pulled him aside for a brief chat on school reform.

Like Thomas Edison before him, Gates is a smart successful technology guy whose unique perspective may (or may not) allow him to see more clearly than the rest of us. What he does have that we don't have, is $34 billion or so to spend on doing good. Right now, about a million of those dollars are supporting Kentucky's Senate Bill 1 implementation, which is fortunate, because our legislature isn't.

Gates is a fan of measuring teacher effectiveness and a foe of teacher tenure.

This from Nick Anderson of the Washington Post on Jay Matthews' Class Struggle blog:

I was struck by his tendency to wade into the weeds of policy--for example, discoursing on characteristics of "the top quartile" and "the bottom quartile" of teachers. Gates has gone to some lengths to cultivate working relationships with teachers unions. Still, many of his views on the subject are disputed by critics who say that he doesn't know what he's talking about and that he puts too much faith in the power of data derived from standardized tests. Here are some of the takeaways.

On teaching, baseball and statistics: "There's almost no profession that you could say that the 2011 practitioner may not be any better than the 1920 practitioner, and teaching I think is the only profession you can say that about. ...

Hummm. I disagree with the premise, but just to play along, investment banking leaps to mind. Finance, economics, insurance, real estate.... They would seem to be operating somewhere around a 1929 standard. And for what it's worth, it was the good math students who were in complete control of, (and totally screwed up) our nation's economy, forcing America into mountains of debt with bailouts for the wrong-doers in the process.

"If you look at any objective data, [baseball] pitchers are just in another league than they were in 1920, and the batters are a lot better. … Baseball players are way, way, way better. But the teachers are just sort of -- if they’re good, they’re good. If they’re not, they’re not."

On the virtue of using a broad set of metrics, including student feedback and video recording of classrooms, to gauge performance: "There are measurement systems that are even better than just using the test, and they need to be proven out."

On critics of such metrics: "If you like the current seniority system, you can attack the imperfections of any of these measures. And so trying to change something is
very hard."

On the power of word of mouth among teachers: "What you want to do is have a few places where you make the change. And have the teachers in those places say, 'Wow.' ... You create a positive cycle."

On efforts to revise the 2002 No Child Left Behind law: "No Child Left Behind basically forced people to look at the numbers and see how bad the U.S. education system was. That was a good thing. ... And I bet they’ll change some of the adjectives. You know, the word 'failing' is no longer as popular as it used to be. ... But as long as they keep measuring and actually look at the inner-city versus suburban district differentials, the racial differentials -- as long as they keep measuring, then you’ve got this hot potato: 'Oh no -- whose fault is this?' And that’s good. It’s causing at least some energy to be put in the system to try to improve it."

On whether education schools at colleges and universities are open to his brand of reform: "Sen. [Lamar] Alexander [R-Tenn.] and I were talking about that this morning. Maybe we haven’t reached out to them in the right way and we need to do better. But ... there’s surprisingly little engagement."

On national academic standards in English and math adopted last year by most states: "That has been a very exciting thing. We’ll go from being the country with the most messed-up core curriculum standards to actually having the best."

On tenure, Gates said he understood why it was needed for college professors. But he said he was perplexed by tenure laws and rules that provide school teachers with significant due-process protections in personnel cases after they pass a probationary period.

"The idea that this one shouldn’t be about what goes on with the kids always seemed a little unusual," he said. "You know, maybe we should try tenure in other professions. Just, you know, mix it up a little bit. Pay newspaper editors by seniority. Have tenure for them and see how that works. Try it for hot-dog making or restaurants."

Another smart technology guy, from the early twentieth century was touting the newest technology that would remove textbooks and change education forever.

“Books will soon be obsolete in schools. Scholars will soon be instructed through the eye. It is possible to touch every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture” (Thomas Edison 1913)

"I should say that on average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture … where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency” (Thomas Edison 1922)
Here's the part Gates seems to understand: If indeed, the country is going to continue moving toward the broad use of student achievement data to evaluate teachers, judgments about that performance ought to be restricted to the top and bottom quartiles. In the middle, the quality of the data do not provide sufficient ability to discriminate. But if we can identify those teachers who maintain a top-level record of student achievement, I'd certainly be open to differential pay. Conversely, those teachers whose students never seem to leave the class better than they arrived, ought to be fired.

Also, the richness of today's classrooms, and differences between the educational experiences children received in 1920 versus today are striking. A return to drill and practice, worksheets, and rote memorization would cause more parents to flee the public schools than left during the implementation of the primary program. And let's not forget that in 1920, there was a completely separate school system for some children that was busy contributing to the achievement gap that already existed; but virtually no one cared about.

No comments: