Where Gates gets it right on education. . .

First, many apologies for slogging this week.  I usually only slack off over here on the Radical when school is a complete zoo—and the weeks leading up to the holiday break definitely qualify as high-pressure times for any teacher.  I just couldn’t find any free minutes to write!

I did find time, though, to read this interesting Newsweek interview between Jonathan Alter and Bill Gates on the best ways to reform education.  What surprised (impressed?) me the most was that ol’ rich Billy is using some of his considerable clout to push for changes that I think I can believe in.  Most interesting is Gates’ insistence on reforming how teachers are rewarded for their work.

As Alter describes it:  

Betraying his own professional background, Gates shakes his head in dismay at the idea of secondary schools and colleges trying to function at all without simple software that offers them basic statistical information about how students and teachers are performing over time (for-profit colleges are an exception). Everyone in education knows why: unions have simply prevented teachers from being judged, even in part, on whether their students improve during the course of the year. It’s no surprise that Gates is a believer in merit pay and incentive pay and has little use for teachers colleges as presently constituted because there’s no evidence that having a master’s degree improves teacher performance. You never hear Gates or his people talk about highly qualified teachers, only highly effective ones.

I couldn’t agree with Gates more.  Our commitment as a profession to master’s degrees as a form of identifying–and then differentiating pay for—accomplished teachers has simply outlived its usefulness.  While there may have been a time when elevating the academic accomplishments of classroom teachers served to elevate the profession in the eyes of critics and to elevate the qualifications of those who’d chosen to spend their careers in the classrooms, differentiating pay for master’s degrees at this point is an inefficient and under-informed practice.

Let me give you an example (which I’ve mentioned on the Radical before):  My master’s degree is in “advanced teaching techniques.”  I earned it in 1997.  Do you think that the strategies I learned in 1997 would still qualify as “advanced teaching” today?

I sure don’t.

Yet I’ll continue to collect a 10% salary supplement from my state—one of the only ways teachers can differentiate their pay here in North Carolina—for the remaining 14 years in my career.  As a classroom teacher scraping nickels together to adopt a child, I’m thankful.  As a fiscally conservative taxpayer, though, I’m miffed!

I also love hearing Gates and Company talk about highly effective—rather than highly qualified—teachers.  That places the emphasis of our attentions where they belong:  On a teacher’s ability to drive change in the classroom versus their ability to jump through the political hoops defined by states in response to the federal government’s No Child Left Behind legislation.

I was caught in that meat grinder a few years back.  Having earned my teaching license in North Carolina in a time when GRE scores were considered adequate evidence of qualification, I’d never taken any kind of subject area exam in order to be certified.  Now, I had taught successfully for 12 years, had earned a Master’s Degree and certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and had been named a State Regional Teacher of the Year.

But according to the “highly qualified” definitions for teachers with elementary certifications in our state, I didn’t meet minimum expectations for competence in the classroom.  I ended up wrestling with an unfortunate loophole that emphasized paper over performance when determining my qualifications.

With a ton of help from hard-working people in my district and state certification offices, I was able to document my qualifications and was granted ‘highly-qualified’ status, but the entire experience left a sour taste in my mouth.  “If someone would just come and watch me teach, they’d figure out pretty quickly that I’m highly qualified!” I’d rant.  “They can observe me any time they’d like.  Quit pushing paper and come and see what schooling is all about.”

Now the only caveat that I’ll throw into my unconditional support for Gates’ thoughts on differentiating pay based on performance is a simple one:  I also hope that Bill and the Boys will take some time to spotlight alternative compensation programs that define “effective” as something more than producing results on standardized tests.  While standardized tests are a quick and easy way to compare performance across classrooms at the school, district and state level, they are also an oversimplified and overused measure that have changed teaching for the worse in the past two decades.

I know how tempting it is to do a bit of mystical math and churn out “value-added” indicators of a teacher’s contributions to the growth of their students.  It just plain feels right, doesn’t it?  Why shouldn’t we look at a kid’s performance on standardized exams one year, compare those scores to their performance in the next year, and attribute the results to the classroom teacher?

The answer is simple:  Dozens of other factors influence a student’s performance in any given year.

Think about middle schoolers—the grade level that I teach.  Developmentally, these little buggers are unpredictable times ten.  One day, they’ll show mastery of a particular skill and the next, it’s like they’d never learned a thing!  That’s not an unexplainable phenomena.  It’s a sign of the continuing development of the neural connections in their brains.

Then, consider the emotional and physical changes that the kids in my classrooms are working through.  Searching for acceptance during a time when everything—brains and bodies—is growing at different speeds consumes a ton of the mental and physical energies of the students that I serve.  This reality definitely impacts performance—and my own standing as ‘effective.’

Finally, consider the fact that my students work with dozens of different teachers each day, yet we only test math and reading skills.  How do we determine the ‘effectiveness’ of the art teacher?  The band teacher?  The guidance counselor?  The science teacher?  And how do their contributions impact student performance in my classroom?  If they end up assigned to the social studies teacher who has great skill at incorporating nonfiction reading and writing lessons into his/her instruction, won’t it make me look more effective than I really am?

This doesn’t mean I’m against performance pay for teachers.

Heck, I write about it all the time—and take guff for it from colleagues every time that I do.  And it doesn’t mean that I stand opposed to the suggestions made by Mr. Gates on how we can best drive change for the children in our public schools.  In fact, I’m completely jazzed that he’s so interested in the conversation.  With the dollar signs that he can put behind projects, we’re likely to find some of the most salient solutions for education in generations.

I’m just hoping that he’ll channel some of his attention towards the ways that we define effectiveness.  That’s a solution that is long overdue in education—and one that might just be the golden ticket to sustained change.


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