The Gates Foundation just came out with its latest advice on how to improve schools. As the foundation sees it, districts don't have a good sense of who their good and bad teachers are, and need better evaluations. But is this really the problem?
Ever since it abandoned its former educational preoccupation—small schools—the Gates Foundation has hit upon stellar teaching as the key to transforming the nation's schools. It's not exactly a new idea, but it's one worth rediscovering. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has put into numerical terms a concept that most people know with their gut. A New Yorker story on the matter a few years ago summarized his findings: "Students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half's worth of material."
So the question some ask is: Which teachers are which? In its recent pronouncement, the Gates Foundation relies upon new results from a long-term study it has been funding that uses data from 3,000 classrooms around the country. The study maintains that the traditional means of evaluation—to observe a teacher in a classroom once every few years—is inadequate.
"In our study, the same teacher was often rated differently depending on who did the observation and which lesson was being observed," says a report on the latest findings. In fact, even if you did many different observations, that wouldn't be good enough, the report maintains. When results of different observations were averaged, they still didn't track with student gains on test scores.
So the report suggests an elaborate evaluation system using not only frequent observations, but student test results and feedback from students themselves. We have another idea: Walk into any school and talk to the parents. Everybody knows whom they want their kids to get—and whom they're desperate to avoid. Who's the really lively Spanish teacher who mixes culture and language and makes learning fun, and who's the deadly dull math teacher who's put students to sleep for years.
There really is no mystery about who the good and bad teachers are at any given school—and if principals don't already know this, then they're the ones who need better evaluation. (Then again, you could ask parents about them too.) The real question is what to do with that information. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, chimed in that there should be less attention on evaluation and more on ways to help students improve. To be fair, the Gates Foundation is working on this too.
Firing bad teachers is another idea, one that takes political will and negotiation with unions. (Our state legislature has moved somewhat in this direction with the passage of SB 6696 last year.)
The good news is that there are probably fewer bad teachers to fire than many might think. The Gates report found that only a small minority of teachers could be judged "harmful." And for all the hand-wringing over Seattle schools, a survey released last week by the district found that an overwhelming 81 percent gave their local teachers a favorable rating.