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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bill Gates Says, "Grade Teachers and Give Them More Feedback"


Bill Gates released the annual letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation today. Based on the Gates' travels and work with the foundation, the letter reports on how best to accomplish the foundation's priorities. This year his letter focused on "how important it is to set clear goals and measure progress in order to accomplish priorities" here in America and around the world.

This year, he reports that one of the clearest examples of the power of measurement is the work of foundation partners to support great teachers.

The foundation did extensive research on how to improve education in America. More specifically, they wanted to define the rather abstract quality of "great teaching" and better the method of grading teachers while providing them the "opportunity" to receive feedback on skills and techniques that "can help them excel in their careers." It sounds pretty good, but more measurement scares me.

Let's let Bill Gates explain :

"But what do we mean when we talk about great teaching? In my experience, the vast majority of teachers get zero feedback on how to improve.
"That's because for decades, our schools have lacked the kinds of measurement tools that can drive meaningful change. Teachers have worked in isolation and been asked to improve with little or no feedback, while schools have struggled to create systems to provide feedback that's consistent, fair and reliable.
"That's why the Gates Foundation supported the Measures of Effective Teaching, or MET, project. The project was an extraordinary, three-year collaboration between dozens of researchers and nearly 3,000 teacher volunteers from seven U.S. public school districts who opened their classrooms so we could study how to improve the way we measure and give feedback about great teaching.
"Earlier this month, the MET project released its final findings. The report confirmed that it is possible to develop reliable measures that identify great teaching."
(Bill Gates, "Grade Our Teachers, Help Our Students," CNN, January 30 2013)

This Means Putting Additional Measurements
of Teachers Into Schools

Based on my experience as a teacher and feedback from teachers still active in the profession, I must disagree with the premise of need for grading teachers. Gates says, "Teachers have worked in isolation and been asked to improve with little or no feedback." Evaluation of teachers plus feedback on their performance and means for improvement have been in place for many decades. Lately, states have increased the time spent on evaluating the performance of teachers to the point of near absurdity. America is losing good teachers because of this silly notion that teachers are going to achieve instant success and someone can design a means of evaluating long-term teacher development.

Granted, Gates does make a valid point that "schools have struggled to create systems to provide feedback that's consistent, fair and reliable." Why is this?

1. Schools have dealt with severe budget crunches and do not receive adequate funding to implement improved methods of teacher evaluation pertinent to their unique compositions of student body and environment.
2. Schools now spend so much time on both student testing (competency, academic, and relevant social determinants) and teacher improvement (group seminars, individual evaluation, goal setting) that less and less time is left for classroom teachers to meet the demands of ever-stricter curriculum standards.
3. Counselors, teachers, and students who might be involved in grading teachers not only lack the time to do the extra work but also lack the expertise to produce positive, effective results. As time consuming and difficult as the task may be, the administration is responsible for carrying out teacher evaluation procedures made clear in state law and local policy, then reported to the board of education.
4. A beginning teacher who lacks the type of experience that can only be developed alone, over time, and during actual classroom interaction does not need more pressure. Year after year, my experience "made" me a much better teacher.

I spent the first two years of my teaching experience as a "frightened newbie" gaining insight and a "classroom education" with each week of instruction. The classes I taught provided me with my most meaningful feedback and meaningful measurement.
5. Almost all teachers are capable of creating wonderful performances for evaluation purposes. But, the real measure of a great teacher is found in "the grind." I'm sure that is true for all professionals who have been extensively educated, repeatedly tested, and thoroughly evaluated before being hired.
I have seen "less-than-effective" teachers wilt in less than one year under the constant pressures of the classroom. They soon realize the product of their craft comes in a "thousand and one" different shapes, styles, and compositions. And each one of these students brings any additional "baggage" into the classroom. Some aim to disrupt every wonderful lesson plan while others are perfectly happy to occupy a seat and expend very little energy.

Tell me what teacher who learns how to "grind out" the stressful routine after the initial "shine" of the job wears off does not scream (And, I'm using the actual diction here.): "What the fuck have I got myself into after five (or six) years of paying college tuition?" And, believe me, the paycheck that teacher takes home is little consolation for choosing to fight each year's campaign in and out of the classroom.
It takes initiative, pride in self improvement, and industry to improve. Good teachers learn to maximize their best educational skills while learning how best to survive the "grinder" of day-after-day instruction. I believe the administration and the school board should assume the responsibility of firing poor teachers. They already have the means to do this.
6. Evaluating the strengths of a good teacher can never be reduced to some grading formula produced by a statistical-minded college, company, or research foundation convinced they can measure performance and induce steady, meaningful growth by doing so. 
If that were true, these fine institutions should design a Better Parent Evaluation that uses surveys, observation, and tests to measure parenting skill gains. They could administer the instrument to all parents, grade it, and provide feedback to insure good results and positive gains. Then, of course, they would have to design a method for firing incompetent parents.
I'm a parent of four. Let me add unanticipated reality, cruel fate, and individual human makeup to any such objective measurements of my parental performance. I'm sure I would have been fired in the first two years of my "Dadship," drummed out of the "Father Fraternity," and had my licence permanently revoked. Do I have any company?

Actually, even defining the differentiating features of "greatness" in a good teacher these days would produce vastly different descriptions than those defining a great teacher of fifty years ago.

A person judged to fit the definition
of a "great teacher" today must be...

* A thorough planner of long, detailed lessons including application of media and computer support,
* A fine-tuned organizer and purveyor of soundbites in small periods of time prone to continuous interruption,
* A dedicated, objective-minded provider of proficiency material with just a "tad" of scholastic content,
* A skilled manipulator of quantitative scores that reflect a conceived measure of continuous classroom improvement, 
* An efficient record keeper of every possible report of accountability required by the school, the administration, the state, and the special interests,
* A loyal supporter of more programs that require increased time of instruction with no raise in pay. 

That teacher is not the good teacher I remember. I believe teaching is an art that requires years of experience and the ability to adjust personal methods of instruction that best lend to students' comprehension, acquisition, and attainment of classroom material and appropriate thinking skills.

I believe a good teacher must inspire his/her classes to be inquisitive, learn independently, and think. Each teacher must realize the importance of designing lessons to stimulate thought, not just assign material that requires completion for a check mark or a grade.

I believe in order to advance the class, a teacher has to learn the role of instructor, not the role of substitute parent. This does not mean the teacher should ignore individual student concerns and become an automaton. It does mean that a teacher should remain an educator of a student, not a student's "best friend." The social development of an individual student is best left to parents and appropriate professionals in cases of great need. The teachers have their hands full just teaching appropriate group behavior and manners.
I believe a good teacher is "made" through meaningful interaction with others, mainly the classes he/she teaches every day. In fact, I would never call one of my old teachers a "great teacher" (And, I've had many good ones.). The teachers I hold most dear would likely immediately blush and correct me. The good ones knew they were working in a field where no one towered above the rest.

I can't imagine teachers years from now comparing the "great" grades they achieved while performing their duties as a teacher. I'm now just thinking about sharing coffee with one in a local restaurant and asking, "Hey, you were really a super teacher. What grade did you get in 2018?" I don't want to live in that kind of accountable world.

Let me close by saying this. Measurements are fine. They do possess meaning to teachers, schools, colleges, and employers. I've had so many good students who went on to accomplish wonderful things in their lives who were top-notch, straight-A's in my 12th grade high school classes. They were a joy to teach and I admire them so much. Many of them are my good friends today.

However, I've also had B, C, even low D students who found themselves motivated sometime later in life. Every now and then one of them will see me in public, approach me, and tell me about how he/she appreciated my class and my teaching. Some of them even remember what I used to tell classes to attempt to stimulate achievement. This is what I said:

"You know, in life, if you are graced with a silver spoon in your mouth and an outstanding brain, you are lucky, and most people expect you to excel in everything you do. I hope you do.

"But, if fate doesn't provide you with the best, and you struggle to overcome hardships and deficiencies, others will see that you deserve double the respect of those born gifted. And, they will reward you for your efforts.

"If you work your best and achieve a C or a D, you can rest assured that I think you are a success. But, the secret to gaining respect is perseverance and living up to your potential. Some of you, as of yet, have no idea what your potential is. You have felt defeated for so long, you have never tried to reach your limits.

"I cannot achieve a grade for you. Only you can do it. I may encourage you to work harder and get a better grade, but I won't say anything that suggests you're a loser if your grade is low. I have seen many a C or D student living up to his/her potential that I would consider the most promising student in my class."

And, guess what, many lower scoring students I taught have led wonderful, successful lives and have already achieved their wildest dreams. If I don't believe that excellent grades necessarily show "greatness" in a student, how can I believe they will show who is a "great teacher"? I couldn't begin to grade the wonderful teachers in my past. Besides, doing so would just demean their good performance.

So, you decide what you think about grading teachers. Here is what Bill Gates reported:

"It is possible to develop reliable measures that identify great teaching.

"In the first year of the study, teaching practice was measured using a combination of student surveys, classroom observations, and student achievement gains. Then, in the second year, teachers were randomly assigned to different classrooms of students. The students’ outcomes were later measured using state tests and supplemental assessments designed to measure students’ conceptual understanding in math and ability to write short answer responses following reading passages. The teachers whose students did better during the first year of the project also had students who performed better following random assignment. Moreover, the magnitude of the achievement gains they generated aligned with the predictions. This is the first large-scale study to demonstrate, using random assignment, that it is possible to identify great teaching."

(Bill Gates, "Grade Our Teachers, Help Our Students," CNN, January 30 2013)
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