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This quote comes from yesterday’s New York Times column by Joe Nocera — his account of an interview with Bill Gates on Education.
It seems a bit odd to me, and often I can’t really tell how much of what Nocera writes is his overly optimistic interpretation of what Bill Gates says, and how much of it is really what Gates now believes. Based on what Gates and his foundation have said and done in the past, it appears to me that Gates might have made some important shifts, but I can’t tell for sure. Here’s another excerpt:
While Gates does not dismiss the need for test scores — “you do have to know whether equations are being learned,” he said — he views them as the least important in terms of helping teachers improve. A test score, he said, “is not very diagnostic. You usually give them at the end of the year, so they don’t help you during the year.” Far more important, he believes, are the peer teachers, who are paid with the foundation’s money and whose job is to work with teachers on the nuts and bolts of teaching.
And that’s the final point. In business, employee evaluation systems are aimed at improving employee performance. Yes, sometimes they lead to an underperformer being fired, but that is really not their primary purpose.
Teaching has never really had the kind of sensible evaluation system that business takes for granted. Seniority used to be all that mattered. Now, test scores have become dominant. Neither system has had as its goal getting teachers to improve what they do in the classroom. That is what Gates is trying to change.
It certainly hasn’t seemed to me that Gates has been emphasizing teacher development and de-emphasizing the role of test scores in the past (see The Best Posts Responding To Bill Gates’ Appallingly Clueless Op-Ed Piece; The Best Posts On The Gates’ Funded Measures Of Effective Teaching Report; Gates Foundation Minimizing Great Tools For Helping Teachers Improve Their Craft and Videotaping teachers the right way (not the Gates way).
To his credit, though, he did come out against publicly listing teacher rankings — though it was after many other people had already done so.
What do you think — is Gates really shifting, or might I be reading too much into this interview.
I think he is shifting somewhat. I think he has an optimistic view of how industry evaluations work. I don’t think they work as well as he thinks they do. He hasn’t been at the bottom of the evaluation tree. But at least the goal of industry evaluations is largely to help employees improve. I think he is still learning how testing in schools work though and that is something he needs to learn more about. I do think that Gates real goal has always been to help teachers improve. I think that learning how to do that and how to evaluate teachers is taking him longer than he expected or one would like. It is a complex issue that the teaching field has long ignored in favor of seniority as an easy way out.
This is very astute. I do regard Bill Gates as a hopeful student, someone who has devoted enormous resources (unsurpassed by any individual in human history) to solving some of the world’s most important problems. He has, I believe, found that solving our educational problems is much more difficult than he may have expected, and he has in general been on the wrong track since 2008; but he may be shifting again, recognizing that making enemies of the entire teaching profession is a disastrous approach to reforming American education. I have never joined with those who have criticized his motives; but his disconnect with classroom realities, and in particular with the backwash impact some reform policies have had on daily learning and teaching, has limited his effectiveness.
I’ve seen reason for hope of a shift in what Gates is saying. It’s hard for most of us to concede we may be wrong in our thinking and make adjustments, and probably prudent to make those adjustments gradually. So I see hope simply in the notion he is open to shift in the first place. I’ve always thought he sincerely meant well.
There is no shift. There is no hope.
There is his confusion because he is not an educator.
There is smoke and mirrors.