The Times printed an editorial this week by Fred Hiatt editorial page editor at the Washington Post. It had a modest title, "How Bill Gates Would Repair the Nation's Schools". So pull up a chair and let's see what's new. (I'm being sarcastic here because I, like most of you, applaud anyone interested in furthering public education. However, Mr. Gates' past efforts, at least locally, did not produce much in the way of results. His Foundation's education wing seemed to get schooled in their early efforts when they found that national high school reform isn't about one thing such as smaller high schools. To boot, when the district either didn't do what the Foundation wanted or the Foundation didn't like the outcomes, the money was pulled. So a lot of what got started in SPS ground to a halt when the money disappeared.) From the editorial:
Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder turned full-time philanthropist, visited The Post last week to talk, among other things, about how to improve schools for the nation's poorest children.
That so many children in this country cannot live up to their potential because they are born in poverty and attend terrible schools is one of the nation's greatest scandals, as Gates pointed out in his recent letter from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
I find this statement interesting because although the first point may be true ( in the U.S., "the standard of living for those in the bottom 10% was lower in the U.S. than other developed nations except the United Kingdom, which has the lowest standard of living for impoverished children in the developed world" (Wiki)), just making schools better isn't going to solve that problem. I get nervous for teachers and administrators when I hear this kind of linkage only because schools, even good schools, cannot (and should not) be expected to solve the problem. And, you need a whole arm of social services to help these kids (nutrition, counseling, health care, etc.) and then you get conservatives upset because the "cost" of education rises.
I am not saying that better schools can't help and aren't a possible answer. If anyone saw the footage of Michelle Obama visiting a girls school in London, the girls were positively jumping up and down with excitement. Mrs. Obama made it clear they could succeed with education. That's a strong motivation to do better.
So what does Mr. Gates support doing?
The foundation has spent about $4 billion seeking to improve high schools and promote college access since 2000, along the way gaining valuable experience on what does and doesn't work. Based on those lessons, Gates names two priorities: helping successful charter-school organizations, such as KIPP, replicate as quickly as possible; and improving teacher effectiveness at every other school.
In both cases, institutions stand in the way. School boards resist the expansion of charter schools. Teachers unions resist measuring and rewarding effectiveness. In fact, Gates said, evidence shows no connection between teaching quality and most of the measures used in contracts to determine pay. Seniority, holding a master's degree or teacher's certification, and even, below 10th grade, having deep knowledge of a subject — these all are mostly irrelevant. It follows that some of the money devoted to rewarding teachers who get higher degrees and to pensions accessible only to those who stay 10 or more years should go instead to keeping the best teachers from leaving in their fourth or fifth years.
I might support his first effort at finding great charters. (I'd say the jury is somewhat out on KIPP, not because they aren't successful but because they employ a very strict theory of what works. I'll have to research this further. If anyone has real information, let us know about it.) But school boards (and state legislatures and public votes like here in WA state) stand in the way because we have NOT seen that charters will do better.
Teachers unions. If you ever read any of the comments from people who read education articles online, you know that teachers' unions are, for some, one of the rings of hell. They believe every single thing wrong with public education is due to the teachers unions. I don't buy it and it's an easy out. Again, I'd have to check out the research on rewarding teachers who do invest in more education. I can't believe it has little to no effect on teaching. However, if really good teachers leave in year 4 or 5 because of the lack of money, sure, maybe that's where some of the money should go.
From the editorial:
One purpose of measurement would be to deploy the best teachers to the neediest schools, and pay them accordingly; another, to fire the worst teachers. But the main point, Gates said, is that effective teaching can be taught: "The biggest part is taking the people who want to be good — and helping them."One purpose of measurement would be to deploy the best teachers to the neediest schools, and pay them accordingly; another, to fire the worst teachers. But the main point, Gates said, is that effective teaching can be taught: "The biggest part is taking the people who want to be good — and helping them."
Hey, that jives with what Obama's Education Secretary is saying which is to help find, reward and keep good teachers. That's a fine idea. But what does "pay them accordingly" mean? What are teachers' salaries across the country and do they help teachers keep up? I heard a guy on the radio who was totally upset over hearing a kindergarten teacher here can make $70K. Is that too much? And, where will the money come from to pay more to good teachers? The feds? The states?
Also, how to define a bad teacher and how quickly can you do it? Do you give them a year? Two years?
Then there was this interesting statement:
Obama and Duncan both stress that teachers shouldn't be judged on standardized tests alone, but they want better standardized tests to measure how much a student improves in a year, so that teachers can be rewarded or held accountable.
Don't judge them on tests alone but do get better ones so that teachers can be held accountable. Myself, I don't want any teacher out of a job based solely on test scores but I'm not hearing what other measures will be considered. The teachers union in D.C. is fighting back against rising education star, Superintendent Michelle Rhee, who is pushing new reforms. They want performance to be judged schoolwide or a combination of individual/schoolwide. What do people think of that?
Another interesting statement:
Union locals, controlled by long-serving teachers, also, not surprisingly, tend to favor pay and pension structures that reward long-serving teachers, not the best strategy to attract the brightest from a generation that doesn't envision spending 20 or 30 years with one employer.
Hmm, so if we have a generation that isn't going to making teaching a career, isn't that troubling? Teaching isn't one of those things you try on a fling. I know from being at Roosevelt that many things influence how long a person teaches, not just money (otherwise very few people would teach). So should there be a new way of thinking about teaching if, as Mr. Hiatt states, we have a new corps of teachers who might not be in it for the long run?