Gates: Spend smarter on teachers

“Over the past four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled, while our student achievement has remained virtually flat,” writes Bill Gates in a Washington Post op-ed.  We can “flip the curve,” raising performance “without spending a lot more,” if we “measure, develop and reward excellent teaching.”

. . . of all the variables under a school’s control, the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching.

. . . To flip the curve, we have to identify great teachers, find out what makes them so effective and transfer those skills to others so more students can enjoy top teachers and high achievement.

The Gates Foundation is working to develop “fair and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness” that will be endorsed by teachers and used to improve teaching, Gates writes.

These measures also could be used to determine teacher pay instead of the traditional system, which spends $65 billion a year to compensate teachers for seniority and advanced degrees. Redirect the money to improving achievement, Gates writes.

The 50-year campaign to reduce class sizes has been very expensive, but not very effective, Gates argues. “U.S. schools have almost twice as many teachers per student as they did in 1960, yet achievement is roughly the same.”

What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.

If we improve teaching, we’ll improve achievement, Gates concludes.

I think we also need to improve the environments in which teachers work. Yesterday, I ran ‘I don’t want to teach any more’ by a veteran teacher who feels overwhelmed by a large class with too many students with behavior problems, language problems and disabilities. High school teachers are trying to teach English, history and science to classes that include students who can’t read or can’t understand English; math teachers face a mix of algebra-ready students and kids who can’t multiply 4 x 5 without a calculator. We need strong principals who make it possible for competent teachers to teach well. I think we need to group students by learning needs rather than age.

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Comments

  1. **Identify and reward great teachers**….it is equally if not more important to identify and reward great “administrators”, and to get rid of the ones who aren’t so great.

    Would Bill put the Microsoft *employees* in a particular department on a rigorous evaluation/compensation plan while putting the *manager* of that department on a guaranteed-income-and-employment plan that basically amounted to tenure? I doubt it.

    It is good that accountability for teachers is finally being taken more seriously, but there has been far too little discussion of accountability for those who actually *run* the public schools.

  2. I don’t know if teacher salary really is the problem in terms of the ballooning spending on education in the US. When I worked in NYC, our tiny 500 kid school had an assistant principal for each of Science, Languages, Math, English, and the Humanities. We also had an assistant principal in charge of supervision, and one in charge of discipline. Finally, we had a principal. So in total we had 8 administrators for 500 students. My current school in Vancouver has 2 administrators for about 500 students.

  3. “I think we need to group students by learning needs rather than age.”

    Amen to that.

    Everyone, students and teachers, would benefit from that.

  4. Sean Mays says:

    Would Bill put the Microsoft *employees* in a particular department on a rigorous evaluation/compensation plan while putting the *manager* of that department on a guaranteed-income-and-employment plan that basically amounted to tenure? I doubt it.

    Business history is replete with cases where underlings are severely evaluated, but upper managers have free reign. Enron, MCI/WorldCom and HealthSouth come immediately to mind. C-level executives trash companies with startling frequency and are paid HUGE sums to walk away while the rank and file lose healthcare, pensions, etc. Bill Gates might not have done it, but it happens in the business world.

    Real and effective evaluation systems for teachers (labor) and administrators (management) would be great. But I fear that we’re far behind on quality control for raw materials (students). Plenty of folks brought that up in the Urban students do poorly in science thread. Kids too often don’t care about tests, learning or outcomes – and I don’t believe it’s the teachers job to make everything magically engaging for each and every student every day.

  5. Gates is grinding his way through the various excuses and misrepresentations used to support the public education status quo. He doesn’t appear to have all that much of an ideological ax to grind, at least not to the extent he’s willing to pyss away his money endlessly in pursuit of the various chimera produced by proponents of current system.

    It seems that when it becomes clear that, say, small class sizes aren’t quite the sovereign solution they’re supposed to be Gates is willing to cast it aside and go on to the next ever-lovin’, blue-eyed bargain promoted by the NEA. Trouble is, he’s going through all the various self-serving solutions pretty quickly and at some point the light’s liable to go on that the solution to the problems of educating the public isn’t to be found among those who are doing quite well with the current state of affairs.

  6. tim-10-ber says:

    I love ability grouping — it works, let’s do it.

    I love the idea of focusing on developing the teacher and giving them pay and incentive to keep them in the classroom (should they so chose) rather than having to move them up the corporate ladder to get more money.

    Yes, administrators need to be trained much, much better. In the business world if my team does not meet their goals, I will not meet mine and will not get comped. Individual teams may meet or exceed their goals. They will be comped but I will not unless the total team’s goals are met or exceeded.

    Smaller classes sizes for earlier grades and those that need more time. larger for those on grade or advanced.

    Highly qualified subject matter experts for all grades…must like kids and be able to teach the subject matter…

  7. “I think we need to group students by learning needs rather than age.”

    Everyone would agree, it is just commonsense. However it will never happen because of the “demographic difficulties” that would transpire if it did.

  8. Who cares what Gates says? The only reason he gets any press is b/c he’s a billionaire. He knows nothing about education and his biggest fad spending experiment was a miserable failure.

  9. Peace Corps says:

    Gahrie: Everyone does not agree to group students by learning needs rather than age. I very recently attended teacher training where the trainer very much disagreed with this idea.

  10. A good student know what is importance of study so they try to find best ways for study.

  11. Exactly. Everyone doesn’t agree. The people who don’t agree will file disparate impact lawsuits.

    High school teachers are trying to teach English, history and science to classes that include students who can’t read or can’t understand English; math teachers face a mix of algebra-ready students and kids who can’t multiply 4 x 5 without a calculator. We need strong principals who make it possible for competent teachers to teach well. I think we need to group students by learning needs rather than age.

    I appreciate you saying this, Joanna. I also thought that post by the teacher yesterday was an accurate description of how teacher environments have changed over time. As a new algebra teacher in a Title I school, I am starting in the environment that she describes as the terrible one–and while it’s really tough, I’m not used to the comparably easy ride she had in the years leading up to that.

    But the thing is, not all environments are terrible–even within a school. I was talking to a guy who graduated from Stanford the year after me. We were hired at the same time. He teachers four sections of Algebra II and one of Geometry, I teach five sections of Algebra I. His job looks horrible if you compare it to the teaching jobs just up the road in Cupertino, whereas mine would no doubt appear to be hell on earth.

    So how do we compensate teachers for the dramatically different environments? Should we even try–because surely, it will appear insulting to low income communities when it becomes clear how enormous the premium would be to create equitable environments. Or is the answer to simply turn school past the eighth grade from a right to a privilege?

  12. Let me clarify: I’m not actually suggesting that we do turn school from a right into a privilege–or a choice. I’m just saying that our incredibly diverse level of cognitive skills and interests make equitable teacher pay and/or environments an impossibility.

    I should also add that I enjoy a huge amount of my job, and don’t consider myself underpaid. I am just continually struck by how much harder my job is in comparison to teachers in other districts who are often paid much more in a far easier environment with motivated and well-behaved kids.

  13. Oh, my lord. I swear that “Joanna” was a typo. I’ve been reading here for five years of more; I know your name.

  14. Do we really have twice as many regular classroom teachers now than in 1960 or is that number inflated by the army of special ed teachers needed now that IDEA is the law of the land? Prior to the 1972 passage of IDEA, few schools even bothered to try to educate disabled children. Now schools are required by Federal law to spend whatever it takes to provide a “free and appropriate education” even if that’s 10x what it costs for a general ed student.

  15. That passage date for IDEA should be ’75 not ’72.

  16. I really wish Gates would feed the starving children on some other continent and leave us alone.

    An additional four or five kids? That’s normal variation.

  17. Genevieve says:

    @Crimson Wife,
    I don’t doubt that in many rural areas and small towns, schools failed to educate children with special needs before IDEA. However, do you think this was true of large cities? My mid-size city has a history of serving children with special needs that stretches back to at least 1919. While the early programs focused on the physical disabled (including the deaf) and “slow learners”, I wonder how many more students were added because of IDEA. I suppose the children that used to be sent to state institutions. I just don’t think that this is a large enough group of students to explain the growth in staff.
    In our district, and the surrounding ares to a lesser extent, the growth seems to be literacy and math coaches, district level subject specific curriculum directors, school improvement leaders, full time counselors at the elementary level and title one math and reading teachers (which I think have been around since the 1980s).