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.

‘I don’t want to be a teacher any more’

In her 35th year in the classroom, an Oregon elementary teacher discovers to her surprise: I Don’t Want to be a Teacher Any More.

Starting in the ’90s, class sizes began growing. Teachers were given janitorial and clerical duties to perform, such as cleaning their own classrooms.

Worried about test scores, her district required all teachers to use the same instructional materials.

At the same time, class sizes and special needs were growing. The behavior classroom was closed and its students were mainstreamed into the regular classroom. I tried to become an expert on dealing with anger issues. I tried to learn how to help fifth graders with severe disabilities, limited mobility, and cognitive levels of very young children, all in my regular classroom now filled with 30-35 students.

One day, she realize she’d had enough.

Maybe it was the severely autistic boy who showed up at my door the first day with no notice, but I don’t really think so.  Maybe it was the rigid schedule the principal passed out for everybody to be doing the same subject at the same time of day, or the new basal reader we have to use that we aren’t allowed to call a basal reader. Maybe it’s the look in my student’s eyes when we’re reading the newly required dry textbook when I’m used to wild and crazy discussions about amazing novels.

Her school missed AYP because two few English Language Developing students passed reading.

I thought of the little boy I had with an IQ of 87 who could barely read.  I thought of the little girl in a wheelchair who’d had 23 operations on tumors on her body in her 11 years, and the girl who moved from Mexico straight into my class and learned to speak English before my eyes, but couldn’t pass the state test.

Last year, she was offered $20,000 to retire, but turned it down. At 55, she wasn’t ready to quit working. This year . . .

Ricochet, who teaches high school, is fed up too.