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Melinda Gates on the Importance of Evaluations in Shaping Effective Teachers

June 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Part of the American Graduate project addressing the country's high school dropout crisis, teachers across the nation have weighed in at town halls on what's working and what's not. Hari Sreenivasan and Melinda Gates discuss how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation hopes to best tackle education reform.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, we begin a series about teachers, testing and accountability in public schools. It’s an issue at the center of some major reform efforts and battles in school districts across the country.

Our first part includes the views of one of the more outspoken reformers and players in this debate.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The dropout problem in American high schools is often referred to as a crisis, and educators say the numbers back that up. On average, three in 10 student drop out of high school. Among Hispanic, African-American and Native American students, that number rises to four in ten.

Students drop out for many reasons, but one thing that may help keep them in school is an effective and caring teacher. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, both funders of this program, are sponsoring the American Graduate initiative to help improve nation’s high school graduation rates.

As part of that initiative, local public television stations in 12 metropolitan areas are convening teacher town halls and other events, as well as text-polling educators to learn what they have to say about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to retention and dropouts.

MAN: I think teachers play an integral part in the education of kids. But I think teachers get a bad rap in the news.

WOMAN: We need some support. We need a lot of resources. We know that the research says that you should teach in small groups, but it’s almost many times to do that. So we want to do what the research said. We have read and we can do it. We have the skills to do it. We just need support.


HARI SREENIVASAN: There was universal agreement in town halls that learning to read and early intervention were keys to students’ education success.

WOMAN: If you taught concentrated phonics to everyone in first grade, they’re dying to read. They would stand on their heads. But the problem is, they don’t drop out in high school. They drop out in second grade, and they hang around for eight years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The most recent town hall was at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.

WOMAN: I teach in San Bernardino, which is the second poorest city in the United States. We get children who have never held a book before. When I started, there used to be “TV Guides” in their house. Now there’s not even that.

I go into homes where there’s not one book. I go into homes where children have never held a crayon, never held a pencil. And the expectation that the appropriate choice now is to evaluate teachers, let’s put money into evaluating teachers? Let’s put money into supporting the poorest of our children.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The issue of testing, too early and too often, was a hot topic in many of these gatherings.

MAN: The goal is not to teach them inquiry in my science classroom. It’s, there’s this fact you must memorize. It’s a fact that is isolation of everything else. Don’t worry about why it’s relevant. It doesn’t matter. Just learn this fact. Like, that is what these tests test. They don’t test whether they’re thinkers. They test whether they can memorize something. And so we need to critically think about why we’re testing them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: After the L.A. town hall, I sat down with Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Since 1994, the philanthropic organization has spent $6 billion on U.S. That has placed the foundation at the center of many debates in education, including smaller schools, testing and teacher evaluation.

Melinda Gates, thanks so much for joining us.

MELINDA GATES, co-founder, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: Thanks for having me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So we just had the 10th national conversation American Graduate teacher town hall. Teachers have been speaking around the country in different forms. What are you hearing?

MELINDA GATES: I’m hearing that they are working under very difficult circumstances, that with the state budgets going down, they’re seeing a lot of kids who are at risk in the school system. Their jobs are getting harder.

We know they’re working on average about 10 hours and 40 minutes a day. And yet I’m also hearing from them, we want our kids to succeed, and so there have to be structural changes that allow us to do our jobs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what’s the foundation’s central premise when you’re trying to make or enable these structural changes to happen?

MELINDA GATES: Well, we know from good research that the fundamental thing that makes a difference in the classroom is an effective teacher. An effective teacher in front of a student, that student will make three times the gains in a school year that another student will make.

And so what the foundation feels our job is to do is to make sure we create a system where we can have an effective teacher in every single classroom across the United States.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We’ve heard this idea that it takes a village to raise a child. What about the principals, what about the parents, what about all the other factors that contribute to whether a kid or a child does well or not?

MELINDA GATES: There are a huge number of factors of whether a child succeeds in that school building. But at the end of the day, it comes down to the teacher. And that doesn’t mean just the teacher teaching the subject matter. As you heard from a lot of the teachers in the town hall, they build these strong relationship with the kids.

And it’s that relationship they have. But we’re hearing that what teachers don’t have today are really three things. One is, they’re saying we don’t know what we have to teach by the end of the year. So the foundation has been involved in trying to create a core curriculum that 48 states have signed up to say, what are the core subjects and things kids need to learn at every grade level?

Number two, they need great curriculum support, so they can go and grab different modules, and they are flexible modules that help them teach to that core curriculum, though. And then the third thing they need is great professional development. We do not have an evaluation system today in the American school system that says, how do we know we have an effective teacher, and what professional development needs to be in place to support those teachers so they can become the most effective teacher when they’re teaching?

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the measurements in certain school districts around the country has been to tie teacher performance or teacher evaluations to student test performance.

And a lot of teachers push back and say, hey, there’s a lot of other reasons that a student does well or doesn’t do well. Why should it reflect solely on me?

MELINDA GATES: One of the things that the foundation is really trying to get the message out about is that it’s not just the test. The test is just one measure of saying, is the child learning what they need to learn at grade level? That needs to be one component of an evaluation.

But there are other components. The most effective evaluation systems have pure observations, where peers come in who are trained to know what effective teaching is. They come in and evaluate the teacher. And then they coach and they give instruction on teaching.

Another key component is the principal observation, not just coming in with four little check boxes once a year and then never having the coaching conversation, but the principal coming in knowing what great teaching looks like , really being able to evaluate the teacher and then sitting down and having an honest conversation with the teacher: These are the areas where you’re doing well. These are the areas you need to do better.

Another piece of the evaluation system can be also student feedback. It turns out students do know whether they have a good teacher in front of a classroom or not. And their feedback is also indicative of whether they’re going to learn the material by the end of the year.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A lot of the teachers that are very frustrated say at this point, I’m teaching to the test.

Are we in an over-tested society?

MELINDA GATES: You have to kind of go state by state, because there are different tests in different states.


MELINDA GATES: But I think one thing that has happened is there’s maybe so much testing today without saying, are we testing against the core important things?

And so one of the things that we have learned, for instance, that is really important is that kids need to learn, for instance, how to read a nonfiction passage and really take that apart and be able to know what the critical pieces are. Most state tests don’t even test against that.

So, one of the things we’ve done with this Common Core curriculum is to say, what is it kids really need to know? And then these 48 states signed up to this core curriculum. And now we can lots of service providers come in and create curriculum around things that actually matter, not some thing that is on the margin that you don’t need to test against that doesn’t really matter.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A few years ago, the foundation was very focused on smaller schools. And now you’re very focused on — it seems to be teacher evaluation. Why the switch?

MELINDA GATES: Well, it’s not really a switch. It’s — honestly, it’s an evolution.

So, where we started in small schools, which were these small learning environments, yes, those do make a difference. But what we learned from that was the fundamental thing that made the difference was the teacher, that relationship with the teacher at the end of the day and that teacher’s teaching.

So, saying, okay, an effective teacher makes a difference, we then said how do you know when you have one? Where’s the research that shows what an effective teacher is? We feel like we know intuitively if we had a great teacher. There was no great research around that. So, we actually went out and did the research, 3,000 teachers in six different school districts, to prove out, what does effective teaching look like?

And now the piece we’re involved in saying, okay, how do you get a whole system that has an evaluation system that helps develop teachers into these super-effective teachers?

HARI SREENIVASAN: How do you view your responsibility? Just by the fact that the amount of money that you’re contributing to this conversation, do you feel like you have a disproportionate voice?

MELINDA GATES: Sometimes, people look at something like a foundation or our foundation and say, my gosh, they have huge resources.

And the truth is, when you look at the scale of the problems we’re going against, the state of California spends slightly under $30 billion a year educating their kids. So our entire foundation is $30 billion. So we could spend — spend our money all in one year just in the state of California.

But we don’t do that. What a foundation has to be is to be a catalytic wedge. It can take innovations and show where they work. It can measure them. It can show what doesn’t work and take the problems apart. And it’s ultimately for governments to scale up.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, what is working and what can scale up?

MELINDA GATES: Well, I think two things are working.

If you look back a decade ago, when we started into this work, there wasn’t even a conversation across the nation about the fact that our schools were broken, fundamentally broken. And I think that dialogue has changed. I think the American public has woken up to the fact now that schools are broken. We’re not serving our kids well. They’re not being educated for the — for technology society.

We’re being outcompeted by other nations. So I think that has gone well. But the other thing that I think is going really well is people are starting to say, we really do need an effective teacher. And we have districts across the country, Memphis, Denver, Pittsburgh, Tampa, L.A., where they are saying, okay, we’re really going to go for teacher evaluation. We’re really going to figure out how to make effective teaching happen. And we’re going to invest in that. And we’re going to keep doing it until we get it right. And we’re going to develop our teachers.

And I think we are just on the verge of that happening. I think there will be some pain points along the way. I don’t think this work is easy. But I think we’re starting to see that bow wave change. And it’s going to take a few more years to really see, okay, that’s the path, and then lots of districts are on — are doing it. But I think we’re on the cusp of that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Melinda Gates, thanks so much for your time.

MELINDA GATES: Thanks, Hari.

JEFFREY BROWN: We get a different perspective tomorrow from Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.