Bill Gates is famous for being the founder of Microsoft and an admired philanthropist for many causes around the world. He’s a smart guy but he knows little about public education and, unfortunately for him, teacher effectiveness and its impact on student achievement. In fact, he doesn’t even know who to consult with when he wants to learn about school improvement.
I read years ago that he consulted with Harvard professors about staff development, aka professional development, as the possible cure-all for public education woes. College professors are not a good starting point. While they teach, research, and advise the unknowing, they probably haven’t been in a public school classroom for decades. And if they have, I doubt they were the most effective teachers or principals or superintendents.
The Purpose of the Study
According to the Rand report on this study, the Gates Foundation invested heavily (more than 200 million dollars) along with three school districts who also contributed 300 million to this failed effort. Let’s do the math; that’s half a billion dollars. The purpose was to identify teacher effectiveness as a means to improve teacher evaluation. They seemed to rely heavily on the correlation between standardized test scores and teacher evaluation. If what these teachers did to affect the desired outcomes on high stakes testing could be measured or identified, the teacher evaluation process would be transformed and academic performance would improve. The initiative also included awarding bonuses and boosting staff development as a means of retaining the best teachers. It didn’t happen.
This is a non-starter. Even colleges and universities seem to finally understand that the work and progress of students, their community experiences and their volunteer work are more important indicators of future achievement than one or two high stakes tests. But that’s not the major flaw of this grandiose and expensive study.
The 526-page report on this waste of money concluded that the seven-year study was unsuccessful. There were no measurable improvements in student test scores. There were no measurable improvements in teaching effectiveness. There were no increases in the retention of effective teachers. After concluding that they didn’t know what went wrong, the participants offered up this little gem: “Insufficient attention to factors other than teacher quality.” No kidding.
The Fatal Flaws
They did not get advice from the people in the trenches. If they had started by talking to effective teachers, principals, and superintendents instead of college professors and Arne Duncan, a former secretary of education, they could have saved millions.
Advice from knowledgeable people who advised against this effort was reportedly ignored.
Linking teacher evaluation to standardized tests is a false premise.
There are too many variables that affect student performance. Quality teaching is only one of them.
Parent involvement was ignored.
Students are not machine parts. Each comprises a set of variables that render them unique. For starters, background knowledge, ability levels, previous school experiences, test-taking stress and anxiety, and parental involvement should all be considered. Achievement at a specific grade level must also factor in the teachers the students have had previously and the length of their enrollment in that school. At my school, when analyzing results, we considered how long the student had been enrolled.
In the mid-90s, I was the principal of Samuel J. Preston Elementary School in Harrison, NY. One year the school’s third-graders outscored the other three elementary schools on the state reading exam. This had never happened before. Two of the schools were in affluent areas of town and they had always been the top performing schools. The third-grade teachers and I, the parents, and even the superintendent were ecstatic, but not for long.
The following year we were once again one of the lower scoring schools. Gee, what happened? We had the same highly effective third -grade teachers, same principal, the same welcoming school that the kids and parents adored. But the results were not the same.
As the Rand report concludes, there was “insufficient attention to factors other than teacher quality.” I opine that no attention was paid to the key contributing factors that affect student performance on high- stakes testing. (see list of fatal flaws above) As an author of parenting books, I would stress parental involvement in their children’s education as a key factor in school performance. I’m not alone.
In 1966 the Coleman Report concluded that given all the factors regarding school success, the “quality of the family” is the most important predictor. Let’s fast- forward to 2018. Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia after seeing the results of this study, also came to the same conclusion:
On nearly every single outcome that we assess, public schools have a marginal impact that is really small relative to the impact of families. The things we worry about in terms of the state of our country are more a function of the families the kids are growing up in than the school, they go to.
I maintain that school reform starts at home. If Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Lebron James and countless others who are willing to try to improve public education invested in some form of parent academies, the results would be better.