Gates Stands By Favored Education Reforms

For the last six or seven years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has championed two key approaches to K-12 education reform: better teaching and higher standards. In 2009, it launched the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project to identify elements of great teaching and inform better teacher evaluation systems. In 2010, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers unveiled the Common Core standards, funded in part by the Gates Foundation.

Despite a mixed record of success — not to mention harsh criticisms in some quarters — Gates is standing by these strands of reform. Bill Gates made this clear during remarks in October at the USP Education Forum in Seattle, where the funder is based. He noted that many states are using MET research to develop better definitions of effective teaching and ways to measure it, including the use of peer reviewers and growth in student test scores.

Despite the misigivings and outright opposition among some teachers to the use of standardized test scores in evaluation systems, Gates defended their use, but pointed out that they are only a part of the mix. He reminded listeners at the USP Education Forum that while tests are useful for measuring what students know, they cannot diagnose the areas in which teachers should improve or how they should go about it.

Gates said the key question that teachers should ask of any evaluation system is, "How will this help me get better?" Unfortunately, too many evaluation systems are not tied to teacher improvement, but to help school systems decide which teachers keep their jobs. Such systems, Gates said, make teachers guarded and resentful, and ultimately strangle good teaching rather than strengthen it. As an advanced approach compared to the rest of the nation, he cited the teacher evaluation system used in Denver, which relies on a combination of observations, surveys, and academic data to gauge teacher effectiveness.

Gates also stood by the Common Core, which has been adopted by more than 40 states and the District of Columbia. Some states, however, have experienced a kind of buyer's remorse that has caused them to back away in part from the new standards. Recent data from new Common Core-aligned tests, such as the Smarter Balanced assessment and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), show lower percentages of students meeting the standards compared to their performance on previous state exams. Advocates caution, however, that the tests are assessing higher standards and that these first results are only a baseline measure. Student scores are generally lower in the first year of any new assessment, but improve over time.

That hasn't slowed attacks on the Common Core, with the most recent salvo coming in the wake of the 2015 release of results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often dubbed "the Nation's Report Card." Critics pointed to declining national scores on this assessment, which is not tied to a particular set of standards, as another sign that the Common Core's chickens have come home to roost.

Gates, however, argued that declines on NAEP, the SAT, and the ACT mask some important gains. He cited as an example the District of Columbia and its consecutive gains from 2007-2013 on the NAEP in both reading and math. Data from the 2015 results, released in late October, continued that streak, showing D.C. as one of the most-improved urban districts in the nation.

Looking ahead, Gates said his foundation will continue its focus on effective teaching, supporting the growth of teacher improvement systems and ensuring that teachers have access to the best instructional tools. This focus is appropriate, as decades of education research have shown that effective teachers are the most important in-school contributor to student success. 

The Gates Foundation continues to be the largest funder in the world, and Bill Gates' remarks provide important insight into its education funding in the future. And while he is confident that effective teaching and a growing understanding of what it looks like are the solutions, he is less certain that knowledge will be put to its best use.

There is, of course, an unclear road ahead. The impending departure of Arne Duncan as U.S. secretary of education and the 2016 presidential election raises questions about the future direction of U.S. education policy. While K-12 policy remains largely a state function, there is no doubt that federal decisions can exert a powerful influence over decisions in state legislatures and governors' mansions.

Nonprofits and others with an interest in defining, measuring and supporting effective teaching should take note of Gates' agenda and his plans to stick by it. There is a lot of work to be done — at the local, state, and national levels.