What I’d Like to Ask Bill Gates Next Week

Next week, people from many places associated with independent schools will be in town for the National Independent Schools Annual Conference here in Seattle. I’m excited about this week for many reasons and hope to write about them in the coming days.

One of the things I’m interested in is what the featured keynote speaker, Bill Gates, has to say. I won’t be able to hear him speak directly on Thursday as I’ll be teaching. I will, however, be able to follow his address through many various channels.

I read his opinion piece in the NYTimes on Friday about his thoughts on New York making teacher performance assessments public. I agree with him on many points. One of these is that making teacher evaluation assessments publicly available isn’t going to do anything to help improve teaching. I also agree with Gates’ statement that “Teaching is multifaceted, complex work.” I also think that his push for robust teacher evaluations that help give direct feedback to teachers so they can improve their practice is a good thing. Mr. Gates calls for trained peers and supervisors to provide this feedback. I would love to invite a team from his foundation come visit me teach, so I can get that direct feedback on how to improve. In return, I’d love to be trained so I can pass it on and give this feedback to others. If there’s a way to sign up, let me know.

Effective teaching requires complicated measures, and I don’t believe that we’ve reliably figured out what combination of those metrics are. Unfortunately, the term ‘teacher accountability’ tends to scare people away from “creating a personnel system that truly helps teachers improve.” As reported in an article titled “Teacher Quality Widely Diffused, Ratings Indicate,” the actual publication of New York’s assessments show that high and low performing teachers exist in every school regardless of wealth, neighborhood, or population.

The theme of the NAISAC12 conference is Innovation. I am a big fan of the work the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation do and think its research into improving schools will benefit us all.

The Gates foundation recognizes the need to implement new ideas, and even if those attempts at education reform don’t work, analyzing and learning from the data is important. Microsoft, the company Gates founded some time ago took many risks and has been very successful, but along the way, it has also produced some things that didn’t work as well as they’d hope (remember the Kin anyone?). That didn’t stop them. In fact, I’m quite excited to see Microsoft trying to be a player in the mobile world. It promotes innovation from all its competitors.

In today’s op ed section of the NYTimes there’s an article titled “True Innovation” about Bell Labs. Last year I read two great books about innovation and risks: Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and Tim Harford’s Why Success Always Starts with Failure: Adapt. Like so many things that end up being polarized, I think many things do not have to be either/or. The article and the books mention the need for both autonomy and collaboration. They are not exclusive of each other. The challenge is finding the balance, so that the continued cycle of improvement promotes both teacher accountability and innovative teaching.

If I had the chance, I’d like to ask Bill Gates this…

To fuel innovation, we often need to take risks. Risks come with many rewards, but they also come with failure. How do you balance teacher accountability while supporting and promoting innovative teaching?

If anyone gets a chance on Thursday to get behind a mic and ask this question, I’d love to hear his response.