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. 


Two Experts Agree

As a potential contrast to the title of my last post, I was steered to the article, How to Rescue Education, written by Linda Darling-Hammond and Fredrick M. Hess (I have to admit, I’m not familiar with his work). In the article, these two voices in education who usually disagree find some common ground regarding No Child Left Behind. They basically agreed on the following four ways that government should interfere with education:

1) Transparency for school performance and spending. Federal funds should be tied to truth in advertising. The taxpayers, voters and parents can hold schools accountable if these are made clear. This can easily apply to independent schools where parents can do the same thing.

2) Ensuring that basic constitutional protections are respected. Equity in education is an issue everywhere.

3) Supporting basic research.

4) Funding innovation.

They say that most everything else in education is something the government has never been good with.  Now if the government could begin finding common ground.

Meaningful Conversations

I am still digesting an incredible evening of ideas thoughtful discourse on public education from a diverse panel of advocates for public school and change at Seattle University (Part of their Conversations in Education series). Each made one articulate point after the other. While their views all differed slightly, they were all passionate, and there were clear common themes that came through. The panel included the following people: Chester Finn, Kati Haycock, Tyrone Howard, Reverend Al Sharpton, Denise Pope, and Nicholas Hanauer.

The discussion was moderated by Joseph W. Scott (professor of Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Washington – and husband of one of my favorite profs at Seattle U.) He first asked each member to answer this question: Name the top two things on your list that you think is preventing achievement in public education.

Kati Haycock began and mentioned that we do not demand enough of our students. She also said we need to act on what we know. We know early childhood education makes a difference. Chester Finn mentioned that the state standards are too low, at least the Common Core curriculum seems to be better, he suggested, but warned that it only exists in math and reading and then reminded us again that the curricula is week. Tyrone Howard and Al Sharpton talked about the “New Racisim” which is saying to a child of color or poverty, “I understand your situation, so you don’t need to care as much, nor do I.” We need to become more comfortable talking about race and how education is not serving a significant part of the population. Denise Pope also agreed that our standards were too low, but particularly on authentic real-life skills. She mentioned that now we have doctors, who have aced every standardized test imaginable who cannot diagnose something because it doesn’t look “exactly like it does in the textbook!” She said there’s serious disengagement in school and kids are not healthy (both mentally and physically) – basically, she said (and I’m paraphrasing because I didn’t record it), “The curriculum is extremely broad, but about an inch deep and kids cannot think for themselves, collaborate in healthy ways.” Nick Hanauer (whose children I have taught), talked about bureaucracy, politics, and the need to distribute money equitably.

They were then asked to name one remedy they thought would work. It basically came down to proper distribution of funds, and shave away layers of bureaucracy.

Kati said, you cannot teach from a textbook – you need people who know HOW to teach, and you need to talk honestly and act.

Chester said we need to look at governance and strip away layers and have more leadership at all levels – not something that is hierarchical.

Tyrone said, use data and get effective teachers on board, incentivize them to go out to needy areas, include parents in the discussion, identify teachers that aren’t doing their jobs, try to remediate, if that fails – they should choose another profession.

Denise really spoke to the need for a strong Social / Emotional curriculum, and that the work kids need to do should be authentic, like the work we do. How many timed tests have you done lately? It’s like if my boss gathered all of us and gave us a timed test and those who didn’t score above a certain amount were fired. Many kids face high stakes testing daily, and we’re sending the wrong message to them. She said, kids need to know the value of being wrong, receiving redemption and leraning from it.

Nick spoke about allocating funds strategically and equitably and supporting legislators that support education. He gave concrete examples, like supporting arts programs in schools, and subject specialists. He also talked about the need to support early childhood education and all day kindergarten programs in public education.

Rev Al said, to change the culture, we have to create the culture, and to do that we have to have active engagement.

Active community engagement was on everybody’s list.

That was just the first part of the evening. There were three, but I couldn’t possibly try to summarize it all in one post, so I’m going to leave it there for tonight. I went with four colleagues, and I know one more who went separately. I just wish we could have had more people there , parents, board members, other leaders. It was an incredible and inspiring evening full of people modeling what they believe, taking action, and engaging in meaningful conversation.