Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Evolution of a Gate

This post can also be found on my blog

It has been interesting to watch Bill Gates grow and evolve in his efforts to improve U.S.

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education. Just an informal overview of the highlights I remember.
There is High Tech High School in San Diego, which I think is a pretty successful group of schools. Technology infused with project based learning.
There was the small school initiative which didn’t work out so well. Reduce the size of the student population. I thought there were better methods (Leads, research) to reduce school size without reducing the options available to students, but Bill tried his methods and admitted failure.
He also tried measuring teacher effectiveness. The idea that teachers are the determining factor on student success has hinged on the research that states teachers have the greatest influence in student success. However influence and determining factors are different.
A lot of educators are wary of value-added measurements and so-called teacher accountability, because used incorrectly it can be a weapon. Most statisticians will agree that the value added measuring done on teachers has too much of a margin of error to have any meaning.
In Bill Gates 2012 Annual Letter it seems he has realised the error of his ways, or at least refined how he proposes to measure teacher effectiveness.
Looking at test data has been relegated to a smaller piece of the puzzle. Instead training teachers and administrators to observe and evaluate teachings plays a central role.
Feedback was a major point in Bill’s letter. Feedback that comes immediately and has specificity is useful. A general statement such as satisfactory is useless to help a teacher improve. Positive feedback is just as important as negative feedback (I added this part).
Let’s try an example:
In the observation I saw three students off task while you were giving instruction.
As opposed to:
Yesterday while you were giving oral instructions the three students in the back row were not listening. Is this normal behavior for them? Do they hear and understand the instructions you are giving? Are they a disturbance to the other students? The school wide expectations are that students listen attentively to the instructions? In this instance they are not meeting school expectations. You as the teacher either need to address the expectation with the students or develop an alternative method of delivering your instructions. I would suggest either moving them closer to you and/or reminding them of classroom expectations, by practising or modelling the expectation. If not that I would suggest delivering instructions in an alternative manner such as written directions.
I kind of combined several different ways of not only providing feedback, but adding corrective measures as this is an essay on Bill Gates’ change in attitude towards education and not a book on supervision and feedback.
BUT I think Bill’s letter is still missing a few pieces of the puzzle.
  • Retaining teachers and administration
  • Too often teachers don’t put effort into changing because they see programs implemented by one administrator only to see that person leave and be replaced by another administrator who emphasises something completely different.
  • Often these programs are based on a small numbers of similar general concepts but teachers are judged ineffective because they are implementing the specific methodology of this particular program.
  • I wonder sometimes if principals should be asked to sign 5 year contracts. That would also require the building leadership team to be involved in the hiring process.
  • To often the best teachers in the worst schools will either leave education all together or transfer to a better school. (I don’t have statistics to back this up)
  • Safe classrooms
  • When the principal comes around to do formal evaluations I see teachers time and again setting up a dog and pony show. Creating that one perfect lesson that meets all the criteria necessary to receive a satisfactory or excellent on the evaluation.
  • Do peer reviews mean reviewers work with the teachers to improve what the teacher is doing in the classroom or is it to make sure they teach the right way?
  • Is there one set of standards that says this is the right way to teach or is it at least partially individual based on the teacher and the needs of the classroom?
  • Differentiation
  • There is still talk about changing the pay scale, but I don’t see talk about increasing the autonomy of the educator.
  • I’m not talking old school autonomy where the teacher closes the door and does what s/he wants. I’m talking about allowing the teacher to choose the method of teacher s/he thinks is most effective. (with justification of course)
  • Whole schools can be differentiated like this. I just think real school choice actually includes choice between the methods of teaching.
  • This doesn’t mean schools are factories that each teacher teaches in the exact same manner, but that they have similar philosophies of education. Then parents can choose how their child is taught and not just who does the teaching.
  • Currently in most district tenured teachers just don’t get evaluated as often
  • What if this were changed to something along the lines of peer reviewers are different for various groups of teachers and/or they look for different aspects of teaching.
  • Newer teachers often struggle with classroom management, but other teachers might have a nice quiet classroom and struggle with engaging students or critical thinking.
The pressure for school reform is having a positive effect.
  • SB7 in Illinois has a large section on teacher evaluations and though test data does play a part it is not tied specifically to one test and the percentage can be negotiated as long as it is replaced with another qualified measure.
  • School districts around the country are working with teacher unions to create better evaluation procedures for teachers. Here is just one example.
I think we can and will continue to evolve in the area of teacher quality and effectiveness. I have been looking at the Regional Office of Education a lot lately. Part of the description of the office as written in Illinois school code is:
To give teachers and school officers such directions in the science, art and methods of teaching, and in regard to courses of study, as he deems expedient.
 To labor in every practical way to elevate the standard of teaching and improve the condition of the common schools of his county
I think schools and districts working on improving the educational practice of their own teachers is paramount to improving education. And I think the method of doing this lies in local central offices empowering teachers and administrators to make the changes they feel appropriate then sharing those changes with educators in the larger area for feedback and suggestions for improvement. Similar to the way an individual teachers would make and apply changes to his or her classroom and submit those ideas to a peer review group for observation and feedback.
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