Saturday, October 17, 2015

Gates & Feedback

When Bill Gates says, "Give Teachers What They Deserve," I think many of us can be forgiven for flinching. But over at his blog, His Royal Gateness has done just that. It might seem redundant for me to respond, because the piece is a bit of a teaser for Gates' Big Talk about education, which I've already responded to. But I find this sort of piece instructive, because when somebody has to edit down his own work, he tells you what he thinks the crucial, important parts were.

The crucial important part here is that after all this time monkeying around with education, Gates still doesn't know what he's taking about.

He opens with a wide-eyed tale of how a teacher he talked to begins the year by drawing a line on a piece of paper that aims up and to the right. The bottom-most point is labeled "birth" and then  "Fourth Grade" further up the line and still further up the line the teacher puts himself. This is called the learning line, and I can see its value as a construct for fourth graders. But Gates-- a grown man-- apparently found this image inspirational when working on his big education speech, and not for the first time I'm wondering how much real thought Gates has actually put into this education stuff. If I walked into a corporate board meeting and unveiled my chart with a line spearing up from the bottom left corner, and I marked the origin point "birth" and a little way up put "guy working at McDonalds" and a little further up put "Microsoft" and announced proudly that this I called this the Revenue Line, would board members be thinking about that for months? Or would they point out that my chart had showed something that was both obvious and yet still missing so many deeper complexities of the actual truth? I'm just saying.

But Gates thinks the learning line is "a great metaphor for the work we're doing with teachers." And here we go with his thoughts about that work.

Just about every teacher I have ever met is dying to get useful feedback and tools that help them improve their work in the classroom. Unfortunately, they rarely get either one.  

This is one of Gates' foundational beliefs-- that the whole educational world, from teachers to parents to students to community members, are all flying blind without data that look the way Gates thinks data should look. Are teachers dying for useful feedback? Well, sure-- that's why most of us live in a perpetual feedback loop. I've designed a lesson, and I wonder if it will work. I watch student reaction as I deliver the lesson. Feedback. I listen to the questions they do, or don't, ask. Feedback. I take an informal assessment of their understanding by asking questions. Feedback. I give a formal assessment of their learning. Feedback. In the interests of teaching reflection, I may even ask directly for their thoughts about how they think it went. Feedback. And I may run all or part of this past my colleagues, asking what they think. Feedback.

But the very next sentence from Gates is about a survey that showed that most teachers don't find professional development sessions useful. Which is kind of a non-sequitor. I also find my lunch period and my parking lot assignment don't help me much in providing feedback.

Gates notes that in some places, the teacher evaluation system doesn't even help teachers become better, but is just used for hiring and firing. He's right-- that's what evaluation should be good for. But Gates might want to talk to some of the groups he pours money into, like TNTP or Bellwether, who really want evaluation to be driven by test scores and to in turn drive "employment decisions."

In other words, most teachers have to move up the learning line on their own. So they proceed slowly. 

And a bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves. There are so many unproven assumptions in these nineteen words. Most teachers develop on their own? All teachers develop slowly? And that word "so"-- we know that the first is the cause of the second? Teachers may arguably develop alone in the sense that most teachers work alone. But teacher development over the first few years in the classroom is, I'd argue, rapid and often dramatic-- again, because a classroom full of students provide real-time high-impact feedback. But then teacher change slows down for (me arguing again) two main reasons. One is that doing the actual work of teaching doesn't leave time for extensive R & D. We read up, pay attention, watch what's happening, and we adjust and change and grow-- but at the same time, we have to keep showing up and doing our jobs. The second is that you don't need to make radical rapid changes each year if most of what you're doing works. Ice cream hasn't changed very much or very rapidly over the last century because it does its job pretty well.

Now let's chop some logic.

And it’s a big loss for their students, because the evidence shows that having an effective teacher is the single most important in-school factor in student achievement.
This is an urgent problem. Right now, only 25 percent of Hispanic students and 10 percent of African-American students graduate from high school ready for college.

First of all, the 25% and 10% figures come from... where? Because if, as I would suspect, they come from reading the tea leaves of Big Standardized Test results, they are bunk because at this point, nobody has showed any link at all between a good PARCC score and being "ready for college." Second, notice how we made that classic reformster jump from "teachers are the most important in-school factor" to "teachers are fully responsible for all student achievement."

But we know that the correlation between socio-economics and test scores is huge. Gates might as easily say that this "urgent problem" means that the feds must make some serious policy decisions to attack systemic poverty in this country. But no-- of all the factors that affect "ready for college" test scores, we'll zero in on teachers. Mind you, we'll readily accept our role on the front lines of this fight-- just don't pretend that there aren't other people who should be on the front lines with us.

If we’re going to solve this problem, we have to create outstanding feedback and improvement systems for teachers. We need to help all teachers move up the learning line faster, and together with their colleagues, so they can help far more students graduate ready for college. 

This doesn't sound unreasonable. But what if the learning line looks more like a big, expansive tree with hundreds of wide-ranging branches? And what if the purpose of schools and teaching is more than just to get students ready for college?

Gates goes on to cite some places where success is happening, once again equating test scores with measures of success. He gets a point or two for talking about supporting teachers, then loses some for including "classroom tools aligned to the Common Core standards" on the list of supportive things. And he underlines the crucialness of focusing teacher evaluations on improving teacher skillls, repeating the Common Core's error of focusing strictly on skills and ignoring content. By Gates' measure, taking a class about early American literature or reading current biographies of important literary figures is not a useful activity because it's not skill-related.

Gates is worried that the process is fragile, and that where teacher evaluation is punitive and disconnected from any resources for improvement, teachers are resisting. This emphasis is also in the full speech, and I want to point out that Gates is only concerned that the bad evaluation process will deprive students of test-beating instruction-- not that bad evaluation is destructive of teachers, teaching and the school. Gates simply can't close the circle-- bad evaluation leads to teacher pushback which hinders implementation of the evaluation, but we never mention that teachers push back because the bad evaluation is destructive and toxic. Consequently, the implication here is that the measure of an evaluation system is not how good it is, but whether or not teachers will push back and get in the way. By this reasoning, we should avoid feeding children poison not because the poison is bad for them, but because they will fight back and make it harder to feed them.

So we have to find ways to take what’s working in a few places and spread it much more widely. In my speech last week I encouraged teachers to demand excellent feedback and improvement systems, and I urged state and local leaders to deliver them. 

Again with the scaling up and the flat rejection of local solutions for local issues. For Gates and friends, if it can't be mass-marketed, it's not good.

But I'm glad Gates made a speech about these issues and is urging state and local leaders to get on it. I myself recently delivered a speech in which I called for the federal government to reject John King's appointment as secretary of education, another speech in which I called for the Pennsylvania legislature to pass a budget finally, and a speech in which I demanded that Firefox stop crashing every time it ran into a site with flash.

Anybody can deliver a speech. What I find continually astonishing about Bill Gates is that he has no more knowledge, understanding or expertise about schooling and education than any average American pulled in off the street. He has not been appointed or elected to the position of Grand High Arbiter of US Education, and nobody ever said, "Hey, we need to call Bill Gates and get his thoughts on public education in America." His ideas are no more well-supported or well-developed than any other kind-of-interested amateur. (Watch reformy Jay Greene tear Gates a new one for his mangling of ed research.)

In short, if Bill Gates' thoughts about education had to live or die strictly on their merits, we would not be talking about any of this. The ideas laid out in this blog piece are not unspeakably terrible or remarkably extra-awful. They're just kind of dumb half-baked meh, the sort of thing you'd expect from somebody who only kind of sort of knows what he's talking about. That's the hugest mystery to me-- how is it that somehow, Gates is some sort of voice in the US discussion of public education? It's not the power of his insights, and it's not the usefulness of his ideas. But because he has money and connections, he can pretend that he's way up the learning line, where he need not search for any feedback from people who actually work in the field.


  1. If he really believes this, maybe he should have hung around in Hillsborough County.

  2. So sick of rich amateurs thinking they're authorities on everything because they're rich, playing with education and not realizing when they break stuff.

  3. Mr. Gates defines success and what it is to be educated based on his own rather narrow life experience. In other words, an educated person knows how to program computers, and a successful person knows how to make a lot of money at it. He assumes people will gratefully trade public education for his private alternatives.