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Helping teachers
Technology can help teachers, and students, at many grade levels.
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Making good teachers great

Annual Letter: Excellence in Teaching


In the United States, the foundation’s biggest investments are in education. Only a third of students are graduating from high school prepared to succeed at college-level work, and even fewer are going on to get a degree that will help them compete for a good job. No one should feel comfortable with those results.

Davis Guggenheim’s amazing and popular movie “Waiting for Superman” made a powerful argument against the status quo. It showed a broad audience that schools with the right approach can succeed, even with inner city students that typical schools do not educate well. As more people understand the gap between what is possible and what is actually happening in most schools, I believe the momentum for reform will grow.

Since 1980 U.S. government spending per K-12 student increased by 73 percent, which is 20 percent faster than the rest of the economy. Over that time our achievement levels were basically flat, while other countries caught up. A recent analysis by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed the United States is about average (compared to 35 developed countries) in science and reading and below average in math. Many Americans have a hard time believing this data, since we are so used to being the global leader in educational achievement and since we spend a lot more money on education than many other countries.

PISA measured educational achievement in the Shanghai area of China, and even allowing for the fact that Shanghai is one of the most advanced parts of China, the scores relative to the United States and other countries were quite stunning. China did better in math, science, and reading than any of the 65 countries it was compared to, and it achieved these results with an average class size of more than 35 students. One of the impressive things about the Chinese system is how teachers are measured according to their ability. There are four levels of proficiency in the Chinese system, and to move up a level, teachers have to demonstrate their excellence in front of a panel of reviewers.

According to the PISA analysis, two key things differentiate the U.S. education system from most other countries’ systems. The first is that non-U.S. students are in school for more hours, and the second is that U.S. school systems do very little to measure, invest in, and reward teacher excellence.

Most people who become teachers do so because they’re passionate about kids. It’s astonishing what great teachers can do for their students. But the remarkable thing about great teachers today is that in most cases nobody taught them how to be great. They figured it out on their own. That’s why our foundation is investing to help devise measurement and support systems to help good teachers become great teachers.

Our project to learn what the best teachers do—and how to share this information with other teachers—is making significant progress. With the help of local union affiliates, we have learned a lot already. We’re learning that listening to students can be an important element in the feedback system. In classes where students agree that “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time” or that “In this class, we learn a lot almost every day,” there tend to be bigger achievement gains.

Another great tool is taking a video showing both the teacher and the students and asking evaluators to provide feedback. Melinda and I spent several days visiting schools in Tennessee this fall and sat with teachers who were watching videos of themselves teaching. We heard from a number of them how they had already improved by seeing when students were losing interest and analyzing the reasons.

Ultimately, the goal is to gather high-quality feedback from multiple sources—test scores, student surveys, videos, principals, and fellow teachers—so that teachers know how to improve. I think it is clear that a system can be designed that teachers agree is fair, has modest overhead, and rewards the teachers who are doing the most for their students.

State budgets, the biggest part of K-12 funding, will be challenged in the years ahead because of the economic downturn, the liabilities from early retirement and pension commitments, and increasing medical costs. I recently gave a speech to the chief state school officers about how they might need to find money to reward excellent teaching by shifting some away from things like payment for seniority or advanced degrees that do not correlate with improved teaching.

I am very enthusiastic about the potential of innovation to help solve many of the problems with our education system. Melinda and I were impressed when we visited the Tennessee Technology Center in Nashville, an institution that provides young adults with technical training and certificates. It gets significantly better results than its peer institutions—graduating 71 percent of its students—because it focuses on teaching job skills that are in high demand and is oriented around meeting the needs of students who are juggling school with work and family. Sometimes something as simple as rethinking the times when classes are scheduled makes a huge difference for students.

The foundation is funding the development of online tools to help both K-12 and college students learn. Pioneers like Sal Khan are already showing how effective online tools can be. His website www.khanacademy.org continues to grow its library of 2,000 short instructional videos on topics from basic arithmetic to complicated subjects like biology and physics. The videos are a tremendous resource for students of any age.

Sal’s vision for how technology can improve learning is broader than just videos. With support from the foundation, he’s been able to expand his site to include online exercises that diagnose weak spots, pointing you to additional material to fill the gaps in your knowledge. Also, Khan Academy is creating an online “dashboard” to help teachers use the site as part of their curriculum. The dashboard tells the teacher how each student is doing, pinpoints where they’re having trouble, and suggests explanations and exercises to help.

Although it is clear that online learning works for strongly motivated students, we need to learn how to blend classroom learning and online learning, particularly for younger and less-prepared students. As these projects develop and we start to answer many of these questions, I believe technology will let us dramatically improve education despite the budget constraints.


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