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2012 Annual Letter: U.S. Education

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What the Foundation’s Doing

2012 Annual Letter: U.S. Education

Our work in U.S. education focuses on two related goals: making sure that all students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and that young adults who want to get a postsecondary degree have a way to do so.

On the K-12 side, our top priority is helping schools implement a personnel system that improves the effectiveness of teaching, because research shows that effective teaching is the most important in-school factor in student achievement. There are a lot of great teachers in public schools, and a lot of teachers who want to be great but don’t have the tools they need. If we could make the average teacher as good as the best teachers, the benefit to students would be phenomenal.

A personnel system includes hiring; giving specific feedback; helping employees improve; and creating pay schedules, benefit plans, and termination procedures. There is consensus that the current personnel system in public schools doesn’t work. Every element of today’s system is criticized. However, there isn’t a strong consensus on what to change. Many states are moving away from guaranteed tenure with pay based solely on seniority and what degrees you have. But most of the alternative measures do not include much investment in teacher evaluation, which makes them very dependent on how good the principal is and how well student test scores measure teaching effectiveness.

I still find it hard to believe that 95 percent of teachers are not given specific feedback about how to improve. Even more important than a pay schedule that rewards excellence is identifying and understanding excellence so that teachers know how they can improve. In all the meetings I have had with teachers around the country, and in the surveys we have done, it is clear that most teachers want more feedback and will use it to improve, even if the financial rewards for performance are comparatively modest.

The most compelling example I have seen that this concept can work in a way that is great for both teachers and students is the school district of Tampa, Florida that Melinda and I visited this past fall. A key element of the agreement between the teachers’ union and the superintendent was to assign 2 percent of the teachers to become peer evaluators. These teachers were trained to observe classroom teaching and provide feedback on 22 different components. The principals have also been trained in this approach. Every teacher gets in-depth feedback from both the principal and the peer evaluator.

2012 Annual Letter: U.S. Education

Students at Thomas Jefferson High School conduct an experiment in a chemistry lab (Tampa, FL, 2011).


Tampa has been doing this for three years now, and it is already making a big difference. Teachers told us they value having feedback from two different sources—the principal who knows the school the best and the peer who knows the challenges of their specific job. The first round of evaluation revealed that many teachers need help engaging the students to prompt critical thinking and problem solving. The district started to organize its professional development around these findings, and the teachers have seized that opportunity to become more effective in the classroom.

When Melinda and I met with students, they told us that they had seen a big change during their time at the school. The success here required great work by Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia, Classroom Teachers Association President Jean Clements, and all of the teachers. I was particularly impressed with the peer evaluators. They all said they understood great teaching far better, having done the peer evaluation job. Some of the peer evaluators will go back to teaching and others will go into schools of education to help make sure new teachers have better preparation.

After seeing how valuable peer evaluation is, I think it should be part of every public school personnel system. Dedicating 2 percent of teachers to do this work is a large investment. It can mean raising the average class size by 2 percent or spending 2 percent more money. With budgets as tight as they are, most states will not add extra money for evaluation so we will have to make the case that it is worth the small increase in class size (of fewer than one student per class on average). Without this investment I don’t think an evaluation system will get enough credibility with the teachers or provide enough specific feedback to help teachers improve. Looking at test scores is also valuable for most subjects, but test score data mostly just identifies who is succeeding—it doesn’t show a teacher what needs to change. I see the willingness to make this investment as a test of whether people are serious about an evaluation system that really works.

Accelerating the development, discovery, and use of innovative educational technologies is another high priority for us. We have seen a tremendous amount of progress in this area recently, but it is really just the beginning. More needs to be done to equip teachers with the tools and information they need to make learning more personalized and engaging.

Social networking is one of the most promising areas, because it helps teachers and students connect in ways that naturally augment what’s going on in the classroom. Services that use social networking, like Edmodo, are really starting to take off because teachers can manage all aspects of the classroom using a platform with which most people are comfortable.

I’m also excited to see more and more schools “flip” the classroom so that passive activities like lectures are done outside of class and in-class time is used for more collaborative and personal interactions between students and teachers. Khan Academy is a great example of a free resource that any teacher can use to take full advantage of class time and make sure all students advance at their own pace.

Great work is also being done by companies that are thinking beyond simply digitizing textbooks. CK-12 Foundation, Udemy, and Ednovo have great teacher- and community–generated content. A simple example of how powerful the community can be in this area is TeachersPayTeachers, a marketplace that facilitates the sharing and exchanging of lesson plans and other materials developed by teachers themselves.

We’re also just starting to see how impactful gaming can be in an educational context. MangaHigh and Grockit are successfully delivering fun, competitive, game-based lessons that drive greater engagement and understanding. Zoran Popović, at University of Washington’s Center for Game Science, is taking this even further through some amazing work creating games that automatically adapt to each student’s unique needs based on their interactions with the computer.

Many of these new tools and services have the added benefit of providing amazing visibility into how each individual student is progressing, and generating lots of useful data that teachers can use to improve their own effectiveness.

But how do most teachers figure out what’s available and right for them? There’s not yet a good answer to this question. Good technologies remain unused, and teachers spend too much of their own time and money. That’s why I’m launching a project this year to build an online service that helps educators easily discover and learn how to use these new tools and resources. I think there’s no limit to what a teacher with the right tools and information can do.

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