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Prepared Remarks

Improving Education in the U.S.

My prepared remarks delivered on July 11, 2012 at the 2012 ECS National Forum on Education Policy in Atlanta, Georgia.

Thank you, Ms. Wessling, for the generous introduction. I’m very excited to be here. This is a rare opportunity for me to talk to the educators and policymakers who will determine what happens in our schools in the next generation.

And it’s a special honor to be here with so many state Teachers of the Year.

If we wanted to give the United States the best chance for a great future, and we were allowed to pick one thing to promote that—I would pick great teaching in America’s classrooms. In my view, nothing is more important. That is why helping all teachers get better is the primary focus of our foundation's work in the United States.

Right now, we are funding pilot programs in five urban school districts, working with them to develop teacher evaluation and improvement systems. This is the heart of our work.

Developing a great teacher improvement system is truly difficult—because there are no models. The country’s teachers have been working in systems where almost everyone gets a good evaluation—and almost no one gets any feedback. That’s the key point. Our teachers get no feedback—no guidance on how to get better.

So the goal of our pilot sites is to answer pivotal questions on teaching: What are the great teachers doing? What are the average teachers not doing? And how do you help that average teacher do what the great teacher does? That's what this is all about.

Now, let me just say that at this time, we don’t have a point of view on the right approach to teacher compensation. We’re leaving that for later. In my view, if you pay more for better performance before you have a proven system to measure and improve performance, that pay system won’t be fair—and it will trigger a lot of mistrust. So before we get into that, we want to make sure teachers get the feedback they need to keep getting better.

Fortunately, 24 states are now working to put in place new approaches to teacher evaluation and development. Just a short time ago, no states had comprehensive evaluation and feedback systems. So this is a great development.

But we need to remember: A new teacher evaluation system is not automatically a good thing. If states and school districts feel pressured to rush out new systems, those systems could evaluate teachers unfairly and fail to help teachers improve. That would be a disaster. A flawed execution of a good idea could convince people it is a bad idea—and that could kill this push for reform.

That’s why today I would like to describe the features of a strong teacher evaluation and development system—and warn against the shortcuts that could lead to failure.

Let me start with one overarching point: a strong teacher evaluation and improvement system costs money. We have estimated that it will cost between 1.5 and 2 percent of the overall budget for teacher compensation and benefits to implement an evaluation system based on multiple measures of teaching performance. This price tag might cause people to try to do this cheaply—to skimp on paying teachers to do classroom observations, to cut corners on training the evaluators, to get stingy on providing the feedback that will help teachers improve. But saving money on those measures would be like saving money on a car by leaving out the engine. One-point-five to two percent is a small investment compared to what is paid now for teacher development that shows little results. It’s possible that the costs could be met by reallocating existing dollars. And the returns in student achievement will be many times the investment. So I hope you will take a stand for spending the money it takes to do this well.

Now, based on our work in the pilot sites, and also from the Measures of Effective Teaching study, which is a large study we are funding that involves 3,000 classroom teachers—we have learned that there are a number of elements that are indispensable to a top-flight program.

The first and most important feature of a strong evaluation and development system is heavy teacher involvement throughout, from the conceptual stage, to the roll out, to revising the program once it’s underway. If someone wants to rush an evaluation system into place—and they think they can speed it through by doing it without the teachers—that is a grave mistake. The system will be low-quality, and will never get buy-in from the teachers.

None of us who work outside the classroom can do anything for students unless we do it with teachers. That’s why working with teachers is rule number one.

The second crucial element is to ensure that teacher evaluations include multiple measures. Some reformers believe that test scores alone are sufficient for teacher evaluation. I strongly disagree. Test scores have to be part of the evaluation. If you don’t ground evaluations in student achievement, evaluations will conclude that “everyone is excellent,” and that holds teachers back.

But using gains on annual test scores as a sole measure of teaching performance has huge drawbacks. First, the tests say how the students are performing too late for the teacher to do anything about it—and the whole purpose of evaluation is better student performance.

Second, annual tests are not diagnostic. If the scores are high, they don’t tell us what the teacher did well. If the scores are low, they don’t tell us what the teacher could do better. Teaching is part art, part science—there are lots of great things that teachers do for students that will never be captured on a test.

That’s why we favor three broad measures of evaluation—classroom observations by trained evaluators based on validated measures of good teaching; student surveys with questions such as: “did you work your hardest in this class?” ; and third, a measure of student gains in testing.

The third crucial element of getting reform right is to make sure teacher evaluations are fused with professional development.

The key area where evaluation converges with development is in classroom observations. Part of this approach has to include evaluations done by the school principal. That is a crucial part of a sound process. But no principal has the time to be the sole observer for each teacher in the school, particularly at the high school level. Moreover, our Measures of Effective Teaching study found that for evaluations to be reliable, you need multiple observations by multiple observers: not just a once-a-year visit by the principal.

In the best evaluation and development systems, peer evaluators play a vital role in the work, alongside school administrators. In Hillsborough County Florida, one of our pilot sites, they have taken about one percent of the teachers and trained them to identify key teaching techniques that lead to higher student achievement. The peer evaluators observe a class, and then talk to teachers about their strengths and areas they can work on.

When Melinda and I talked to the students in Hillsborough, they said that their teachers are changing the way they teach because of the feedback they’re getting from their peers. They’re engaging the students more, not just lecturing—and the students can feel the difference.

The peer evaluators we talked to were very enthusiastic about their work. They were all confident they were going to be much better teachers when they returned to the classroom.

In Memphis, another pilot site, Melinda and I were invited to join teacher Mahalia Davis, who volunteered for the MET study, as she watched a video of herself teaching a class. Ms. Davis leaned forward in her chair and said, “Look, I just lost that student.” Then she said, “The class wasn't with me on that point. I need to teach that concept in a new way.”

She told us: “I wanted to do the videos because I want to know how I was relating to students. I want to do my job better.” Now she finally has some of the tools for doing that.

As a point of comparison, you all have heard of Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world. This past May, as he was preparing for the London Olympics, he ran his slowest 100-meter time in 3 years. After the race, he said: “I don’t really know what went wrong. Hopefully, I can go back, look at the replay, and my coach can explain to me what I need to do.”

I think Mahalia Davis deserves the same kind of support as Usain Bolt. It’s true – more people will be watching Usain Bolt than Mahalia Davis, but if you had to ask whose performance matters more in the lives of young kids, Mahalia wins that race going away.

The fourth element of a successful change is to align the curriculum and assessments with the common core state standards, now adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.

These new common core state standards in Math and English Language Arts pinpoint the concepts that are crucial. The standards are a staircase, and each step equips you to do more complex tasks. The standards in math are similar to the standards used by countries that outperform us in international tests.

The standards in English Language Arts emphasize the ability to read text, analyze it, and apply it at ever higher levels of complexity—with ever greater independence. This is the core of the core. It opens the door to everything.

The common core, rolled out with the right tools and templates, will let teachers teach the content they want, and still focus on the skills and concepts that students most need to learn.

Some people continue to say that the common core state standards are a precursor to a national curriculum. I hope you can help set the record straight. The common core state standards are led by the states, not the federal government; they are about goals, not methods. Their purpose is to create great learners, not to transmit facts.

As long as we all want our students to be able to read complex text and solve difficult equations, the common core state standards should not be controversial.

Technology

In addition, the common core will help deliver a huge advantage that our schools have never had before: a large market for new innovations that can help teachers teach at a high level and still reach each child.

Imagine if kids poured their time and passion into a video game that taught them math concepts while they barely noticed because it was so enjoyable. We’ve been supporting the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington, which has developed a free, on-line game called Refraction. The goal of the game is to rescue animals whose ships are stuck in outer space. The ships require different amounts of fuel, powered by lasers. So the players have to manipulate fractions to split the lasers into the right amount of fuel.

As the kids play the game, the teachers watch a dashboard on their computer that tells them how each student is doing, so they know instantly if the student is getting it or not. Teachers no longer have to wait for the unit test to find out if they’re kids understand the material.

Teachers have not had these tools before. Fragmented standards that differ from state to state and district to district have made it hard for innovators to design tools to reach a wide market. The common core will help change that.

In the classroom of the not-too-far-off future, kids will have computer devices with phenomenal interactive content. This will allow teachers to do what they call “flip the classroom.” Instead of learning a concept in class and applying it at home, students would learn the concept at home, on video, and apply it in class, where they can get help from the teacher.

When students learn a concept on video, they can take as much time as they need and learn at their own pace. They can pause the video, rewind it, or just listen to it all over again.

Then the students can use class time to do the problems. The teacher sees instantly on the dashboard which kids are getting it, and steps in if someone is stuck. The students move on when they master the material, and not before. This is very different from the old method where every student moves on to the next topic after the test, whether you got an A or a D.

Now we finally have the answer to the old riddle of education—“do you teach to the faster kids or the slower kids?” This technology will let you teach each child. And often, when the so-called “slower kids” are given the time and attention they need to master a core concept, it turns out they accelerate—and they’re faster than anyone thought.

I hope you’ll do all you can to help speed the adoption of new classroom technology. Teachers have waited long enough. Doctors don’t sit alone in their offices trying to find new ways to heal their patients. They’re supported by a huge industry that is constantly working to provide them better tools. Teachers deserve the same kind of support, and the common core state standards create an historic opportunity to make sure they get it.

Conclusion

We’re on the verge of a new era in our schools. For the first time, we have people who used to oppose each other now pushing together for standards, evaluations, training, and tools that will help every teacher get better.

I’m very excited about this. But I’m not naïve. This is difficult. We have to work together to design this teacher improvement system and make sure it’s implemented well in the early states, succeeds there, and moves to others. This is a delicate job.

But as long as we spend the time and money to get each element right; as long as we don’t let politics block the common core; as long as we let teachers use new technology in the classroom, this could be the educational equivalent of the Big Bang – creating a new universe of learning and discovery for our teachers and students.

Given the opportunities, the next five years could be the most pivotal in the history of America’s public schools. Your support could be decisive. Thank you very much.

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