When you think about it, teaching is one of the most difficult, complex professions there is. You have to be able to make a subject clear, and interesting. You have to calm the disruptive kids, challenge the advanced kids, humor the bored kids, and reach the kids who learn at a different pace. All with 30 students in the classroom.
No wonder it’s so challenging creating an education system that works. In the U.S., as elsewhere, educators and policymakers have struggled for years to figure out what’s needed to create effective learning environments. Since 1973, per-pupil spending in the U.S. has doubled. Yet, graduation rates have plunged from 2nd in the world to 16th. And our 15-year-olds now rank behind 22 other countries in science, and behind 31 countries in math.
In the decade that the foundation has been focused on improving education in the U.S., we also have tried different approaches. Initially we provided funding to make high schools smaller in the hope it would increase student achievement and drive down dropout rates. Over time, we have come to realize that the schools showing the biggest gains in student achievement were those that prioritized improving teaching. Great teaching really is the centerpiece of a strong education. Only by raising the quality of teaching are we going to make a big improvement in education.
Others have come to a similar conclusion—creating an opportunity for substantive discussion and real reform. In the education community, the American Federation of Teachers has been a leader. So I was pleased when Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, invited me to speak recently at the organization’s annual convention in Seattle.
As I told the AFT, efforts to improve public education cannot succeed without drawing on teachers’ knowledge and experience. Education reform must include measures of teacher effectiveness, tied to gains in student achievement. But those measures must be fair and reliable. And, there must be adequate resources for professional education so teachers can learn and improve their teaching methods.
The foundation is funding a pair of education research projects designed to help identify the most effective teaching skills, create better tools for evaluating teacher performance, and provide more effective professional development opportunities.
As part of the Measures of Effective Teaching project, researchers are videotaping 3,000 teachers as they work with students in the classroom and interviewing them about how they teach. By reviewing the videos and measuring student learning gains in those classrooms, researchers are zeroing in on the most effective teaching practices.
Insights from this research will be used in a second project, Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching, that is working with schools in several U.S. cities to make teacher effectiveness the focal point of new evaluation and professional development systems. Some of these schools are also piloting incentives such as pay increases for teachers at low-performing schools if students show higher-than-expected improvements in test scores and stay on track to attend college.
Significant educational reform will only succeed if teachers are willing to take a risk and try out new things. It is bound to be uncomfortable for some people. But we can’t improve student performance or move the teaching profession forward without embracing change. I appreciate how the AFT is working with our foundation and other organizations to help us develop the very best teachers possible.