On SuperBowl Sunday, Bill Gates appeared on Reliable Sources, a CNN show, to pontificate on some of the successes we are seeing in our messed up world. In his appearance, Mr. Gates noted that one way to improve teaching was to provide teachers with feedback on the effectiveness of their teaching, and then provide teachers with developmental opportunities to improve their performance.
Mr. Gates is one of a long line of corporate managers, with no teaching experience, who purport to have the solution to the “education problem”. While there is no question that education is in dire need of reform, most so called “reformers” seem to start and end with proposing to fix teachers. Like any other profession, there are bad and good teachers. But I think these well meaning corporate leaders don’t understand education, and therefore misdiagnose the problem.
There are three underlying problems. First, we don’t have a good handle on effective teaching methods. Second, because students vary so much in both ability and learning styles, it is difficult, even for stellar teachers to adjust to these needs. Finally, parents pose a great challenge, because they have a slight bias, often assuming that their child is more capable than test scores would suggest. When their child does not perform well, they blame the teacher, rather than looking closer to home.
Gates assumes that we know what good teaching looks like. The problem is that measurement of teaching effectiveness is very difficult to do with any validity and reliability. Much of what is taught in faculties of education is more anecdotal than empirical.
Gates also assumes that we know how to evaluate good teaching. And he assumes that schools are staffed to enable teaching evaluations. In the corporate world, evaluations are conducted by managers who observe the employee’s day to day work habits and gather information from other employees and suppliers to provide well rounded feedback. In the education world, only the students are in a classroom regularly. Senior administrators rarely sit in on primary and secondary school classes, and never sit in on higher education classes. It is difficult to develop meaningful feedback with little exposure to the teacher’s actual performance in the classroom.
Much needed educational reform needs to be led by educators. Research consistently shows that the most successful new leaders rise from within an organization, the next most successful come from within an industry, and the least successful come from outside the industry. In addition to understanding organizational culture, there is a core threshold of knowledge necessary to run the organization, that can only be learned by actually working in the sector. In other words, to really understand how to teach effectively, you actually have to be a teacher. While some lessons from the corporate world are transferable to education, many are not. If Mr. Gates is serious about improving education, I challenge him to spend a couple years teaching.
The broader lesson of this rant is that leadership requiring significant change needs to be from a place of deep understanding of the current situation, including the limitations of our knowledge.