Leading from the Outside

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.





Categories: Uncategorized

3 replies »

  1. Welcome back, Colleen! I agree with your perspective. There is so much interesting social science research underway in learning, (e.g. Kagen and Gottfredson to mention just two), that I wish we could redirect some of the well intended interest in education. Imagine the impact if we could better collaborate on applying what we are learning about learning instead of placing blame.

    As a former teacher, also support your idea that those who think they’d do better in the classroom ought to try. My three years of teaching in a over crowded elementary school with a wide disparity in family stability and resources were the most challenging of my career. Much harder than my subsequent executive roles.

  2. Thanks Susan. The unfortunate part of all of this is that the educational sector is mired in the politics of belief, rather than evidence. And that goes for educators as well. At least in higher education, the visionaries are being out weighed by the reactionaries. If educators are going to have a say in what happens in education, we are going to have to be willing to change, and willing to lead that change. In my experience, we aren’t there yet.


  3. Hi Colleen. Great to start the new year on something you can really sink your teeth into.
    I always get these prickles up the back of my neck when I hear a profession lay claim to being the only ones who can fix their problem. Granted, their involvement is mandatory. However, using their knowledge, the same knowledge derived from the same sources, will only develop more of the same problem. It’s like having the police force fixing the police force or the armed forces fixing the armed forces. If you want a different result then change how you are working at the problem otherwise it ain’t gonna happen.
    You did neglect to mention the one group that spends their days with the educators while the educators are performing their duties. One guess allowed. Right! The student. That hunk of gray matter that stumbles through the door in the morning having trouble putting one foot in front of the other. While the educator is trying to figure out how to pound some wisdom into that block of gray matter, that block of gray matter is working equally as hard on trying to figure out how best to learn this never before dreamed of innovation called “Addition”. They come up with some marvelous and ingenious ways to cope and learn. Ask them how they do it in spite of their educators methods. Oh yes! One other important aspect here – LISTEN as if you know nothing. I know, for an educator that’s nigh on impossible.
    What I learned about the power of listening. About 7 years ago I learned that I was a type I diabetic. The following two to three years was spent learning just about everything I could about the pancreas, insulin, body functions of a diabetic and what to do about it. My wife and I discussed a lot of it together. Our three year old daughter, at the time, listened to us discuss, agree, disagree, accept and discard options. Someone asked our daughter, when she was six, if she knew what diabetes was since she had mentioned it in a conversation. I was floored at her response. She explained it in almost as much detail as I would have and she understood what she was talking about including the anatomical parts of the body involved. Wonder child? No. Whiz kid? Yes – then as she understood the value of listening. (Now she is a ten year old teenager!)
    Don’t stick yourself in a rut trying to use the same tools to get out as got you into it. Other people in this world may just have nearly as much intelligence as a teacher.

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