Gates Defends Teachers, Denounces Public 'Shaming'

It’s difficult to say what is more disconcerting: the drawing of a gallows to illustrate an opinion article in The New York Times on Thursday about the plan to release teacher evaluation scores, or the identity of the person who is taking up the teachers’ cause, Bill Gates.

Mr. Gates, famous for Microsoft and his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a deep-pocketed supporter of causes related to school reform -- including more accountability for teachers -- comes out strongly against the release of Teacher Data Reports, calling it a public shaming of teachers.

The reports, which will be released in New York City any minute now, are the scores that each teacher received based on their students’ improvement on standardized tests, also known as value-added ratings. The methodology is widely criticized, as is the plan to release city teachers’ scores by name.

Last week a final attempt by the teachers’ union to block the publishing of the reports was rebuffed by the courts, and since then a campaign against the release has been escalating.

SchoolBook is in the middle of the debate, as The New York Times was one of the media organizations that sued for release of the reports, and WNYC filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain the data. The Times and WNYC are partners in SchoolBook.

The denunciation by Mr. Gates is a bit of a surprise, not the least of which is because it is seemingly a local issue rather than an issue of education policy. Mr. Gates explains in the article why it is a matter of policy.

He says that he is in favor of teacher accountability -- just not this way. And the headline, “Shame Is Not the Solution,” sums up his argument.

I am a strong proponent of measuring teachers’ effectiveness, and my foundation works with many schools to help make sure that such evaluations improve the overall quality of teaching. But publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning. On the contrary, it will make it a lot harder to implement teacher evaluation systems that work.

Mr. Gates calls value-added ratings “one important piece of a complete personnel system.”

A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.

Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment. Those who believe we can do it on the cheap — by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public — are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.

Mr. Gates then cites his own company, and its approach to such matters:

At Microsoft, we created a rigorous personnel system, but we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper. A good personnel system encourages employees and managers to work together to set clear, achievable goals. Annual reviews are a diagnostic tool to help employees reflect on their performance, get honest feedback and create a plan for improvement. Many other businesses and public sector employers embrace this approach, and that’s where the focus should be in education: school leaders and teachers working together to get better.

SchoolBook will have more to say about teacher data reports later Thursday – including an invitation to teachers. Check back. Meanwhile, we have been asking readers what they think of the plan. You can find their responses here -- and add yours to the query below.