John Thompson, historian and teacher, wonders why the Gates Foundation is so slow to recognize the failure of his teacher evaluation initiative and mitigate the damage he has done to so many teachers who were unjustly fired. Here is the case of Tulsa:
I don’t speak billionaire-ese, but Bill Gates’s 15th-anniversary presentation on his foundation’s education investments seemed to be inching towards a non-apology, concession of sorts. The weird concept of using test score growth to hold individual educators accountable was apparently born behind closed doors; the seed was supposedly planted by an economist and a bureaucrat who wowed Gates with their claim that test scores could be used in a statistical model that would drive the making of better teachers. Apparently, Gates was not briefed on the overwhelming body of social science that argued against this hypothesis as a real-world policy.
Gates apparently was unaware that so-called value-added models (VAMs) were “junk science,” at least in terms of evaluating individuals, and they weren’t intended to make a direct educational contribution to school improvement. He might not have fully understood that VAMs were a political club to intimidate teachers and unions into accepting market-driven reforms.
The value-added portion of teacher evaluations was no different than “Waiting for Superman,” the teacher-bashing propaganda film promoted by Gates. Corporate reformers used top-dollar public relations campaigns and testing regimes to treat educators like the metaphoric mule – busting us upside the head in order to get our attention.
Now, Gates says, “The early days almost went too well for us. … There was adoption, everything seemed to be on track. … We didn’t realize the issue would be confounded with what is the appropriate role of the federal and state government, we didn’t think it would be confounded with questions about are there too many tests” and other controversies.
Gates complains that school reform is harder than his global health initiatives because “when we come up with a new malaria vaccine, nobody votes to undo our malaria vaccine. (emphasis mine) Gates, however, would have never tried to invent a malaria vaccine without consulting with doctors and scientists, would he? Even if the goal is creating his vaccine, it would have been subject to objective evaluation using the scientific method. So, unlike his teacher evaluations, his vaccines aren’t rejected because they haven’t been an expensive failure.
I’ve spent a lot of time – probably too much – analyzing the ways that the quantitative portions of teacher evaluations are invalid and unreliable for the purposes sought by the Gates Foundation, and trying to communicate with Gates scholars. To their credit, Gates-funded reformers typically acknowledged that they promoted the test-driven part of evaluations while being unaware of the way that schools actually function. In private conversations, I hear that many Gates people now know they were wrong to ignore warnings by social scientists against his VAMs for individuals. They often voice disappointment and regret for their hurried overreach. But, they refuse to admit that it was a bad idea to start down the VAM brick-up-the-side-of-the-teachers’-heads road.
My sense is that a primary issue, today, is the Billionaires Boys Club’s egos, and reformers won’t pull the plug on the high stakes testing until Gates et. al allow them to do so. The recent Bill Gates speech nods in that direction, but it shows that he still hopes to stay the course because … ???
Gates now says, “Because of its complexity, the relationship to management, how labor is one, you can introduce a system … and people say, ‘No, we’d rather have no system at all, completely leave us alone.’” While acknowledging that the mass rejection of his evaluations is “a real possibility,” he still wants to “nurture these systems and get it so there’s critical mass” of systems that implement the Gates policies the way that he wants them to be implemented.
As explained by Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post, Gates said that “too many school systems are using teacher evaluations as merely a tool for personnel decisions, not helping teachers get better. … ‘Many systems today are about hiring and firing, not a tool for learning.'” He says “the danger is that teachers will reject evaluations altogether,” and “if we don’t get this right … (there will be) cases where teachers prefer to get no feedback at all, which is what they had a decade ago.”
The big problem with imposing Gates’s ill-informed opinion on schools was foreshadowed by his language. After more than 2/3rds of states were coerced into enshrining his risky and untested policies into law, the foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) belatedly concluded that effective teaching can be measured. (emphasis mine) Of, course, that is irrelevant for policy purposes. The question they should have asked was how will those measurements be used? Will they undermine the effectiveness of the majority of teachers? Will VAMs drive good teachers out of urban districts, as they also encourage teach-to-the-test malpractice?
I was in the room for several low-level discussions in 2009 and 2010 when Oklahoma was basically coerced into adopting the federal Gates/Obama agenda. I don’t believe I encountered a single educator – then or subsequently – who has classroom experience and who favored the quantitative portion of the system.
We had no choice but to accept the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness system (TLE) which essentially imposed the Colorado teacher evaluation law on Oklahoma. Teachers and administrators recognized the danger of adopting the test-driven portion of the model that could not control for the essential factor of peer pressure. It was inherently biased against teachers in high-poverty schools, with large numbers of special education students and English Language Learners, and magnet schools where students’ scores have less room to grow. And, the idea that Common Core or any college-readiness curriculum could be adopted while holding individuals accountable for test score growth was obviously nutty!
Gates and Arne Duncan gave educators an offer we couldn’t refuse. The best we could do would be to kick the value-added can down the road. After other states found themselves bogged down in lawsuits and as it proved to be impossible to fund a program that would cost 2% of the entire school budget, we hoped the TLE’s quantitative portion would be quietly abandoned.
Oklahoma’s Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Commission is now asking the questions that Gates and Arne Duncan should have asked years ago. The Tulsa World’s Andrea Eger reports that State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister “questioned whether the state can even afford the scheme (the quantitative portion of the TLE). Secondly, she said she doesn’t want to undermine the success of the statewide system for qualitative measures of public school educators.”
Similarly, Senator John Ford, the local sponsor of the TLE legislation, is asking the question that Gates should now consider. I strongly believe Ford was misinformed when he was originally told that TLE-type evaluations weren’t “designed as a ‘gotcha’ system.” But, I’m impressed by the senator’s statement, “Things have changed. We have learned. … We are truly learning, and I don’t think we’re there yet.”
On the other hand, the one Oklahoma district which tried to remain on schedule in implementing the TLE is Tulsa which, of course, received a Gates Foundation “teacher quality” grant. The World’s Eger notes that it “has been credited for helping the district release hundreds of ineffective teachers and identify many more to receive additional support and training.”
Tulsa’s administrator who oversees evaluations, Jana Burk, echoes Gates’s spin, “We don’t want quantitative measures to be the fear factor of bringing somebody’s (evaluation) score down …Principal feedback and support and decision-making is ultimately the foundation, but those quantitative measures need to inform principals’ next steps with teachers and certainly are supposed to be drivers of improvement and reflection, not a hammer of adverse employment decisions in and of themselves.”
So, the Tulsa TLE is a tool for getting rid of hundreds of teachers, i.e “a tool for personnel decisions.” Those released teachers may or may not have been deemed ineffective under the quantitative portion of the TLE, and they may or may not be ineffective in the real world. Perhaps, in some schools, the value-added portion can be a tool that doesn’t interfere with the qualitative portion of the TLE but, in many or most schools, they will be the death of the beneficial part of the evaluation system.
I hope the commission will ask some follow-up questions. Just a couple of months ago, Tulsa’s struggle to find and keep teachers was in the headlines. Despite $28 million of edu-philanthropy in the last seven years, Tulsa’s student performance seems to lag behind that of Oklahoma City, where we face bigger challenges with less money. Moreover, Tulsa was the epicenter of Oklahoma’s Opt Out movement, where two highly respected teachers sacrificed their jobs to protest the excessive testing. Since Tulsa was ranked 6th in the nation in terms of receiving Gates Foundation grants, why haven’t the Gates’s millions worked?
Tulsa’s dubious record should now be studied in an effort to verify Gates’s claim that his measures can be implemented constructively. We should ask how many “ineffective” teachers have been subject to termination due to their failure to meet test score targets? Conversely, how many were flagged by the qualitative portion? How many “exited” teachers were actually ineffective and how many were good and effective teachers who were fed up with the system? Also, how many educators believe that feedback driven by those quantitative measures is actually better than traditional professional development?
Whether we are talking about Gates’s teacher training or his malaria vaccine, if they work then they won’t be rejected. Why won’t Gates look objectively at the evidence about the failure of the quantitative portions of teacher evaluations, and the damage they cause?