If, say, Dennis van Roekel or Randi Weingarten, the presidents of the nation’s two national teachers unions, proposed spending as much as $5 billion to videotape every teacher in the United States so their performance could be judged by strangers as part of their evaluation, you can bet that they would be called nutty spendthrifts. By everyone.
Why, then, do people applaud Bill Gates, the vastly wealthy Microsoft founder, for making the same proposal? (I know, I know — it’s because he’s the vastly wealthy founder of Microsoft and America’s loves its billionaires.)
Actually, this is not just a proposal by Gates. This is one of his pet projects, and, through his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he has for several years been funding videotaping experiments of thousands of teachers as part of his overall push to revamp teacher evaluation. The videotapes are sent to evaluators who have never been in the school but have a list of teaching skills to check off as they watch.
Gates keeps promoting this project, having just given a new TED Talk (see video and transcript below) about his plan to videotape every teacher in America. In his talk, he said that building such a system could cost up to $5 billion, and while he recognizes that that is “a big number,” still, “it’s less than two percent of what we spend every year on teacher salaries.”
You’d think that someone spending that kind of money would know for sure that the approach is the very best and without a doubt provides desired results. But Gates doesn’t know that because by the accounts of people who know — educators, his approach isn’t the right one. Videotaped feedback can help a teacher, critics say, only if it is done by people within a school, and should be used only for teacher development, not for evaluation. (A good way to do it is explained here, by veteran educator Larry Ferlazzo.)
Of course, if anybody has money to throw around, it’s Gates, and that’s just what he has been doing for years in education reform. He decided to make public education one of his big “causes” and his foundation gives money to an astonishing number of organizations. He first focused on small schools, and spent $2 billion to create a network of them until he decided it hadn’t worked and he abandoned it. In fact, critics said that small schools can be successful but the Gates didn’t approach it properly and gave up too soon.
No matter, he then moved on to “transforming” teacher evaluation and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in four school districts to pilot evaluation systems that in part use standardized test scores, a practice just about every psychometrician you meet will say is a bad idea. In an April 3 op-ed in The Washington Post, Gates seemed to be acknowledging that the obsession with test scores had gone too far:
This is one reason there is a backlash against standardized tests — in particular, using student test scores as the primary basis for making decisions about firing, promoting and compensating teachers. I’m all for accountability, but I understand teachers’ concerns and frustrations.
Even in subjects where the assessments have been validated, such as literacy and math, test scores don’t show a teacher areas in which they need to improve.
Teachers have been saying that for years but Gates thought he knew better.
The depth and breadth of Gates’ funding in the education world is remarkable. Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch wrote on her blog in a post titled “Is There Any Organization That Is Not Funded by Gates”:
The Gates Foundation, for example, underwrites almost every organization in its quest to control American education. It supports rightwing groups like Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Educational Excellence and Ben Austin’s Parent Revolution. In the recent past, it gave money to the reactionary ALEC. It pays young teachers to oppose unions and to testify against the rights of tenured teachers. It also pays unions to support its ideas about evaluations, despite their flaws. It spends hundreds of millions of dollars to support “independent” think tanks, which are somewhat less independent when they become dependent on Gates money.
The influence of wealthy entrepreneurs on the national school reform agenda has been increasingly seen in recent years, with vast sums being spent by people including Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton family to further their own personal views of how public education should look. Many education policymakers now seem captive to them, spending public dollars to further these agendas.