Bill Gates’s $5 billion plan to videotape America’s teachers By Valerie Strauss

Bill Gates’s $5 billion plan to videotape America’s teachers

Bill Gates speaks on teachers’ need to get better feedback. Watch his talk during our first television special, TED Talks Education, airing Tuesday, May 7 at 10/9c on PBS. Photo: Ryan Lash

Bill Gates delivering his TED Talk on videotaping teachers.                                       (By  Ryan Lash)

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.

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I am a huge proponent of videotaping ourselves in the classroom. I belong to Toastmasters International and to prepare we tape ourselves all the time. I have been taping myself for years. I even have VHS tapes to show my speeches when I was in practice as a doctor (more than 15 years ago!) This is a great idea. So why - since it is such a great idea (and it really is) aren't teachers just taking out their home video camera (like I do), tape their practice in class, and then review it with a couple of friends? Are we that needy now that we need a 5 BILLION plan to do something that will help to make us better teachers?

I am a huge proponent of videotaping myself in the classroom.  I tape myself, watch it myself, and fix myself.  No one else sees it.  If big brother videotapes me, the video could go anywhere...and probably will.  How about "  How about videotape analysis tied to merit pay, analyzed with a rubric by non-educators getting "incentivized" at 25 cents per video?  I do not trust Bill Gates, the non-teacher who Gates wants to review us, or the states' education departments to do right by us, though I'm sure they all mean well.  By remarking thoughtfully on testing (Washington Post, above), I trust Gates the most of the three, but I'd trust a long-term, coherent, and intelligently-designed plan based on research even more.  Any plan that does not start with eliminating poverty as its first priority does not meet my conditions.

Videotaping tied to merit pay - Yes! I trust Gates, but why aren't we just doing this ourselves? We expect students to study on their own to "hone" their craft, so why aren't other doing the same as you and me to hone their craft as well? Removing poverty? That is why we are teaching :) If it takes a plan to remove it, then that is a plan that will only create more dependence. "Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he can eat for a lifetime." (paraphrasing) Thanks for the follow-up, Byron.

I'm old, but I remember things. Like "back in the day" when it was Ford, Rockefeller and the like doing what Gates now does. How sad that he dropped out and missed that era, 'cause he's now recapitulating it, line by dreary line. 

Video is perfectly useful, as well as tests, student comments, alumni comments, supervisors and peers. All that is NOT useful is any of those alone.

I do understand what you are saying, Joe. I don't remember what the great philanthropists did (because my mother wasn't even a twinkle in my grandmother's eye), but I do know that times change. Video-recording far and away, the most impressive tool in today's teacher toolbox. I am a member of Toastmasters International and I video-record myself all the time. I do it in class as well. Is it painful at times? You bet! Does it make me a better teacher and speaker? You bet to the second power! In fact, I would venture to guess I would not be the teacher I am today if it were not for watching, and learning from, these sessions.

That being said, why Gates feels the need to begin these project when it will end in nothing but waste and poor results is beyond me.





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