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Summary:

To improve K-12 education, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates believes schools need better ways to measure and improve teacher progress. A few startups are beginning to make inroads on that front.

teacher classroom

Through his foundation, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates is taking on a range of issues in education. But in his annual letter released Wednesday, he zeroed in on one area in particular: measuring and improving teacher progress.

The big theme of the letter was innovation in measurement and the value of setting goals and finding the right metrics to track progress — not a surprising position from the man who built Microsoft.  But especially given the dearth of feedback most teachers currently receive, he said, the opportunity for teacher evaluations to improve education is particularly strong.

“I think the most critical change we can make in U.S. K-12 education is to create teacher feedback systems … that are properly funded, high quality, and trusted by teachers,” he wrote.

Since 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project to figure out how to build an evaluation and feedback system with the goal of helping teachers improve.  After working with 3,000 classroom teachers, the project this month released its third and final report, maintaining that to evaluate teacher effectiveness, schools should use student surveys, teacher observations by trained evaluators and standardized test scores.

One of the MET project’s partners was  Teachscape, a company founded in the late 1990s that provides software and support for video-based teacher evaluations. Over the years, support for video-based teacher evaluations has waxed and waned.  But as video technology has improved and become more ubiquitous (in professional and personal settings) — and amid calls for teacher improvement and accountability — demand for observation tools has grown.

More teacher training programs are moving toward the use of video as a part of documenting candidate readiness for certification (not just for evaluation purposes but for self-reflection and self-improvement). And the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education has endorsed the use of video observation in the certification process.

In the past year, a few startups have emerged to serve that need, including SmarterCookie, which was a part of the ed tech startup accelerator Imagine K12, Edthena and Torsh. Essentially, the companies enable teachers to easily record themselves during class, upload the video to a secure platform and then share the video with coaches and mentors to receive time-stamped feedback.

Since launching Edthena, Adam Geller, the company’s co-founder and former Teach for America teacher, said it’s worked with Teach for America, the Uncommon Schools charter school organization, the University of Michigan and other organizations. Instead of focusing on teacher evaluation, he said, Edthena’s emphasis is on improvement and giving teachers a safe place for receiving feedback from the best mentors and coaches, wherever they are.

“It replicates the experience of having someone sit at the back of the classroom, but it takes away time and geographic barriers,” he said.

Teachboost, another startup backed by Imagine K12, takes a different approach to teacher development by providing a mobile-optimized (and web-based) tool for gathering and analyzing teacher feedback. Schools can use the product to streamline teacher evaluations and observations but teachers can also use it to solicit feedback from peers and share their progress.

When it comes to teacher feedback, as with any area in education, innovation isn’t just about the technology. As Gates suggests in his letter, teachers need to trust the system, be willing to commit their time and feel confident that it will provide specific enough feedback to help them actually improve and progress professionally. Technology can only play a bit part in much of that, but it can still play an important role in helping to deliver more personalized and contextualized support for teachers.

Image by ZouZou via Shutterstock. 

  1. Bill Gates is correct when he observes that most teachers never receive useful feedback regarding their performance. From there he leaps to several wrong-headed concussions.

    There’s nothing now preventing an effective administration from observing a teacher, providing feedback and coaching, and fostering improvement. The military and countless private business do this just fine. The reason it’s not being done in our public schools is the glaring shortage of effective school administrators. New evaluation rubrics and more technology in the hands of these bumblers is Not going to improve the teacher evaluation system.

    Bad administration is the seminal problem in the system, and it’s troubling that in all the time Gates has been studying school systems, he hasn’t figured that out. Fix the lack of leadership, and our public schools will dramatically improve. Ignore that and Gates positions himself as just another member of the Mafia of Good Intentions, spinning his wheels and wasting everyone’s time and money.

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    1. It’s his own money and what’s wrong with good intentions. The focus on what needs addressing, even if some regard that as not the key issue, is a worthy cause. Indeed Margaret Thatcher’s chosen son Tony Blair only needed 3 words to win: Education, Education, Education.

      Clearly Mr (& Mrs) Gates have been a force for good; progress is a missionary thing.

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      1. “What’s wrong with good intentions?” Good grief, man… surely you’re kidding. And no, there is no proof or conclusion at this point that the Gates’ work is doing one bit of good. Educate yourself. At the level they are giving, comes responsibility – not mere intentions.

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      2. @Donachies Just checked the local Scottish News and Bill is saying that there should be 2016 educated youngsters in the new Microsoft Apprentice program in a couple of years. Also he has recently given the BBC Annual Lecture, very responsibly he chose the subject of Polio and kids.

        It seems to me that they are being responsible.

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    2. If the problem is as systemic as poor administrators and leadership, then I’m not even sure what Bill Gates or anyone for that matter could do.

      What’s the solution here, to eradicate X% of the public school administration? How do you find out which ones are bad? Through an evaluation system…?

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      1. Great question, Mike. The problem is of sufficient complexity that it’s beyond the scope of what I can address here. A couple of quick observations:
        1) No other country is engaged in the kind of hyper-scrutiny and criticism of teachers that America is now engaged in. This scrutiny and criticism go far beyond reasonable oversight, and are not useful.
        2) Gates and others need to redirect some of this overzealousness toward teachers and develop a system that does a better job of holding school superintendents and their lieutenants accountable. This is Supposed to be the job of local school boards, but across the nation they are failing mightily to provide proper oversight. We need a better system and yes, a revamped evaluation protocol for administrators would have to be part of that.
        3) But, no, we can’t simply terminate X% of school administrators. However, a better system for holding administrators accountable must fit with new thinking about how we hire and train them.

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  2. The way of the future? yes definitely.
    But from my perspective here in Ontario (I’ve been ‘retired’ for 3 years now and am doing teacher education) this is something we have been doing up here for a number of years. Rubric based, performance based, partnership teacher assessment initiatives have been driven by the Ministry of Education, in full partnership with the Principals councils, teacher federations and the school boards.
    My suggestion is to point your browsers to Ontario and take a look.

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