Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

In his February 22 op-ed New York Times piece titled "Shame is not the Solution", Bill Gates attempts to speak out against the publishing of teacher rankings as an effective practice of education reform.  The irony is that Gates himself is a large proponent and financial supporter of value-added teacher evaluations, and the publishing of such lists in New York and Los Angeles are merely extensions of this movement.  It is the pot calling the kettle black.

It just so happens that the pot here is quite a large one and filled with money, but while his message seems to be in the defense of teachers, the policies pushed by Gates and his foundation are exactly what is wrong with education in America today - a data-driven corporate model that gives power to the few and strips teachers of their autonomy.  It is a system that makes teachers accountable to a higher power, state and federal administration, instead of to themselves, their communities and their students.

The second sentence of the article is an expose of the entitlement felt by the billionaire pseudo-reformers such as Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family:

 "I have no opinion on the ruling as a matter of law, but as a harbinger of education policy in the United States, it is a big mistake."
Gates does not feel competent enough to comment on the law, or at least does not care about that, but for some reason this college drop-out is qualified to comment on the implication the ruling has on educational policy.  Where does this expertise come from?  It is like the immaculate conception - all of a sudden these guys are education reformers without ever actually doing it.  Gates should stick to computer code, Broad should stick to real estate, and the Waltons should stick it to their employees - in other words, why can't these billionaires just stick to doing what they do best? (Read this for some insight as to why these players are in the game in the first place...)

If you can get past the second sentence, the article sounds like a reasonable defense of teachers and offers some concrete examples of successful teacher evaluation systems.  Gates even admits that "teaching is multifaceted, complex work."  Don't forget though, that this is the same Gates who proposed firing bad teachers and putting more students in front of the good teachers.  We must ask why Gates wants an effective system of teacher evaluations.  Don't publicly shame the teachers, just determine the cut-off line and fire them.  The good teachers can handle more students...

In the end, Gates does not even attempt to disguise what is a thinly veiled piece on promoting the corporatization of public education.  It is the, "Hey, if it made me a billionaire it will work for you too!" attitude.  (This is where we say forget about Wall Street, corporate banks and 2008, forget about iPhones and Foxconn, forget about government bailouts, the corporate system really does work!)

Gates writes,
"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."
This sounds right on.  It is a plan for improvement and not for penalization.  Never mind that if a Microsoft employee achieves their goals they get a bonus worth more than most teacher salaries.  The assumption, though, that this model transfers to education is fundamentally flawed.  But, rather than make that case here, I will let the private sector make the case for me.

Value-added accountability models work well in the private sector for sales and other easily measured jobs that are goal oriented.  It is easy to assess if sales goals are reached.  It is also fairly straightforward to measure the success of engineers, say at Microsoft, based on the code they create and the product value based on usership etc.  But move away from sales and product development, and the evaluations become more difficult and less and less relevent. 

How do you evaluate a member of the public relations department?  A friend of mine who works at Google says they do it, but it is more difficult.  I interpret "more difficult" as "less meaningful".  That is where the evaluation of teachers falls.  Value-added evaluation is less meaningful in education.

What is the solution?  The solution is out there, as Gates himself observes in his article, but for meaningful and multifaceted evaluations that reflect the nature of the profession to take root, the punitive corporate model of accountability needs to be removed.  In an environment where the focus is not on software or electronics products, but on living breathing children full of emotions and dreams, we need a system that reflects what we do - we need a system that nurtures, grows and supports our teachers.  This will happen with local accountability, strong and supportive leadership, and a state and federal system that support success through a non-punitive model.

This might sound "soft" to the corporate world, but I haven't forgotten about Wall Street, corporate banks and 2008, or about iPhones and Foxconn, or about government bailouts for mega-corporations, and I say the corporate model is not successful.  Metrics will only get you so far, and in education where success is measured through the lives of real living beings, we should demand a better system.

To Billy G, teachers don't need your sympathy, they need you to stick to what you do.  Abandon the corporate model, and Reclaim Public Education!

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