Image Source: microsoft.com
Image Source: microsoft.com

Last month, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, held a presentation in New York City which was hosted by TEDTalks. He talked about improving education in the United States.

Helping American schools is one of the programs that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is currently undertaking.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the US educational system was rated No. 1 in the world in reading proficiency, science and math. Nowadays, the US is ranked 23rd in science and 31st in math and is tied at 15th with Poland and Iceland in reading proficiency.

The Gates Foundation found out that of the top 15 countries in education, 11 have a teacher feedback system.

Bill said he was blown away when he learned that most American teachers get little useful feedback.  He noted that until recently, 98 percent of US teachers got only one feedback word, which is “satisfactory.”

He asserted that this one word won’t tell the teachers how to get better. He noted that even though school districts are revamping their way of evaluating teachers, the changes do not give the teachers the feedback they need to improve their teaching. Because of this observation, he maintained that American teachers deserve better.

To support his argument, he cited as an example the province of Shanghai, China, which is No. 1 in the world in reading, math and science. Shanghai, Gates noted, has a feedback system that helps young teachers improve their teaching methods.

Gates said that in Shanghai, there are weekly study groups. The teachers get together and talk about what is working and not working in the classroom. The teachers are also required to observe and give feedback to their fellow teachers. Additionally, the Shanghai system makes sure that the younger teacher gets a chance to watch master teachers at work so they can learn their techniques.

Gates said a teacher feedback system is important because the teaching methods are so varied that each teacher needs to learn the best teaching practice to improve student learning.

In the Gates Foundation project, there are 3,000 teachers participating in a program called “Measures of Effective Teaching,” also known as MET. Through this program, observers watch videos of teachers in the classroom and rate the teachers on how they fared on a range of practices. One question asked to the observers is: “Did the teacher in the video find multiple ways to explain an idea?” Another question is: Has the teacher asked the students challenging questions?’

The project also conducted a survey on the students. One question asked in the survey is: “Do you learn to correct your mistakes?’ Another question, “Does you teacher know when a class learns a lesson?”

Initial findings of the project showed that the teachers who did well in the evaluation had better teaching outcome. According to Gates, this indicates that the project is asking the right questions. Another finding was that the teachers involved in the project said the videos and surveys are very helpful as diagnostic tool in improving their teaching skills.

But this teacher feedback system, which involves the use of videos and surveys, has a very hefty price tag. But Gates said that even though it would cost some $5 billion, this is only two percent of the US budget for teacher compensations and benefits.

Sarah Brown Wessling, a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa said that the videos can bring about a certain degree of reality in their feedback. She said it also exemplifies what you cannot convey in a lesson plan, class standard and pedagogy.

The present teacher-evaluation system in the US, according to Gates, is not fair to the teachers and students. As a consequence, it is putting the US global leadership at risk, he said.

As a US citizen, ask yourself this question: Is the $5-billion price worth it? I think it is.