Well known entrepreneur, philanthropist, and billionaire Bill Gates has stated through his foundation website that, “The evidence is clear that teachers matter more to student achievement than any other factor inside schools.” As a result of this study, the Gates Foundation is investing millions of dollars in “bold research and reform efforts to better understand what makes a teacher effective and to rethink the way we recruit, retain, and evaluate teachers in our schools in order to improve student outcomes.”
Certainly this is a worthwhile endeavor; how can you argue against this initiative? Teacher training is essential and providing new teachers with a supportive culture in schools as they grow and learn more about our profession is one key to retaining these individuals.
However, what disappoints me most about Gates’ work in the field of education is that he simply isn’t using his greatest resource to improve the work done in the classroom. His greatest resource isn’t his large cache of money, although he is using that to leverage his version of education policy (see The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch, specifically the chapter titled, ‘The Billionaire Boys Club’). Gates’ greatest resource is the company he founded, Microsoft. Arguably it is the world’s most powerful corporation when you consider how its products have permeated and changed our society. Why doesn’t Gates use Microsoft to create software and associated hardware solutions which can have enormous impact on teaching and learning?
Ever since the passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, a cottage industry has emerged where companies hang out a shingle and pitch products surrounding assessment and data systems to interested and sometimes desperate school districts. Some have actually put together promising products but no one has produced a system which can address all the needs of students, teachers, schools, and communities. Our school has been exploring these products for several years now and we’ve piloted a few, but none truly understand the needs or simply can’t design for the needs.
So, Mr. Gates if you’re truly interested in doing something which can have an immediate impact on teaching and learning, then design a suite of products similar to MS Office which addresses the needs and nuances of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for teachers and students. This suite of products should also include a student information system to be used by school administration and teachers which communicates easily with the assessment system so scores are immediately filtered into the online reporting system (gradebook). This information then needs to be accessible to parents and students so that appropriate transparency and accountability occurs.
I know, I know…you’re thinking that technology isn’t the silver bullet which will make bad teachers better, or failing students suddenly scholars, and you’re right. But what is needed is information and feedback which can be used by teachers and school personnel in order to make decisions about how or what improvements are needed within their teaching practice. Teachers also need a secure collaborative, virtual environment where meaningful dialogue about instructional practices, assessment ideas, and content related discussions can take place. For example, at my school I am one of seven different teachers assigned to teach American Government & Citizenship (Civics). It would be very beneficial if we each had access to a platform where the interplay of curriculum (what is taught), instruction (how it is taught), and assessment (what has been learned) could be discussed with each other in a secure environment which catalogs the materials and the dialogue. This could go a long way in helping to facilitate the guaranteed and viable curriculum and a professional dialogue of instructional and assessment practices. Teachers could design and analyze common assessment results of students and share instructional ideas and resources in an efficient manner. Researchers and teachers advocate that these formative assessment practices are instrumental to good teaching and learning.
The suggested products would be a step in the right direction and please understand I’m NOT suggesting an increase in ‘testing’ as a means to better teaching and learning. What is needed is support and infrastructures which facilitate a more efficient use of time for teachers and the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue which is relevant to each teacher and their content area.
So Mr. Gates, let me know when you and your software engineers are ready to sit down and talk; I’ll bring along some of my colleagues and together let’s create systems which will go a long way in helping the day to day teaching and learning in schools. Not to be used to leverage your policy ideas, but to be used by education professionals for the betterment of teaching.