Bill Gates on Teacher Feedback

Feedback For Bill

Bill Gates’ most recent Ted Talk already has over a million views and has made its rounds through the interwebs in a variety of ways. The theme of this Gates talk is on teacher feedback and the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) which his Gates Foundation has developed. He identifies the key elements of MET:

  • Video recordings of lessons
  • Identification of effective teaching practices like deep questioning and providing multiple ways of explaining or demonstrating an idea
  • Student surveys of their teachers

I am currently in the middle of the clinical portion of the Teach-Now teacher certification program. This is a unique, all online certification program and as a result it requires us to record our lessons during our student-teaching clinical practicum. I am pleased to say that the teacher preparation program has asked me to do all three of the key elements of MET system. I have developed and implemented two student feedback and goal-setting surveys. I record one lesson per week to be evaluated by myself, my Korean co-teacher and my Teach-Now instructor. We use the District of Columbia’s IMPACT Teaching and Learning Framework to identify and develop my effective teaching practices, or those that are lacking at this point.

Without getting too much into what has become Gates’ controversial role in education, I would like to point out a few flaws and misconceptions he presents in his talk. Like many big-picture ed policy players, he is quite focused on the failings of the US education system when compared to those of other developed or developing nations. He displays a graphic that shows that 11 out of 14 countries who are ahead of the US in terms of student reading proficiency have a formal teacher feedback system in place already. Interestingly, Finland, which is often held up as the exemplar education system for how they prepare teachers, the quality of education for all students, and the test results they have as a nation, does not have a formal teacher feedback system.

At minute 3:05, Gates uses the much bandied buzzword in education over the past 15 years, ‘failing’, as in the US education system is failing, among many other things, to give teachers adequate feedback to grow as effective educators. He implicitly makes the specious correlation between anemic or absent formal teacher feedback systems and our student achievement rates in reading, math and science. More questionably, he is also implying that Shanghai’s and South Korea’s student achievement scores on international standardized tests like the PISA is due in large part to the development of effective teachers through robust teacher feedback systems.

I say that these are specious implications because I am unaware of any research which makes the correlation between a good teacher feedback system and student achievement results. Nor am I aware of any research that indicates that a certain teacher feedback system has developed better teachers who get better results in their students. Maybe I am ignorant to this body of research. Please let me know!

However, he is also positing an utterly simplistic notion that teacher feedback systems are at the root of student achievement in Shanghai, South Korea and elsewhere. I work as an English teacher in Yeosu, South Korea. From my experience of the South Korean education system’s professional development this seems like a specious argument in many ways. One South Korean commenter on the Ted Talk site put forward another reason for student achievement in his country, one of many contributing factors:

Gates cites Shanghai’s teacher feedback system as exemplary and says it includes:

  • Younger teachers have the opportunity to watch master teachers at work
  • Weekly study groups where teachers talk about best practices
  • Peer observation and feedback among teachers within a school

Well, this interesting because the last US school I worked in had a professional development system which included weekly Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s), learning walks where teachers did peer observations based on the Danielson Framework, and we had Board Certified teachers mentoring University of Washington student-teachers in their classrooms. It had room for improvement as a formal ‘system’, but it had the components and I believe many other schools and school districts already have this in place.

Gates makes the claim that, “If today’s average teachers could become as good as those (highly effective) teachers, then our students would be blowing away the rest of the world.” I am not obsessed with the achievement results of American students compared with their international counterparts. I know that I don’t want American children to have the same childhood and student pressures that a South Korean student has, even if that means we are below them in the math and reading PISA rankings. I am concerned with my students’ growth as learners and people from the day they first enter my classroom. That is a personal evaluation which is much more valuable and relevant to both the teacher and student, but less so for policymakers.

Despite some of these critiques, I think that teacher feedback as a part of professional growth is an inherent good for the education field. Every teacher should want to develop and grow their practice and I think student surveys, observation of master teachers and recording one’s own lessons are certainly integral parts of that feedback formula. If Bill Gates is desirous to put his considerable clout and force behind an effort to improve and professionalize teacher feedback, kudos to him, I’m confident some good will come of that effort. In fact, you can read about 6 tools for teacher feedback on the Gates Notes blog, where he surveys how ed tech apps and services like Edmodo and ThinkCERCA are helping teachers better evaluate themselves and their students along with developing better lesson plans. There are some very interesting sounding tools there that I will have to do further research on later.

The absolute best part of the entire Ted Talk does not include Gates, but instead a teacher, and not just any teacher. Sarah Brown Wessling is a superstar teacher featured regularly on the Teaching Channel site. Her comment about capturing video of her classes is the key takeaway from the entire Ted Talk, “I think it is a way to exemplify and illustrate things that we cannot convey in a lesson plan, things you cannot convey in a standard…or book of pedagogy.” And I furthermore agree with Gates’ conclusion following the Wessling interlude, that, “You should be able to watch a video of the best teacher in the world teaching fractions.” The Teaching Channel is good start to such a resource, but I am sure there is more and better to come.




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