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.



I-1351 Follow Up

Interestingly enough, following The Seattle Times editorial recommending that Washington state voters vote ‘no’ on Initiative 1351, education reporter, John Higgins, has written a fairly balanced review of some selected research studies on class size and its effects on student achievement.  Although it is no where near a comprehensive review of the large body of research on the subject, you can find that here, it is an interesting article considering The Times’ editorial, the headline of the Higgins piece and the contents found wherein.


First off, The Times’ case against I-1351 was based on the cost of lowering class size versus its efficacy as education policy, but they also made it a union issue with this last concluding sentence, “The deciding factor should be what’s right for kids, not for the union.” They are essentially asserting that this union-backed initiative is all about more jobs for Washington Education Association members, and nothing more. Their case is stronger when talking about the estimated cost of adhering to the provision of I-1351, but as I said in my previous piece on I-1351, parents and teachers have mandated smaller classes before and been ignored by the legislature. The compelling argument here is that passing I-1351 would act as one more point of pressure on the legislature to take action on McCleary and make K-12 public education the ‘paramount’ funding priority of the state once again.


Higgins’ article carries the headline, “Does class size matter? Research reveals surprises.” Initially, this sounds like an article which is going to reinforce The Times’ editorial on I-1351, that it’s not worth the cost. However, the article is really best described by the subheading, “The most obvious reason for why small classes sizes work – that teachers give better, more-tailored instruction – probably isn’t the reason why achievement goes up, studies have found.” The point being that nothing in the article, nor in the majority of the research, refutes the power of smaller class sizes in K-3 classrooms and in high-poverty schools in particular, and in K-12 classrooms in general. As the article explains, the debate around the effects of small class sizes on student achievement centers around “why smaller class size works, how it works and who benefits most.” Note that there is no debate about whether or not students do benefit!

Legislators, editorial boards, journalists and voters can continue to dig into the research around class size all they want, in the mean time our schools will continue to be overcrowded, underfunded and ineffective at increasing student achievement for those who need it most in Washington state. Let the debate and the research go on, by all means, but in the mean time vote for I-1351.

Why I voted for Initiative 1351….from abroad!

In a former job of a former life, I worked at a small elementary school in the south end of the Seattle. There was a wild and free-spirited third grade girl who ruled the roost, not just in her grade, but in every setting presented to her. We’ll call her Angela. She was obviously bright, she obviously had potential as a student and human being, but she had a hard edge to her that usually netted a negative result in our school community.


In my capacity at the school I did not work in third grade; in fact, I did not work in this girl’s classroom at all. Nevertheless, I interacted with her on the playground and in the lunchroom and her older sister was in my cross-grade global education group every other week. All of this is to say that I did not have a significant relationship with this girl who had trust issues who appeared to be fiercely independent. However, she knew who I was, I knew who she was and she knew that many students did have a significant relationship with me, and, in fact, trusted me.


This became important on a typically rainy day in November some years back. I was performing my hall duty outside the lunchroom at the end of the school day, “choppin’ it up” with my favorite parents and students as they headed home. All seemed well, until Angela tearfully called my attention from down the hallway. She was wet, crying and nearly hyperventilating. As I approached her, she immediately hugged me. This was out of character for her, to say the least.


An unnerving story slowly unravelled as Angela began to breath deep and calm down. A man had approached her on her walk home. A man she had seen on the streets around her house. In fact, the man had followed her for a block or two. The man had threatened her and she had run back to school even though she was more than half-way home. She wasn’t sure anyone was home at her house and she knew the school was close enough and safe enough to be her sure bet. Her grandmother was reached by phone and I was given permission to drive Angela home. She did not seem quick to leave my side. Her grandmother met us at Angela’s house, heated up bowl of pozole for me and offered me a can of Coca-Cola.


I stayed and chatted with Angela’s family for a few hours. Her grandmother used to work for the school district, but her health declined and she was on medical assistance. Angela’s older brother came home with a friend, made the house reek of marijuana and disappeared into a bedroom. Angela’s father, who was commuting nearly two hours each way to Olympia to work on a construction job, called and said he had a flat tire. He wasn’t sure when he’d be home. Angela’s mother was not in the picture.

Angela, her grandmother and I devised a plan for her to get home safely each day. I put the grandmother’s phone number into my phone. We checked in often and the scary incident with the screaming man on the street did not repeat itself. This is not a unique story. This is, I imagine, a common story for many teachers in many poorer school communities in the U.S. However, it is an important story because it illustrates the level of intimacy that a small school community can have, a level of intimacy which is very difficult to achieve in big schools with big class sizes.


Parents want their children’s’ teachers to know them. Well, I wasn’t even Angela’s teacher and I knew her. And more importantly, she knew me well enough to trust me in her moment of need. There is a lot of debate about the research around class size. I had planned to write about that debate, but instead found myself thinking about the close relationships I have had with many students and families over the years, how I knew every child’s name at that school in the south end, and how I had got to know all those students by working in small groups with them.


The National Education Policy Center recently published a review of the major research around class size and its executive summary states, “The payoff from class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children, while any increases in class size will likely be most harmful to these populations.” But as Publicola pointed out in their Op-Ed recommending a ‘No’ vote on Initiative 1351, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that the research is a mixed bag in terms of class size reduction positively affecting student learning.


What is not ambiguous is parent sentiment about the issue of class size. In 2000, voters passed Initiative 728 mandating class size reduction with a 72 percent majority. In her endorsement of I-1351, Melissa Westbrook of the influential Save Seattle Schools blog, states that, “Throughout the years, this blog has asked parents, ‘What matters to you?’  I can ask again but over and over (after good teachers and safe buildings), class sizes is always number one and arts is always number two.” A recent Elway Poll showed that I-1351 had 66-24 support with Washington voters.


I agree with Melissa Westbrook when she says that “I don’t care what the research says in this case.” I don’t need research to tell me that smaller class sizes and more intimate school communities result in better school communities. Just ask Angela.



Initiative 1351 would cap classes so that by 2018 the average K-3 class size would be 17, and the average 4-12 class size would be 25. The state Office of Financial Management estimates that I-1351 would possibly cost the state an additional $4.7 billion through 2019.