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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bill Gates: “How do You Make a Teacher Great?”

Bill Gates says we are not making teachers great. The top 20% of students who get a good education are the ones with the opportunities for innovation and success. Bill Gates says while the quality of education is declining for those top 20%, the problem is even worse for the lower 80%. He was “stunned at how bad it is.” 30% never finish high school, an alarming statistic masked by the usual way drop-outs are counted.

”How do you make education better?”

Not with smaller schools, scholarships, library programs and all that. The key, Bill Gates learned from the research, is having great teachers.

”How much variation is there within or between school” attributable to great teachers?

The variation between the top quartile teachers and the bottom quartile teachers is huge, says Bill Gates. A top quartile teacher can raise achievement levels 10% in a single year.

”What does that mean?”

If all American classroom were staffed by top quartile teachers, within two years the Asian advantage would be gone. Within four years, the US would “blow away” the whole world.

”What are the characteristics of a great teacher?”

Surprisingly, it might not be years of experience. Great teachers have figured it out within about three years. They generally stay great for the rest of their careers.

”What factor predicts teacher quality?”

Possession of a Masters degree came in dead last. Teach for America ranked just a little ahead of a Masters degree. The top predictor is past performance. Sadly, past performance has not been sufficiently studied. Clearly the observation and checklist approach used in most schools when a rare evaluation is conducted reveals almost nothing.

”Do good teachers stay and bad teachers leave?”

Unfortunately, better teachers are more likely to leave, or be driven out, than stay. Part of the problem is the good teachers are not told they are good. In fact, often just the opposite. Good teachers, unbelievably, are resented by students and other teachers, undermined by school administrators and parents, and disrespected by society.

What can we do?”

Bill Gates recommends more research, and video recorders in every classroom. He does not favor a surveillance role for the cameras. (However, once cameras are in place, the ability to watch is likely to be irresistible). He would use the cameras as device for the observation and collection of best practices.

Bill Gates' conclusion?

”Education is the most important thing to get right.”

America is not appreciating, monetarily or otherwise, its best teachers. In fact, the system and society regularly drive out members of the top quartile. Bill Gates is obliquely pointing to the same problem many others have observed: the presence of deeply entrenched mechanisms that operate to preserve the status quo.

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