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Many approve of Bill Gates' latest words on education, but some question their source — Gates himself

Microsoft founder Bill Gates speaks while he waits for South Korean President Park Geun-hye for their meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, April 22, 2013.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates speaks while he waits for South Korean President Park Geun-hye for their meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, April 22, 2013.

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates wrote an April 3 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal decrying the practice of evaluating schoolteachers solely on the basis of their students' achievement on standardized tests — a process called value-added measurement in education circles. Many educators are lauding Gates' words, but some question their source — the billionaire philanthropist whose money and influence supported the development of value-added teacher evaluation and test-based performance metrics in education.

"As states and districts rush to implement new teacher development and evaluation systems, there is a risk they’ll use hastily contrived, unproven measures," Gates wrote. " ... Some states and districts are talking about developing tests for all subjects, including choir and gym, just so they have something to measure."

Gates' Wall Street Journal op-ed follows one he wrote for The New York Times in May of 2012 in which he objected to New York City's plan to publicize performance rankings of teachers, on the premise that "shaming poorly performing teachers doesn't fix the problem because it doesn't give them specific feedback." In that article, Gates said value-added measurements are one important piece of the teacher evaluation process, but aren't sensitive enough to gauge effective teaching or identify areas for improvement.

"What the country needs are thoughtfully developed teacher evaluation systems that include multiple measures of performance, such as student surveys, classroom observations by experienced colleagues and student test results," Gates wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

The statement comes very close to what the National Education Association has been saying all along — that multiple measures should be used to evaluate teachers. It's not what Gates has been saying all along, though.

At the Greater Greater Education website, blogger Darla Bunting wrote of her surprise that Gates seems to be listening to teachers' concerns about having their job security tied to narrow evaluation systems that can penalize teachers willing to teach in schools where children's low academic performance correlates closely with poverty.

"In this chapter of education reform, teachers and former teachers like myself have come to brace ourselves for suggestions from people who haven't actually experienced what it's like to teach," Bunting wrote. She added that she found Gates' remarks about broadening the scope of teachers evaluations "refreshing."

Education Week blogger Anthony Cody pulled no punches, accusing Gates of being "more responsible than anyone for the absurd evaluations by which teachers are now being held accountable." Cody wrote that it was galling to read of Gates' exasperation with the results of practices for which he is largely responsible.

The concentration of wealth in the Gates and Walton families allows them to pay for research that supports their ideas, influence media outlets and funnel money through political action committees that advance their agendas — all without accountability, Cody wrote.

As a response, Cody created a "Billionaire Philanthropist Evaluation" modeled on teacher evaluations developed with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Noting that Gates has not attended or taught in public schools, Cody recommended a "professional growth" exercise for Gates: teach in an urban high school, and subject himself to teacher evaluation systems he has promoted.

Because Gates has stated that money is ill-spent on reducing class sizes, Cody suggests he spend a week in the elite schools his children attend, and a week in an overcrowded classroom in Detroit, then reflect on the differences.

"If Mr. Gates demands that teachers be held accountable for their work, surely he must accept some accountability for his," Cody concluded.

A commenter on Cody's blog called Cody out for failing to appreciate Gates' self-criticism.

"This is as close to an apology as we will get. He does not come right out and say 'I screwed up,' but that is the obvious conclusion," wrote commenter Stephen Kaiser.