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Three Perspectives on Education Reform

This week on the PBS NewsHour, our American Graduate project heard from three perspectives on education reform, teacher accountability and evaluation.


  1. 1. How do you know when you have an effective teacher?

    The Gates Foundation, which has contributed millions of dollars to education, advocates for teacher assessments in order to identify "effective teachers." 

    "[When] an effective teacher [is] in front of a student, that student will make three times the gains in a school year that another student will make," Melinda Gates told Hari Sreenivasan in an interview for the NewsHour following May’s PBS SoCal's Teacher Town Hall in Los Angeles.

    "What the foundation feels our job is to do is to make sure we create a system where we can have an effective teacher in every single classroom across the United States," Gates said.

  2. Melinda Gates on the Importance of Evaluations in Teaching
  3. 2. Teaching the "core" curriculum: Are we in an over-tested society?

    "I think one thing that has happened is there's maybe so much testing today without saying, are we testing against the core important things?" Gates asked.

    With that comes testing in order to measure achievement -- which the Gates Foundation hopes to tackle with Common Core curriculum, a new set of guidelines adopted by 48 states that dictates what students should read and learn, especially when it comes to non-fiction. 

    These guidelines operate under the assumption that students know how to read fiction, but they don't know how to comprehend and tackle non-fiction passages, usually on the topic of science -- a category in which the U.S. is outperformed internationally. 

    Here is a recent report from John Merrow on Common Core standards: 

  4. 3. What is the role of foundations in education reform?

    One of the main criticisms of the Gates Foundation, echoed by many of our viewers, questions the foundation's role in education reform. 

    "Sometimes, people look at something like a foundation or our foundation and say, my gosh, they have huge resources," Gates said. "What a foundation has to be is to be a catalytic wedge. It can take innovations and show where they work. It can measure them. It can show what doesn't work and take the problems apart. And it's ultimately for governments to scale up."

  5. 3. (Cont.) Are foundations "privatizing" education?

    The debate comes back to the role of foundations in education reform, or what Diane Ravitch refers to as the "privatization" of education in which large foundations have resources to advocate for new education policies.

    "I have a chapter in my book about -- I call them the billionaire boys club. The billionaires boys club is led by the three biggest foundations in America, the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Broad Foundation," said Ravitch. 

    "Sometimes, they make the wrong bet. And the Gates Foundation is a very good example of this. They put $2 billion into breaking up large high schools into small high schools. And after doing that for almost a decade, they said, whoops, that didn't work. We're not going to do that anymore. Now we're going to put the focus on teacher evaluation," said Ravitch. 

  6. Are Teachers Too Easily Caught in Crossfire Over Student Achievement?

  7. 4. Does testing "undermine" education?

    Diane Ravitch, the former Deputy Secretary of Education of Education under George H.W. Bush and critic of No Child Left Behind, agreed with Gates that teachers should be tested. 

    As Ray Suarez noted in their discussion, the debate continues on how to hold teachers accountable for student achievement.

    "First of all, should teachers be evaluated? Yes. Should they be evaluated by the test scores of their students, as Race to the Top, the Obama program, requires? Absolutely not. That is an unproven and actually a very harmful way to evaluate teachers," Ravitch said. 
  8. 5. "What are we really trying to do with teachers? What are we really trying to say?"
  9. Finally, we heard from teachers who are on the frontlines of education. What concerns them the most? Several teachers from the teacher town hall hosted by WNET in New York City contributed their two-cents in a roundtable discussion moderated by Ray Suarez. 
  10. New York Teachers Discuss Accountability, Assessments
  11. "I have been teaching eight years. I think I have been observed five times," said Khalilah Brann, a teacher at Bushwick Community High School. "And never. . .one time, I was told, these are the things that you can do to improve. They never came back to see if I did it. . .And so it's not just about being rated or ranked. It's like, what are we really trying to do with teachers? What are we really trying to say?"

    The teachers also spoke to the disconnect between practice of evaluations and goal of evaluation: 

    "[Student] state tests aren't differentiated based on their needs. And then we're evaluated based on their state test scores. And there's no differentiation for our evaluations. So every teacher is evaluated on the same criteria, no matter where they're coming from, where they're teaching, who they're teaching, and what those students' needs are," said Amanda Moskowitz, who teaches at Captain Manuel Rivera Junior Middle School.

  12. For more on the American Graduate project: