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One ally's thoughts on Gates’ teacher evaluation efforts

from the website: "DeFENSE stands for Democrats for Excellent Neighborhood School Education. We believe in preserving and fostering the original intent of public education in the United States: ensuring equity and excellence for ALL. We are not against charters, etc. Instead, we see neighborhood schools, where most kids to go school, as a first priority." Defense also says, "We're excited to be co-sponsors of a showing of the documentary, Race to Nowhere, on Thursday, December 2."

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by DeFENSE Colorado

A recent article in the New York Times described the Gates Foundation's initiative to improve teacher evaluation systems in America. As usual, the article didn't offer much in the way of describing the potential pitfalls of the effort, which one education school dean declared is "huge...They're trying to do something nobody's done before, and do it very quickly."

Fortunately for all of us our friend, former Colorado Attorney General JD MacFarlane, shared his thoughts on why we should be cautious about allowing Mr. Gates to have so much influence over the way we evaluate teacher performance.

He writes (emphasis added):

by J. D. MacFarlane

Gates is on the wrong track, and he'll ultimately screw up the entire educational system. He's applying the same strategy that enabled him to grow Microsoft into a huge company that produces inferior software. The problem is his emphasis on getting there "the fastest with the mostest" -- a strategy employed by Confederate Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest, for all his skill as a cavalryman, could not help the Confederates win the war but did help screw up the South and the nation for more than a hundred years.

First, the use of "value-added" economics to judge the value of a teacher is based entirely on a false premise -- testing, meaning exams. Anyone who has spent substantial time on examination techniques knows that they can be easily jiggered or just plain badly constructed, as the current NCLB and CSAP exams are, being based mostly or entirely on multiple choice exams that give a premium to students who can quickly eliminate the answers that are clearly not right and concentrate on the remainder, often pared down to two or even one possible "correct" answer. In fact, this is part of the instruction a canny teacher uses to teach students how to take the exams and a smart student can figure it out for herself.

Second, the assumption that videos are the answer is fatally flawed. Merely watching a performance by one teacher at a specific moments and with specific situations that may never be repeated twice doesn't reveal much of anything except the sharp-wittedness, or lack of it, of the target teacher at the time (note I did not say "intelligence," "knowledge" or "wisdom"). What does that prove about the depth of knowledge and wisdom of a specific teacher over time, even with the same class, much less with difference classes? It's the equivalent of beta-testing a complex piece of software, which doesn't prove much of anything given the huge numbers of users in the market who will be doing anything from spilling soda pop on the keyboard to sitting on it. That's exactly why those familiar with Microsoft software generally avoid the first version of any new program. Until it's adequately used over time by thousands of buyers in all their unique situations, the bugs do not get worked out.

The above problems are magnified to infinity in any profession including lawyers, doctors, accountants, scientists, etc. as well as teachers. If Bill Gates spent his entire fortune trying to find "the best" in any one of those professions he wouldn't find the answer or how to train others to the same level. How do you define genius? How do you develop it in other people?

My answer, after spending more years than Iâd like to think on this issue, is that you cannot rely on written exams, nor could you substitute videos to do the job. The central problem is, how do some people know instinctively how to instantly "connect the dots" given a a specific set of circumstances that may rarely or never be repeated? Others, no matter how well they perform on exams or videos, just cannot make the essential and instantaneous connections that resolve the specific problem they're confronting. The "outstanding" teachers, trial lawyers, surgeons, scientists, etc., [often] cannot articulate what enables them to do it. Nor can anyone else at this stage of technology, assuming somehow, someday it can be done.

Gates and his followers are proposing to identify these people with means that cannot possibly do so. How would you "train" another scientist to be like Einstein? Another trial lawyer to be like Clarence Darrow? The question answers itself. You don't. You have to settle for something less, which I call "competence." You can judge that simply by eliminating "incompetence" -- which is capable of being judged by observing the professional performance of a novice over a relatively short time after beginning employment. It tends to stand out like a sore thumb. Misfits, in other words.

The lesson: most professional activity is carried out by competent people. They are neither incompetent nor top of the profession. Those at both ends are relatively few; those who are competent comprise most of the group. It's a Bell Curve, with short tails on either end.

Bill Gates is throwing money at an impossible dream. It wouldn't matter except that the consequences will ruin many competent teachersâ lives, all for nothing, and will set back public education for an untold number of years. Think about it. Think very, very hard.


JD MacFarlane is a graduate of Harvard and Stanford Law School, managed a small partnership and sole practitioner law practice from 1964-70, and then served as a Colorado State Representative, Colorado State Senator, Chief Deputy Colorado Public Defender, Colorado Attorney General, and the Denver Manager of Public Safety. As a manager in many of those roles, he developed a special interest in the impact of government on the economy, as well as economic theories regarding the interplay of federal, state and local tax policies. Currently he is studying the economic bubbles of the last two decades and their relationship to the virtually unregulated financial markets of the era, focusing on the role played by esoteric asset-backed security structures and credit default swaps in the global economic collapse we are experiencing.

— DeFENSE Colorado & J. D. MacFarlane





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