A weekend interview with Bill and Melinda Gates
Recently, Bill and Melinda Gates spent a day visiting Jefferson High School in Hillsborough County to check on their $102 million investment in the district to reform teacher evaluations. It was their first visit to a Tampa school since the Gates Foundation awarded the district the grant for the closely-watched project called Empowering Effective Teachers. The billionaire couple spoke with teachers, students and administrators and also held a roundtable discussion with three members of the media, including St Petersburg Times Education Editor Marilyn Garateix. Here are excerpts from the interview as the couple shared their impressions on the feedback they received. The couple opened with a few remarks and then answered a handful of questions. The interview was edited for length and clarity. (Image from newsone.com)
Melinda: Well, maybe I’ll start. You know, it’s always just a fantastic opportunity when we get to actually come out to the school and see the work, and I think, you know, the work here at Hillsborough has been particularly interesting for us to watch because of the incredibly strong collaboration. . . and I think one of the things that maybe I came away the most impressed with today was that the kids themselves are incredibly articulate about how this evaluation system that the teachers are going through has changed the classroom environment for them, and how they’re seeing the teachers teach in a more rigorous way. And they’re feeling it as kids and they’re absolutely loving it…And they even talk about how it’s played itself out into, yes, the school used to talk to us about being college-going but now they’re serious about it because they have the right college guidance in there…So the kids are incredibly articulate about how the system changes that are happening are actually affecting them in really positive ways.
Bill: You know, Hillsborough’s a real pioneer in investing in getting teachers’ feedback so they can get better, and it’s a fantastic thing. … They talked about constant adjustments that they make and how they’ll continue to do that but the sense of progress, the sense of improvement, is really phenomenal, and I do believe that this is how it should be done nationwide…But the new approach really pushes for student engagement and that’s, you know, critical to learning, it turns out, not just standing up there and saying the right thing.
One of the things that you all hope is that this stuff catches fire across the country and changes and transforms a lot of school districts…But other districts don’t have the same sort of backing that Hillsborough has…How is translating?
Melinda: There’s not going to be exactly one approach that you’re going to say, this is how every district should do it. But I think the most important thing is that we’re having a conversation as a nation now about are we really getting kids ready for college or not? And what are the pieces that we need to have..a core set of standards against which we measure whether kids are having the right learning outcomes. Forty-eight states have now signed up for that, so they know they have to do very hard work to get there. But the fact that you’re having states collaborate more, even … we just came from a literacy design meeting where they’re saying, okay, Baltimore and Denver and Hillsborough are working together on the same literacy tools against the same literacy standards. So we’re seeing it in places like Denver and Memphis and Pittsburgh and Hillsborough and North Carolina. So when you start to see that many districts creating change, you know it’s not just…an individual district here or there. We’re seeing lots of people try to move in this direction. We’re not saying the work is easy. I mean, Hillsborough’s done some very tough things here to put in a really good evaluation system, and they know it’s a work in progress. They’re still tweaking the system, but that’s the kind of work you want to see happen – the deep work in a district.
Most school districts, or most states don’t have access to these kinds of grants and peer evaluators. These things are all expensive. Is this going to come up with a model that we will be able to use nationally? I mean, without this kind of resources that you all have helped provide to Hillsborough?
Bill: Well, it’s important to keep the resource in perspective. It’s less than 2 percent of the budget, and the impact on the teaching is way more than a 2 percent improvement. So you’re getting way more value out of this gigantic investment that the public makes in teaching by having feedback so teachers know what they’re doing well, what they’re not doing well. And, you know, teaching is kind of unique in that that kind of feedback that hasn’t been part of how it’s done … the idea of moving into that mode requires pioneering a lot of things. That’s why Hillsborough’s to be thanked for helping to figure it out. And so whether it’s other districts in Florida or other states, it will be somewhat easier for them because of what’s been pioneered here. They’ll start much further down the learning curve than Hillsborough did a couple of years ago.
What was the feedback from the teachers in specific …?
Melinda: The teachers were saying it’s changing the way we’re teaching. They’re saying, you know, it’s a different evaluation system. We have to get used to it. There are pieces of it that they say, gosh, it’s really tough to have a peer evaluator, the peer observer, come into your classroom and then you find out, oops, I didn’t score as highly as I would on certain parts of the rubric. But they’re saying they’re definitely taking apart the craft of their teaching and they’re planning more as communities. So they’re talking more as a group of educators about how to get better.
Did you see any rough spots in your areas of concern?
Melinda: Well, the teachers say the evaluation system isn’t perfect yet, that there’s parts of the rubric that they think … could use some fine-tuning, and the peer evaluators agree with that. They say, yeah, …we’re not trying to design the perfect system from the get-go. We’re trying to say, should it be tweaked in a few places? … When they say it’s working really well, it’s when the professional development that comes after the evaluation or the observation. When that follows through fully, that’s when they get the full benefit out of it. The new change for them, though, is that some of that professional development is having to come from inside their own system, in their own biology department or in their own school as opposed to top-down. So they’re getting used to that, and I think that linkage will get more tight for them over time, too. … We didn’t hear a single person today that didn’t say hands-down that the mentoring program… is working so, so well for the first- and second-year teachers. In fact, some of them were saying, couldn’t we have that … for some of the more senior teachers too?
Did you find any differences between the …versus the younger teachers, newer teachers, in terms of their feelings about the evaluation process?
Bill: Well, the younger teachers are getting the more intense mentoring, and that’s meant that they’re getting good faster. Actually, lower turnover . . . the turnover that does happen is probably more than people who are less suited to the job and so, you know, that’s … working very well. They said that once you get past that, that it’s not just the young teachers who are embracing the new systems, that there’s some resisters in every category of seniority … but the majority are embracing it and seeing that it’s helpful. It’s very easy to get off into a discussion of, okay, this could be a little bit better here and a little bit better there. But if you say to them, well, if you had a choice to go back to the essentially no-feedback system, you know, they say, no, that would be a disaster. I would have no interest in that because then my fellow teachers wouldn’t be as good, and I care about these students.
Part of the evaluation is… linking it to the merit pay for teachers. …The Miami Herald had a recent article about how the formula that the state is developing was so complex that even a calculus teacher could not decipher it. I’m wondering … should that merit-pay formula be transparent?
Bill: Well, I think you’re mixing two different things. There’s the elements where your principal comes in and evaluates your work. And then there’s the element where the peer evaluator comes in and evaluates your work. The way that those ratings map to what might happen to merit pay is not that complicated. Then there’s how you take test scores, which is another piece, and that … making sure you understand what progress those kids were making before you taught them and whether you put them on a higher trajectory or not, that’s complicated statistically. And so, yes, there’s some complicated statistics there but it’s a very simple outcome. … If you help the kid learn more, you will do well…
Does that cloud then your message of trying to help teachers embrace that kind of empowerment of evaluation and peer evaluation and its improvement?
Bill: No, it’s all about better teaching, and the rubric challenges you to engage the students, … before you could just sit back and give your lecture and not engage the students. And so the wonderful thing that’s happening here is that teachers are learning from each other how to get students engaged to ask high-level questions about the material, and the fact that there wasn’t pressure on to keep improving, to keep looking at what’s working, was just … it was just a mistake. And, you know, so some pioneering is being done here but, you know, versus just saying everybody’s the same and there’s no feedback, that’s … the state spends a lot of money and has too many kids who never make it to college because of the way it’s been done in the past.
Melinda: We asked the teachers, after we’d gone through a long discussion with them about the evaluation system, we said, okay, so teachers in another district who’ve never had this before, would you recommend this new evaluation system? Even though it has some problems, you’ve talked about some tweaks? And they said, hands-down, absolutely. And when you say why, they say, because of all the things we just talked about – the whole way we’re teaching these kids, the whole way that they’re engaged and they’re learning. Even though I thought I was a really good teacher, I’m finding there’s some places that I can improve. And they said, you know, that just means I’m actually then doing my job. So then I thought, wow… if they really think…it could be taken other places and it would be embraced by other teachers, then you know you’re doing the right thing.
But aren’t the pieces of the puzzle all kind of key? I mean, here they have mentors … if districts can’t sort of have all the pieces of the puzzle, is that still a viable model that they can go after?
Melinda: Well, I think districts are going to have to look at where they can take some of their funding from other places and … they are going to have to put the various pieces in place. Just like you have to have student supports, you’re going to have to have professional development. People do it in different ways so, again, there’s not one exact model. Florida’s educating kids for a lot less money than somewhere like New Jersey. So I think there are other districts that are going to be able to find some money and say, hey, I ought to be able to put more of it into professional development, or more into an evaluation piece than I have in the past.
Bill: Yeah, if you went in a private sector, say, okay, we have to save 2 percent, although let’s not give our employees any feedback. That’s what we’ll cut out is we won’t tell them how they can improve. That’s where we’ll save the money. A private company wouldn’t survive that type of ….it really shouldn’t be called feedback. What they’re getting now is feedback. And the peer evaluators are so passionate about helping these teachers be better, and they all talk about how they’ll be better teachers when they go back in, having seen some really wonderful examples of teaching. And, you know, if you respect the teaching profession, somebody should come in and tell you about the good stuff you’re doing. And, you know, teachers were quite isolated when there’s not somebody in there looking hard at what you’re doing well and then giving you a sense of where to focus on improving.
You have partnerships around the country, with other districts . . . have you seen some things elsewhere that Hillsborough should model or that you’re particularly impressed with, you know, or different than what’s …
Bill: In the case of how you give feedback to teachers, Hillsborough’s one of the districts that’s out in front. Another positive thing that is happening in parallel is there are chances to use technology in the classroom, and there, although Hillsborough’s doing some interesting stuff, there are some experiments in other locations around the country that, as they get proven out, that Hillsborough will be able to benefit from.
It seemed like the focus of this is on classroom instruction, on the teacher in front of the classroom engaging, which is predominant. But there is a movement to more technology and remote education and all that. Can that be incorporated in this model?
Bill: No, the two things aren’t at all separated. The goal of the technology is to take some of what the teacher does, even some of the lecturing, some of the basic skills testing and relieve them of that so that they’re spending their time on this engaging the student … Why should I learn this? What high-level questions should I have about this subject? And so I think there is an opportunity to take the very positive stuff that’s going on here and over the next five years, incorporate in some of these technology advances and just give the teacher more time for the good stuff.
Melinda: And it gives the kids more flexibility….one of the students was a senior and he’s in the firefighting program here. And he said the AP math class I want to take isn’t offered in sixth and seventh period, but I have to be in my firefighting classes in sixth and seventh period, so I’m doing through Florida Virtual Schools my AP math. And so we asked the other kids, okay, any of you here take, you know, virtual classes? They’re like, oh, yeah, yeah, I took one. So one girl’s in broadcasting. She said, I wanted to get ahead; I didn’t want to have to take that class my senior year, so I took it in the summer… so it gives them flexibility also to use the tools in different ways. So it supports the teachers but it also supports where the kids are and what they want to learn.
We’ve talked a lot about students and teachers and principals and administrators. What is the role for parents in all of this? What is the message to parents about this whole reform that’s trying to transform their various schools?
Bill: Well, the parents are a key part of the equation in encouraging their kids to read and learn and be engaged and, hopefully, as the teaching’s better, they feel a real responsibility to step up and do their part even more. And hopefully they’ll be supportive of the changes that have taken place in the schools and want to maintain the positive progress.
Melinda: I think one of the things that Florida does, is so strong on, is rating the schools, and that the parents have … really have transparency about the schools and how they’re improving year by year ‘cause it gives the parents a place to also have voice in the school and to really know whether their student has a chance of learning well in that school.
Do you still believe…classroom size really has been overemphasized in the focus on teacher improvements?
Bill: If the issue was to have classes be 3 percent larger in order to have that money to run a good feedback system for the teachers, the peer evaluators, the mentors, then I think that would be money well spent in a big … small classroom size is a good thing, but in a period of finite resources, you have to decide, is that the only thing you’ll invest in, which may not let you do other things? And, you know, I wish the resources for education were going up every year, you know. That would allow you to do great evaluation systems and perhaps some tuning of the class size as well, but what we’re trying to point out to people is that of all the things you can invest in, that if you have tradeoffs, it may not make the top of the list.