Last month the Rand Corporation released a report on the impact of an initiative backed by The Gates Foundation to improve teacher evaluation practices (Rand, 2018). The initiative was intended to improve the quality of teachers in the classroom and student learning. The cost of the initiative was more than half a billion dollars.
Disappointingly, the report noted that while some weak teachers left the schools where the study was conducted, it did not solve the challenge of retaining strong teachers. The report also indicated that the initiative did not lead to significant improvement in student learning.
This is not the first time the Gates Foundation has made a major financial investment in education reform initiatives that did not yield anticipated results (Ravich, 2010). In the last decade, the Gates Foundation funded and promoted a small-high-schools initiative, an effort to break down large high schools with the bet that smaller schools would yield better learning outcomes. Unfortunately, when the study was ended in 2008, two billion dollars had been invested and little to no measurable learning outcome improvement was observed. It happens that focusing on the structure of schools is not a good bet for improving learning.
The Rand report notes a number of factors and complexities that may have had an impact on the outcomes of the teacher evaluation initiative. However, the problem likely is more closely linked to the focus of the initiative than any other factor. Improving teaching is a laudable goal. Presumably, some improvement in student learning could result. But, the real problem related to student outcomes has more to do with the design of schools than its component functions, such as teacher evaluation.
We need to face the reality that we have a school system designed more than a century ago when the idea of all students attending school and learning at high levels was never considered—or imagined. At the time, it was acceptable to focus on instruction as the key focus of system activity, as general instruction could generate learning in an adequate number of students—maybe forty to sixty percent—to meet the needs of our society and economy. However, more intense and focused teaching today will not overcome the problems of our instruction-driven system design.
If we hope to dramatically change learning outcomes, we must begin to focus on learning as the central activity, not instruction. The central question needs to be: “What does the learner need to stimulate and support their learning in order to achieve agreed-upon outcomes?” Not, “What lesson should I teach?” In this new design, instruction remains a powerful and necessary resource, but it is only one of a number of means available to stimulate learning. As examples, a compelling problem, an inviting simulation, a driving purpose, wisely employed technology, or engaging question can also stimulate learning.
In a learning-centered system design, the role of teachers will shift, but their influence and impact on students and learning is in no way lessened. In fact, the role of educators arguably increases in importance and impact as more students with diverse learning needs become engaged, learning moves to deeper and more sophisticated levels, and readiness to learn becomes an influential factor in decision making.
The bottom line: Unless we change the experience of the learner, we should not expect to change learning outcomes. This statement may seem simple and obvious, but it appears to escape most philanthropists, education policymakers, legislators and others who have the resources and means to begin the process of moving our current out-of-date education system design toward one that reflects what we need and has the capacity to deliver.
Stecher, B. M., Holtzman, D. J., Garet, M. S., Hamilton, L. S., Engberg, J., Steiner, E. D., Robyn, A., Baird, M. D., Gutierrez, I. A., Peet, E. D., Brodziak de los Reyes, I., Fronberg, K., Weinberger, G., Hunter, G. P., Chambers, J. (2018). Improving teaching effectiveness: Final report. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.
Ravich, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.