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Perturbing K-12 STEM: Bill Gates 'does good'

I was in Cuba, as it turns out, on a religious-cultural-educational mission watching CNN in my Havana hotel room on an island 90 miles from our shores with which we have no formal relations. I was the advantaged foreigner in a disadvantaged land. Up pops an excerpt of a January 30 interview with Bill Gates talking about what makes a good teacher. Among the issues on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agenda is teacher education, especially in science and mathematics. When I returned home, I viewed the 2+ minute interview, then consulted the Foundation's "annual letter" titled (this time) "Why Does Measurement Matter?"

Such a theme is music to most scientists. It is rational, systematic, and yet politically unpalatable. It assumes that states and localities, steeped for over a decade in the machinations of No Child Left Behind, would have embraced performance measurement for teachers as well as students. Not really. Though Gates estimates that an evaluation system employing multiple measures of teacher performance—classroom observations, student surveys, and growth in student achievement—would cost no more than 2% of the overall budget for teacher compensation and benefits, the investment has not been made.

The upshot is little feedback to teachers on how they are doing—what skills need sharpening and what techniques could be introduced as part of classroom instruction. To Gates, the key to excellent teaching is engagement of the class. Make it interactive, focused, calm, and performance-oriented. This is a tall order, especially if the teacher has a tenuous grasp on the content he or she is offering. 

Of course, Gates puts money where his mouth is: a three year project called Measures of Effective Teaching has demonstrated in seven public school districts that the "measure and feedback" approach works to support and enhance teacher performance. Creating a learning environment where teachers are rewarded for "continuous improvement" would balance, in my view, the outcome accountability craze that standardized tests have imposed. 

But I'm not sure that Gates would endorse my view. As a philanthropist with more than a technological bent, however, he seeks to invest in people as well as things. For that we should be grateful, even though the dollars that the Gates Foundation has poured into research on education has perturbed few of the STEM classrooms in grave need of revitalization. At least the focus is on teachers and their professional development. 

No introduction of technology can replace the human impact of a knowledgeable, creative, and spirited teacher. That is needed as much in Havana as in Hagerstown, Halifax, or Helsinki. In this sense, Gates succeeds where most well-intentioned, deep-pocketed corporations fail, namely, they want to "feel good and look good" in their giving. But the elusive step is the measurable one much needed: doing good.

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