Saturday, December 3, 2011

What's wrong with the Bill Gates' foray into educational research & reform

#1 Bill Gates is not an education researcher, let alone an educator, or a researcher.
Don't get me wrong.  I love that Bill Gates is identifying education as a key issue to focus on.  I love that he is taking an interest in improving education.  I am not questioning his motives.  Just his methods.

What I hate is that his approach is the same know-it-all attitude that many take towards education and education research.  It's the old "I turned out okay, and I know what worked for me, therefore I am an expert on education" approach.

Good ol' Uncle Bill knows all there is to know about education reform

Which would be bad enough if he were just Uncle Bill, telling-it-how-it-is from his comfy chair at a holiday party.  But instead, he is using his name to garner authority on a subject he knows little about.

#2 His ENTIRE research program is explicitly based upon students' scores on standardized tests
The following is taken from a recent report by Gates' MET project:
The MET project is based on three simple premises: 

  • First, whenever feasible, a teacher’s evaluation should include his or her students’ achievement gains.
  • Second, any additional components of the evaluation (e.g., classroom observations, student feedback) should be demonstrably related to student achievement gains 
  • Third, the measure should include feedback on specific aspects of a teacher’s practice to support teacher growth and development. 
NB: "Achievement gains" are edu-jargon for increases in standardized test scores.  There are so many problems with this, I don't know where to begin.  For one, there is the obvious: these standardized tests DO NOT MEASURE what students are learning.  But a more important issue to me is that: THESE TESTS DO HARM TO STUDENTS.  And I'm not talking just about "they get stressed when they take tests."  I'm also talking about the WEEKS of instructional time lost to testing throughout the school year, and the MONTHS of instructional time lost to test-preparation throughout the school year.  I'm talking about the science classes, the history classes, the art classes, which ARE NOT TAUGHT so that reading and math test scores can improve.

This is just a little slice of the Test-Mania inflicting the schools where I make my rounds.   I wonder what the kids make of this poster, as they pass it in the hallway every day.  And I wonder how it makes them feel.
I know what
I think when I pass it: 
58.3% is SOARing?? 
See, the biggest damage done is not from the 5-hour-long sessions of sitting at a desk to take these tests; it is in the life-long damage to the students done by the test-mania they are subjected to in school.  At the heart of the issue is the damage done to students' conceptions of what it means to learn something.

As a science educator, I am most concerned about how the tests distort students' views on what it means to learn and to do science.  The  students take away such distortions from this test-crazed school culture when it is working as it is supposed to.  That means under Gates' ideal conditions, students' conceptions of science (and who knows what else!) will be destroyed, or at least distorted beyond recognition.  I have seen this first hand in my time in the classroom as an instructor, and as a researcher.

The fundamental principle of educational reform should be the same as it has been in medicine: DO NO HARM.  Gates' program, despite its best intentions, is a way of institutionalizing harm to children.  This is what happens when you jump from your own biases to institutionalizing them as recommendations.  Which brings me to my next wag-of-the-finger:

#3 Gates is jumping right from making assumptions to making recommendations
It's one thing to do descriptive statistics.  It's another to make causal claims.  But causal claims must be substantiated BEFORE making recommendations.  And the research that's already been done must be addressed first.

Yet somehow, Gates decided that he can simply dismiss all the research that shows the positive correlation between small class sizes and student learning (one of the most robust findings in educational research).  His recommendation: INCREASE class sizes, so we can force teachers to do more for less, and with less resources to help them do it.

Again, if this were just Uncle Bill ranting at a party it would be one thing.  But this is a person who is determining the future of the educational system with billions of dollars of investment in harmful and misguided policies and their proliferation.

#4 He wants traffic cameras in the classroom...
...except instead of being used to issue speeding tickets, they will be used to punish teachers.  Big brother, anyone?  What a great way to encourage teachers to enter into the profession and stay there (which, by the way, is really the key issue, if you ask Uncle Luke).  And by "great" I mean "idiotic."

Gates knows when you've been boring, Gates knows when you've been late...
Gates knows when kids are snoring, so give them tests for testing's sake!

Okay, enough ranting.  Here is something good I think Uncle Bill is bringing to the table, although he is horribly misusing it: using videos of classrooms to improve instruction & learning.  Video of classroom practice can be extremely helpful for teachers, UNDER THE RIGHT CONDITIONS.  Larry Ferlazzo has written a wonderful article on how video can be used productively to improve teaching.  Mr. Ferlazzo *voluntarily* used video of his teaching in order to have an open discussion with an external evaluator *and his students* about his teaching *in that video* (not to summarily characterize his teaching).  That sort of practice has great promise, if you ask Uncle Luke.