I read with interest your statement about the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (2009 Annual Letter from Bill Gates). Thank you for the efforts of the foundation in so many important areas (global health, agriculture, etc.).
Given my own focus, I was especially interested in your discussion about US education. I appreciate your candor in assessing the successes and failures of the foundation’s efforts in education, as reflected in this quotation:
Nine years ago, the foundation decided to invest in helping to create better high schools, and we have made over $2 billion in grants. The goal was to give schools extra money for a period of time to make changes in the way they were organized (including reducing their size), in how the teachers worked, and in the curriculum. The hope was that after a few years they would operate at the same cost per student as before, but they would have become much more effective.
Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way. These tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum. We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school.
Even so, many schools had higher attendance and graduation rates than their peers. While we were pleased with these improvements, we are trying to raise college-ready graduation rates, and in most cases, we fell short.
Later in your statement, you rightly emphasize the importance of helping “teachers be more effective in the classroom.” I want to underscore this point, because I consider it critical to enhancing the strength of US education and, thereby, improving outcomes for students in our schools. For students to gain access to higher education, they must have the competence required in foundational areas such as mathematics, written expression, and content knowledge. Achieving that competence requires teachers who employ effective methods of teaching.
Indeed, the idea undergirding this Web site is that we know lots about teaching effectively. When they have the right tools and use them skillfully, teachers can have effects on students’ performance that may appear to be small but that, in fact, turn out to be changes in trajectory which play critical roles in improving students’ outcome in the longer term.
Students who, during their early schooling, become facile with the decoding aspects of reading, the computational aspects of arithmetic, and the more mechanical aspects of writing will have initial and sustained advantages in learning content later. Similarly, those who master the fundamental aspects of algebra during the later elementary and early secondary grades will have greater opportunities to pursue advanced studies in mathematics, science, and technology. Equipping teachers with the tools and skills to deflect students’ trajectories in these areas will help mightily in improving education.
Based on a large body of research, we know pretty much how to accomplish this. It is clear that systematic, explicit instructional practices (e.g., Direct Instruction) promote measurably improved outcomes for students. And, it’s important for teachers to be able to see the fruits of their efforts. It’s not enough to present lessons and hope that students will do well years later; we need to refocus on students’ progress at a more micro level if teachers are to be able to see progress, and adjust instruction quickly to meet students’ need (curriculum-based measurement or precision teaching). Interestingly, much of this research comes from special education, where the very nature of the population of students requires efficient teaching.
The formula is actually relatively simple:
- Faithfully implement evidence-based instructional practices and curricula that systematically teach students requisite skills and knowledge from the get-go;
- Initially differentiate instruction on the basis of students’ prior learning;
- Frequently monitor students’ acquisition of skills and knowledge as they develop; and
- Systematically adjust instruction on the basis of students’ learning.
I suspect that a relatively small investment per teacher (say, $5000/yr) in a key area (algebra, for example) aimed at preparing the teachers to provide instruction based on these four principles would yield valuable results. And once those teachers see the benefits to their students, I suspect few will go back to teaching in the comfortable-but-ineffective ways of the past. At the least, this proposition is a testable hypothesis. If one wanted to make a really powerful test, it would be good to focus on teachers from a few score inner city schools.
If you’d like to give this idea a whirl, let me know. Meanwhile, keep up the good works in those other areas.
John Wills Lloyd, Ph.D.
John [at] JohnWillsLloyd [dot] com