Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Supporting Students by Supporting Teachers

October 19, 2015

Of all the teachers I had growing up, I think about Miss Marjorie the most. She was the hardcore head teacher of McQuady Elementary, the poor grade school near where I grew up in Falls of Rough, Kentucky. Miss Marjorie taught me hard work, how to treat my peers, how to respect my elders and how to hold myself accountable. 


But when I got to college, I wasn’t ready.


I realized later that what Miss Marjorie had been teaching me wasn’t going to get me ready. She taught me how to diagram a sentence, but I didn’t know how to write that sentence in an essay. I learned how to follow directions, but I couldn’t find my way when I got lost. 


The bond I had with Miss Marjorie was the strongest I ever had with a teacher. I would have done anything for her, and she would have done anything for me. But we didn’t make the most of that bond because we didn’t have the tools. She wasn’t supported with high standards or insightful teacher evaluations or professional development to improve her practice.


Teachers should never feel they are alone. They should have the backing of a system that supports excellence so they can teach their kids high standards and keep getting better at it year after year. 


That’s the focus of our K-12 work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


In 2008, we set out an education strategy that puts teachers at the center. If every teacher is supported with the goals, skills and tools they need to keep getting better, we can make dramatic breakthroughs in student achievement across the country.


Last Wednesday, Bill Gates spoke at the U.S. Education Learning Forum in Bellevue, Washington, and he recommitted the foundation to our strategy. 


“I believe we are on the right track,” he said. “Everything we’ve seen in the past seven years tells us that the strategy we settled on in 2008 remains the best lever for raising student achievement. Effective teachers raise student achievement, and strong teacher feedback and improvement systems help create and support effective teachers.”   


When schools change standards and curricula and instructional tools and evaluation systems, it takes time for teachers and students to adjust. That’s why we believe that these new systems shouldn’t yet be used to make high-stakes decisions, like what a teacher is paid or whether a student graduates.


But as these changes take hold, we’re already seeing bright spots across the country. In Kentucky, ACT scores -- which are a good mark of being ready for college -- have been rising for the past four years. Graduation rates have risen from 80 percent to 86 percent. In Denver, the percentage of kids who score over 21 on the ACT has climbed from 16 to 24 percent. In Washington, DC, 4th grade math students have outgained their peers in every state for six straight years. 


What do these bright spots have in common? These states and districts are all dedicated to supporting teachers -- and they all have teacher evaluation systems that are focused on helping teachers improve in the classroom. 


This commitment is especially strong in Colorado, where the state has created a shared definition of excellent teaching. It breaks down the crucial skills and describes clearly what the five steps towards excellence look like in every one of those skills. It creates a common language and gives teachers a clear guide to getting better. 


One Colorado principal told us: “A few years ago, we didn't even have agreement on what good teaching was. So when I was doing an evaluation, I was just sitting in the classroom looking at the teacher and trying to remember some of the research I read in college.”


When the principal used the new evaluation, one teacher said it was the first time anyone ever told her how to get better, and she had always wanted that guidance. States and school districts are coming to see a crucial truth: Done right, teacher evaluation and teacher development are the same thing!

Evaluation that’s not tied to development is a waste of time; development that’s not tied to evaluation is a waste of money. 

For too long, these two processes have been kept separate. Evaluations told teachers whether or not they were “good,” but didn’t tell them how to get better. Professional development has sucked up $15 billion a year without targeting what individual teachers actually need. 

Teacher development that costs less and delivers more is right inside the school building. No one knows teaching like teachers. No one is more trusted by teachers than other teachers. That’s why every school has the elements of a great teacher feedback and improvement system under its own roof. Teachers can take the lead in bringing these new systems to life.  And they should rightfully ask:


“How will this help me get better?”

We have always known that good schools help students learn – but good schools also have to help teachers learn. We know this. We’re on the right track. It’s time to pick up speed. 




For more information about our work, please check out two new publications in a series called Let’s Talk.  The series is designed to share what we and our partners have learned and what the implications of those lessons are for the field.  One piece is about the role of standards, feedback, and support in getting kids ready for college.  The other is on teachers. 

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