There’s been a lot of negative media lately, particularly surrounding education and teachers' unions in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida.
My children attend a Florida public high school that is ranked as one of the top five best schools in the state for academics, and consistently ranked number one in football and volleyball. They have an extensive Advanced Placement course program that is so popular that my kids cannot get into all of the AP courses that they want. The courses are large and overenrolled, but at least they are challenging.
From my perspective as a parent and a college educator, most of my kids’ high school teachers have been excellent. A few, however, have been inferior — a situation that does not really surprise me. As a former department chair and evaluator of faculty performance at the college level, I understand how flawed and difficult the evaluation process can be. I also understand how faculty have different strengths and weaknesses. The weaker scholar with the higher student GPA average may be the person who provides after-hours counsel to students in trouble. The faculty with the lower student evaluations and course G.P.A.’s may be the most intellectually challenging faculty in the classroom — the one who students learn to appreciate after they graduate. And then there are a few faculty who should probably leave education entirely, but will not go and cannot be fired without difficulty, if they have tenure. All of these issues--teacher evaluation, compensation, tenure--are on the political table right now for public schools. Florida is one of the states that is pushing a bill to link secondary student performance to better teacher retention and merit pay. New Florida Governor (and Tea Party favorite) Rick Scott supports a bill in which teacher evaluations are no longer subject to the collective bargaining process, only pay and benefits are negotiated. Teachers' unions are unhappy about the methods (and the rhetoric) that many politicians are using for evaluating them and their classrooms. It’s unfortunate how this clash between workers and management is playing out in the classroom.
But a surprising new ‘Superman’ is on the educational scene — Bill Gates. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has financed an enormous teacher survey  about assessment goals and teacher training and retention. Gates, who is widely known for supporting charter schools (see Guggenheim’s film Waiting for Superman), as well as new teacher assessment methods (e.g. using video ) has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars into improving secondary school education. My own children’s school system, Hillsborough County , has received $100 million from the foundation “to ensure that all students have access to effective teachers in every classroom” -- a donation that includes funds for redesigning teacher evaluation methods, methods for connecting evaluation with merit pay, creating new teacher mentor programs and assisting high-needs students.
While Gates is speaking to and acting with the teacher’s unions for most of these evaluation issues, he may also be working around them and the collective bargaining process. In a video speech to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)--on his Foundation's web site--Gates did not shy away from some critique of union processes. In his opinion, focusing only on teacher pay and ‘classroom conditions’ ignores the student. Focusing on assessment reform, however, includes the student.
Gates has been critiqued by teachers for not believing that classroom size affects teacher and student performance. But not many people are critiquing him for putting serious money into potential teacher merit pay that is tied to new assessment methods that he supports. ANY increase in merit pay is appreciated, particularly when states and the federal government are broke. Gates is accomplishing some conservative educational reforms, but he is rhetorically working with the teacher’s union, instead of against them.
The New York Times article that was one of the most emailed yesterday was “U.S. is Urged to Raise Teachers’ Status”  which details a new PISA report that suggests we need to recruit better teachers, train them better and pay them more. The report, which was prepared for a conference convened by the Dept. of Education, could not come at a better time. It suggests that the U.S. education system needs to put less money into football stadiums and bus systems, and more respect (and money) into teachers and teacher training.
Better assessment methods will undoubtedly become part of the educational process. Rewarding teachers who get advanced degree training and bring their knowledge into the classroom should be part of the process. But new studies suggest that it ain’t simply about the money for better teaching.
More respect for well-trained teachers and better rhetorical strategies from politicians may be the first baby steps that we need to make to improving our schools.