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Stephanie Burroughs, Ed.D.

Curriculum Leader, K-12 Education

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My #GatesSocial experience and my recommendations on #EdReform

On October 7th I had the incredible opportunity of visiting Seattle for a #GatesSocial on US Education and a Keynote address from Bill and Melinda Gates. Here are my thoughts and recommendations. 

My morning began with Keynote addresses from Bill and Melinda Gates at the US Learning Forum. They talked on the US Education program and their intentions moving forward, but most importantly they gave anecdotal information on their own public education experiences and why they are committed to addressing equity and opportunity in US Education. 

After the morning talks, we headed back to the Gates Foundation to participate in small group discussions at the #GatesSocial. For the rest of the day, we heard from the US Program's three key areas of focus: Washington State, Post-Secondary Success, and College Ready Education. Each of these three areas of focus tend to overlap in research and strategy, but overall the focus of the US Education program is to address education equity and increase opportunities for success for all students. I completely support this mission, it is of course the premise behind why the public education system was created in the first place and why the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was written. I believe this mission has been muddied with misinformation on the Common Core, misinformation on the need to modify standardized assessments, misidentification of what a charter school truly is, and a lack of attention to what the real issues are in public education that create inequities. To clarify, I will focus on the three key areas of the College Ready Education division: Teaching, Learning, and Innovation.

Teaching

The Gates Foundation has identified that student success is directly connected to quality teaching. This is of course true. From this research, policies have been made and the model for teacher evaluation has been modified nation-wide. The new evaluation tool supports continued professional growth by increasing opportunities for observation and feedback while also providing teachers with an opportunity to self-assess, committing to learning and growing in their profession. This model works when the educators on staff embrace the model and utilize the evaluation tool in the way it is intended. This model works when you have committed educators that are lifelong learners. I have this, it is special, and it makes my job enjoyable. 

What the Gates Foundation did not address in their initial research was the need to recognize quality teaching and support and promote quality teaching nation-wide. Before the evaluation tool was rolled out, many educators were already exemplars of quality teaching. Great teachers are great teachers, no matter the means of evaluation, and the Gates Foundation (among many others) seemed to skip over this piece as they rolled out the new evaluation tool to states. This made the rollout feel like a punishment as opposed to an improvement.

Learning

Perhaps the most controversial product of the Gates Foundation research has been the Common Core State Standards and the need to reform standardized assessments. These all came under the umbrella of learning. The Gates Foundation research highlighted the inequities in curriculum and student graduation requirements across the country, also noting that the standardized assessments that accompanied them varied greatly by state and created an inequity in our expectations for student learning. Much of what the Gates Foundation has highlighted as an issue can be connected to issues with the No Child Left Behind Act that mandated testing and accountability without leveling the playing field by creating a foundational curriculum for all students. 

The Common Core State Standards are wonderful in both English Language Arts and Mathematics. Educators are now looking at the delivery of curriculum differently and helping students make connections between concepts. The Common Core will help improve education and, if successfully implemented, will provide students with the knowledge and skill set needed to be college and career ready. In order for this to happen, we need to focus on the implementation of the Common Core. We need to listen to the needs of our educators and provide them with the tools necessary to be successful in the classroom. This was the message delivered by Bill and Melinda Gates in the morning and it was spot on. 

The next step in adopting any new curriculum is making adjustments to the manner it is assessed. To be clear, the Gates Foundation did not create high stakes testing, the No Child Left Behind Act did in 2001. This was and still is separate from the Common Core, but when the Common Core was adopted there became a need to modify the state assessments used in order to reflect the new standards. We need to be giving teachers a voice in this next phase of education reform, providing educators with the opportunity to utilize their professional expertise to create meaningful assessments collectively. 

Innovation

Innovation in the way we educate and the way we fund public education are crucial in creating sustainable education reform. From this idea sprung the charter school movement, a focus on integrating technology, and a focus on providing students with personalized learning experiences to increase opportunities for success.

Charter schools are a lab experiment that make up 5% of public education, focusing primarily on low-performing school districts that needed targeted support. We need to start identifying why successful charters have worked and looking for ways to make these successes a part of a sustainable public education system.  We must also recognize that while some charters have found success, many public schools have also found success. We need to spend time comparing and contrasting and developing best practices that work for all public education students.

As a nation we need to recognize that equal access to technology is vital to student success. The "digital divide" exists in public education and we must focus on inequities in wireless connectivity and inequities in equipment that leave many students in rural and urban communities behind. Recommendations must be made to adjust the way we fund public education and provide public schools with the equipment needed to be innovative. The state of Maine is a great example of what happens when state education agencies and public school districts team up with computer companies in order to provide an equitable education for all students. 

My Recommendations for Education Reform

Stop the blame game. The Gates Foundation has clearly done their homework and developed solutions to improve public education that are supported by extensive research. Bill and Melinda Gates believe in improving US Education and are committed to getting this right. I do think we need to stop blaming them for Charter Schools and start reading their research. It is time to look at the whole picture, cast our egos aside, and commit to helping kids. 

If we want to make improvements, we need to budget for it. My recommendations are merely to look at the funding formula for public education and look for ways to achieve education equity through the support of innovative teaching and learning, coupled with providing the funding for the equipment needed to make that happen. If we do not change the way we fund public education, we will not make the progress we need to help all students achieve. 

​Respect our educators. Most importantly, we need to respect our teachers and protect the teaching profession if we intend to move forward. Educators are on the front lines, implementing changes in curriculum and helping our kids succeed. We need to involve teachers in education reform and support their continued growth. We need to trust them as experts because they are. 

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