new initiative from Gates is to publish an annual letter reflecting on the work of his foundation, and the transparency of it is commendable.   In the education section of the letter, he discusses successes, and the lack thereof, of his reform initiatives.   What hasn’t work, he says,  were the schools which took funding to become smaller, but did not forge a genuine change of culture: “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.”    Yes.  Independent schools succeed not just because their schools and classes are small, but because school-heads have much greater latitude  to change personnel and change programs.  It must be said, though, that where independent schools are not excelling it is often because school culture has calcified and the school-leaders are not exercising this kind of leadership.

Gates praises school programs which are working, where leadership is strong and the schools are founded with an “intentional” vision, schools such as KIPP and High Tech High, schools where “it is invigorating and inspirational to meet with the students and teachers in these schools and hear about their aspirations. They talk about how the schools they were in before did not challenge them and how their new school engages all of their abilities.”   This blogger spent two days at High Tech High, and agrees students there are enjoying a tremendous learning experience, one that was struck this observer as matching the quality of most excellent independent schools.   I will confess a small disappointment that the other excelling California charter schools, New Technology High School and CART (Center for Advanced Research and Technology) did not merit mention, thinking as I do that their work is as interesting or more so than that of High Tech High.

Gates makes one more final point, one that sometimes I think I don’t often enough attend to.

One of the key things these schools have done is help their teachers be more effective in the classroom. It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one. Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.

This is essential– we can keep talking about reform all day long, but at the end of that day we have to have excellent teachers in the classroom: fully committed to student success,  deeply reflective about their practice,  willing and able to innovate in their technique.   Michelle Rhee is to be commended in DC for her laser beam focus on the quality of the teacher in each DC classroom; this is entirely in keeping with Gates’ point.   I am a fan of a book by Peter Temes, the title of which makes this point: Against School Reform (and in Praise of Great Teaching).

But just as important as Gates’s emphasis on the centrality of great teaching is his advocacy for the role of schools in helping teachers become great.  Sometimes when we talk about great teachers we seem to be saying they are born great, but we know they can become great too with the right support and the right culture.   This represents a change in the thinking of this blogger, who once upon a time thought it was solely a matter of natural talents and personal attributes that made a teacher,things like intelligence, interpersonal skills, and energy.  But while those things are still important, I now believe they are not enough: they have to be fused to a willingness to research and reflect and refine and reform and respond in an ongong practice of striving for ever-growing improvement.   As Gates says:

Whenever I talk to teachers, it is clear that they want to be great, but they need better tools so they can measure their progress and keep improving. So our new strategy focuses on learning why some teachers are so much more effective than others and how best practices can be spread throughout the education system so that the average quality goes up.