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Last week, RAND issued its massive and mostly negative evaluation of the Gates Foundation’s ambitious effort to redesign teacher evaluation, compensation, and employment practices in three school districts and four charter school management organizations. The foundation’s Effective Teacher Initiative, launched with great fanfare a decade ago, was an ambitious, expensive reform.
The final verdict was harsh, with RAND concluding, “The initiative did not achieve its goals for student achievement or graduation, particularly for LIM [low income minority] students.” As the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene noted, even that is probably too generous an assessment. Greene observed, “This summary really under-states what they found. You have to slog through the 587 pages of the report and 196 pages of the appendices to find that the results didn’t just fail to achieve goals, but generally were null to negative across a variety of outcomes.”
And these disappointing results were not cheap. RAND reports that the Effective Teacher Initiative cost the participating schools $575 million between 2009 and 2016, with Gates contributing $212 million of that total. This tally doesn’t include the staff time to conduct the requisite evaluations. Staff time totaled $73 million in 2014-15 alone (the only year RAND calculated it). That would suggest that the enormous time and effort required by the evaluation process translated into additional hundreds of millions in costs.
While it may be tempting to regard the RAND evaluation as closing the book on another oversold education reform, doing so would be a mistake. There’s much that can and should be learned from the exercise, especially given that the core idea makes good, intuitive sense—however problematically it was executed. As Brown University’s Matt Kraft, a scholar of teacher evaluation policy, noted, “This is an incredibly rich study that I hope is not pigeonholed into being just the ‘nail in the coffin’ of teacher eval[uation].” He added, “The headlines will all focus on the impact estimates, but . . . the story here is really about implementation.”
So what are some of the key lessons to keep in mind? There are at least five—and they are especially relevant for those who believe we can do a much better job of recognizing terrific teachers, identifying and supporting teachers who need help, and moving consistently lousy teachers out of the profession.
In the American system, philanthropy has a vital role when it comes to pioneering untried strategies and seeking new solutions. So long as foundations are transparent about what transpires and we take the time to examine what happened and why, even grand disappointments can be beneficial and instructive. In this case, the Gates Foundation has done its part, funding a remarkably honest and informative postmortem. The task now is to be sure that we learn the lessons it has to teach.
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