"We all know that there are these exemplars who can take the toughest students, and they'll teach them two-and-a-half years of math in a single year," he says. "Well, I'm enough of a scientist to want to say, 'What is it about a great teacher? Is it their ability to calm down the classroom or to make the subject interesting? Do they give good problems and understand confusion? Are they good with kids who are behind? Are they good with kids who are ahead?'
"I watched the movies. I saw 'To Sir, With Love,'" he chuckles, recounting the 1967 classic in which Sidney Poitier plays an idealistic teacher who wins over students at a roughhouse London school. "But they didn't really explain what he was doing right. I can't create a personnel system where I say, 'Go watch this movie and be like him.'"
Instead, the Gates Foundation's five-year, $335-million project examines whether aspects of effective teaching—classroom management, clear objectives, diagnosing and correcting common student errors—can be systematically measured. The effort involves collecting and studying videos of more than 13,000 lessons taught by 3,000 elementary school teachers in seven urban school districts.
"We're taking these tapes and we're looking at how quickly a class gets focused on the subject, how engaged the kids are, who's wiggling their feet, who's looking away," says Mr. Gates. The researchers are also asking students what works in the classroom and trying to determine the usefulness of their feedback.
Mr. Gates hopes that the project earns buy-in from teachers, which he describes as key to long-term reform. "Our dream is that in the sample districts, a high percentage of the teachers determine that this made them better at their jobs." He's aware, though, that he'll have a tough sell with teachers unions, which give lip service to more-stringent teacher evaluations but prefer existing pay and promotion schemes based on seniority . . . .