Convention Delegates Hear From Microsoft's Gates

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The strong call for a systemic approach to professional development and evaluation in our nation's schools, which was captured in a key resolution adopted by delegates on July 10, also factored heavily in a convention address later that day by Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The foundation is currently working on two projects aimed at fostering effective teaching in public schools, Gates explained. The first project encompasses 3,000 teachers in six school districts and allows teachers to voluntarily assess their practice through new video-based technology. "The project is also launching ideas for how to use video technology to help identify and transfer best practices," Gates said. "Many of these teachers are members of the AFT, and I want to thank you who are here today for being part of this project."

The second initiative, which includes AFT-represented teachers in Pittsburgh and Hillsborough County, Fla., will extend the first project's work. It aims "to make teacher effectiveness the center of the whole system," leading to measures of excellent teaching that can guide the way schools recruit, evaluate, develop, assign, compensate and promote teachers.

The work is vital, but it must fit into a strategy of comprehensive reform, Gates said.

"The teacher is the one that makes the biggest difference, [but] this point shouldn't be misconstrued," he told delegates. "The pivotal impact of the teacher does not mean that parents, principals and administrators have fewer obligations. It means they have greater obligations."

And Gates emphasized that the aim of all efforts to improve teacher quality must address "the heart of the challenge," by answering the question: "How do you set up a system that helps every teacher get better?"

Gates praised the AFT for "taking historic steps to bury old arguments and improve student achievement" in districts across the nation. Based on that work, "critics who've long complained that teachers unions don't care about student outcomes have been forced to reconsider," he said.

The address was not without controversy; a few dozen delegates walked out before a speech that they deemed to be an incursion of private business into deliberations on public education. AFT president Randi Weingarten defended the decision to invite Gates, however, pointing out that the union has a long history of seeking discourse with sometimes-opposing points of view in the public arena.

Gates' convention remarks are available online. [Mike Rose]

July 11, 2010