Press Room




Vicki Phillips Speech to National Staff Development Council

July 20, 2010
Prepared Remarks by Vicki Phillips, Director of Education, College Ready

John Okamoto, thank you so much for that introduction.

And thank you all for having me here today.   Stephanie Hirsh doesn’t know that I know this, but several months ago, she was at a conference with a member of our team, but had lost her voice the previous day.  So she silently handed our representative a note she had written – a list of ten areas in which we should be working.

That note made its way to me.  And I’m proud to say that we’re working in almost all of them.

That note, and your work, make clear that you get it:  that student achievement flows from great teaching, and great teaching is advanced by great professional development. 

At the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I work for a guy who is admittedly a bit of a science geek.  So it was the first professional environment where I felt totally safe in admitting that one of my favorite authors has always been Isaac Asimov.

In his book, Nemesis, Asimov wrote something that has stuck with me since I first read it, and I quote:  “It’s easier to imitate and overtake than it is to originate.” 

It is easier – and often better - to imitate and overtake than originate.   At first, that would seem like a statement that is at odds with the American tradition of innovation.  But when you think about it a little more deeply, you see that it’s not anti-innovation at all.  It’s about innovation built on a foundation.  

How many of you think that the person next to you knows every single trick you’ve developed over the years that helps kids learn?

How many of you think that you know every single technique that everyone else in this room has discovered?

As a teacher, you often have to be a one-man – or woman – army.  Make sure the advanced kids aren’t bored, make sure the antsy kids aren’t acting out, make sure the kids struggling with a concept can find a new way to approach it and hopefully “get” it.  You’re managing more per minute than most people manage per day.  And there’s not a lot of time for collaboration and sharing of best practices.

So a lot of teachers feel like every time they enter the classroom, they’re trying to invent something out of whole cloth. 

And yet there are tactics, and strategies, and methods that work.  Some, we know and are trying to bring to scale.  Some, we’re working with organizations like yours to find and research (more on that in a moment). 

This much we know:  effective teaching is the most important thing in a child’s education.  And a teacher starts a couple of rungs up the effectiveness ladder if he or she is able to take what we know works and build on it. 

That’s what I want to spend some of my time here today discussing with you:  finding, spreading and scaling what works… and making sure more teachers get access to tools that enable them to be successful every time they step into the classroom.

II. Introduction to the Gates Foundation

At the Gates Foundation, we operate on the fundamental belief that everyone should have the opportunity to lead healthy and productive lives. To that end, we’re constantly asking ourselves, how can we make the most difference with each dollar we invest?

Around the world, this means we focus on health and agricultural productivity in the hopes of fighting disease and reducing extreme poverty.
In the United States, we invest in education. Because, as you understand better than anyone, education is the master key that opens every door to opportunity in our country.
We look for the levers, the intervention points, within the education system where an investment can yield new insights and scalable solutions. 

We also believe that you can’t find great opportunities unless you also take risks. We’re willing to try something new. We’re willing to fail, as long as we learn from our mistakes.

The only failure we won’t accept is the reality that every year over one million children don’t graduate high school in this country, and millions more fail to graduate high school ready to enter and succeed in college and career.

That’s why we’re willing to use our size, our reach, and our founders’ fame and influence to step into controversial spaces.  But we’re not seeking controversy.  We’re seeking evidence. Because that’s what we really want to do:  find evidence and follow evidence of what works best to improve student achievement.

That’s how we can make a unique contribution to American students. We can test, we can measure, we can draw conclusions, and we can become an independent voice for what works.

And we truly believe that this is the most important work we could be doing here in the U.S. We truly believe that every dollar we invest in a better education for our kids will impact their future, and this country’s future.

III. Vicki’s Story

But right now, we’re far away from where we need to be.

Every day, millions of children go to schools that, frankly, do not provide them with the education they need. 

If a student from one of these low-performing schools does everything she’s told and graduates from high school, the odds are still stacked against her that she will make it through college and be ready to succeed in the workplace.

The tragedy in her story is that whether she attends a school that provides her with a lousy education or an excellent one isn’t determined by how smart she is, how hard she works, how much she enjoys learning or any dreams she may have for her future.

It’s determined by her zip code.

My own road to college was pretty rough -- I grew up in a rural place that was aptly named. It was a place where no one expected me to amount to much, because no one expected anybody to amount to much.

In school, I wasn’t pushed very hard– that would have been cruel.  After all, I was too poor to succeed. But I did well enough. And when I was in high school, I became friends with a girl named Cindi, who came from the wealthier elementary school that fed into my high school.  She was in my business class, and we became friends.  She’s the one who pushed me to think about college, convinced me to take the entrance exams, and drove me to them. 

And so I went to college.  My life was changed by a young woman who was unwilling to accept the inequities between us.

On one hand stories like mine are inspirational – after all, that chance friendship put me on the path to where I am now.  On the other hand, they’re tragic.  Because what about the children just like me, who didn’t find someone who pushed them to go to college?

We at the Gates Foundation are on a mission to take luck – and zip codes – out of the equation for educational success.

And I know that NSDC shares that goal – the goal of making sure that every student in this country receives an excellent education that prepares them for college and career.

IV.  The Foundation’s education strategy – mythbusting and solutions

We began our work in education nine years ago, although most of our program leaders had been working in the field far longer than that.  We spent almost a decade testing, evaluating, and measuring a variety of investments to identify what really works.  We made a few mistakes         along the way… and learned as much from those mistakes as from our successes. 

I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of what we learned was…  surprising. Counterintuitive. 

For example, we thought that structure made a big difference.  So our early investments focused on small schools – and we saw improved attendance, graduation rates and levels of student engagement.  But structure alone didn’t significantly improve academic performance or increase college readiness.  We only saw real gains when we intentionally paired the changes in structure with changes in the classroom.

We thought a meaningful high school degree would be sufficient. But we found that a high school degree is no longer enough to guarantee success. A postsecondary degree with real value in the workplace is the key to breaking the cycle of inequity.

And we thought that if we found something that worked, it would be viral. After all, wouldn’t good ideas catch on because they’re… good ideas?

We now know – thanks to hard evidence – that structure is not enough, high school is not high enough, success is not always viral.

So after all we’ve tried and learned, we’ve come to focus on three essential areas of investment:

These are:
1. One, ensuring that students are prepared for college and careers (learning)
2. Two, empowering effective teachers (teaching); and,
3. Three, promoting innovation in the classroom and developing next-generation school models (innovation).

Of course, like the work of the National Staff Development Council, many of our efforts cut across these areas, and weave them together. 

V. Preparing students for college and career

We start with preparing students for college and career. Today, too many of our kids are doing what is expected of them, learning what they’re asked to learn, graduating, going on to college – only to discover that the standards they met in high school weren’t high enough to prepare them for college-level work.

And employers say that high school graduates don’t come to them with the skills needed to thrive in today’s workplace.
That’s why we need clear, consistent standards that make sense to students, parents and teachers. Standards that can be mastered with the time and resources available to schools. 

Great standards aren’t a laundry list of everything we think students should learn. 

They’re evidence-based guidelines outlining what is essential for a student to know at each grade level.

>Right now, standards vary widely--in content and quality--from state to state. They are often too low, too long, and too diffuse.

Fortunately, leaders in 48 states decided that it was time to work with parents, teachers, and education experts to craft next generation standards. And we’ve been proud to support this work.

The Common Core Standards are aligned with career and work expectations. They build upon the best of the current state standards. They’re informed by top-performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in an information economy. They foster engagement and innovation, inspiring teachers, motivating students, and helping parents support their kids at home. And they demand mastery of what is most essential – they don’t simply ask students to learn less and less about more and more.

As of today, twenty four states have agreed to adopt these standards.

Clear, consistent standards help us determine what kids need to know--and help us measure whether they’ve learned it.

So together, we can generate course designs and teaching tools that strengthen teacher effectiveness and improve student learning.

We can build a next generation student support system, including 2.0 assessments aligned to the standards that tell us something worth knowing about what students are actually learning and the progress they are making.

We can create innovative models of professional development for teachers that provide immediate feedback and real-time access to effective practices. And if done correctly, we can use clear, consistent standards and high-quality assessments to evaluate learning and teaching, fairly – with multiple measures and without politics.

VI. Empowering effective teaching

After almost a decade of work and mountains of evidence, the Gates Foundation has come to a conclusion that all of you have long understood: teachers matter more to student learning than anything else inside a school. 

Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school.

Imagine you grouped all teachers in America by quartile, using whatever metrics their schools currently have in place. If students are taught by a bottom-quartile teacher for three years, they fall behind so significantly that catching up is nearly impossible.

But imagine you took every student who currently has a bottom-quartile teacher and gave them a top-quartile teacher instead. You would close the entire achievement gap in America in just three years.

This is actually an inspiring statistic. Because it means that with great teachers, there’s no limit to what America’s students could achieve.

So we should learn from great teachers.

But how do we help more teachers become great? We believe that our efforts need to be informed by fair and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness that are tied to gains in student achievement.

But we also believe that you cannot develop and implement these measures unless teachers are on board--unless their voices and concerns are heard.

That’s why, over the past two years, our foundation partnered with Scholastic on the largest survey ever conducted – over 40,000 teachers participated--about the views of teachers on critical questions facing the profession.

Teachers overwhelmingly reported that they don’t get enough feedback or information on how they can improve. They’re not given training that can address their weaknesses or help them share their strengths with others.

Teachers want to help set the expectations that they will be held accountable for. You want to be rewarded for results. You want better evaluations, not test scores alone and not an administrator dropping in for 30 minutes on one day. And you want great professional development that is customized to the specific needs of the individual teacher.

But as a system, how do we help every teacher get better at the hardest job there is?

At the Foundation, we are working with teachers and researchers to analyze the teachers whose students are making big gains, identify what they do, and determine how to transfer those skills to others.

It’s part of a research program called the Measures of Effective Teaching.  3,700 teachers in seven school districts around the United States have volunteered to open their classrooms to visitors, to video cameras, to new assessments, to watching themselves teach and talking about their practice. 

Our project teams will watch more than 13,000 videos of classes this year and 13,000 more again next year. They’ll drill down into classes that showed big student gains – not just on standardized tests, but other measures of problem-solving knowledge -- and try to map backwards to identify the most effective teaching practices. And they’ll also look for what doesn’t work.

One of the ancillary benefits of this will be to create a library of effective teaching videos. Once upon a time if you wanted to watch a great teacher, you had to track one down in your building and hope you could observe her during your free period. But today, every teacher should be able to watch great teachers anytime they want.

We are also investing $290 million in four different school districts as part of what we’re calling our "intensive partnerships." Each of these districts is reforming the way teachers are recruited, developed, evaluated, rewarded and retained.

In Hillsborough County, they made their new evaluation and development system public this spring. It offers teachers a chance to have side-by-side coaching with master teachers.

In Pittsburgh, they’re creating incentives for highly effective teachers to go into low-performing schools. In some schools, if students make better-than-expected gains in learning, their teachers earn additional pay. In one program, teachers will work as a team with a group of incoming ninth graders and stay with them for two years. If at the end of the 10th grade the kids are on track for college, the whole team will get a bonus.

We believe that each of these four locations has the potential to be a “lighthouse” – a model for the ways in which school districts can empower effective teaching.

We also believe that effective teachers can be lighthouses for one another. Ultimately, we want to give great teachers the tools they need. We want to help good teachers become great. We want average teachers to significantly improve. And we want new teachers to enter the field with the support they need.

That’s why we are incredibly excited about helping to launch TeachersTV here in the United States.

Great teaching is too often hidden from public view--behind the closed door of a classroom--and great practice is too often lost when accomplished teachers retire. So we want to promote effective teaching by making it more visible--and by making more available tools and technologies that can enhance practice, and practice-sharing.

TeachersTV will feature high quality digital video of great teachers practicing their craft. Our vision is for teachers and the broader community to be able to find--online, through public television stations, and via video-on-demand--examples of great teaching, and a range of high-quality tools and supports to help teachers get better.

We foresee TTV being offered across the country, free for teachers to access, engage with, and eventually, contribute to as we build a network of dedicated professionals determined to get even better.

You’ll see TTV launch in 5 – 10 markets in 2011, and we hope to see it grow nationwide as a platform for elevating the teaching profession and catalyzing the sharing of great tools and techniques.

This is a perfect example of innovating by imitating and overtaking.

VII. Innovation: new methods of instruction and powering up classroom experiences

And that brings me to my final point: to improve the system, the Gates Foundation focuses on making sure kids are college and career ready, and that we have effective teachers in every classroom.

But to change the system, we have to focus on innovation – innovation in terms of instruction, and innovation in terms of technology.

One of the places that is ripe for instructional innovation is literacy – specifically literacy for secondary school students who have fallen behind over the years.

Our foundation supported the creation of a Literacy By Design team, which spent the last year creating a new literacy framework with supporting tools that links up with the Common Core Standards.

Many of you have experienced this: it’s incredibly hard to teach older kids who have fallen behind over the years in how to read and write. It’s often remedial instruction that is layered on top of their grade level opposed to something that underpins all of their other work.

So with Literacy by Design, we’re working with teachers, administrators, policymakers, researchers and expert partners to build a new structure for secondary literacy instruction in public schools--new ways of embedding literacy across instructional areas.

Using the Literacy by Design framework, the tasks, modules and courses are designed by teachers--ensuring that core literacy practices that we know work are combined with the flexibility and creativity teachers bring to the classroom.

But innovation can’t just be limited to what information we impart--it’s also about how we impart it.

Take a look at this picture of a classroom recreated to look like those from 100 years ago. Here’s a picture of a classroom 50 years ago. Here’s a picture of a classroom today.

If someone from the year 1900 dropped into our society today, they would barely recognize it. Transportation, agriculture, medicine, music, manufacturing--all of them have radically changed. All of them have benefited from a century of innovation.

But education hasn’t. That person from 1900 would feel right at home in any of our classrooms.

And in recent years, as the pace of change grows faster, the problem is growing too. Education hasn’t entered the information age. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Commerce ranked major industries according to their level of IT penetrations--in other words, they asked which industries had caught up with new technology.

Education finished dead last.

For today’s students, that’s not just unacceptable. It’s incomprehensible. They are "digital natives." They grew up texting, chatting, on Facebook, online. They spend their lives "powered up."

But when they get to school, these same students have to "power down." They have to turn off the devices and put away the technology that’s an essential part of their lives.

VIII. Next-generation models: the foundation’s work

That’s why we’re looking at next generation school models that sync up with the way today’s students interact with the world.

One great example is the School of One which was developed by Joel Rose, the chief executive of human capital at the New York City Department of Education. Joel started out as a fifth-grade teacher in Houston, Texas. He loved teaching, but he also recognized that the traditional classroom wasn’t giving teachers enough support.

Here’s how Joel put it. "Every hour of the school day, three million teachers across the United States are faced with the immense challenge of reaching 25 to 30 students over the course of a 40 minute class period. Each of these students has his or her unique set of incoming skills, preferred learning styles, motivations, and out-of-school influences. We expect teachers to deliver an instructional program that meets the differentiated needs of each student."

When you put it that way, it’s no surprise why every classroom has some kids who are falling behind, and some kids who are bored.  It’s no surprise that so many teachers feel like the deck is stacked against them.

Today, Netflix tells us what movies we’d like to watch. Pandora tells us what songs we like to hear. Amazon tells us what books we’d like to read. Google even suggests what we might like to search for.

So Joel wondered--what if a similar algorithm could work through mountains of data – assessments, surveys, learning preferences – and tell you what students needed to learn? And what if it could go one step further and actually help them learn?

That’s the School of One.

Every morning, each student is assigned a "playlist" for the day – a personal set of online lessons, video games, small-group learning, and one-on-one tutorials with teachers.

Last year, eighty summer school students participated in the project, and over the entire summer, no two of them had an identical playlist for the same day. 

It was certainly popular. All of the teachers said they’d like to be involved again, and 80% of the students reported that they liked going to School of One--and this was during the summer!

But School of One was more than popular--it was effective. The pilot group of students progressed as much as a similar group of students had in the same subject areas… but in 1/3 the instructional time.

And it’s a perfect example of the kind of new, innovative model we need more of.

Another model I find fascinating is in San Jose--where a former teacher named John Danner has created a model called "Rocketship," designed to prevent teacher burnout and stretch a tight school budget.

In the model, 25 percent of learning is conducted in an online "learning lab," which saves each school $500,000 per year. The school reinvests those savings in higher teacher salaries and more professional development opportunities.

We don’t invest in Rocketship, because it’s an elementary school. But it’s an exciting new model, and next year, we’re going to put out a request for proposal looking for new types of school models like the ones developed by Joel Rose and John Danner.

We want to encourage new notions of "school."

But we also want innovations that can be put to use in any classroom--regardless of the school model.

How many of you find that you sometimes wish you had another set of hands… that you could clone yourself in the classroom?

It’s like the old joke:  everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.  We wanted to see if we could do something about it… without resorting to human cloning.

When I look at all of these innovations, I’m reminded what Henry Ford once said about what his customers wanted:  "If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, 'a faster horse.'"

Sometimes instructional innovation feels that way--sometimes you don’t know what you need until you see it...but once you see it you know it has the potential to change everything.

IX. Progress and leadership

We’ll continue to focus on innovative grants and programs--because they are absolutely necessary to improving education.

But they’re not sufficient.

To make incredible progress, we need great leaders. In fact, teachers in the Scholastic survey said that great leadership trumps increased funding any day.

Classrooms, schools, and school systems need leaders who won’t be overwhelmed by the complexity of our modern education system. They need leaders who won’t be overpowered by a need for consensus, who can resolve a conflict and take on a controversy. Who focus relentlessly on evidence over ideology. They need leaders who can use technology to help students power up, instead of insisting they power down.

X. Conclusion – what we value most

This is more challenging than ever. State and local budgets are being slashed. These are difficult times.

But times of scarcity force us to focus on what it is we value most.

And at the Gates Foundation, what we value is teachers.

I recently read an article about how people are using Facebook to reconnect with former teachers and let them know how much they meant to them. Some teachers have even stumbled upon fan pages dedicated to them.

One message in particular, from a former student to a teacher, struck me--it said: "You inspired each of us to learn and go beyond what we thought we could achieve."

I’m with fellow educators so I know I can say among friends that when we look out at a classroom full of students, we rarely expect to hear how great we’re doing. "Thank you" is not a phrase teachers hear every day.

But that article reminded me of something...that the further we get on in life, the more we appreciate those key people, especially our teachers, who helped us make our way.

And we realize that those incredible educators who pushed us just a little more, who challenged us to go just a bit higher, who inspired us to do more than we thought we could… they got us to where we are today.

I said when I began that student achievement flows from great teaching, and great teaching is advanced by great professional development.

So let me leave you with the challenge that follows from that truth: You all reflect "the wisdom of practice." You know what teachers need, because you know what you need.

So I challenge you to continue to transform professional development in a way that generates great teaching.

NSDC has the network, the expertise, and the knowledge to transform professional development... to make it more than mandatory and perfunctory--but instead meaningful and rigorous. You have the chance to ensure that it is more powerful and more personalized. You can ensure that it helps teachers really improve their practice… so that their students can improve their performance.

You have the power to make a difference for teachers, so that they can step into the classroom prepared to help their students succeed – not just in completing a curriculum – but in writing a better future.

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