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Parents: The Difference between Microsoft and Schools

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I wonder whether Bill Gates, in his recent op-ed arguing against making public the results of teachers’ individual performance assessments (as New York City has begun to do), leaves out an important point.

Gates believes that making individual teacher scores public amounts to shaming those with low scores, and to no good end. He compares doing so with practice at Microsoft, where employee evaluations are only shared with managers, to “help employees reflect on their performance, get honest feedback and create a plan for improvement.”Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America, similarly argued in her March 7 article that teacher evaluations should only be viewed and used by administrators.

But isn’t Microsoft different in important ways from public school systems? Microsoft’s customers can choose to buy Microsoft products or to buy from some other company. They can judge the products on their own merits (which are widely publicized), so don’t need information about the staff that produce them. By contrast, most parents who send their children to public schools (and particularly poor parents) cannot choose to go elsewhere. They must take the teachers their neighborhood school offers, and they have little information on their merits. Once they realize the impact a particular teacher has on their children, serious harm may have been done.

It’s hard to argue that public schools are like Microsoft. What Gates leaves out are parents, whose interests are directly tied to teacher quality. Rich families address the teacher quality problem by sending their children to expensive private schools, or to public schools in upscale neighborhoods, where teachers are likely to be recruited more carefully and supervised more effectively. Poor parents have only teacher assessments to go on. So while Gates might be right about not making individual teacher assessments available to the general public (although I’m unconvinced), he fails to recognize that parents have a right to know how good their children’s teachers are.

Read a response to Gates’ op-ed by Eric Hanushek of Stanford University here.

Images are from here and here.

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