In most American schools, teachers are evaluated by principals or other administrators who drop in for occasional classroom visits and fill out forms to rate their performance. The result? More than 9 out of 10 teachers get top marks, according to a prominent study last year by the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group focusing on improving teacher quality. Now Bill Gates, who in recent years has turned his attention and considerable fortune to improving American education, is investing $335 million through his foundation to overhaul the personnel departments of several big school systems, reports the New York Times. A big chunk of that money is financing research by dozens of social scientists and thousands of teachers to develop a better system for evaluating classroom instruction. The effort will have enormous consequences for the movement to hold schools and educators more accountable for student achievement.

Twenty states are overhauling their teacher-evaluation systems, partly to fulfill plans set in motion by a $4 billion federal grant competition, and they are eagerly awaiting the research results. For teachers, the findings could mean more scrutiny. But they may also provide more specific guidance about what is expected of the teachers in the classroom if new experiments with other measures are adopted–including tests that gauge teachers’ mastery of their subjects, surveys that ask students about the learning environments in their classes and digital videos of teachers’ lessons, scored by experts.

“It’s huge,” said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. “They’re trying to do something nobody’s done before, and do it very quickly.”

The Gates research is by no means the first effort of its kind. Economists have already developed a statistical method called value-added modeling that calculates how much teachers help their students learn, based on changes in test scores from year to year. The method allows districts to rank teachers from best to worst…

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staff and wire services reports