“None of us who work outside the classroom can do anything for students unless we do it with teachers,” said Gates. (3777190317 / Shutterstock.com)

At the Education Commission of the States conference in Atlanta July 11, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told policy makers that rushing a new teacher evaluation system into place could be a “disaster” if it’s not well thought out. He also shared the lessons his foundation has learned in studying effective teacher evaluation in districts nationwide.

Here’s an excerpt of his speech…

If we wanted to give the United States the best chance for a great future, and we were allowed to pick one thing to promote that — I would pick great teaching in America’s classrooms. In my view, nothing is more important. That is why helping all teachers get better is the primary focus of our foundation’s work in the United States.

Right now, we are funding pilot programs in five urban school districts, working with them to develop teacher evaluation and improvement systems. This is the heart of our work.

Developing a great teacher improvement system is truly difficult, because there are no models. The country’s teachers have been working in systems where almost everyone gets a good evaluation — and almost no one gets any feedback. That’s the key point. Our teachers get no feedback — no guidance on how to get better.

So the goal of our pilot sites is to answer pivotal questions on teaching: What are the great teachers doing? What are the average teachers not doing? And how do you help that average teacher do what the great teacher does? That’s what this is all about.

Now, let me just say that at this time, we don’t have a point of view on the right approach to teacher compensation. We’re leaving that for later. In my view, if you pay more for better performance before you have a proven system to measure and improve performance, that pay system won’t be fair — and it will trigger a lot of mistrust. So before we get into that, we want to make sure teachers get the feedback they need to keep getting better.

Fortunately, 24 states are now working to put in place new approaches to teacher evaluation and development. Just a short time ago, no states had comprehensive evaluation and feedback systems. So this is a great development.

But we need to remember: A new teacher evaluation system is not automatically a good thing. If states and school districts feel pressured to rush out new systems, those systems could evaluate teachers unfairly and fail to help teachers improve. That would be a disaster. A flawed execution of a good idea could convince people it is a bad idea — and that could kill this push for reform.

That’s why today I would like to describe the features of a strong teacher evaluation and development system — and warn against the shortcuts that could lead to failure.