Bill Gates: we can make progress with goals, data, and a feedback loop

Bill Gates argues in the Wall Street Journal that significant progress can be made around the world if organizations and residents participate in a particular process:

In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal—in a feedback loop similar to the one Mr. Rosen describes.

This may seem basic, but it is amazing how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right. Historically, foreign aid has been measured in terms of the total amount of money invested—and during the Cold War, by whether a country stayed on our side—but not by how well it performed in actually helping people. Closer to home, despite innovation in measuring teacher performance world-wide, more than 90% of educators in the U.S. still get zero feedback on how to improve.

An innovation—whether it’s a new vaccine or an improved seed—can’t have an impact unless it reaches the people who will benefit from it. We need innovations in measurement to find new, effective ways to deliver those tools and services to the clinics, family farms and classrooms that need them.

I’ve found many examples of how measurement is making a difference over the past year—from a school in Colorado to a health post in rural Ethiopia. Our foundation is supporting these efforts. But we and others need to do more. As budgets tighten for governments and foundations world-wide, we all need to take the lesson of the steam engine to heart and adapt it to solving the world’s biggest problems.

Gates doesn’t use this term but this sounds like a practical application of the scientific method. Instead of responding to a social problem by going out and trying to “do something,” the process should be more rigorous, involve setting goals, collecting good data, interpreting the data, and then adjusting the process from the beginning. This is related to other points about this process:

1. It is one thing to be able to collect data (and this is often its own complicated process) but it is another to know what to do with it once you have it. Compared to the past, data is relatively easy to obtain today but using it well is another matter.

2. Another broad issue in this kind of feedback loop is developing the measurements and what counts as “success.” Some of this is fairly easy; when Gates praises the UN Millennium Goals, reducing occurrences of disease or boosting incomes has face validity for getting at what matters. But, measuring teacher’s performances or what makes a quality college are a little trickier to define in the first place. Gates calls this developing goals but this could be a lengthy process in itself.

It is interesting that Gates mentions the need for such loops in colleges so that students “could know where they would get the most for their tuition money.” The Gates Foundation has put money into studying public schools and just a few weeks ago released some of their findings:

After a three-year, $45 million research project, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation believes it has some answers.

The most reliable way to evaluate teachers is to use a three-pronged approach built on student test scores, classroom observations by multiple reviewers and teacher evaluations from students themselves, the foundation found…

The findings released Tuesday involved an analysis of about 3,000 teachers and their students in Charlotte; Dallas; Denver; Memphis; New York; Pittsburgh; and Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes Tampa. Researchers were drawn from the Educational Testing Service and several universities, including Harvard, Stanford and the University of Virginia…

Researchers videotaped 3,000 participating teachers and experts analyzed their classroom performance. They also ranked the teachers using a statistical model known as value-added modeling, which calculates how much an educator has helped students learn based on their academic performance over time. And finally, the researchers surveyed the students, who turned out to be reliable judges of their teacher’s abilities, Kane said.

All this takes quite a few resources and time. For those interested in quick action, this is not the process to follow. Hopefully, however, the resources and time pay off with better solutions.