Saving Education, the Bill Gates Way

Bill Gates clearly has a bee in his bonnet about education. A few weeks ago he was at the TED conference to give a speech on two topics: preventing malaria and reforming education in America. About malaria I have no comment, except to praise it for inspiring such luminous headlines as Rocket Scientists Shoot Down Mosquitoes With Lasers. Last weekend he was on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS program to talk about education again.

Back to education. The Gates Foundation lists four goals for education: making high school graduates ready for success, preparing them for postsecondary degrees, funding college scholarships, and establishing early learning programs. All of these are laudable goals.

The problem is that Bill Gates never actually talks about them in his public speeches.

At TED he spent most of his talk asking “How to make a teacher great?” On the face of it this is a good question but I think it ignores as much as it reveals. According to Gates getting the top quartile of teachers to teach all children would put America at the top of the education world.

Diane Ravitch has written a couple of good debunking blog posts about the quest for the mythical great teacher

The quest for the mythical great teacher—the one we must stalk like some rare beast of unsurpassed beauty—is tinged with contempt for the large majority of teachers who did not go to Princeton or Swarthmore or Harvard. I habitually read news articles online about what is happening across the nation in education, and I frequently read the comments. Whenever there is an article about teachers, it is often followed by a series of comments that express rage toward teachers. “She got what she deserved.” “These lazy teachers, they teach only 10 months a year, and they have the nerve to complain.” “No wonder our kids are failing when we have teachers like that!” “Why should they get a raise, they have an easy job.” On and on the complaints go. I have tried to figure out where all this anger toward teachers comes from. I just don’t get it.

One other thing: You mention the hype and spin that we often see in the media. It seems that many journalists won’t write about education unless they can find a miracle to write about. So they find a teacher or a school where kids who were completely indifferent to learning were suddenly transformed by the inspiration of one teacher or one school. A classroom full of sullen thugs turns into mathematical geniuses or poets. When people see this narrative again and again, they must wonder why every teacher is not performing similar miracles. After all, they went to the movies and they saw an existence proof. And, as many of our illustrious peers often say, “If it can happen in one school, it can happen in all schools.”

In another post she responds to a column by Nicholas Kristof extolling the four-year miracle top quartile teachers would unleash if we just got out of the way.

Kristof approvingly cites the economists who say that four consecutive years of a great teacher would close the achievement gap. Unfortunately he does not seem to realize that the economists were writing theoretically (and the relevant studies actually say that five consecutive years of a great teacher would have this result). This happy outcome has NEVER been demonstrated in any school or school district. It is a projection of an econometric speculation.

At the end of the TED speech Gates walks off stage to a standing ovation from the adoring crowd. I find this disturbing for a number of reasons. For one the standing ovation falls into the same people-focused hunger for leadership that seems foolish to me. A single person, even one as rich as Bill Gates, isn’t going to save us from our troubles. There is also a vein of irony in the fact that a person who dropped out of college is telling everyone how important college is for the future. I don’t want to argue by anecdote but it does make me smile a bit at the oddities the world throws up.