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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 03/ 5/2011

Why Bill Gates is wrong on class size

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by educator Anthony Cody, who taught science for 18 years in inner-city Oakland and now works with a team of science teacher-coaches that supports novice teachers. He is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network. This post appeared on his Education Week Teacher blog, Living in Dialogue.

Here is an open letter to Bill Gates written by Cody:

Dear Mr. Gates,

I am writing to you because you have been getting a great deal of attention for your ideas about education, and from my perspective here on the ground in an impoverished urban district, I think you might be making some mistakes.

I read your recent commentary in the Washington Post (How Teacher Development Could Revolutionize Our Schools), and reports from your presentation to governors, where you advised them to raise class sizes in the rooms of the most effective teachers.

In your comments to the governors, you said "there are too many areas where the system fails. The place where you really see the inequity is the inner city. "

You presumably are hoping to redress this inequity when you make this proposal:

"What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise."

I am glad you are aware of the inequities. But your suggestion that caps on class sizes be lifted does not suggest to me that you actually have much understanding of the nature of these inequities. First of all, do you actually believe that in the short time frame in which these governors are trying to balance their budgets, they are going to magically revamp their teacher evaluation systems so as to not only identify the best teachers, but also make sure that ONLY the best teachers have class size increases?

What is actually happening is that, partly buoyed by your suggestion that class sizes should not matter, there are going to be wholesale increases in class size across the board, for every teacher, at every grade level. In Oakland, principals have been told to prepare for cuts ranging from $300 to $900 per student. The only way to achieve such savings will be to lay off teachers and significantly boost class size.

And there is no mechanism that can be put in place to reliably identify the top 25% of our teachers, no money to pay them extra for taking on these students, and if the class size increases were only limited to a fourth of the teachers, the savings this would provide would be inadequate. *(see update below)

In point of fact, the teacher turnover rate is one of the biggest problems we face in Oakland's schools. This instability makes it difficult to build the kind of caring, collaborative, reflective community that allows us to improve as professionals. This turnover is not a function of our teacher evaluation system. While improving our evaluation system is worth doing, it will not fix this problem. Getting rid of ineffective teachers is not the key. The key is keeping the good ones and helping them become better. A good evaluation system is part of this, but it is much more than this. We need to pay attention to the working conditions, and make sure teachers are well-supported.

One of the most important working conditions, especially in high poverty schools, is small class size. As a middle school teacher, my student load was capped at 160 a day. That meant about 32 students in each of my five classes. Just imagine 160 papers to grade every day, and you get a picture. It is not uncommon for teachers to spend half of their weekends grading papers. The quality of the attention we can give our students is diluted every time you add to that number.

And if you are in a high poverty school, the chances are pretty much 100% that in every class you will have students who are currently experiencing traumatic events in their lives. I am talking about domestic and neighborhood violence, homelessness, eviction, parents incarcerated. As this report indicates, as many as a third of students in our tough neighborhoods suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. These problems all seep into the classroom, sometimes overtly, and sometimes through acting out behaviors. And larger class sizes make these behaviors even more difficult to handle.

This is not just my opinion. There is a large body of research that supports a strong link between class size and student achievement. And I would be very surprised if the private schools your children attend have large class sizes. On average, private schools attended by the children of the wealthy have class sizes roughly half those in neighboring public schools.

As class sizes increase across the board, as they are likely to do, we are going to see turnover rates rise among teachers. I serve as a mentor for beginning science teachers, and have built a program to try to support and retain them in Oakland.

Sadly, more than half of my own mentees are leaving this year, after working only two or three years as teachers. If you ask them why, they will tell you, that the stress and challenge of the job is simply overwhelming. All of them are promising, bright young teachers. They all have huge gifts to offer their students. But the challenges they face leave them feeling defeated. Increasing their class size will only make this worse.

You are one of the wealthiest men in our nation. Do you see the challenges our poor communities face due to inadequate resources? Are you aware that the top one percent of our people have more than a third of the net worth of our nation? And they keep getting more and more tax breaks? The best thing you could do for schools would be to launch a campaign aimed at getting wealthy corporations and individuals to pay their fair share of taxes, so that the public schools, which rely on tax dollars, are not primarily funded by the middle class, which is hurting so badly now.

And: I was thinking about the math involved in Mr. Gates' proposal. Let's take a school staffed by 40 teachers. You identify 25% as the "best," and give these ten teachers four students more each. That means you have served an extra 40 students, allowing you to reduce your staff by ONE teacher. That saves you approximately $75,000 a year, in salary and benefits. But according to this proposal we need to pay these teachers more, so if we pay them say $5,000 each, we have an expense of $50,000. So our net savings is $25,000. This is a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the cuts our schools are facing. Please check your math, Mr. Gates.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | March 5, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Anthony Cody, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  anthony cody, bill gates, class size, school reform  
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Comments

Anthony, this is a great explanation of why increased class sizes (even with high-performing teachers) isn't a strategy for inner-city or poor rural schools, although I think it could be a strategy for middle class schools, in certain selected instances. By the same token, though, smaller class sizes are a very indirect way of handling the academic and PTSD issues that many low-income students bring to school, as you point out. At the middle school/high school level, attempts to remediate by shrinking class sizes is not as powerful a solution as better preparation at the K-6 level. And very troubled children (even if the emotional distress is temporary) should be given a therapeutic setting, not an academic one. I know, I know, these options don't exist today. But your experience with promising young teachers who leave because of the stress they experience when trying to teach children who are resistant and/or acting out, is so very common. The world outside the classroom -- especially those who criticize teachers as a profession -- should try to function for one week in that setting.

Posted by: jane100000 | March 5, 2011 8:30 AM | Report abuse

As a new teacher in DCPS, I spend ALL my time after work and at the weekend grading papers, lesson planning, preparing for my classes - looking for resources(due to the lack of a curriculum), making copies (sometimes making my own class textbooks). I'm also taking grad. school classes at night, providing after school tutoring, and all school activities are planned, coordinated, and run by teachers, so there is ZERO free time to do anything more. As the article explains even a few extra students is too much, plus many DCPS high school class sizes are already beyond capacity.

Posted by: mia_101mail | March 5, 2011 8:42 AM | Report abuse

Gee by the Bill Gates method... we could find "THE" BEST TEACHER in the country for each grade. Certainly data can quatify who is THAT BEST TEACHER right? Students would enter their classroom and sit down in their assigned seat (perhaps with an ankle bracelet worn by prisoners under home arrest to monitor their every movement). They would watch the screen, follow the prompts and DAMN... according to him... THEY WOULD LEARN! There would be a windfall of money with all the teachers who no longer were in the system. Pensions could even be reinstated. Now mind you, we would have to have an anonymous panel of teachers "deemed equally as good" who would grade their home work and papers all day from some anonymous cubicle with a PC anywhere in the USA or world for that matter. If it increases profit, why not farm out the grading of homework abroad... Chinese do excellent on standardized tests according to the data and could probably lower the cost for pubic education even further by agreeing to be homework graders. What a WIN WIN situation because Bill Gates and Bill Gates would be getting richer due to all that Microsoft technology needed to implement such a system! Data will tell us everything... we don't need human contact between student and teacher. Gates is holding himself back by suggesting that a teacher take on only 4-5 more students! Oh and we could easily increase the school year as well as the school day number of hours. Doesn't the data tell us that success in school equals hours spent in school? Oh, are we taking students' stamina, interest and motivation into account? Would they buy into this system? Vocally they probably would protest such an increase but the data tells us otherwise. Ughh... is this what education should come to? Should we allow someone like Gates to dictate such nonsense from his arrogrant, self-professed "knowledge" of education platform? Let's get real... this man knows the ins and outs of a rather increasingly ruthless business world and knows not about the realities of education issues! Is Gates one of a few who seems to be part of an increasingly OLIGARCHIC United States of America.

Posted by: teachermd | March 5, 2011 9:41 AM | Report abuse

The dirty little secret that is hardly mentioned by people who suggest solutions like larger classes is the issue of classroom management. I am happy to see it addressed here.

Posted by: mcnyc | March 5, 2011 10:32 AM | Report abuse

It's not just about money, it's about putting more students in the rooms with the best teachers.

I actually think the better approach is to get more aides into the classroom. We have very high unemployment, we have lots of retired people ready to volunteer, we should be able to get people into the classroom at minimum wage to provide support to the teacher.

Posted by: staticvars | March 5, 2011 11:26 AM | Report abuse

We are currently in a "stupid period" in American education where people with little or no experience as educators are suggesting ridiculous "answers" to our problems in education. Only someone who has never taught would suggest large classes with one teacher. I can see large classes with a lead teacher and an assistant, but suggesting large classes as a strategy for improving instruction is just plain crazy.

On CNN today there were three educators: Michelle Rhee, William Bennett and a third person talking about how to improve the teaching force. All three of them are poster children for what is really wrong with American education: affluent people with degrees from top tier schools do not want to become schoolteachers because it is not prestigious in our country and does not pay well. This state of affairs is in sharp contrast to the situation in countries that have enviable systems of education. All of them, without exception, value the job of teacher very highly. Not so in our country and that's the main reason almost every teacher is marked "outstanding" by administrators. It's called supply and demand.

Here is the headline in today's Los Angeles Times: "Hopes surge as job growth rises sharply." It's only a matter of time before districts become desperate for teachers again. With the women going into all fields, teachers will probably be able to make demands that will really help children: fully qualified teachers (no more emergency credentials for teachers of poor kids), professionally autonomous teachers, peer review of teachers, preschool and social supports for our least advantaged children.

There will be no improvement in education without the leadership and cooperation of the classroom teacher. If we wish to improve the quality of our teachers, we have to do the very same things that we do when we want to improve the quality of any other group of workers: we need to make the job more attractive.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | March 5, 2011 11:56 AM | Report abuse

If you look at the top 20 most expensive private high schools, you will find student to teacher ratios around 10:1. I guess class size only matters for the wealthy.

Posted by: stevendphoto | March 5, 2011 12:04 PM | Report abuse

And how do the top teachers feel about having more students address to their classrooms?

Stupid question - of course, they haven't been asked.

Even though they are "tops" at stuffing info into kids' brains, but their professional opinions about teaching are viewed as worthless.

Posted by: efavorite | March 5, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Part of Gates's problem is that he fancies himself a big-picture visionary -- after all, that's what made him the billions in the first place, right? -- who can't be troubled to work out the details. (Since he is accountable to no one, he doesn't get in trouble if his program crashes and burns.) His premise is simple enough: let's put as many students in front of good teachers as possible. To solve this, he proposes an equally simplistic conclusion: let's give good teachers more students and pay them more for their trouble.

Of course, there are dozens of problems with this scheme that Gates doesn't bother to stop and consider, many of which Anthony sagely noted. You've got the question of how to identify these "good" teachers, the diluted access to students that larger class sizes bring, an increased workload that is certainly not going to be commensurate with whatever "raise" the district cooks up (see: KIPP salaries), and the raw fact that a large group of at risk kids in a single room is a horrible idea to anyone who has (like me) actually faced the challenge of teaching said kids. I don't care if you're Jesus himself: there's no way a great teacher can by themselves handle a class of 30 at-risk high-schoolers from broken homes.

More important than anything is Anthony's comment about attrition. Our problem in urban schools is not simply about recruiting, it's *keeping* them, and when you look at attrition studies salary is never the primary reason for leaving -- it's *work environment.* Gates's idea, of course, worsens the work environment for a teacher and gives them extra incentive to take their talents elsewhere.

I nearly pulled my hair out when I found out Gates had gotten an audience to propogate this absurd idea at TED, of all places. :p

Posted by: joshofstl1 | March 5, 2011 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Correction: should be

"And how do the top teachers feel about having more students assigned to their classrooms?

Posted by: efavorite | March 5, 2011 12:20 PM | Report abuse

It is so egregious that our society even CARES about what Bill Gates thinks about education - if it weren't for his money, he would not have even a nanosecond of notice.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 5, 2011 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Bill Gates has been sitting at a computer too long....he needs to rub elbows with real people.

Several years ago I had a conversation with a fellow teacher about class size. It was flu season and she had several students absent. She was an experienced elementary teacher and her observation was that while her curriculum and lesson plans/activites were basically the same as they had been the previous years, on this particular day, she finished 30 minutes early.

As we talked, it was apparant that fewer kids means fewer minutes it takes to line up...for lunch, for p.e. for art, for music, for the bathroom, for the library.

It also takes less time to check homework; there are fewer distractions; less time to collect and hand out papers; to sharpen pencils; and fewer questions requiring a teacher to repeat instructions they have already given. It was a much more efficient use of her time and freed up time for additional instruction.

At the end of the day, that class, with the fewer students, received more intensive instruction and attention from the teacher.

Critics of smaller class sizes can argue all they want...but I challenge them to explain how and to provide the research.

Ever since I became a working mother, I have heard about quality time...not quantity for parental involvement....well, that is also true of teaching.

Posted by: ilcn | March 5, 2011 1:10 PM | Report abuse

I teach in a title I school in Montgomery County. Some years ago the superintendent and the BOE decided it would be a sound investment to significantly lower class sizes in Kdg. - grade 2 as well as increase half day Kdg. to full day in schools such as mine. The thinking was that by giving students more teacher time at this stage, we could hopefully close the gap many of these students have when entering school. The intent was to get more students on grade level before they got even further behind. This measure has allowed schools that typically would be challenged in meeting AYP to do so.

As music teacher, I see all the classes in the school. The difference in the smaller classes was astounding to me. I was able to complete my lessons in a timely way, give each student a chance to demonstrate their skills which I am responsible for assessing and deal with fewer discipline problems. My content area doesn't generally assess students using pencil and paper but rather through performance based tasks which take more time if there are more students. That is time that is lost for meaningful instruction.

Posted by: musiclady | March 5, 2011 2:10 PM | Report abuse

musiclady: As a music teacher how do you feel when you hear suggestions that teacher pay should be tied to standardized test scores?

Posted by: mcnyc | March 5, 2011 2:30 PM | Report abuse

An old dear friend and former teacher lamented the day when honors and AP classes were invented. Suddenly gone from his history classes were the ones who helped develop the discussions. He was left with the kids who quietly listened and stared back. It was transformative to watch him in the old days as a bright student would ask a question, another would take a shot at an answer, the teacher would tease them with another question, and the room would hum with conversation. A shy student without the vocabulary would ask a question and instantly the others would shift respectfully into his conversational mode and bring him along with synonyms and parallels to daily life.

When the "gifted" kids were removed for something better, the hum was lost and a generation of kids lost the experience of talking to their peers about the lessons of history.

Posted by: richardguy1 | March 5, 2011 2:52 PM | Report abuse

staticvars: Just putting warm adult bodies in the room will not do it. Classroom management is one of the least noticed skills a great teacher has. It is not really taught anywhere, yet it is not something easily learned by osmosis either.

Posted by: mcnyc | March 5, 2011 3:15 PM | Report abuse

musiclady: As a music teacher how do you feel when you hear suggestions that teacher pay should be tied to standardized test scores?

Posted by: mcnyc
___________________________
I hate the idea. My state is tossing around the idea of testing every subject. I see so many issues with that. First of all, there is no consistency from district to district as to how much music instruction students receive at the elementary level. For example--the district I teach in provides elementary students with music (and art and p.e.) instruction once weekly for about 45 minutes whereas the next county (where I happen to live) provides music instruction for a total of 90 minutes broken down into 2 or 3 classes a week. That's quite a disparity. How can we compete?

Secondly, a standardized test means a written test. Most elementary music instruction centers around music literacy--the ability to read, write and perform music both vocally and on instruments. Those skills cannot be measured on a written standardized test. Certainly some of the curriculum can be--listening tasks in which students identify certain musical elements and the like--but performance skills cannot. Thus performance skills will not be taught because the focus will be on teaching to the test. Basically the students will learn ABOUT music but they won't be musically literate.

Another thing--I teach in a title I school with a lot of poor students. Very few of my students (if any) enjoy the benefits of private music lessons which are quite common in the middle class schools.

Unlike reading and math, in which there is a little more consistency in terms of what is taught and how much instruction is offered, There is little consistency in the arts instruction even though we have a voluntary curriculum on which any state tests would be based. Unless the state is going to ensure that all arts teachers have equal access to their students and have the necessary tools with which to teach them, standardized test scores in these areas will be a joke--a very costly one which the teachers will pay for in terms of salary and the students will pay for by receiving a substandard education in these content areas.

Posted by: musiclady | March 5, 2011 5:26 PM | Report abuse

A 2007 McKinsey & Co. report showed that Singapore and Korea have larger class sizes but better results. Because they have fewer teachers, each teacher is paid significantly more and they are able to attract top talent. The entire profession becomes more desirable and selective. Every study of the subject shows that the quality of the teacher is more important than class size.

As an aside, the author, Anthony Cody, states that he would have 160 papers to grade every day if his class size was increased. My kids have been in a lot of different schools; none has had a paper to write every day. When teachers sink into hyperbole, their arguments tend to lose all credibility.

Posted by: trace1 | March 5, 2011 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Yes, that's compare ourselves to Singapore and Korea. Because those countries and the USA are so much alike.

Posted by: Schoolgal | March 5, 2011 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Comparing the US to Singapore or Korea or even Switzerland is a useless apples and oranges comparison. Most other countries do not even pretend to prepare all of their students for college. So when we compare notes we are comparing all of our students to a selection of theirs. And this does not even begin to address the cultural differences. Yes, a classroom in Singapore, where caning is considered an acceptable form of state-imposed punishment, probably looks a lot different from a US classroom.

Posted by: mcnyc | March 5, 2011 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Gates, do you believe that you would be equally effective parenting 2 children vs. 15 children???? (BTW: no nannies allowed)

Posted by: traceydouglas | March 5, 2011 6:30 PM | Report abuse

I'm thinking about how my 500+ students compare to Singapore, Korea or Switzerland. About 65% of them are poor and receive subsidized meals. At least a third of them speak English as a second language (if at all). There are over 70 languages spoken among my students. Some of them are homeless. Many of them lack basic necessities and typically cannot provide any school supplies. The list goes on. I can see how my students compare to those other countries.

Posted by: musiclady | March 5, 2011 6:48 PM | Report abuse

I'm thinking about how my 500+ students compare to Singapore, Korea or Switzerland. About 65% of them are poor and receive subsidized meals. At least a third of them speak English as a second language (if at all). There are over 70 languages spoken among my students. Some of them are homeless. Many of them lack basic necessities and typically cannot provide any school supplies. The list goes on. I can see how my students compare to those other countries.

Posted by: musiclady | March 5, 2011 6:49 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, musiclady, I've been wanting to ask that for a long time. I see inherent problems with tying teacher pay to standardized tests for not only the arts but athletics as well. There usually is no specified curriculum and districts and schools vary widely in how much instruction time there is and what kind of equipment there is or isn't. Athletics has a performance component too. Music is one of the most complex brain exercises ever, you have to read and instantaneously interpret a completely abstract language and impart that into a motor action on an instrument. Brains vary a lot on what they take in and how fast. What this reveals to me is that while it is obvious why a standardized test will not work on such a subject, the same kind of test probably measures the more traditional academic subjects only in a very superficial way. What are we trying to do?

Posted by: mcnyc | March 5, 2011 7:41 PM | Report abuse

@mcnyc

"Most other countries do not even pretend to prepare all of their students for college. "

So why do we keep pretending? And in this it's teachers and ed schools that are just as guilty, if not far more so, than politicians and people like Bill Gates Teachers still keep pretending that every kid can master every subject regardless of ability, interest, or preparation, and that the right kind of differentiation and "passion" can teach anyone anything. These same teachers are then horrified that someone wants to hold them responsible for failing to deliver on their fantasies.

There are teachers out there who are like a guy who claims to be able to kick anyone's ass, but then cries foul when beaten to a pulp by a heavyweight claiming the fight wasn't fair because the heavyweight was bigger. Who made the initial claim?

Posted by: physicsteacher | March 5, 2011 8:25 PM | Report abuse

Bill Gates - along with the other Plutocrats that are taking over this country - really don't have a good enough understanding of what is happening to our schools. In fact, they have no answers, that will work.

The problems with our schools are the same problems we have with our national debt. More and more money is being diverted to the MIC to fight these never-ending stupid, pointless, wars; feeding a bloated "Homeland Security" apparatus that isn't giving us much more security than we had before 9-11; and a health care system that is top heavy with bonuses for their CEO's and their near underlings and has a confused and redundant claim system filled with hundreds of forms that only a trained professional can fill out, accurately. The inefficiency of our various federal and publicly/privately owned agencies are bleeding the U.S. dry and causing a slow death to what is left of this democracy. Nothing short of a complete removal of these Plutocrats AND all lobbyists from our political system will save this country.

We can argue about who is right and wrong. That's what the Plutocrats want - to maintain the "status quo". But, we elected President Obama on the promise that EVERYTHING was going to change for the better in order to save us from ourselves.

Well, guess what "big guy". You turned out to be a complete phony; a shill for Wall Street, the banks, and large corporations, and left us with nothing.

Congratulations, big shot. You fooled us once, but, not anymore. The problem is, you were our best hope. Who is going to take your place? Newt "The Philanderer" Gingrich? Mike "The Messiah" Huckabee? Sarah "The Lady From The Car Show" Palin? Or, Mitt, "Magic Underwear" Romney? Oh, I almost forgot "Bozo the Clown". Or, did I just mention him in his various pseudonyms?

Posted by: thinknblink | March 5, 2011 8:39 PM | Report abuse

@physicsteacher: I have not encountered the attitude you speak, indeed in my experience teachers are usually the first to spot learning problems, especially in the early grades. I do not think that teachers or ed schools created the expectation that everyone must be prepared for college. It seems to have come about by some kind of political consensus, perhaps because of the increasingly high-tech economy.

That said, I don't see anything wrong with holding out the goal of preparing everyone for college. But if we are going commit to that we will need to fully fund the effort, train teachers well (better than the ed schools do now) and stop comparing ourselves to countries that don't do it this way.

I also see nothing wrong with questioning the whole narrative of preparing everyone for college. In Switzerland if you don't go to college you go to trade school. Unlike the US, the trades are well-respected, trained and paid well. If we wanted to follow that route we would need to stop denigrating the trades.

Posted by: mcnyc | March 5, 2011 9:06 PM | Report abuse

trace1,

I think you are misinterpreting Anthony Cody's statement that an increase in class size would give a teacher "160 papers to grade every day."

You think that his statement is "hyperbole" because "your kids have been in a lot of different schools; [and] none has had a paper to write every day."

When Cody speaks of "papers" to grade, he is likely referring to activities and exercises. Although some practice activities are checked off just for completion, almost every period of every day is filled with some sort of "activity" or "exercise" that needs to be scored, i.e., read thoroughly, in order to check for student understanding. You are correct that full blown "papers" likely occur a lot less frequently than activities and exercises; however, you would be surprised how much time activities and exercises take to score and how quickly they can pile up.

Posted by: stevendphoto | March 5, 2011 9:12 PM | Report abuse

"do not think that teachers or ed schools created the expectation that everyone must be prepared for college."

During my very first semester taking ed school classes I had a textbook titled something like "delivering content to all" pretending that we could teach anything to anyone if we identified their learning styles and differentiated the right way. This same theme was repeated throughout ed school.

When I got my first teaching job my AP told me that our grandiose goal was was to send every kid to college.

Throughout my entire teaching career every kid was supposed to "master" every subject. The only way every kid can master every subject is if we dumb every subject down to the degree that the village idiot can master it. Even the village idiot understands this; ed school professors and administrators do not.

The only teachers who seem to question this foolishness are the career switchers, but few from this group ever rise to any prominence within the world of education.

Posted by: physicsteacher | March 5, 2011 10:00 PM | Report abuse

@physicsteacher: I don't dispute that the narrative exists and that ed schools and teachers subscribe to it, I question the assertion that it started with the teachers and ed schools. I think they are just scrambling to do what everyone seems to be asking of them.

Not sure who you are referring to when you say "career switchers." I do think there is room to question this narrative.

Posted by: mcnyc | March 5, 2011 10:21 PM | Report abuse

" question the assertion that it started with the teachers and ed schools. I think they are just scrambling to do what everyone seems to be asking of them."

My experience with ed school can best be summed up as "adventures in the land of dumb ideas". I truly believe that people too stupid to get college degrees in anything get phd's in education. So I definitely see ed school as a possible origin of the "send everyone to college" idea. I certainly have never heard any other segment of society promoting it, so I don't see how ed schools are just "scrambling" to do what's been asked. No one's asking.

People are dismayed that hs graduates can't find the Pacific ocean on a map or multiply by ten. This is far from expecting everyone to go to college.

'Not sure who you are referring to when you say "career switchers." I do think there is room to question this narrative.'

Almost all the realistically minded teachers I've come across were people who'd done other things prior to becoming teachers. Teachers who'd never been anything other than teachers often swallowed whatever the ed schools taught, hook, line, and sinker. Like college for all.

Posted by: physicsteacher | March 5, 2011 10:40 PM | Report abuse

His ideas right or wrong, Bill Gates has instigated serious and high quality debate on how the public education system can be improved and cost effective. Already, the debate is of much higher quality than George W. Bush's failed "no child left behind" program. I agree with other comments that a high quality teacher leading a large class supported by a number of part time teacher aides may be the most productive and cost effective system. This would also open up considerable meaningful work opportunities for university students to earn money while attending college, and for semi-retired people with good reading and other specific skills.

Posted by: glenbeets | March 5, 2011 11:05 PM | Report abuse

I agree with mcnyc.

Most of my colleagues don't believe that college for all is a realistic or even desirable goal; however, to admit that is to abandon the party line and be assailed for lowering expectations.
I think that ed schools and teachers are not to blame for the push for college for all. School policies of the last 100 years have been largely influenced by outside players seeking to remake the world as they see fit. Then it was Carnegie and Rockefeller, now it is Gates and Broad. The corporate elite have succeeded in making education all about the Benjamins. Why should you go to college? Because education pays. Just ask the U.S. Bureau of Labor. Learning has been monetized. Don't blame ed schools and teachers for it. They serve those who sustain them.

Posted by: stevendphoto | March 5, 2011 11:22 PM | Report abuse

@physicsteacher: I don't doubt you came across plenty of dumb ideas in ed school. But this college prep for all idea, dumb or not, I believe was instigated by elected officials looking for something to push that might be popular. I don't think ed schools have the political capital to either plant the idea or resist it.

Posted by: mcnyc | March 5, 2011 11:32 PM | Report abuse

Because education has been conflated with economic success, many groups (parents, business leaders, politicians, etc.) are asking ed schools and teachers to send all students to college.

Posted by: stevendphoto | March 5, 2011 11:34 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Stevendphoto. I've recently become more vocal about my view that only people totally out of touch with real live kids could believe that all students can and should be sent to college (and that's before you consider the financial cost).

I believe that opponents of public education are teaming up with the genuinely clueless to push that view as a way to set public schools up for failure.

When I talk about this, actual educators vigorously agree. The principal of my kids' high-performing high school practically cheered when I voiced that opinion.

Yet schools are still cheered as successes or damned as failures based on the percentage of their students that matriculate to college -- and students who don't are also being damned as failures by these cruel and deceitful voices (and the naive souls who are duped by them).

(I have a child in college; for the record, the retail cost of his undergrad liberal arts college education will total about $240K.)

Why can't our students graduate from high school with training as computer technicians or auto mechanics or hairdressers or woodworkers? Wouldn't that offer great benefits to both those students and to our economy? Why should they be unable to get that training and instead be branded failures if they don't want to or can't attend college?

What are we thinking?

Posted by: CarolineSF | March 5, 2011 11:42 PM | Report abuse

physicsteacher,

Individualizing the PACE of instruction for each student is what your ed school should have been teaching you.

Yes, it's clearly not as straightforward as teaching one lesson to the whole class (what over 90% of teachers do) but for students, it's the BEST approach.

No one gets bored because the pace is too slow and no one is overwhelmed because the teacher is going too fast. Each student is allowed to progress at their own pace, a pace just right for them.

Do some kids need more time to master certain lessons/concepts? Can other kids progress through the curriculum faster than average? The obvious answer to bother queries is rhetorical.

So why don't teachers teach to the pace of each student? As stated above, it's a more challenging approach for the teacher and some believe it's simply too difficult to handle. Baloney.

Posted by: paulhoss | March 6, 2011 9:26 AM | Report abuse

If the politicians requested that physicists start turning lead into gold, what should physicists do:

1) Develop "neo-alchemy" as a viable theory only to be eventually held responsible for its failure.

2) State outright that it won't work.

If the politicians request that physicists build perpetual motion machines to magically solve energy problems, what should the physicists do?

1) Pretend that they can build perpetual motion machines?

2) State they can't work?

The fact is that all edu-theories are informed not by reality, but by some political motivation. Look at the results of Project Follow Through BACK IN THE SIXTIES. That provided evidence that all these "child-centered" classrooms failed children from ALL economic classes and backgrounds. What did edu-world do? Ignored it.

The edu-world itself has chosen to play a game that it is now losing.

Posted by: physicsteacher | March 6, 2011 9:56 AM | Report abuse

@stephenphoto

"Most of my colleagues don't believe that college for all is a realistic or even desirable goal; however, to admit that is to abandon the party line and be assailed for lowering expectations."

When Berlin was under siege by Soviet forces most Germans no longer believed that the conquest of Europe was going to be a cakewalk. In 1939 and before, however, they had a different opinion, which is what got them into trouble to begin with.

Posted by: physicsteacher | March 6, 2011 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Apart from the problem of defining and identifying the "best" teachers, Bill Gates's idea sounds like a perfect description of the Peter Principle. In the 1970s, a book by that title (by an author whose name has escaped me), advanced the theory that competent people were rewarded by being promoted to the next level but eventually arrived at a level they were unprepared for and remained at the task at which they were incompetent. This, the author, theorized, is why we ask ourselves, "How did that dope get such a responsible job?"

Many effective teachers seem effective because they do not have too many students or do not have difficult students; increase their class size and they will eventually have too many students to teach and then we will call them ineffective teachers.

And did trace1 read a recent column by Jay Mathews in which he reported that about 40% of the students in Singapore have private tutors? The schools apparently aren't all that good there.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 6, 2011 11:17 AM | Report abuse

This is a truly great article, not if only the people with power would listen.

Posted by: jlp19 | March 6, 2011 3:06 PM | Report abuse

@physicsteacher: We may not have witnessed politicians telling physicists to pretend that lead can be turned to gold but we have seen what happens when politicians dictate what biology is acceptable to teach, substituting "intelligent design" for evolution. The science teachers had no political capital with which to fight back.

Posted by: mcnyc | March 6, 2011 3:19 PM | Report abuse

@mcnyc

Politicians say things that sound plausible to their constituents; it's the road to election and re-election. If politicians get traction from attacking teachers it's because the average Joe sees kids behind cash registers who can't make change. The FACT that the kid can't make change didn't originate with the politician, or Average Joe, but with the idiots in our educational establishment who thought it would be a good idea to give kids in kindergarten calculators so they could learn "technology" and "higher order thinking skills". My parents, both immigrants with little education, and their non-educated friends YEARS AGO understood the dangers of early and intense use of calculators far more than "master educators" who infest our universities.

Politicians don't like evolution in schools because the average joe voter doesn't either. I blame this on organized religion.

I've never met an average Joe who thinks every kid needs to go to college. They may want THEIR kid to go to college, but that's a different thing. Years ago there was vocational training in HS. I don't remember anyone objecting to it.

Posted by: physicsteacher | March 6, 2011 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps the place to experiment with increased class sizes is KIPP. Double the classroom size in each KIPP classroom, then monitor the changes in test scores and teacher retention rates.

If KIPP has truly found the "silver bullet(s)" for improving education, then it is time to test their process to see if it can withstand the "Gates tampering test".

Posted by: teachermom3 | March 6, 2011 4:22 PM | Report abuse

THe problems with kids not being able to make change does not originate with calculators. Partly, it is due to the fact that math lessons teaching in a vacuum. Fourth graders in a school where I substituted were still struggling with place value and zero. This lesson wrote the numbers out horizontally--"115" was "one hundred and ten and five"--with no reference columns or any explanation that 100 replaced 10 tens and no explanation that if they had at least 100 they needed at least three columns with a zero if they had no other tens or ones. They kept leaving out the zero, until I suggested that it "saved the place" for a number to come later the way a coat on an empty chair saved the place for a friend to sit in later. The other reason teenagers can't make change is many of them have never used money. When I worked in retail, many parents would call and ask to know the exact total of what they wanted so they could send their teenaqer in with only enough money to make that purchase, youngsters--even teenagers--would passively ask their parents to buy a candy bar or even negotiate how many times they had to wash the dishes or what other chore they had to do if their parents bought the item, and one cashier admitted her parents charged everything they could just to get their rebate points and she had never bought anything except an occasional candy bar. They don't even use lunch money in the cafeteria; the school give them debit cards that the parents put more money on when the students use the funds up. Newspa-per carriers who still collect from customers turn in the same coins the carriers give them, and those who receive checks from the paper ask the circulation manager to cash the check. When I suggested the bank could convert the coins to bills or cash their checks, one carrier looked blank and said, "I've never been in a bank."

They can't handle money because they are not living in the real world.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 6, 2011 4:27 PM | Report abuse

While calculators may not be the only problem, they are certainly a major one. Kids in countries where calculator usage is delayed consistently do better in math than US kids. Some math professors at Johns Hopkins have been tracking early calculator usage with the corresponding performance in college. The early calculator usage was gathered from surveys. This little experiment has consistently shown that those learn math with early calculator usage do worse in college math.

Kids learn to add fractions on calculators. When they come to algebraic expressions they can't do with variable what they never learned to do with numbers. Like I've said here before, I've had kids who can't multiply by ten without a calculator. Most kids came in to my classes completely unprepared. This is not attributable to POVERTY or NCLB, but stupid education ideas. Incidentally, kids who just got off boats from countries where few can afford calculators were among the best prepared.

Teachers could buy themselves some much needed "political capital" by repudiating the ideas put forth by ed schools. Average Joe will likely be sympathetic. Instead, teachers publicly rail against anything and everything except untenable strategies that have gotten them where they are.

Posted by: physicsteacher | March 6, 2011 4:53 PM | Report abuse

@physicsteacher: You will not get any argument from me on dumb ideas emanating from ed schools or the haphazard ways kids are taught math (or anything else). My argument is that teachers and ed schools do not make policy or dictate curriculum. The fact that Average Joe buys intelligent design instead of evolution simply illustrates my point. Average Joe is aware something is wrong. Average Joe does not really want to figure out how to fix it. Politicians are elected to do that, but they are often elevated Average Joes who don't want to take the time to unravel the complexities of the problem. The teachers and ed schools are basically brow beaten into going along. I would love to see them stand up to it. Unfortunately, if they did, as someone here has already pointed out, they would be systematically marginalized.

Posted by: mcnyc | March 6, 2011 7:02 PM | Report abuse

Having been an engineerd in my other life, I see why so many elected officials jump whenever folks like Gates speak, or throw their money around:
Most politicians don't know very much. I know we all taught many of them, but as my dad said, 'beware of folks with b.s. degrees, and I don't mean bachelor of science.' Too many politicians have these, and far too many of them get to where they are by compromising and cutting deals versus relying on objectivity, facts, and reality. Since Mr. Gates is perceived as knowledgeable and successful because of his Microsoft success, folks like politicians tend to think he would know how to fix other problems, especially when he starts throwing his money around.
Of course Arnie Duncan and his ilk would take more seriously a talk with Gates versus, say, an 18 year, respected and qualified science teacher (ahem), because Gates has millions of dollars to throw around, is a celebrity, and politicians always cow-tow to those folks partly because 1) that's how they survive, and 2) they don't know much themselves.
While I respect Gates' sincerity about helping our young people, he needs to listen more closely to those who are closest to the issues: teachers vs. politicians. I would suspect that's how he ran Microsoft, heeding the suggestions of customers and those creating his products; instead of hobnobbing with think-tankers, politicians and other ivory towered folk he needs to wade around with those deep in the trenches to find out what works.
The electorate must be more discerning about whom we choose to represent our interests and spend our tax dollars. They more than anyone must be convinced of what's best so as to vote for people who will do what's best. As I've said before, as public servants we must win their hearts and minds to win this battle since they are the ones who determine our service for them.

Posted by: pdexiii | March 6, 2011 8:37 PM | Report abuse

@pdexiii: Absolutely spot on. This is the kind of thinking that got a publishing magnate hired as the chancellor of the largest school system in the country without a scrap of training in the field.

Posted by: mcnyc | March 6, 2011 9:32 PM | Report abuse

BILL GATES
& his elite cronies' duplicitous,
grotesquely irresponsible and sleazy HYPOCRISY
is astounding !

Where is the "accountability" for...
> the CIA and other corrupt
govt. & Wall Street-affiliated players
involved with international drug smuggling
for decades (!)
-- deliberately inundating
communities & specific neighborhoods with heroin,
cocaine, meth, pills (MDMA/ecstacy), etc.
It is a documented fact that the CIA
& corrupt elements of the U.S. govt.
& freemasons have been involved in large-scale
heroin distribution operations and also
involved in the deliberately induced
crack cocaine epidemic targeting black neighborhoods
(for the purposes of social undermining & political-economic control).

Where is the "accountability" for...
> The 'entertainment' industry
flooding our youth with heinously toxic,
cognitively poisonous VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES
and GANGSTER-THUG GLORIFYING music/videos
that promote
crime, substance abuse, disgusting conduct,
mistreatment & violence against women,
anti-educational achievement,
anti-positive values, anti-professional careers,
anti-healthy, responsible behaviors !

Where is the "accountability" for
self-proclaimed edu-profiteer BILL GATES & MICROSOFT
in producing & promoting VIOLENT, PATHOLOGICAL VIDEO GAMES, including
first-person shooter games,
such as HALO !!!??? --
which, unfortunately, too many of our country's
children, our country's students heinously waste
too much time messing around with,
messing themselves up with --
instead of healthfully, smartly & beneficially using that time for... productive experiences, studying, exploring/learning, participating in sports, teamwork, creative arts music,
outdoor activities & nature, significant time with friends & family,
engaging in community service !!

(continued.......) ==>

Posted by: honestaction | March 7, 2011 12:59 AM | Report abuse

BILL GATES
& his elite cronies' duplicitous,
grotesquely irresponsible and sleazy HYPOCRISY
is astounding !

Where is the "accountability" for...
> the CIA and other corrupt
govt. & Wall Street-affiliated players
involved with international drug smuggling
for decades (!)
-- deliberately inundating
communities & specific neighborhoods with heroin,
cocaine, meth, pills (MDMA/ecstacy), etc.
It is a documented fact that the CIA
& corrupt elements of the U.S. govt.
& freemasons have been involved in large-scale
heroin distribution operations and also
involved in the deliberately induced
crack cocaine epidemic targeting black neighborhoods
(for the purposes of social undermining & political-economic control).

Where is the "accountability" for...
> The 'entertainment' industry
flooding our youth with heinously toxic,
cognitively poisonous VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES
and GANGSTER-THUG GLORIFYING music/videos
that promote
crime, substance abuse, disgusting conduct,
mistreatment & violence against women,
anti-educational achievement,
anti-positive values, anti-professional careers,
anti-healthy, responsible behaviors !

Where is the "accountability" for
self-proclaimed edu-profiteer BILL GATES & MICROSOFT
in producing & promoting VIOLENT, PATHOLOGICAL VIDEO GAMES, including
first-person shooter games,
such as HALO !!!??? --
which, unfortunately, too many of our country's
children, our country's students heinously waste
too much time messing around with,
messing themselves up with --
instead of healthfully, smartly & beneficially using that time for... productive experiences, studying, exploring/learning, participating in sports, teamwork, creative arts music,
outdoor activities & nature, significant time with friends & family,
engaging in community service !!

(continued.......) ==>

Posted by: honestaction | March 7, 2011 1:00 AM | Report abuse

BILL GATES
& his elite cronies' duplicitous,
grotesquely irresponsible and sleazy HYPOCRISY
is astounding !

Where is the "accountability" for...
> the CIA and other corrupt
govt. & Wall Street-affiliated players
involved with international drug smuggling
for decades (!)
-- deliberately inundating
communities & specific neighborhoods with heroin,
cocaine, meth, pills (MDMA/ecstacy), etc.
It is a documented fact that the CIA
& corrupt elements of the U.S. govt.
& freemasons have been involved in large-scale
heroin distribution operations and also
involved in the deliberately induced
crack cocaine epidemic targeting black neighborhoods
(for the purposes of social undermining & political-economic control).

Where is the "accountability" for...
> The 'entertainment' industry
flooding our youth with heinously toxic,
cognitively poisonous VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES
and GANGSTER-THUG GLORIFYING music/videos
that promote
crime, substance abuse, disgusting conduct,
mistreatment & violence against women,
anti-educational achievement,
anti-positive values, anti-professional careers,
anti-healthy, responsible behaviors !

Where is the "accountability" for
self-proclaimed edu-profiteer BILL GATES & MICROSOFT
in producing & promoting VIOLENT, PATHOLOGICAL VIDEO GAMES, including
first-person shooter games,
such as HALO !!!??? --
which, unfortunately, too many of our country's
children, our country's students heinously waste
too much time messing around with,
messing themselves up with --
instead of healthfully, smartly & beneficially using that time for... productive experiences, studying, exploring/learning, participating in sports, teamwork, creative arts music,
outdoor activities & nature, significant time with friends & family,
engaging in community service !!

(continued.......) ==>

Posted by: honestaction | March 7, 2011 1:01 AM | Report abuse


Where is the accountability for... VIACOM
& other media corporations
(eg. instead of the "BET" channel being utilized for positive, inspirational, educational
or meaningful programming --
it has mostly
broadcast the worst sociopathic, demeaning,
undermining junk -- promoting
gangsterism & exploiting our vulnerable youth
with pernicious mind-killing crap).

FACT! --
Where is the "accountability" for Wall Street
& elite financiers,
such as MERRILL LYNCH and OPPENHEIMER,
previously the MAIN INVESTORS & SHAREHOLDERS
owning majority stock in the company
that produced the 'GRAND THEFT AUTO' video game as its main product !!!

Also, what about the corporate soda-pop
& junk food pushers targeting children ?!

The reality is that ethical,
caring, dedicated
public school teachers have been the
'good samaritans' courageously
teaching with tremendous effort daily
to educate & constructively help children --
to transcend, overcome hardship,
to cultivate wellbeing & achievement --
despite the grotesque obstacles
& destruction foisted on us by
irresponsible, unscrupulous, rapacious
and duplicitous corporate execs.
& financial elites,
(societally-sabotaging/damaging,
corrupt oligarchs, such as Goldman Sachs,
J.P.Morgan/Rothschild scamsters et. al.
who've caused millions of children
& families to be homeless.

==========================

Posted by: honestaction | March 7, 2011 1:07 AM | Report abuse

Maybe the "Kids in countries where calculator usage is delayed consistently do better in math than US kids" because they have more real-world experience with math. They hear their parents worry about money and see them pay the rent. Or they earn money. Or they go shopping with their parents (where the parents count out the money they owe the clerk and receive change). Or they work in their fathers' construction industry or whatever. Or, if they come from a society with automobiles, they hear their parents discuss the price of gas and the gas mileage. Or maybe the delay in calculators goes hand-in-hand with a lack of standardized tests, so the schools can build a math curriculum around real-life situations instead of worrying that they won't know to eliminate the impossible choice instantly and then try to find the most reasonable one.

American kids are raised in vacuums. I've even known teenagers who didn't know their phone numbers, their friends' phone numbers or addresses ("He lives in the last house on the street."), the names of the other streets in their neighborhood, where they went on vacation, how much a candy bar costs, that you have to pay tax on some purchases and not on others, why their employer needs their Social Security Number, that they even have a Social Security Number, or that they have to pay income taxes on their first jobs. The problem is not specifically with the schools--they are just treating students the way the parents want youngsters treated and in many cases the way the teachers themselves grew up.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 7, 2011 10:18 AM | Report abuse

A child may have the best teacher in the world, in a class with less then ten students, but he will not benefit from the group instruction if he has not met the prerequisites to be in the class.

Sometime the child has surpassed the goal of the class, but the seat time requirements force him to stay for the year. (Read A Nation Denied lately?)

Our schools continually shove significant numbers of students into these two scenarios. Sort by instructional need -- and the Wash. Post has reported on schools with diverse populations that do this -- and the results will show in direct proportion to the effort put in.

Lastly, if you have a class size of two with the best teacher in the world, it won't matter if either is not receptive to instruction. Nothing will be accomplished but spending a lot of money on teacher salaries. We know this already from the vast number of 1:1 aides hired across the nation to help in the included classrooms.

Posted by: LGMNY | March 7, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse

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