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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 03/11/2011

How Bill Gates misinterprets ed facts

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit created in 1986 to broaden the discussion about economic policy to include the interests of low- and middle-income workers. This appeared on the institute's website.

By Richard Rothstein
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates authored an op-ed published in The Washington Post late last month, “How Teacher Development could Revolutionize our Schools,” proposing that American public schools should do a better job of evaluating the effectiveness of teachers, a goal with which none can disagree. But his specific prescriptions, and the urgency he attaches to them, are based on the misrepresentation of one fact, the misinterpretation of another and the demagogic presentation of a third. It is remarkable that someone associated with technology and progress should have such a careless disregard for accuracy when it comes to the education policy in which he is now so deeply involved.

Gates’ most important factual claim is that “over the past four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled, while our student achievement has remained virtually flat.” And, he adds, “spending has climbed, but our percentage of college graduates has dropped compared with other countries.” Let’s examine these factual claims:

Bill Gates says: "Our student achievement has remained virtually flat."

The only longitudinal measure of student achievement that is available to Bill Gates or anyone else is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP provides trends for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and poverty, since about 1980 in basic skills in math and reading (called the “Long Term Trend NAEP”) and since about 1990 for 4th and 8th graders in slightly more sophisticated math and reading skills (called the “Main NAEP”).[*]

On these exams, American students have improved substantially, in some cases phenomenally. In general, the improvements have been greatest for African-American students, and among these, for the most disadvantaged. The improvements have been greatest for both black and white 4th and 8th graders in math. Improvements have been less great but still substantial for black 4th and 8th graders in reading and for black 12th graders in both math and reading. Improvements have been modest for whites in 12th grade math and at all three grade levels in reading.

The following table summarizes these results, for the earliest and most recent years for which disaggregated data were collected.


We can see that in 4th grade math, black students now have higher average achievement than white students had when the assessments began. Average black students’ gains have been a full standard deviation, a rate of progress that would be considered extraordinary in any area of social policy. The black-white score gap has narrowed some, but not very much, because white students have also shown improvement.

Bill Gates may think that these improvements are insufficient, and perhaps he is correct. But, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan reportedly quipped, “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.” No rational reading of these NAEP data can support Bill Gates’ claim that “student achievement has remained virtually flat” over the last four decades.[†] And, to repeat, no other longitudinal data are available that describe student achievement over time.

These facts also don’t support the story that the typical teacher of disadvantaged children is ineffective. Certainly, some teachers are ineffective, and schools should do a better job of removing them. But that should not, if facts are to be believed, be the main story.

Yet it seems to be. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently asserted that “many, if not most, teacher-training programs are mediocre.” This may be true, but how does he know? What is his evidence? It wouldn’t seem that mediocre teacher training programs could consistently be turning out teachers who have posted the kinds of gains we’ve seen on NAEP in the last generation and more.

It is important to investigate why, in the most recent period, typical teachers have been more effective with elementary school children than with high-schoolers, but curiously, the reforms Bill Gates and like-thinking policymakers are pursuing concern elementary school teachers almost exclusively – because the student value-added scores on NCLB-required standardized tests by which they propose to evaluate these teachers are available only for elementary, not secondary school students. It is also important to investigate why teachers have apparently been more effective during most (though not all) of the last few decades in teaching math than reading, but it is difficult to motivate anyone to investigate this if our vision is clouded by the myth that all student achievement has been flat.

Bill Gates says: "The per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled."

Here, Bill Gates is nominally correct, but misleading. When properly adjusted for inflation, K-12 per pupil spending has about doubled over the last four decades, but less than half of this new money has gone to regular education (including compensatory education for disadvantaged children, programs for English-language learners, integration programs like magnet schools, and special schools for dropout recovery and prevention). The biggest single recipient of new money has been special education for children with disabilities. Four decades ago, special education consumed less than 4% of all K-12 spending. It now consumes 21%.[‡]

Detailed tables
documenting these trends are available here.

American public education can boast of remarkable accomplishments in special education over this period. Many young people can now function in society whereas, in the past, children with similar disabilities were institutionalized and discarded. But it is not reasonable to complain about the increase in spending on such children by insisting that it should have produced greater improvement in the achievement of regular children.

The increase in regular education spending has still been substantial, even if not nearly as great as Bill Gates implies. Should this spending increase have produced even greater improvement in achievement than has in fact occurred? This is a more difficult judgment to make. But in light of the actual achievement improvements documented by NAEP, it is not reasonable to jump to the facile conclusion of a productivity collapse in K-12 education. A more reasonable story is that spending has increased and achievement has increased as well. Perhaps we have gotten what we paid for.

Bill Gates says: "Spending has climbed, but our percentage of college graduates has dropped compared with other countries."

This is the Bill Gates claim that can properly be called demagogic. It attempts to agitate readers by presenting a positive development in a negative light. A climb in spending should produce an increase in the percentage of college graduates. And it has. In the last four decades, the percentage of college graduates in the United States has nearly doubled. In 1970, 16% of young adults (ages 25 to 29) were college graduates. Today, it is 31%. The improvement has been across the board: the share of African-American young adults who are college graduates has gone from 10% to 19%; for whites it has gone from 17% to 37%. Somehow, Bill Gates saw fit to present this as an indictment.

Should our college graduation rate be rising faster? Of course, that would be a good thing. Should the spending increases we have experienced have generated a faster increase in college graduation than, in fact, they have? That would be worth exploring, but Bill Gates’ phrasing suggests to the less-than-careful reader that spending increases haven’t been productive at all, because our college graduation rate has “dropped…” Would a faster increase require even greater increases in spending? That is also likely, but it is not a conclusion that Bill Gates intends to suggest.

It is commonplace to imply, as Bill Gates does in his Washington Post op-ed, that our failure to increase our college graduation rate “compared with other countries” will prevent us from “build[ing] a dynamic 21st-century economy.” Certainly, we need a sufficient number of well-trained college graduates for such an economy, but there is no reason to believe that a graduate rate in excess of 30% is too small for this purpose, or that economic dynamism can, after reaching sufficiency, increase linearly with increases in the share of young people who graduate from college. The threats to a dynamic 21st century economy are likely to come from a failure of macroeconomic policy, regulation of speculation, and investment in education, not from inefficiency in the investment we already make.

We only need to examine the list of international college graduation rates to see the absurdity of efforts to make a direct link between college graduation rates and economic success. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) publishes comparative data.

One country that outranks the United States in college graduation rates is Ireland, whose economy has now collapsed because its regulation of the real estate bubble was even more careless and corrupt than ours. Another is Portugal, whose economic health is also worse than that of the United States.

Of course there are also nations on the list that are not on the verge of bankruptcy, but the chief lesson of the list is this: provided a nation has a sufficient number of college graduates for a dynamic economy, rankings above that point are irrelevant. Of course we should increase our college graduation rate, and there are many civic and cultural reasons to do so, even if we may already produce (as some analyses suggest) an apparent surplus, for economic purposes, of science, technology, engineering, and math graduates.

Education is complex, and the relationship between education and the economy even more so. Our ability to grapple with the challenges these present is not enhanced by factually inaccurate and hyperventilated appeals from those who should know better.

[*] In theory, the Long Term Trend (LTT) is distinguished from the Main Assessment because the LTT assesses the same skills, whereas the Main Assessment changes over time, as the curriculum changes. But in fact, the LTT also changes somewhat over time, and the Main Assessment is sufficiently stable to make longitudinal comparisons.

[†] If the data are further disaggregated by decade, there have been some interim periods of flatness within the overall growth. For example, gains were strongest for black elementary students in the LTT in the 1980s and 2000s, and flat in the 1990s, but on the Main Assessment they showed strong gains in the 1990s as well. Twelfth grade LTT reading scores have been mostly flat since 1990, after a dramatic leap of 24 scale points for blacks in the 1980s. Fourth grade LTT reading scores fell for blacks in the 1980s, but rebounded in the 1990s and jumped even more strongly in the 2000s. The tables showing these disaggregated data are posted here.

[‡] Detailed tables documenting these trends are available here.


By Valerie Strauss  | March 11, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  bill gates, naep, richard rothstein, student achievement, student progress, teacher development, teacher evaluation, the washington post, washington post op-ed  
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We all scratch our heads and wonder why. The fact that Bill Gates has so much money is most of the explanation. We equate rich people with intelligence. I think we are finding that having a monopoly in technology and getting grossly wealthy because of it does not make one a social policy expert. In fact, it's made a somewhat bright person rather dull.

Mr. Gates, go buy a museum or library, even a university, put your name on it and consider that your "contribution" to education and improving society. Just leave the teachers and education "reform" alone.

Posted by: zebra22 | March 11, 2011 6:48 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for educating me - how can we get this information distributed more widely?

Posted by: livinginnova | March 11, 2011 6:59 AM | Report abuse

I wonder if any of this great stuff will be copied and pasted by frankb1?

Posted by: MisterRog | March 11, 2011 7:20 AM | Report abuse

"Education is complex, and the relationship between education and the economy even more so. Our ability to grapple with the challenges these present is not enhanced by factually inaccurate and hyperventilated appeals from those who should know better."


Posted by: jdman2 | March 11, 2011 7:58 AM | Report abuse

@ MisterRog

No, Frankb1 wants no part of Rothstein's commentary and analysis because it refutes his narrow view of what education "reform" is.
Maybe he'll cite that blow-hard Chris Christie again.

Rothstein has done quite a nice job dismantling the phony arguments of Bill Gates and those who echo Gate's watery claims about American public schools.

But, for many of the so-called "reformers" it isn't really about "the kids."

Is it Frank?

Posted by: DrDemocracy | March 11, 2011 8:23 AM | Report abuse

Rothstein lies through selective data selection. His table does not match up at all with the stats that anyone can see online. He hides statistics that don't match up with his conclusions.

"The following table summarizes these results, for the earliest and most recent years for which disaggregated data were collected."
The data for 40 years ago (1971) ARE available. The only difference is Hispanic is "mixed-in" with both white and black. Rothstein chose 1978 because scores were quite low that year.

Please add the following facts to the article and send Rothstein back to school until he understands "confirmation bias".
1971 score for 17 year olds in reading: 285
2008 score for 17 year olds in reading: 286
1973 score for 17 years olds in math: 304
2008 score for 17 year olds in math: 306

The "output" of the system is basically flat. Gates is right. Rothstein is wrong.

Posted by: staticvars | March 11, 2011 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Rothstein treats Gates as naive or ill-informed, but the information Rothstein presents here is not new and has been disseminated before.

When are people going to accept that Gates is part of a larger effort of disinformation designed to intentionally cripple public education. This model of disinformation has already been carefully explained as a common corporate tactic developed by the Tobacco Institute originally to discredit facts about smoking but now part of the Powell Memorandum practices.

Gates isn't stupid or misinformed, he is part of an organized disinformation effort, which should have been obvious with "Waiting for Superman." Wake up.

Posted by: zoniedude | March 11, 2011 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Bill Gates has never had anything but a hostile relationship with facts. That was obvious from the video of him perjuring himself during his antitrust deposition, which, of course, the Bush Administration let him off the hook for. His lies about education are no worse than his use of his wealth and the government to thwart the distrbution of better software and operating systems to consumers.

If you want an office system that is more advanced that MS Office, universally compatible, uses less memory and is FREE, go to You'll never have to pay Microsoft again.

Posted by: mcstowy | March 11, 2011 11:12 AM | Report abuse


I noticed that you ignored most of the other scores and years. It seems that you suffer from a more serious bout of confirmation bias-itis. The scores are neither flat nor indicators of growth. If anything, it shows that "the tide rises and the tide falls" and so on over the years. I think you, too, could use some schooling because of your intense focus on only 17 year-olds. Tsk, tsk.

Posted by: DHume1 | March 11, 2011 11:40 AM | Report abuse

I don't know why Rothstein restricts himself to black kids and white kids. The scores of Hispanic kids are way up too, and they now represent a bigger share of the student population than black kids do.

Very odd.

RE staticvars' (accurate) data:

White kids still score substantially better than black and Hispanic kids (though the gaps have closed). As time has gone by, the percentage of white kids in the student population has dropped substantially. (At the fourth grade level, it was 72 percent in 1992, 54 percent in 2009.)

The scores of all three groups have improved, but the percentage of white kids has declined. For that reason, the overall scores haven't changed all that much, even as the scores of all three groups have improved.

Scores by black kids and Hispanic kids are much improved. It's the most unreported and misreported major story I know of. The silence (and the lying) are truly remarkable. As Michael Moore said in 2003, we live in a fictional world.

Posted by: bobsomerby | March 11, 2011 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for a lucid analysis of oft-repeated education myths.

See here for a critique of Mr. Gates more personal hypocrisy on class size-

Posted by: speakuplouder | March 11, 2011 2:57 PM | Report abuse

@DHume1 are really missing the point. I was adding the stats that Rothstein left out- there's a reason he didn't the add in 17 year olds, because they (partially) disprove his point.

Of course, this gives him no excuse to outright lie and say that data from 40 years ago, the data to which Gates specifically referred, is not available, and then call Gates a liar. The man who left out the stats for 17 year olds because they didn't tell the right story is the liar- and I still can't find the exact page where he got his other numbers, but they are off from the official LTT results.

Rothstein trying to take a racial angle on this is completely mysterious, as obviously this country has taken massive steps to remove racism over the past 40 years, which are going to muddy the stats, not provide indication. (unless you take "the bell curve" genetic approach to this stuff, which I do not recommend).

I didn't get into his other points- but the college graduation rate here is abysmal and it costs way too much. The amount of college debt now exceeds the amount of credit card debt. Only 53% of students get a degree within six years. Attempts to make the curriculum more relevant to the modern economy are denounced as insults to the academy and learning for intrinsic reasons.

There is actually a good paper out that makes a related point to where Rothstein is aiming more profoundly, without the explicit racial angle (tying the performance of three year olds to the level of their mothers' educational attainment).

A lot of these problems are happening before the kids get to school, and it's very true that it is a ridiculous idea to try to pin this on teacher quality when it is largely an issue of parent quality.

Obviously, the real problem is how to make schools more effective for the wide variety of students, and this means trying to move each student as fast as they can- not being satisfied with the current results. I realize that there are many vested interests that read this that want 99% satisfaction ratings for administrators, teachers, educational consultants, test writers, parents, poor students or whomever they represent, but all of us need to do better. It's not wrong to ask everyone in the system to try to figure out how they are doing and then try to do better.

Posted by: staticvars | March 11, 2011 5:54 PM | Report abuse


Fair enough with your last post and I agree that he is mostly right, but your last line, 'the "output" of the system is basically flat. Gates is right. Rothstein is wrong,"' misrepresents the data and the argument as well. I addressed this quite explicitly in my last post. You are just as guilty of confirmation bias as he is. He ignored the 1971 data for 17 year-olds and you ignored the rest. I call that a hippo of a hypocrite error on your part.

If you left out the last three sentences, then it would be a different story of a spreadsheet and a horse of a different color. However, the three sentences stand as a monument to your hypocritical nature.

Posted by: DHume1 | March 11, 2011 6:19 PM | Report abuse


& 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
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
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 !!

see next post

Posted by: honestaction | March 11, 2011 10:50 PM | 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,
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 ('business model'),
J.P.Morgan/Rothschild scamsters et. al. --
who've caused millions of children & families to be homeless.


Posted by: honestaction | March 11, 2011 10:52 PM | Report abuse

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