Bill Gates (briefly) talks school reform with The Post
This item is from national education writer Nick Anderson.
Bill Gates dropped by The Post on Wednesday morning, mainly to plug his foundation's campaign to eradicate polio, but we managed to squeeze in a few questions on education reform. The bottom line remains, unsurprisingly, unchanged: He's a fan of measuring teacher effectiveness and a foe of teacher tenure.
Gates met with several writers and editors in The Post's ninth-floor boardroom. On education, he was responding to questions from editorial writer Jo-Ann Armao, myself and editorial page editor Fred Hiatt.
(By the way, Melinda F. Gates, wife of the Microsoft founder, is no longer on The Post Co. board of directors. Warren E. Buffett, a major donor to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, serves on The Post board but plans to step down in spring.)
Replaying the conversation on my digital recorder, I was struck by his tendency to wade into the weeds of policy--for example, discoursing on characteristics of "the top quartile" and "the bottom quartile" of teachers. Gates has gone to some lengths to cultivate working relationships with teachers unions. Still, many of his views on the subject are disputed by critics who say that he doesn't know what he's talking about and that he puts too much faith in the power of data derived from standardized tests. Here are some of the takeaways.
On teaching, baseball and statistics: "There's almost no profession that you could say that the 2011 practitioner may not be any better than the 1920 practitioner, and teaching I think is the only profession you can say that about. ...
"If you look at any objective data, [baseball] pitchers are just in another league than they were in 1920, and the batters are a lot better. … Baseball players are way, way, way better. But the teachers are just sort of -- if they’re good, they’re good. If they’re not, they’re not."
On labor-management conflicts over school reform: "You have transitional problems whenever you switch from something. You have fear-of-the-unknown problems. And, to the degree that the personnel system is based just on test scores, you know, there’s a worry." Some teachers, he said, wonder whether scores will "identify the right people and encourage the right behavior."
On the virtue of using a broad set of metrics, including student feedback and video recording of classrooms, to gauge performance: "There are measurement systems that are even better than just using the test, and they need to be proven out."
On critics of such metrics: "If you like the current seniority system, you can attack the imperfections of any of these measures. And so trying to change something is very hard."
On the power of word of mouth among teachers: "What you want to do is have a few places where you make the change. And have the teachers in those places say, 'Wow.' ... You create a positive cycle."
On efforts to revise the 2002 No Child Left Behind law: "No Child Left Behind basically forced people to look at the numbers and see how bad the U.S. education system was. That was a good thing. ... And I bet they’ll change some of the adjectives. You know, the word 'failing' is no longer as popular as it used to be. ... But as long as they keep measuring and actually look at the inner-city versus suburban district differentials, the racial differentials -- as long as they keep measuring, then you’ve got this hot potato: 'Oh no -- whose fault is this?' And that’s good. It’s causing at least some energy to be put in the system to try to improve it."
On whether education schools at colleges and universities are open to his brand of reform: "Sen. [Lamar] Alexander [R-Tenn.] and I were talking about that this morning. Maybe we haven’t reached out to them in the right way and we need to do better. But ... there’s surprisingly little engagement."
On national academic standards in English and math adopted last year by most states: "That has been a very exciting thing. We’ll go from being the country with the most messed-up core curriculum standards to actually having the best."
On tenure, Gates said he understood why it was needed for college professors. But he said he was perplexed by tenure laws and rules that provide school teachers with significant due-process protections in personnel cases after they pass a probationary period.
"The idea that this one shouldn’t be about what goes on with the kids always seemed a little unusual," he said. "You know, maybe we should try tenure in other professions. Just, you know, mix it up a little bit. Pay newspaper editors by seniority. Have tenure for them and see how that works. Try it for hot-dog making or restaurants."
Washington Post editors
| February 2, 2011; 4:14 PM ET
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