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Posted at 4:14 PM ET, 02/ 2/2011

Bill Gates (briefly) talks school reform with The Post

By Washington Post editors

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."

By Washington Post editors  | February 2, 2011; 4:14 PM ET
 
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Comments

Wow - seriously out of touch. He talks about my profession and I don't even know where he's coming from. Comparing teachers across 100 years... based on... what? His comparison of university tenure and K-12 "tenure" is either deliberate obfuscation or ignorance, and his inability or unwillingness to discuss why K-12 teachers have due-process job protections makes him look like an amateur rhetorical hack rather than a serious student of the game. If he didn't have so much money, who would pay any attention to his views on education?

Posted by: DavidBCohen | February 2, 2011 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Irksome to hear Gates spew forth verbaige on education matters. Agree with DavidBCohem - Gates is out of touch and it is his money that grants his noisy chatter an audience.

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 2, 2011 6:20 PM | Report abuse

DavidBCohen--you don't have to be a teacher, or know what you know, to have a legitimate, even useful and insightful view on education or any aspect of it. We all went to school, many of us are parents, and many of us follow closely local schools developments. Voting resident and taxpaying citizens have further reasons that their views on education and teachers deserve an airing, regardless of how they may be received by one group or person. If we only listened, say, to what union members, school administrators, or education professors thought about education, we'd be worse off than we are today.

Posted by: axolotl | February 2, 2011 6:27 PM | Report abuse

The day Bill Gates makes a product that doesn't suck is the day he makes a vacuum cleaner.

Posted by: edlharris | February 2, 2011 7:09 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm. I didn't know Buffett was on the Post's board. Interesting.

This article is nothing but crony capitalism and social justice at its best. Or maybe I should say worst.

But let's be sure not to talk about the racist and anti-semitic Gates Foundation Millenium Scholarships, eh?

Posted by: lisamc31 | February 2, 2011 8:05 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Gates (one of our few areas of agreement) that tenure for k-12 teachers is not necessary. Two- to five-year individually negotiated contracts would be fairer for both new and experienced teachers. Teachers unions should be fighting for better working conditions (fewer classes, better supplies, safer and cleaner facilities). These goals would benefit both teachers and students. The reason, understandably, why many teachers want to preserve tenure is because they don't want to be summarily dismissed after years of hard work simply because they're more experienced and, therefore, higher paid.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | February 2, 2011 8:57 PM | Report abuse

axolotl - I agree with everything you said. I'm inferring that you're coming to Bill's defense by saying it, though you didn't directly defend any of his statements. I'm not rejecting his viewpoint because he's not an educator, but rather, because his statements reflect either ignorance or deliberate misrepresentation. I'm also jealous because even though I'm smarter than Bill Gates on these issues, I can't just stop by the Washington Post and expect three of their staff to drop everything and publish what I have to say.

Posted by: DavidBCohen | February 2, 2011 11:49 PM | Report abuse

"Try it [Tenure]for hot-dog making or restaurants."
??!??
_______

Comparing the importance of tenure for people responsible for educating students (early childhood - 12th grade) to a similar entitlement for hot-dog makers - who are not required to earn 4-6 years of college to acquire and sustain tenure - seems an idiotic statement at best. At worst, it show how pathetic Bill Gates' understanding is of what it takes to be a
dedicated, well-trained, education professional.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 3, 2011 12:22 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Gates (one of our few areas of agreement) that tenure for k-12 teachers is not necessary. Two- to five-year individually negotiated contracts would be fairer for both new and experienced teachers.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I'm a math teacher and don't know what to think about tenure. Any teacher who does not take their job seriously should be able to be removed in a heartbeat through some well designed apparatus.

But I learned from a teacher who just moved from Minnesota that the school districts there lay off teachers so they can't receive tenure and achieve the higher pay. She said this is common practice. I don't know how much truth there is to that, but how could a poor teacher defend against something like that if it is true.

Things have to be well thought out before getting rid of tenure. Teaching can be a noble, but thankless job.

Posted by: Playitagainsam | February 3, 2011 1:34 AM | Report abuse

Tenure simply doesn't make sense- even in the universities. Rules that protect employees from being fired for expressing their opinions do make sense. Rules that protect them from being fired for doing their jobs poorly don't make sense. Of course, the union position is that there is no way of telling whether teachers are doing their jobs poorly. They simply can't be evaluated fairly, so we must just pay them based on their endurance.

It's not just restaurants. In almost all other professional fields, tenure does not exist. Seniority and ability are not the same.

Posted by: staticvars | February 3, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised that reporters still don't treat anything Bill Gates says about Common Core's standards with extreme skepticism. He funded their development, review, post facto validation, and promotion, and influenced who was on the standards development committees. He got exactly what he paid for. Regarding his claim they are the best, one should turn to independent voices that point out they are not internationally benchmarked or research-based and note exactly where the problems are, such as:

http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/college-and-career for a critical review of the research base for Common Core's standards, by Diane Ravitch and William Mathis for the National Education Policy Center.

See also the letter sent by Sandra Stotsky explaining why, as a member of the Validation Committee, she could not sign off on the final draft of Common Core's secondary English language arts and reading standards, at http://www.doe.mass.edu/boe/docs/0710/item1.html?printscreen=yes§ion=stotsky;

See also Appendix B, an analysis by mathematician R. James Milgram of the problems he sees in the final draft of Common Core's mathematics standards, at http://www.pioneerinstitute.org/pdf/common_core_standards.pdf

Posted by: sstotsky | February 3, 2011 1:09 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised that reporters still don't treat anything Bill Gates says about Common Core's standards with extreme skepticism. He funded their development, review, post facto validation, and promotion, and influenced who was on the standards development committees. He got exactly what he paid for. Regarding his claim they are the best, one should turn to independent voices that point out they are not internationally benchmarked or research-based and note exactly where the problems are, such as:

http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/college-and-career for a critical review of the research base for Common Core's standards, by Diane Ravitch and William Mathis for the National Education Policy Center.

See also the letter sent by Sandra Stotsky explaining why, as a member of the Validation Committee, she could not sign off on the final draft of Common Core's secondary English language arts and reading standards, at http://www.doe.mass.edu/boe/docs/0710/item1.html?printscreen=yes§ion=stotsky;

See also Appendix B, an analysis by mathematician R. James Milgram of the problems he sees in the final draft of Common Core's mathematics standards, at http://www.pioneerinstitute.org/pdf/common_core_standards.pdf

Posted by: sstotsky | February 3, 2011 1:10 PM | Report abuse

"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. …
..........................
Bill Gates really has a problem in thinking.

Baseball equipment has changed radically since 1920 and also the work conditions of players.

Take a superior pitcher of now and give him a square ball to throw. All of a sudden you would find that this pitcher would perform worse than a pitcher of 1920.

So in reality Bill Gates is not looking at objective data but subjective data that is highly dependent upon the baseball equipment used and the work conditions such as rest between games and medical advise.

Take the pitchers of 1920 and give them the same equipment and advantages of the players of today and there would be no difference between these players and the players of today except in their names.

It is frightening that an individual such as Bill Gates with such flaws in his ability to think is involved in policies regarding public education in this nation.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 3, 2011 2:20 PM | Report abuse

DavidBCohen, so, you're smarter than Bill Gates??? Are you upset because he was invited to the Washington Post? Well, I'm going to suggest you a way to get an invite to the WP staff offices. Use your alleged smartness to build up a 50+ billion dollars fortune; that money will open lots of door for you. Otherwise, stay in the group of the ones who think to know it all; the ones who think to have all the right answers. While certain groups try to hijack and politicize the education in this country, our students will continue to perform behind most of the industrialized and emerging countries. David, Bill Gates isn’t the problem; he is trying to be part of the solution. BTW, he is putting his wallet where his mouth is. If you and your buddies want to do something for our children, stop the talk (bragging) and start doing the walk. Our children need it.

Posted by: pfaber99 | February 5, 2011 1:19 AM | Report abuse

Use your alleged smartness to build up a 50+ billion dollars fortune; that money will open lots of door for you.
Posted by: pfaber99
..............................
If one uses their abilities and luck to build up a fortune from selling cocaine and heroin should that individual use their money to set national policy?

The ideas of Bill Gates regarding public education are trite. The billions in the Gates Foundation are not doing research in public education but simply pretending as NCLB that the problem is teachers.

There is no recognition that our system of focusing on having every child proficient is simply making every child mediocre.

Teachers are not praised for having the number of students increase on test with scores of advanced but will be fired if the number of proficient decrease.

The reality is that public education before NCLB was more focused on advanced students than the mediocre.

It should be expected that students are now mediocre since teachers have been forced to spend their time and effort on the mediocre.

Bill Gates and the politicians supposedly want more students that are advanced in their skills for our economy while at the same time demanding that all students are proficient.

At some point reality has to enter into the picture with the understanding that it is impossible to achieve goals that contradict each other. Either spend more time on the students that are failing or spend more time on the students that have the skill and ability to do advanced work.

Imagine our colleges with the goal that every student passes and at the same time that the best education is given to the students that enter with the best skills and capabilities for doing advanced work. The result of such a policy would be mediocre students.

Time for the Bill Gates and the politicians to stop hiding from reality.

The money of the Gates Foundation should have been spent on developing methods to deal with the two problems in public education of teaching advanced skills to student with ability and capability while raising the level of students that have difficulty in learning. The reality is that these students have to be separated in classes so that teachers can focus on the problem of the students in the class rather than pretending that two contradictory goals can be achieved in classes with mixed skills and abilities.

By the way the public education systems of India and China that Bill Gates and the politicians admire simply separate children by skills and abilities in classes. They do not attempt to teach in classes students that have mixed and disparate levels of skills and capability. By the way I doubt that India or China would spend a dime on students that were found by the 4th grade unable to read. These and other non performing students would probably be seen as destined for worker as laborers.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 5, 2011 12:15 PM | Report abuse

An interesting thought.

You are the principal of a public school. You review the results of the final exam of a class. This class contains 1 student, student Z, that has consistently failed previous classes. All of the other students in the class have consistently passed previous classes.

The test indicates that student Z has passed this class with basic skills.

Principal In America. This is accepted as great performance of the teacher and reason for a bonus.

Principal in India or India. The teacher is fired or reprimanded. The principal states that too much time has been spent on student Z and that the instruction level in the class has been degraded to a low level to allow for such a student as student Z to pass. The principal states that too few in the class have achieved test results of advanced skills. The principals states that it is expected that such a student as student Z, who has failed in the past, to continue to fail while it is expected that students that in the past that have not failed to increases in their abilities and capabilities.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 5, 2011 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Bill Gates a billionaire know-it-all with an agenda...surprise. Hearing him speak of education is like listening to Movie Stars talk about who to vote for like their experts because of their fame! Teachers do not have tenure in Florida, where I teach, but we do have due process. Does Gates really think we should do away with due process? How about in the U.S. Constitution that gives us due process against accusations of wrong doing? Do away with that too Bill? Comparing News Paper editors and Hot Dog Makers to Teaching shows how out of touch with Reality he is. My friend owns a successful business and his employees that have been there the longest make the most money...it's a Bagel Bakery....I guess tenure does work in the private sector Bill!

Posted by: spoonmon23 | February 6, 2011 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I don't see tenure at odds with caring about students necessarily.
I do think trying to rid the system of experienced, possibly expensive teachers, as bad for the students.
The experienced teachers are great, but you need a mix, everything shouldn't just be about money.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | February 8, 2011 7:36 PM | Report abuse

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