The (Lingering) Bill Gates Problem in School Reform

In his Washington Post Op-Ed (28 February 2011), Bill Gates builds to this solution to education reform*:

“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. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.”

Gates also includes his own foundation’s survey to give his claims the appearance of evidence-based reform (although he misrepresents even that), but this claim, as well as the continuing free pass Gates and other education hobbyists and celebrities receive from the media and the public (see the softballs tossed to Gates in an interview at Newsweek, for example), proves to reveal several ironic lessons in education reform:

Wealth and celebrity do not equal expertise. The United States is a celebrity culture, and we revere wealth because we aspire to wealth. Why do we listen to Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz? Because Oprah endorsed them—not because they offered the public credible expertise in their fields. The current education reform debate is being driven by wealth, celebrity, and life-long bureaucrats—not by the expertise and experience of millions of teachers, scholars, and researchers who have credible evidence about the problems that face our public education system and the likely solutions that would move us closer to the promise of that system in our democracy.

Calls for accountability tend to come from those outside and above that accountability. As I will discuss later, the role of evidence is interesting and disturbing in the claims made by the new reformers, including Gates. A central part of the push to hold teachers accountable is tying teacher pay to evidence, but when these claims are made, Gates and others are never required to show any evidence themselves about their claims. As well, billionaires, millionaires, celebrities, and politicians all exist in lives in which they are less often held accountable for their actions when compared to the vast majority of Americans.

Teaching and learning are not the simple transmission of a set body of knowledge from an authoritarian teacher and to a passive classroom of students. The smoldering charges that our schools are overburdened by “bad” teachers, and thus we need to improve our teaching core, has distracted us from considering first exactly what the teaching/learning process should look like in universal public education system built to support a free people and a democracy.

The new reformers have framed teaching as both the most important element in educational outcomes (although evidence refutes that simplistic claim) and a simple act of transmitting knowledge to a large group of students to raise test scores linked to national standards.

If we need the best and the brightest and if teachers alone can overcome the weight of poverty, then reducing teaching to a service industry contradicts internally an argument that is also easily disproved since both initial claims are false. Teaching and learning are messy, idiosyncratic, and nearly impossible to measure or trace to single points of causation.

The political and corporate elite as well as the general U.S. public simply do not respect teachers and do not value education. The United States, as the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of humanity, has and can make anything happen we want. We move forward with wars when we decide we should, we bail out failing banks when we feel we should, we make a whole host of celebrities wealthy when we want (and we never hold them accountable for their egregious lack of respect for anything), and we could eradicate childhood poverty and support fully a vibrant and world-class education system–if we wanted to. But we don’t.

Evidence doesn’t matter, but it should. As the first point above suggests, the public seems content with celebrity and wealth, but skeptical of evidence. I have had dozens of experiences offering public commentary on education, citing extensively why I hold the positions I do, but one of the most common replies I receive is, “Anybody can make research say whatever they want.” While I empathize with the sentiment, this belief is flawed because it oversimplifies the research debate in the same way that the new reformers oversimplify the education reform debate. The truth about research is that one study is interesting, but that one study proves little.

Once research has been peer-reviewed, while no guarantee, that study gains credibility. Then, as research builds to a body of peer-reviewed research with clear patterns, we reach safe ground for public claims and policy (see this about charter schools, for example). Neither cherry-picking studies to advance an agenda nor being cavalier and cynical about research is conducive to advancing humanity through our greatest gifts as human — our minds.

Poverty is the unspoken and ignored weight on education outcomes, and while U.S. public education needs significant reforms, education reform will never succeed without the support of social reforms addressing childhood poverty and income equity.

This final ironic lesson from a billionaire holding forth repeatedly on education reveals its problem by the obvious complexity of the statement itself. The sentence is too much for our sound-bite culture that politicians feel compelled to appease. While we revel in making international comparisons to demonize our schools (falsely), we fail to acknowledge international evidence of how to address school reform.

Let me suggest two international approaches we should be considering, both from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (UK)—a compilation of evidence on the impact of poverty on educational success and adetailed consideration of wide-scale social and education reform.

In 2013, again, U.S. political leaders and the public appear disgusted with a public education system, but this sentiment has been with us since the Committee of Ten declared education inadequate in the 1890s. We must, then, come to terms with two facts: (1) We must drop Utopian claims about education because education is not the sole key to overcoming social failures, but a single element in the larger working of our society, (2) claims of crisis in education are misleading since the problems we are considering (student outcomes and drop-out rates, for example) are patterns that have existed for over a century.

Many are arguing that the new reformers must be valued since they are creating a debate about education and rattling the cage of an entrenched status quo that is failing. I find this argument weak since we have no evidence that inexpert celebrity claims are resulting in a close consideration of what is truly wrong with our schools and what should be pursued to create the world-class schools we claim we want.

In fact, this current round of school bashing and calls for accountability and reform are an intensifying of the exact same failed solutions we have tried for three decades–all the while ignoring the genuine problems and the weight of evidence for what reforms would work

And this leads to a question I have: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one–the same as who should listen to him now.

* Reposting of original piece from The Answer Sheet (March 2, 2011). See why Gates remains a lingering problem at Jersey Jazzman.

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15 thoughts on “The (Lingering) Bill Gates Problem in School Reform

  1. Pingback: The (Lingering) Bill Gates Problem in School Reform | ΕΝΙΑΙΟ ΜΕΤΩΠΟ ΠΑΙΔΕΙΑΣ
  2. Pingback: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? – @ THE CHALK FACE knows SCHOOLS MATTER
  3. Great post. This particular passage stands out to me:
    “The political and corporate elite as well as the general U.S. public simply do not respect teachers and do not value education. The United States, as the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of humanity, has and can make anything happen we want.”

    I think the second sentence is a direct response to the first. Because the US views itself as “the most powerful” and “wealthiest” and thus, “number one nation” it is robbed of the humility needed to see what is working and what needs to be eliminated and changed in the system. It is a shortsighted view caused by an inflated and illusory ego. The US has acquired great wealth and power but is young in experience in comparison to other countries, and its leaders suffer from this inevitable immaturity.

    Bill Gates characterizes this phenomenon well. You explain it very eloquently when you talk about celebrity and wealth as the primary motivation of US population and what becomes “valued”. It is important, I believe, to point out that Bill Gates’ experience while in school was not balanced or ideal. He is most likely acting on an imbalanced and unresolved “homeostatic principle”.

    It is also clear, by the flat, one dimensional view of teaching he promotes that he has not evolved, matured or grown significantly as a learner. Therefore, eliminating any possibility of empathizing with 21st Century learners. No matter what their background, learners of today will not have the same experience, in any way, that their teachers did. This is the basic rule of student evolution. Bill Gates, in my opinion, is assuming students and teachers are simply a generic category.

    What if Bill Gates led this campaign by example and stepped inside the classroom with 26 students in a Title I school and taught them for an entire year? What if he videotaped his journey and posted each episode on You Tube for public display? That would be a great way, not only to understand the realities of Education, but to make his “evidence-based reform” authentic. Perhaps this experience would give him the wisdom, humility and insight to direct his funds in more innovative and constructive ways. Perhaps it is time Mr. Gates understood that money cannot buy happiness or heal past wounds, but if combined with humility, passion, purpose and the desire to serve others, it just might work.

  4. This is a great post and it highlights so many of the ironies of the current educational moment. One in particular stands out to me: Even worse than evidence not mattering, the new reformers cloak themselves in the rhetoric of evidence-based practice. But for them, evidence only means test scores and limited measures like value-added calculations.

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