The illogic of Bill Gates …

Bill Gates is a great businessman … or pirate … depends who you talk to.  He knows how to make money.

On the other hand, Bill Gates knows little about education.

Today, Gates wrote an op-ed piece about how to improve education that is sadly without merit, even though it will be listened to by people grasping for the proverbial easy asnwer to a complex problem.  It is a shame that someone who hangs out with engineers and scientists would fall into such a pattern of thinking.

Some highlights:

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. Meanwhile, other countries have raced ahead. The same pattern holds for higher education. Spending has climbed, but our percentage of college graduates has dropped compared with other countries.


This is true … but he seems to think that all of this is strictly a function of cost and teachers.  He fails to take into account two important facts: 1.  America is a vastly different culture than other nations.  You can make tons of changes to schools (as have been done over the decades), but unless American society also falls into lines with other nations (fat chance), we aren’t going to be like other countries.  2.  In line with that …. other nations don’t run their schools like American schools, and it all isn’t money and teachers that is different.

Yet compared with the countries that outperform us in education, we do very little to measure, develop and reward excellent teaching. We have been expecting teachers to be effective without giving them feedback and training.

This is a blanket statement.  Many school district invest large sums of money on teacher development and training … but theydo the wrong training.  As far as rewarding good teachers, I think teachers would be in favor of greater rewards for good teaching, if we could agree what constitutes a good teacher.  There is no universal agreement on this, esecially consiedring that some of the most crucial jobs that teachers do for their students in American schools, as they are now, are not very easily measurable.  He makes it seem like this is a piece of cake … it is not!

To this end, our foundation is working with nearly 3,000 teachers in seven urban school districts to develop fair and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness that are tied to gains in student achievement …

Ah, there’s the rub!  Teachers are only as good as their students’ tests.  In other words, teachers will hae to negotiate with their students to do well on tests in order to save their jobs.  The end result:  teachers can do woderful lessons, tests scores go up. and we will have students less prepaed for the real world than ever before.

The value of measuring effectiveness is clear when you compare teachers to members of other professions – farmers, engineers, computer programmers, even athletes. These professionals are more advanced than their predecessors – because they have clear indicators of excellence, their success depends on performance and they eagerly learn from the best.

The classic euphamism … let’s compare “X” to “Y”, and that’s OK … the problem is:  if farmers fail because of inferior seed, it is not the farmer’s fault.  If the metal in the machine is fatigued, it is not the engineer’s fault.  If the computer program fails because of bad hardware, the programmer is not at fault.  If the athlete trips and falls because of a problem with the ground, the athlete is never blamed.  However, when the student fails the test, it is the teacher’s fault.  The analogy is not apt.  A better analogy would be to compare teachers to artists.  Artists can improve, but not in the way these others do … and measuring their value or effectiveness is never as easy as measuring the performane of others.

Perhaps the most expensive assumption embedded in school budgets – and one of the most unchallenged – is the view that reducing class size is the best way to improve student achievement. This belief has driven school budget increases for more than 50 years. U.S. schools have almost twice as many teachers per student as they did in 1960, yet achievement is roughly the same.

Because 50 years ago, schools had more power to do as they wanted (not always for the better) … schools were homogenous and segreagated.  With changes, there were bound to be changes in certain aspects of education.  The job became more difficult.  That’s not a complaint … just a fact.  A teacher’s “job” was easy when all of the students were the same, and any sign of rebelliousness was punishable by removal from class.  Things aren’t that way anymore, and that is good.  Gates assumes that nothing has changed in those 50 years, and there has been complete stagnation.  I am surprised that someone like Gates who should understand the need to control multiple variables chooses to look at one and assign it as the cause of the problem.

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.)

I’m curious as to who these teachers are because I would never take on more students for more pay.  Why?  Despite his claims, I can tell you that every one, without exception, bad years I have had have corresponded to larger teaching loads.  When you have more students, you have less time to work with each student … that’s simple math!  When you have more students, the statistical chances of having students “not getting it” goes up.  If there is a good teacher with 28 studnts in a class, they are great with 22.  Class size absolutely has an effect on effectiveness of teaching, and I will challenge any data that says otherwise!

It should also be noted, like a great deal of “questionable” research, there is no mention in the actual documents where and how the data was collected.


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