- THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
- JULY 23, 2011
Was the $5 Billion Worth It?
A decade into his record-breaking education philanthropy, Bill Gates talks teachers, charters—and regrets.
NYC Teacher and former GEM activist Seung Ok comments
It's interesting how Gates seems to give every excuse in the book for why he "failed" to drastically improve academic achievement despite the time and money spent on his mission.
His first excuse is that compared to the cumulative 600 billion dollars in government spending on public schools, he only had 5 billion to spend. Of course, he is talking as if that 5 billion was equally scattered among all the public schools in the United States. We know that his small school models had enough funding and opportunity to test whether his experiment would work, which by his own admission, did not meet his standards.
Then he and the writer of the article suggest that it was the powerful teacher unions that thwarted the success of Gates foundation initiatives. But later on, even Gates admits there seems to be no correlation between student achievement and the strength of unions in particular states. Although suprisingly, the two states he mentioned as being strong union states, Massachusetts and New York, are ranked # 2 and #5, respectively by NAEP results in student performance.
If it sounds like a man who is grabbing at straws, he is. He admits as much when talking about measuring teacher effectiveness. I was slightly embarassed for him, when he mentioned the movie, "To Sir, With Love" as an inspiration for his new initiative in taping teachers in real classroom settings. You don't see the president of the United States saying," I watched the movie Saving Private Ryan", and then proceed to discuss how the war in Afganistan can be won. What presidents usually do is to talk with military experts, diplomatic advisers, academics, political advisers, etc.
But not this guy - he wants to watch hours and hours of tape on military engagements in the mountains of Afganistan and write a report on how soldier effectiveness can be rated. The thing is, if he were really a scientist, I'd say fine - but he isn't one really. What he is - is a businessman. Unfortunately, what business knows about computer chips and factory output doesn't translate into the complex lives of human beings.
So what is Gates thinking, that through extensive studying he can produce a script? If student A yawns, then teacher Does B, then student A goes to Harvard. Certainly teachers know there are a variety of ways to redirect a students attention back to a lesson. But we also know, that no single method may work on the same student on successive days. We also know that there are a thousand other factors affecting a student's attention span - hunger, problems at home, lack of glasses, ADD, abuse, neglect, peer pressure, depression, anxiety, illness, etc. - most things things that the video camera will unlikely catch.
But teachers welcome any new insight into practices that may make our jobs easier. If our students perform well, they are happier, and are nicer to us. It may be hard for Gates to accept, but most teachers - for some inane reason - do measure their happiness at their jobs by the performance of their students. This is why areas with low academic performance are also known as hard-to-staff districts. Unfortunately, the teachers who are dedicated enough to stay, are punished by the likes of Gates and Bloomberg with ridicule and closure.
And as far as KIPP charter schools being an inspiration - maybe Gates should put on the scientist cap for a second and try to figure out what is the X factor - the "independent variable" - the one thing that is different from the control group (public schools). Well, any budding scientist knows that conclusions are invalid when there is more than one difference between the two groups. Now we know that charter schools have a self selected sample of students with motivated and involved parents. We also know they "engourage" students they deem disruptive or having learning disabilities to transfer to public schools. Even though most charter schools have non-unionized teachers - is seems that watching these teachers is as unilluminating to Gates as watching Sidney Potier's character in To Sir, With Love.
So please, Mr. Gates, get out your popcorn and your notepad and please do write up a lab report for the rest of us. And a personal pedagogical request - I've always been stumped by the appearance of doodling that occurs on desks - especially in the back rows. I'm very interested in knowing whether they tend to occur in the beginning, middle, or end of the period. Thank you.