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Is Bill Gates an “enemy of teachers”?

January 31, 2013

Here’s the concluding paragraph from the section of Gates’ report that deals with public education, with one phrase IN ALL CAPS that I added:

“I think the most critical change we can make in U.S. K-12 education is to create teacher feedback systems like the one in Eagle County that are PROPERLY FUNDED, HIGH QUALITY, and TRUSTED BY TEACHERS. These measurement systems need to provide teachers with the tools to help support their professional development. The lessons from these efforts will help us improve teacher education programs. The countries that have better education systems than the United States provide more teacher feedback than we do today, but I think it is possible to do even better than any country has done so far.”

I mostly agree with Diane Ravitch’s column and strongly believe that there is too much emphasis on standardized testing and strongly believe that emphasis reinforces the factory model thereby blocking any chance of changing the current organizational structure of schools. But I am not buying into the meme that Bill Gates is “…an enemy to teachers” nor am I buying into the notion that ALL measurement is bad. Today’s blog post, “Bill Gates and the Cult of Measurement” provided an opportunity for me to offer a comment that explains where I have a difference of opinion on these issues:

Bill Gates portion of the annual letter concludes with this paragraph, with my emphasis added: I think the most critical change we can make in U.S. K-12 education is to create teacher feedback systems like the one in Eagle County that are properly funded, high quality, and trusted by teachers. These measurement systems need to provide teachers with the tools to help support their professional development. The lessons from these efforts will help us improve teacher education programs. The countries that have better education systems than the United States provide more teacher feedback than we do today, but I think it is possible to do even better than any country has done so far.

I find it hard to argue with this aspiration. I also find it hard to criticize the exemplary evaluation system Gates describes in the article. Teachers are observed 10 times a year and coached by peers. It appears that the teachers endorse the linkage between the observations, student test scores, and compensation. But Gates’ aspiration depends on three variables: “proper funding”, which requires money for more direct supervision; “high quality”, which requires the incubation time afforded the teachers in Eagle County, and “trust”, which requires solid, sustained leadership from the school board through the master teachers. Gates’ problem is that he contends ANY measurement system is better than NO measurement system and so he ends up supporting evaluation systems that are NOT properly funded, do NOT provide the time needed to meet the unique needs of every district, and, therefore, do NOT engender trust.

I don’t think Bill Gates is an enemy to teachers. What teacher WOULDN’T support a properly funded, high quality and trustworthy evaluation system. I DO think Bill Gates is naive if he thinks that this aspiration of his can be accomplished cheaply, quickly, and imposed from the outside.

I DO think Gates and his “reform” colleagues would love to see school boards disappear because achieving fast, widespread change requires top-down approaches that are ultimately anti-democratic. (i.e. when Ethan Allen furniture closed in Canaan VT they didn’t hold public hearings or ask for a vote among townspeople). And I DO think the “reformers” would like to see unions disappear as well, because unions prevent the businessmen from defining and paying “market value” for labor. If public education was privatized it would operate under the same rules as the private sector: lower cost health benefits, 401-ks instead of defined benefit retirements, at will employment, etc…. and consequently it would be “cheaper”. Finally I DO think the “reformers” want to have lower local and State taxes and, if they operate the schools, increase their profits.

In short, Bill Gates and the “reformers” all favor and have unquestioning faith in unregulated capitalism…. and public education, a public good, cannot operate under that system if we hope to achieve an equal opportunity for all students.

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