Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft and one of the world’s richest men, is also one of the world’s leading philanthropists. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is perhaps best known for fighting poverty and disease in the developing world, but its main domestic focus is on education. Gates appears in the new documentary Waiting for “Superman,” which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. A powerful indictment of the U.S. education system, it features educators running the innovative Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools, and follows families desperate to get their children into high-performing charter schools. (Often controversial, charter schools receive some public money but do not follow the same rules or curriculum as public schools.) Gates believes the quality of teachers is of critical importance, and calls for a system of evaluation to reward the best, and get rid of the worst. He talked to Maclean’s editor-in-chief Kenneth Whyte in Toronto.
Q: You’ve said parents should be outraged about the state of education in America. Why?
A: Schools aren’t developing the potential of our kids, and you see that in the dropout rates, you see that in the number of kids who graduate and then go into remedial courses, you see it in the fact that it’s the first time that we’re actually having decreasing numbers of people with four-year college degrees. Part of the magic of economic growth is how you educate people, and the leading economies have to stay in front of that. From an economic point of view, it affects competitiveness and creates jobs. Or from a social justice point of view, you can take someone in the bottom tier of income and let him compete to be a doctor or lawyer. The education system is the only reason the dream of equal opportunity has a chance of being delivered—and we’re not running a good education system.
Q: One of the interesting facts in Waiting for “Superman” is that it’s not only the lower socioeconomic tiers that are not meeting levels of achievement we’d expect in North American education, but that the top five per cent of students are not as competitive internationally as they were a generation ago.
A: We benefited in the past by other people not running good systems. Now, with Singapore, Finland, Korea, you’re not going to do a lot better than they do for any group of students. We do much worse for our students as a whole compared to these other countries. And in the 1960s we were the best across the board. Even in the 1970s we were the top in most things. It’s in the last 20 years that the U.S. has moved to pretty near the bottom of the rich countries’ statistics for math, reading, science. There’s really nothing that we’re particularly distinguished at. If you take the top five per cent, we’re average.
Q: So the bigger problem is with the great mass of students?
A: That’s the thing that really drives our numbers down.
Q: I’d expect most of the innovation that’s economically important would come out of the top five per cent, making it especially important.
A: It’s disproportionate, but you can’t run a society—in terms of job availability, informed voters, a sense of opportunity—on five or even 25 per cent. You’ve got to have a lot of great middle-class job opportunities and a lot of people whose educations match up to those opportunities. Now, if you have top performing companies, a lot of jobs are being created in your locale. Apple, Google, Microsoft, RIM, they create wealth and jobs because they are enabled by the top five per cent, immigrants and homegrown people, but they create numerically tons of jobs that aren’t as elite in terms of educational requirement: support, sales, finance. That’s actually the bulk of the jobs.
Q: So let’s locate the failure of the education system overall. It’s not a funding problem.
A: You’ll find some states that still underfund education. But overall, there’s been a doubling of the portion of GDP that goes to kindergarten through grade 12, so there’s a lot more in the way of resources. You can talk about how much of that has gone into pensions versus salaries. How much has gone into bureaucracy versus teachers. But in the U.S., $600 billion per year is spent on kindergarten through 12 education. That’s a lot.
Q: So is the problem the education departments and administrators, or is it teachers’ unions, or the teachers themselves?
A: We’ve ended up with a personnel system that essentially does no evaluation. It doesn’t identify whether teachers are weak or strong and gives them no incentives for improving their weak points. Nor does the system identify the few teachers that don’t belong in the profession because they either don’t have the ability or they’re just not trying hard enough. And the difference between having good teachers and not is quite substantial. If you could wish for one thing, that’s what you would wish for—a system of evaluation that’s not capricious. It’s not that easy to do but now it’s all based on seniority and do I have a master’s degree—it’s completely independent of student outcomes. It’s a no-pain system. Well, measurement systems are always a bit painful, and they’re never perfect. We have data that shows some teachers are amazing, they get amazing outcomes and, if you, as a student, get a bunch of those in a row, you do great. And some are the opposite of amazing and, if you get a bunch of those in a row, you do very poorly. Yet we don’t evaluate teachers. We don’t celebrate the good ones and study what they do, we don’t figure out how to transfer their knowledge. That fact tends to get blamed on the unions, but everyone’s been involved—the parents, the school boards, the governors, the different levels of government. You can say you need to lengthen the school day, you can say you need to reduce the amount of money that goes into the pension side. There are problems with the common curriculum thing. There are some ways that technology can help. But I put the evaluation system way ahead of all those other things we should also do, and our foundation is funding pilot programs in that area.
Q: The resistance to introducing an evaluation system does seem to come from the teachers’ unions and the teachers themselves.
A: Yeah, the status quo is very predictable. You know what your salary’s going to be because you know your seniority, you know whether you have a master’s degree. The contract says how many minutes you have to work. It is very comfortable. If you’re a great teacher, you say, why should I contemplate change and some weird measurement system. Well, the upside would be that you like teaching with other great teachers and so when you see that it can be done without much overhead and that it wouldn’t be capricious, then maybe you get drawn in. But to the degree you feel like the people pushing for the measurement system don’t include teachers, don’t understand how tough the job is, that they are going to be making a lot of noise and go to their next cause two years later, it’s a lot easier to say, c’mon, let’s just wait this one out, I’m a great teacher, I’m doing God’s work.
If you’re a bad teacher, you say the last thing I want is an evaluation system. This change only comes when teachers want it to come. They need to be willing to put up with some more feedback. Some of them are interested in that feedback and go and work in charter schools, which are usually run independent of school systems. And charter schools run serious evaluation systems. Evaluation systems are a critical element of why they are so much better.
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