Bill Gates on State Budgets and Education

Some Sunday food for thought and a follow-up to my comment on Bill Gates being worried about public pensions. Bill Tufts of Fair Pensions For All blog sent me Gates' TED lecture (see video below). It's worth listening to as Gates raises many legitimate points, especially as it concerns transparency of accounting rules.

On education reforms, Gates has his share of critics. Bruce Krasting wrote an excellent comment on "Ponzi Science". I will add that there are way too many ''rocket scientists'' on Wall Street earning outrageous bonuses doing nothing but programming useless algorithms (and structured finance but that's down considerably) while the real scientists working at Bell Labs, MIT, Harvard and many, many other research centers get almost no funding whatsoever.

Sam Blumenfeld of the New American discusses Why Bill Gates' Billions Will Not Improve Education. I quote:

So we know that there are great independent-minded teachers in the system, but they must keep a low profile in order to survive in a very hostile environment. If Gates really wants to know what is going on in teacher training these days, he ought to visit with Sue Dickson. She’ll tell him stories that will curl his hair.

But to Ms. Weingarten, teacher quality is something of a mystery. She said, “But there’s this notion of really figuring out what the best teachers do and trying to scale that up.”

Would you hire Ms. Weingarten to be president of anything but a teachers’ union?

Of course, if you visit a primary school classroom today, you will know why our schools can’t produce enlivened children with intellectual curiosity, who love reading books and conversing at an adult level. They are now seated around little tables facing classmates who may be talking or pestering them or coughing in their faces. Everyone is doing something else. The teacher is now a facilitator roaming around the room. She is using a reading program called Whole Language which turns children into dyslexics. There are all sorts of things making it impossible for many students to concentrate, so they acquire the new school disease called ADD, and are put on a powerful drug like Ritalin.

The curriculum is now made up of politically correct subject matter: global warming, multiculturalism, alternate fuels, organic nutrition, values clarification, sex ed, death ed, drug ed, diverse life styles, sensitivity training, and anything else the educators can dream up.

Gates, unfortunately, believes that the key to the problem is in improving teacher performance. Obviously, he doesn’t know what goes in in today’s colleges of education. He said: “If you improve teachers today, the country doesn’t see the benefit of that for 15 years or so. So to be in this business you have to have a long-term view….So you can’t be too impatient.”

Again, Bill is way off track. A good, solid intensive phonics reading program in all of the primary schools of America would be all that is needed to send American education soaring to the moon. But apparently Bill Gates doesn’t know this, and none of the education charlatans will tell him this. Too bad he’s going to waste his money on phony reforms.

But one comment that really got my attention was posted by Valerie Strauss over at the Washington Times, Why Bill Gates is wrong on class size:

This was written by educator Anthony Cody, who taught science for 18 years in inner-city Oakland and now works with a team of science teacher-coaches that supports novice teachers. He is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network. This post appeared on his Education Week Teacher blog, Living in Dialogue.

Here is an open letter to Bill Gates written by Cody:

Dear Mr. Gates,

I am writing to you because you have been getting a great deal of attention for your ideas about education, and from my perspective here on the ground in an impoverished urban district, I think you might be making some mistakes.

I read your recent commentary in the Washington Post (How Teacher Development Could Revolutionize Our Schools), and reports from your presentation to governors, where you advised them to raise class sizes in the rooms of the most effective teachers.

In your comments to the governors, you said "there are too many areas where the system fails. The place where you really see the inequity is the inner city. "

You presumably are hoping to redress this inequity when you make this proposal:

"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."

I am glad you are aware of the inequities. But your suggestion that caps on class sizes be lifted does not suggest to me that you actually have much understanding of the nature of these inequities. First of all, do you actually believe that in the short time frame in which these governors are trying to balance their budgets, they are going to magically revamp their teacher evaluation systems so as to not only identify the best teachers, but also make sure that ONLY the best teachers have class size increases?

What is actually happening is that, partly buoyed by your suggestion that class sizes should not matter, there are going to be wholesale increases in class size across the board, for every teacher, at every grade level. In Oakland, principals have been told to prepare for cuts ranging from $300 to $900 per student. The only way to achieve such savings will be to lay off teachers and significantly boost class size.

And there is no mechanism that can be put in place to reliably identify the top 25% of our teachers, no money to pay them extra for taking on these students, and if the class size increases were only limited to a fourth of the teachers, the savings this would provide would be inadequate.

In point of fact, the teacher turnover rate is one of the biggest problems we face in Oakland's schools. This instability makes it difficult to build the kind of caring, collaborative, reflective community that allows us to improve as professionals. This turnover is not a function of our teacher evaluation system. While improving our evaluation system is worth doing, it will not fix this problem. Getting rid of ineffective teachers is not the key. The key is keeping the good ones and helping them become better. A good evaluation system is part of this, but it is much more than this. We need to pay attention to the working conditions, and make sure teachers are well-supported.

One of the most important working conditions, especially in high poverty schools, is small class size. As a middle school teacher, my student load was capped at 160 a day. That meant about 32 students in each of my five classes. Just imagine 160 papers to grade every day, and you get a picture. It is not uncommon for teachers to spend half of their weekends grading papers. The quality of the attention we can give our students is diluted every time you add to that number.

And if you are in a high poverty school, the chances are pretty much 100% that in every class you will have students who are currently experiencing traumatic events in their lives. I am talking about domestic and neighborhood violence, homelessness, eviction, parents incarcerated. As this report indicates, as many as a third of students in our tough neighborhoods suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. These problems all seep into the classroom, sometimes overtly, and sometimes through acting out behaviors. And larger class sizes make these behaviors even more difficult to handle.

This is not just my opinion. There is a large body of research that supports a strong link between class size and student achievement. And I would be very surprised if the private schools your children attend have large class sizes. On average, private schools attended by the children of the wealthy have class sizes roughly half those in neighboring public schools.

As class sizes increase across the board, as they are likely to do, we are going to see turnover rates rise among teachers. I serve as a mentor for beginning science teachers, and have built a program to try to support and retain them in Oakland.

Sadly, more than half of my own mentees are leaving this year, after working only two or three years as teachers. If you ask them why, they will tell you, that the stress and challenge of the job is simply overwhelming. All of them are promising, bright young teachers. They all have huge gifts to offer their students. But the challenges they face leave them feeling defeated. Increasing their class size will only make this worse.

You are one of the wealthiest men in our nation. Do you see the challenges our poor communities face due to inadequate resources? Are you aware that the top one percent of our people have more than a third of the net worth of our nation? And they keep getting more and more tax breaks? The best thing you could do for schools would be to launch a campaign aimed at getting wealthy corporations and individuals to pay their fair share of taxes, so that the public schools, which rely on tax dollars, are not primarily funded by the middle class, which is hurting so badly now.

And: I was thinking about the math involved in Mr. Gates' proposal. Let's take a school staffed by 40 teachers. You identify 25% as the "best," and give these ten teachers four students more each. That means you have served an extra 40 students, allowing you to reduce your staff by ONE teacher. That saves you approximately $75,000 a year, in salary and benefits. But according to this proposal we need to pay these teachers more, so if we pay them say $5,000 each, we have an expense of $50,000. So our net savings is $25,000. This is a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the cuts our schools are facing. Please check your math, Mr. Gates.

There are serious problems with the US education system. It's failing a whole generation of students. And things aren't better elsewhere. In the UK, an increasing number of universities could be at risk of going "bust" because of funding cuts and higher tuition fees.

Finally, the crisis in education is linked to another crisis, the jobs crisis. There was an interesting roundtable discussion on ABC's This Week with Christiane Amanpour on creating jobs in America. You can click here to watch it. There are no real long-term solutions to job creation and with youth unemployment at an all-time high in most developed countries, I worry that we are heading down the wrong path which will exacerbate income inequality. Without solid job creation, the discussion on pensions is pointless. Below, I embedded Gates' speech.