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Is Bill Gates Really As Clueless About Schools As He Sounds In This Interview?

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This Sunday’s “Parade Magazine” has an interview with Bill Gates titled What I’ve Learned About Great Teachers.

It’s primarily designed as a puff piece for the “Waiting For Superman” movie, and I was pretty surprised at the shallowness of some of his comments.

For example, here’s one:

The Gates Foundation has learned that two questions can predict how much kids learn: “Does your teacher use class time well?” and, “When you’re confused, does your teacher help you get straightened out?”

How incredibly simplistic.

What in the world is the first question going to mean to a student, and what kind of helpful information is that really going to elicit. How about asking the student to describe what goes on in the classroom and identify common positive characteristics. I think the second question might have some potential, but it would really have value if you wanted to learn what exactly the teacher does when a student is confused. I can think of a number of ways “straightening out” a student is not necessarily going to result in greater understanding, though it might lead to greater “compliance.”

For what I think are genuinely useful ways to elicit student input, you might want to check-out My Best Posts On Students Evaluating Classes (And Teachers).

Gates goes on to say this about Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers:

She points out that, on average, charter schools don’t do better than other public schools. She’s right. But it’s a strange point to make: “Hey, they’re as bad as we are!” The fact is, we’re failing those kids. Ms. Weingarten represents the teachers’ union, but say there was a students’ union. Might they ask that the dropout rate be lowered? Might they stay at the negotiating table until it was below 50%? We ought to ask kids whether they think the status quo is working.

How disingenuous. I think one point Ms. Weingarten is making is that charter schools are not the magic bullet to fixing education, and that there are bad and good charters and non-charters alike. And Gates, and “Waiting For Superman” just skip over all the other problems with charters (including “creaming”) and instead focus on challenges in non-charter schools.

I also wonder how much the Gates Foundation is actually putting into groups who are working with students to organize themselves. In looking over the website, I certainly didn’t see it listed as a priority area. Is that really his primary method of attack on teachers unions — that if students were organized in a union they would have a different agenda?

What do you think — does the interview seem to you to be as weak as it seems to me?

And thanks to Kenneth Libby for the tip on the piece.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

One Comment

  1. Thank you so much for your critical thinking regarding Bill Gates, “Waiting For Superman” and the entire education reform dialogue. I work in education and I just can’t believe the kind of biased, “selective” “data” and propaganda that these camps spew. Flat lined performance since the the 60s. What they don’t mention is that graduation rate in the US has steadily risen from 50% in the 50s to 75% presently, while at the same time minority group access and education has exponentially increased and assimilated since the 50s. The gains in educating the “total population” have been biblical in magnitude and no other nation approaches our accomplishments. Including educating an ever increasing immigrant population, MANY students who were not born in the US and did not speak English when they came are part of this accomplishment and achievement. The education available in America is unsurpassed in the world. No other “developed” country faces the same task in educating its population as we do and we are the champions and a model for the world in this area. Cost increases in education since the 60s? Surprising that I am pointing this out to Bill Gates. For one example, computers in school – non in the 60s, now, computer labs and multiple computers are expected in every school and school district. Computers in every classroom, district computer networks, IT staff to maintain and support HUNDREDS of computers, software, hardware (which, by Gates own design must all be updated every couple years) are a tremendous expense that did not exist in the 50s and 60s. Other changes since the 50s are equally as obvious. I feel silly pointing this out to bill as an educational expense increase factor as, either Billy is an idiot or he is not disclosing his own “hand” in the cost increases in education. If one looks at the research into, why students achieve, one finds a correlation between the value that parents place on education and student achievement. It is the case that education reflects the community that it exists in. It is not the case that teachers can significantly re-create that standards and values of a community or society. If it is the case, then show me one example from history where schools or education re-designed a society. I can’t think of an example. I can show you how education rose from a society and became a reflective of what the societies greatest accomplishments were. In short, education and it’s “condition” is a bi-product of society – not the other way around. There is no example in history that suggests that society was “born” or engineered from education. Billy believes that he can re-engineer society using education. He has it backwards and he surrounds himself with those who agree with him. His Yes men simply conduct research to find results that support the further funding of research funded by Billy. I can’t wait until the trends swing back to sanity and sensibility. Student achievement is mostly up to the student.


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