Bill Gates Pushes a Rope

Must be tough. All that money and doodly-squat to show for it.

Bill Gates gave a speech yesterday about his plans to fix American education. He has found the secret, he explained. It took him seven years and ba-jillions of dollars, but he has found it. Seems like he could have just spent a few hours and thirty bucks to discover why his big plans are still doomed to failure.

Gates isn’t alone. Other new-rich tech types have also crashed on the reefs of education reform. Most recently, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg frittered away $100 million in a good-hearted but wrong-headed attempt to help Newark’s public schools.

To be fair, Bill Gates has spent more time and effort (and moolah) than Zuckerberg in his attempts to improve America’s public schools. His foundation has funded a host of reform efforts.

What has he learned? As he put it yesterday,

We set out on this path seven years ago. If I had to place our foundation somewhere on our own learning line today—where the starting point is absolute ignorance and the end point is knowing everything about great teaching and how to spread it—I would say we’re not even halfway to our goal.

But I believe we are on the right track. For today, and for the coming years, this is our vision: Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal. And all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests.

Gates’s current plan focuses on improving teachers. In his words:

Building effective teacher feedback and improvement systems everywhere is the most important movement in American education today.

Good teachers make a huge difference, he argues correctly. And good school districts do what it takes to make their teachers better.

So what is wrong with Gates’s strategy? It’s not a secret and it’s not a surprise. Mr. Gates could have spent a few hours with David Tyack’s and Larry Cuban’s book Tinkering Toward Utopia to figure out something that every veteran teacher knows already. And it would only have cost him thirty bucks.

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair...

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

To wit: Good teachers are hungry for help. They want reform that will help them do a better job at what they are already doing well. But ALL teachers are good at dodging fads and gimmicks. They have to be. Every experienced teacher has survived wave after wave of “the latest thing.” We have tall bookshelves stacked with chart-packed three-ring binders about how to implement each new reform.

Teachers know what to do. When someone offers them something that helps them do it, they jump on board. Smartboards, for example, or teaching teams, are one-time “reforms” that have now become standard operating practice in many public schools. Why? Because they work. They help teachers do a better job at their jobs.

As Tyack and Cuban document, however, history is littered with the Ozymandian dreams of earlier generations of Gateses and Zuckerbergs. At the advent of television in the 1950s, for example, the US government and the Ford Foundation plunked down tens of millions of dollars to have a plane always circling the Great Plains states, broadcasting the latest educational TV programming for schools. No kidding. The plan was to have the country’s smartest experts teaching kids directly. No more vagaries of teacher quality or school efficiency. This multi-million-dollar reform was going to use the latest technology to fix American public schools in one fell swoop.

Did it transform schools? No. Why not? Because good teachers struggled to find a way to incorporate that expensive “reform” into their teaching. For some reason too mysterious for the experts to divine, students in Kansas did not want to sit quietly while fuzzy black-and-white professors laboriously explained sentence structuring or osmosis.

Bill Gates is pushing a rope. Trying to fix America’s teachers from the outside is a losing proposition. The language itself generates its own defeat. Instead of fixing America’s teachers, Gates and other well-heeled know-it-alls should focus on HELPING America’s teachers.

Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  October 8, 2015

    Helping them in what way?

    • That’s just it, Big A. I don’t know. Nor does Bill Gates or any other nattering nabob. Teachers need to be put in charge of their improvement. Generally I don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, but in this case I have a little direct experience. As a high school teacher for a decade, I sat through my share of smart, well-organized, well-intentioned professional development sessions. Even the best of them, though, didn’t fit the realities of the classes I was teaching at the time. How could they? I was the only one who knew what challenges my students were facing at that time. When I moved to sunny Binghamton, your tax dollars funded a wonderful Teaching American History program here. We paid teachers a modest stipend to spend a week of their summers working on lessons and approaches that they could use. Since they designed them, they used them. If you gave me a big pile of money, those are the kinds of teacher-directed improvements I would use it on.

      • Agellius

         /  October 8, 2015

        I see. In other words, can the experts and let teachers tell us what they need.

      • And give the teachers the money and the especially the TIME they need to do what they think will make the biggest improvement.

  2. Agellius

     /  October 8, 2015

    I realize that you’re not intending to say specifically how it should be done, but just putting forth the principle that the teacher’s viewpoint should be what guides the process. But even taking that as the starting point, it’s inevitable that administrators will be the ones actually in control, because that’s what they’re trained to do, whereas not that many teachers are qualified to administrate. How do we put teachers in charge? It seems like the one-room schoolhouse might be the only way that could actually happen.

    • I think the problem is that the idea behind Mr. Gates’s (and other people’s–he’s not alone) plans for teacher improvement is that they rely on measuring and proving that teachers have improved. That sort of thing DOES need a lot of administrative guidance. But actually improving teaching is something that can only be done by teachers.

      • Agellius

         /  October 9, 2015

        Yes, I understand the problem with Gates’s approach, and don’t disagree with you as far as that goes. I’m just saying that whenever you have a huge bureaucracy, the money is going to be managed and distributed by administrators. “Giving teachers what they need” sounds fine in principle, but someone has to coordinate the giving, which means an administrative layer on top of the teacher layer.

        And then the question becomes, how do we decide what teachers want? Are we talking about giving each individual teacher anything he asks for? Or are we talking about what teachers-in-general want? If the latter, how do we determine that? Take surveys? But again, the survey-taking (not to mention survey-interpreting) is something that would take place on the administrative level.

        I’m just saying that, apart from letting teachers self-manage their own schools, I don’t see how you can avoid administrative control of the money as opposed to teacher control.

  3. Agellius

     /  October 9, 2015

    One solution might be charter-type schools, which as I understand it are semi-autonomous from the district (though I’m not really sure about that). If a philanthropist could identify a charter school which was committed to letting its teachers decide how the money was spent, then he could give money to that particular school with some degree of confidence that the money would be used as the teachers saw fit. Whereas donating money to a district might be more dicey in that regard.

  4. Smaller is better. There should also be greater support for networks of anti-institutional unschoolers who want a kind of religious, classical and/or non-theistic BO. The best string to pull for American public schools must have to do with neighborhood health and family cohesion in a pluralistic, anti-racist context.


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