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When Bill Gates Revealed His Views about Education and His Biggest Adversary, and I Replied

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In 2010, journalist Jonathan Alter interviewed Bill Gates about education. Alter is a passionate supporter of charter schools and obviously synpathetic to Gates’ dismal view of American education.

Gates had just addressed the Council of Chief State Dchool Officers, telling these mostly veteran educators what was wrong with the schools. The biggest driver of rising costs, he said, was “seniority-based pay and benefits for teachers rising faster than state revenues.” This interview occurred about the same time that Gates began to pump $1 billion or more into teacher evaluation projects that linked teacher effectiveness to student test scores. That ill-fated venture promoted demoralization, teacher resignations, and a national teacher shortage.

Gates explained to Alter:

“Seniority is the two-headed monster of education—it’s expensive and harmful. Like master’s degrees for teachers and smaller class sizes, seniority pay, Gates says, has “little correlation to student achievement.” After exhaustive study, the Gates Foundation and other experts have learned that the only in-school factor that fully correlates is quality teaching, which seniority hardly guarantees. It’s a moral issue. Who can defend a system where top teachers are laid off in a budget crunch for no other reason than that they’re young?

“In most states, pay and promotion of teachers are connected 100 percent to seniority. This is contrary to everything the world’s second-richest man believes about business: “Is there any other part of the economy where someone says, ‘Hey, how long have you been mowing lawns? … I want to pay you more for that reason alone.’ ” Gates favors a system where pay and promotion are determined not just by improvement in student test scores (an idea savaged by teachers’ unions) but by peer surveys, student feedback (surprisingly predictive of success in the classroom), video reviews, and evaluation by superiors. In this approach, seniority could be a factor, but not the only factor.

“President Obama knows that guaranteed tenure and rigid seniority systems are a problem, but he’s not yet willing to speak out against them. Even so, Gates gives Obama an A on education. The Race to the Top program, Gates says, is “more catalytic than anyone expected it to be” in spurring accountability and higher standards.”

Here is my favorite part, where Gates says I am his “biggest adversary” and Alter calls “the Whittaker Chambers of school reform.”

For those who don’t know, Whittaker Chambers was a Communist spy who turned against the Party and named Alger Hiss as a Party member. Maybe I was supposed to be insulted, but I wasn’t. I got a good laugh from this article.

I also wrote a response, in which I answered Gates’ five questions. It was posted by Valerie Strauss in her blog, The Answer Sheet.”

Straus called Alter’s interview “a paean to Gates.”

Here are the answers to the first two questions:

Gates: “Does she like the status quo?”
Ravitch: “No, I certainly don’t like the status quo. I don’t like the attacks on teachers, I don’t like the attacks on the educators who work in our schools day in and day out, I don’t like the phony solutions that are now put forward that won’t improve our schools at all. I am not at all content with the quality of American education in general, and I have expressed my criticisms over many years, long before Bill Gates decided to make education his project. I think American children need not only testing in basic skills, but an education that includes the arts, literature, the sciences, history, geography, civics, foreign languages, economics, and physical education.


“I don’t hear any of the corporate reformers expressing concern about the way standardized testing narrows the curriculum, the way it rewards convergent thinking and punishes divergent thinking, the way it stamps out creativity and originality. I don’t hear any of them worried that a generation will grow up ignorant of history and the workings of government. I don’t hear any of them putting up $100 million to make sure that every child has the chance to learn to play a musical instrument. All I hear from them is a demand for higher test scores and a demand to tie teachers’ evaluations to those test scores. That is not going to improve education.”

Gates: “Is she sticking up for decline?”
Ravitch: “Of course not! If we follow Bill Gates’ demand to judge teachers by test scores, we will see stagnation, and he will blame it on teachers. We will see stagnation because a relentless focus on test scores in reading and math will inevitably narrow the curriculum only to what is tested. This is not good education.

“Last week, he said in a speech that teachers should not be paid more for experience and graduate degrees. I wonder why a man of his vast wealth spends so much time trying to figure out how to cut teachers’ pay. Does he truly believe that our nation’s schools will get better if we have teachers with less education and less experience? Who does he listen to? He needs to get himself a smarter set of advisers.

“Of course, we need to make teaching a profession that attracts and retains wonderful teachers, but the current anti-teacher rhetoric emanating from him and his confreres demonizes and demoralizes even the best teachers. I have gotten letters from many teachers who tell me that they have had it, they have never felt such disrespect; and I have also met young people who tell me that the current poisonous atmosphere has persuaded them not to become teachers. Why doesn’t he make speeches thanking the people who work so hard day after day, educating our nation’s children, often in difficult working conditions, most of whom earn less than he pays his secretaries at Microsoft?”

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