On February 5, 2009, Bill Gates gave a twenty minute talk at the TED conference and spoke on the topic, “How I’m trying to change the world now.” He spoke about two issues: malaria and education reform. If you forward the video to the 8:00 mark, you can immediately start listening to his remarks about education.

Bill started by asking a simple question, “How do you make a teacher great?” Before answering the question, he discusses why this is a vitally important question. He contends that educational opportunities for the bottom 80% of students are getting worse today, while our economy is really rewarding those who have better educations.

Bill talks about how stunned he was to initially learn the “bad news” statistics about our educational system. More than 30% of students currently do not finish high school. He explains that number used to be hidden, because dropouts were tracked only across the senior year of high school rather than across the K-12 educational spectrum. For minority kids, Bill says the dropout rate is over 50%. Low income students have less than a 25% chance of ever completing a college degree. Low income students have a higher probability of going to jail than getting a higher education degree.

Bill explains that his foundation over the past few years has focused on different educational initiatives: small schools, scholarships, and library initiatives. He says the more they looked at it, however, HAVING GREAT TEACHERS is the key. He cites studies which look at the variation between the top quartile (25%) of teachers in a school and the bottom quartile. He contends that if all our teachers were teaching like those in the top quartile, we would be “blowing away” India and China from an educational performance standpoint in just a few years. He says we are NOT rewarding and retaining those top quartile teachers today and seeking to effectively transfer their abilities to other teachers across the profession.

In highlighting “places where good teachers are being made,” Bill cites the KIPP Houston High School in Texas. He says “what goes on [AT KIPP SCHOOLS] is great teaching.” Over 96% of KIPP graduates go on to obtain college degrees. He said KIPP teachers “are deeply engaged in making teaching better.”

Bill relates a story of visiting a KIPP school and watching a KIPP teacher in action, who was constantly running around the room looking for kids who were not paying attention or were getting bored, and calling on them to get involved by answering questions. Bill said for 5th through 8th graders, “keeping people engaged and setting the tone that everybody in the classroom needs to pay attention” is critical. He said “KIPP is doing it.”

Outside KIPP schools, Bill relates that in other schools teachers simply are not told whether or not they are “doing a good job” on a regular basis. Administrative observations (according to Bill) must be scheduled and are very limited in number during the entire school year. He says “Even the teachers who want to improve can’t do it, they don’t have the test scores.”

I do agree that focusing on ongoing learning, self-improvement from a pedagogical standpoint, and generally being a reflective practitioner is one of the most important needs we have in the education profession. From what I understand, National Board Certification is all about this process of self-examination, reflection, and continual improvement. I side with Dr. Phillip Schlechty, however, when it comes to the issue of student ENGAGEMENT. Bill Gates seems to think student engagement is mostly an issue of “paying attention.” He is making the all-too-common mistake of confusing students who are ENTRALLED with students who are ENGAGED according to Schlechty’s definition. We need students not only paying attention but just as important, ENGAGED IN MEANINGFUL WORK for our schools to improve in the ways we all hope they can. The focus must not be simply on an energetic, “performing” teacher, it must be on the LEARNING TASKS and real work which is provided for students to do both independently and together as co-learners.

In terms of Bill’s argument that “teachers don’t have the data” to know how their students are doing, my own experiences and observations in Texas and Oklahoma schools with benchmark testing refute this. We are over-testing our students with standardized assessments in many, many cases today. Increasing the quantity of testing in our schools is NOT part of the recipe for improving schools in the 21st century. As Oklahoma state school superintendent Sandy Garrett said last week in her opening comments at the Oklahoma Technology Association’s annual conference, we need to REDUCE the amount of mandated, standardized testing taking place now in our schools.

In proposing solutions for what we CAN do to improve our schools, Bill observes first that much more testing IS going on, but says this is positive because it gives us a better picture of “where we are.” He asserts, “That allows us to understand who is doing it well and call them out and find out what those techniques are.” He suggests that digital video recorders could be installed in all classrooms and turned on, so teachers can readily share videos of themselves “teaching well” with other teachers so they could seek to replicate the same effective teaching methods. He suggests “Teachers can all sit together and work on those problems” [which are identified in the videos.] This may be a promising idea in theory, but it requires a change in the BELL SCHEDULE to accomplish. We need to make those schedule changes to provide both teachers and students with more TIME to learn in-depth and with high levels of inquiry and quality.

The elephants in the room here are the issues of TIME and academic standards. I wholeheartedly agree we need to establish an educational culture in our schools which supports teacher collaboration and peer-assessment. We can’t do that, however, with the current bell schedules we maintain in our schools. We can’t do that with a factory-model of education. We need to change the bell schedule, and sadly in most school districts today the bell schedule is not on the table for change or reform. In addition, we must reduce the ridiculously large number of academic standards we require teachers to teach and students to learn. We have 3200 in grades K-12 in Oklahoma. This is ridiculous, and has led to a “teach to the standards” and “teach to the test” mentality rather than a “teach with a challenging and meaningful curriculum which meets the standards” approach.

Bill also advocates sharing the best teacher lectures freely on the Internet as well as on DVD media as a way to address our educational challenges. This reminds me of the website Academic Earth, which I learned about this past week from Eric Hileman. I agree we need to utilize the amazing power and potential of asynchronously recorded digital videos in all our classes to a much greater extent, but doing this requires a very important step: Putting wireless computers in the hands of every teacher and student in grade three and above in our nation. Interestingly, Bill didn’t say anything at all about one to one computing in his speech.

In his speech, think Bill made a contradictory error in asserting that through access to digital videos of “the best teachers” our students “can have the best teachers.” Simply having access to high-quality video content will not provide our students with the GREAT teachers which Bill Gates correctly asserts our students need and deserve. In addition to good content knowledge, what makes great teachers great is their ability to cultivate relationships with their students. Certainly there are many students who don’t “need” a professional relationship with their teachers or instructors in order to “do well” in academic terms in school. But how about those students in “the lower quartile?” How about those students in alternative educational settings, for whom the “traditional school system” has not worked? Do you think those students simply need access to Academic Earth online? Having more choices about the ways they access content and demonstrate their own mastery IS an important part of differentiated learning, and students at all levels should have those options. Providing great teachers for our students means far more than simply providing access to high quality video lectures, however. It means investing in and supporting teachers who care, understand, and relate to their students so they can encourage, challenge, and support them in their own individualized journeys of learning.

Bill Gates recommends the book about KIPP, “Work Hard, Be Nice” by newspaper reporter Jay Matthews to his TED audience. He did, in fact, promise to provide everyone in the audience with a free copy of the book. I admit I have not yet read the book so I can’t speak to its themes, but I would have recommended any book by Phil Schlechty over a book written by a non-educator.

At the conclusion of his speech, Bill contends, “Education is THE most important thing to get right for the country to have as strong a future as it should have.” His main approach, however, is to provide “data systems” which could help facilitate the sharing of teacher best-practices. For all the research he has undoubtedly read along with employees of the Gates Foundation, I must say that is a very uninspiring and unhopeful prescription for architecting school 2.0.

Later today I’ll be traveling to Portland, Oregon, for the ITSC2009 Conference. Our keynote speaker Sunday night is Sir Ken Robinson, who will present on the topic “Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative.” I just picked up a copy of Sir Ken’s new book, “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything,” and look forward to reading that on the plane enroute to Oregon. I look forward to contrasting the ideas Ken shares about education reform in our nation with those Bill Gates just shared a few weeks ago at TED.

I’m thinking I’ll notice a few marked differences.

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8 Responses to Bill Gates on Education Reform in Feb 2009

  1. Steve Shann says:

    What an excellent post. I love your balanced approach, carefully sifting what is promising and true in Gates’s analysis, and where he makes those common assumptions that are so detrimental to really significant educational reform. I don’t know much about Bill Gates beyond the superficial stuff that’s written in the press here in Australia, but I get the impression from your summary (I haven’t watched the video) that he is thoughtful and genuinely wanting to make a difference. I wonder who is advising him? I wonder how people like you might give him some other things to think about?

  2. @ Wes
    I think anyone with a head on their shoulders knows that great teachers make a huge difference. I’d rather have my sons crammed into a classroom with 40 kids and have a great teacher than a room with 10 and an average teacher. From an administrator perspective I would love to spend every day roaming the halls visiting classrooms and providing immediate feedback but you’ve hit on the elephant of “time”. Administrators are hired to be instructional leaders but the majority of their time is spent putting out fires caused by the 5% of teachers in the building who are terrible or the 5% of adult constituents who have some underlying pathology. But anyway this post and others certainly challenge me as an administrator to reflect on how much of my time is spent on improving the quality of teaching. I think the more time I can allocate to this area the bigger impact it will have on students and their engagement.

  3. Blake says:

    You can reduce high school drop outs by requiring a high school diploma to receive a permanent drivers license!Remember driving is a privilege not a right.

  4. Brad Wilson says:

    Wes, couldn’t agree with you more here. I watched this Gates speech with interest this week since I recently returned from an Apple Education briefing (http://dreambition.blogspot.com/2009/01/apple-executive-briefing-feasibility-of.html) and wanted to compare his philosophies to those of Apple. I was also uninspired and disappointed on the whole, although YES great teachers are the first order of business in any school. I wonder if it is a business move not to mention lowering the student-to-computer ratio since Apple dominates the world of 1:1? Also, it made me cringe to hear him calling for more testing and data. Its great when huge philanthopic efforts are focused on education, but I agree with you that Mr. Gates could use some direction from Sir Ken (among many others)on how our students can really succeed with 21st c. teaching and learning environments.

  5. […] Bill Gates on Education Reform in Feb 2009 » Moving at the Speed of Creativity (tags: education fromtwitter) […]

  6. Greg Carroll says:

    I agree Wes (http://blog.core-ed.net/greg/2009/02/bill-gates-on-what-makes-a-great-teacher.html). As a Principal I think it is sad that so much air time is given to the non-educators when they spout about education.
    What Bill Gates is espousing will work well to produce computers but we are not in the business of turning out clones in our schools. Are test scores the real/only ‘test’ of educational success? What about the ARTS? What about being a useful member of society? I believe schools have an obligation to ignite passion in children – for learning and for life.
    Please tell me we are not going to say a kid is a ‘2b’ for passion?

    Skilled teachers develop relationships and instill passion and commitment in the children in their class/es. This is not something you will get from a video or is replicable in terms of simple ‘behaviour’.
    As I finished my post ….”This sort of industrial, cookie-cutter model of our profession demeans it.”

  7. Yes, kids need to pay attention. They also need to receive attention, the kind that makes them feel good, supported and thrilled about what they’re doing, especially when they’re in their “element” as Sir Ken Robinson writes – and I have heard him two times, which is hardly enough – we need to support our kids passions, their intrinsic gifts, their souls, rather than making them into conforming employees…our entire perspective about kids, schools and parenting needs to be overhauled…We need more right- brain thinkers to get out of left-brain, statistical thinking — humans are just not statistics!

  8. […] again, simple access to great content in a variety of formats is not the only we need. Wes Fryer’s review of Bill Gates recent Ted talk addresses this issue: In his speech, think Bill made a contradictory […]

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