Bill Gates – out of touch with teachers

Dec 8, 2010, 2:44 AM | Updated: Mar 28, 2011, 3:46 pm

When you read about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, often the article is related to the millions of dollars they donate to enhance healthcare and reduce poverty around the world. Did you know that in the United States, all of their foundation dollars are spent on one thing – education.

The Gates Foundation’s focus on education is making many public school leaders nervous and they say the billionaire who co-founded Microsoft is out of touch with classroom teachers.

“Not all of the ideas that he has espoused necessarily reflect what educators who work with kids, our students, every single day know will really make a difference,” says Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association.

Gates and teachers unions are trying to improve education, but they have different and sometimes conflicting ideas about how that should be done.

Comparing test scores in the United States, with other countries,
Bill Gates said during recent speech that public education systems here are not doing a great job.

Gates“A statistic I find unbelievable is if you’re a low income child in this country, you have a greater chance of ending up in jail than getting a four-year college diploma,” Gates says.

Comparing Washington state with the rest of the U.S., Lindquist says our public education system is not at the top of the pack.

“In Washington state we came into this recession as one of the worst-funded school systems in the nation,” she says. “We spend less educating each child than all but three or four states.”

Both Gates and Lindquist agree education systems aren’t as efficient or effective as they should be. How do we improve education?

Lindquist says we need to spend more money, but “frankly we have just lacked the political will to step up to the plate and provide the funding for our schools.”

Washington has at least a $1 billion budget gap for the current spending cycle, and will be in the hole another $5.7 billion during the next biennium. It’s not likely the legislature will spend more money on education. Lindquist fears cuts to all-day kindergarten programs and increasing class sizes.

The Gates Foundation announced partnerships yesterday with nine cities, none in Washington, to help public and charter schools figure out the best way to help students in their communities.

Gates has also been an advocate of changing the way teachers are evaluated and doing away with bonuses for educators with master’s degrees. He says there’s no proof those teachers are better for students in the classroom than others.

“The people who are really improving the test scores aren’t studied to see how they do it,” he says. “There are clearly a lot of great teachers, but then some are not so great.”

Washington has an average teacher salary bump of $11,000 for a master’s degree, and more than half our teachers get it. That’s spending $300 million a year in a way that “doesn’t make a difference” for kids, he says.

Lindquist’s response?

“This appears to be the idea du jour of how to change our schools,” she says. “I honestly appreciate the interest in trying to figure out some way for our schools to address the huge budget shortfalls and the cuts to education. I see this as an attempt, perhaps a misguided one, to try and figure out some way to stretch those dollars.”

She also says now is not the time to be debating teacher pay kinds of issues.

“When your house is on fire, you probably need to focus on putting out the fire and not worry about decorating your living room,” Lindquist says. “We need to be looking at the bigger issues and broader problems facing our schools and not trying to do these interesting, perhaps intriguing ideas. We need to take a step back and really address the bigger issue.”

Gates disagrees.

“I’d say that figuring out how to do schools effectively – how to keep the best teachers, how to improve the average quality of the teachers, how to use new technology – is even more important at this time,” says Gates.

The Gates photo is a screen grab from a documentary film he appeared in this year about education. “Waiting for Superman” analyzed the failures of American public education by following several students through the system. Critics complained the Davis Guggenheim production unfairly portrayed American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten as a villain to super-heroes of school reform.

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Bill Gates – out of touch with teachers