How to be Smarter about School Reform . . . in the words of Bill Gates

Here is an interesting op-ed school article which appeared in this week’s Washington Post.  The opinion article was written by one of the country’s famous billionaires, Bill Gates and addresses school reform.  In his remarks, Gates takes on teacher seniority, suggesting that longevity and advanced degrees of teachers does not necessarily equate to an increase in student achievement.

How to be smarter about school reform
Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
This column appeared in The Washington Post, Feb 27, 2011

As the nation’s governors gathered in Washington for their annual meeting, they were grappling with more than state budget deficits. They’re confronting deep education deficits as well.

Over the past four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled, while our student achievement has remained virtually flat. Meanwhile, other countries have raced ahead. The same pattern holds for higher education. Spending has climbed, but our percentage of college graduates has dropped compared with other countries.

To build a dynamic 21st century economy and offer every American a high-quality education, we need to flip the curve. For more than 30 years, spending has risen while performance stayed relatively flat. Now we need to raise performance without spending a lot more.

When you need more achievement for less money, you have to change the way you spend. This year, the governors are launching “Complete to Compete,” a program to help colleges get more value for the money they spend. It will develop metrics to show which colleges graduate more students for less money, so we can see what works and what doesn’t. In K-12, we know more about what works.

We know that of all the variables under a school’s control, the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching. It is astonishing what great teachers can do for their students.

Yet compared with the countries that outperform us in education, we do very little to measure, develop and reward excellent teaching. We have been expecting teachers to be effective without giving them feedback and training.

To flip the curve, we have to identify great teachers, find out what makes them so effective, and transfer those skills to others so more students can enjoy top teachers and high achievement.

To this end, our foundation is working with nearly 3,000 teachers in seven urban school districts to develop fair and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness that are tied to gains in student achievement. Research teams are analyzing videos of more than 13,000 lessons — focusing on classes that showed big student gains so it can be understood how the teachers did it. At the same time, teachers are watching their own videos to see what they need to do to improve their practice.

Our goal is a new approach to development and evaluation that teachers endorse and that helps all teachers improve. The value of measuring effectiveness is clear when you compare teachers to members of other professions — farmers, engineers, computer programmers, even athletes. These professionals are more advanced than their predecessors because they have clear indicators of excellence, their success depends on performance, and they eagerly learn from the best.

The same advances haven’t been made in teaching because we haven’t built a system to measure and promote excellence. The United States spends $50 billion a year on automatic salary increases based on teacher seniority. It’s reasonable to suppose that teachers who have served longer are more effective, but the evidence says that’s not true. After the first few years, seniority seems to have no effect on student achievement.

Another standard feature of school budgets is a bump in pay for advanced degrees. Such raises have almost no impact on achievement, but every year they cost $15 billion that would help students more if spent in other ways.

Perhaps the most expensive assumption embedded in school budgets is the view that reducing class size is the best way to improve student achievement. This belief has driven school budget increases for more than 50 years. U.S. schools have almost twice as many teachers per student as they did in 1960, yet achievement is roughly the same.

What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.

Compared with other countries, America has spent more and achieved less. If there’s any good news in that, it’s that we’ve had a chance to see what works and what doesn’t. That sets the stage for a big change that everyone knows we need: building exceptional teacher personnel systems that identify great teaching, reward it and help every teacher get better.

It’s the thing we’ve been missing, and it can turn our schools around.

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  1. Gates’ comments about our educational system also apply to our health care system – we spend so much more than other countries and achieve/receive so much less. Is America “rising” to the level of our own incompetence?

  2. Healthcare,, going to receive even less if we are not careful, and spend even MORE!

    There are bubbles on the horizon, education costs and healthcare costs. Pot is stirring. Still the best place to be sick is here in the good old USA

    1. Costs go up because wages (which are 70% of the costs) go up. An engineer graduating from college in India makes $9,000. He cannot live on that here, so we pay $50,000. So teachers make $50,000. So Doctors make $200,000. (more education required, the cost of which is also higher?)

      Collective bargaining in education has no measures…Ray is right that bad service in the consumer world means no customers. Not in education, and poverty dictates that at even higher levels.

  3. This is part of a new Gates initiative being launched at the TED conference. His key thesis is that rising healthcare costs and “flawed pension accounting” are preventing the investment in quality education that he thinks we need. The aspect of measuring and improving teacher effectiveness is one part of the investment he advocates.

    Here’s his view on state governments, quoted on the Huffington Post (sorry, tea partiers!): “[R]eally, when you get down to it, the guys at Enron never would have done this. This is so blatant, so extreme,” Gates said of state governments’ accounting practices generally.”

    Is there any chance that T/E can do a part at the local level? Cap total compensation after the last decade’s run-up, blow up the matrix, reallocate the same resources to reward excellence? That would really show what an excellent school system we have and aspire to make better.

    1. Is there any chance that T/E can do a part at the local level? Cap total compensation after the last decade’s run-up, blow up the matrix, reallocate the same resources to reward excellence?

      Very little chance. Try to find a district in the state without a matrix (only 2 out of 501 districts). Hatboro Horsham tried to bargain for a matrix free, pay-for-performance contract during the first year without success. They are into their 2nd year without a contract and have recently abandoned pay-for-performance (along with their superintendent and labor lawyer).

  4. “Over the past four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled, while our student achievement has remained virtually flat.”

    School Boards ponder cuts to educational programs even as the costs for public education keep increasing. Taxes increase to pay for salary and benefits even as schools cannot find the funding to maintain current educational programs.

    And it will only get worse. Healthcare and pension costs for teachers rise every year. Even in a recession, teachers unions insist on pay raises for all. And programs keep getting cut to pay for it all.

    American education will keep getting worse unless something is done to reform the way teachers unions operate. The union solution is simply to raise taxes more in order to balance bloated budgets.

    When you hear people advocating an EIT in T/E, think about whether or not that money would go to increased educational opportunities or to more raises for teachers in the next contract. If you believe it will go to expanding educational programs, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.

    1. If expenses are cut to a level below which the community will not go, and the fund balance has got to a point where the district needs to increase revenues, and those revenues are raised at a lower net cost to the residents through an EIT, and property taxes are held flat for that year and maybe the next, and property taxes thereafter are capped by Act 1, then how does that change the bargaining equation?

      I need a nice, flood-proof, low impact trail bridge across Valley Creek in an OLC preserve. Does yours meet those specs?

      1. Ray-

        The problem is your assumptions. It’s quite possible that the EIT will raise revenue at a lower net cost to the resident, but there is absolutely no guarantee or legal requirement to use that money to offset property tax increases.

        Consider this: even if the school board promised to use the EIT money to offset property tax increases, that promise isn’t legally binding and would only last at most two years (until the board composition changed).

        Even if the School Board really wanted to use the EIT revenue to keep property taxes from increasing, that is their preference and not a requirement.

        Here’s the reality of the situation: the unions will see available money in the budget– EIT, Act 1 index and Act 1 exceptions– as money available for them. You cannot have money in the budget through available tax increases and then claim poverty during union negotiations. If you want a strong negotiating position, you cannot have EIT revenue available in addition to Act 1 tax increases. The EIT is unique since the teachers know that it cannot be passed without voter approval. So- at this point- the union cannot lay claim to that money during negotiations.

        However, the union knows that Act 1 tax increases and exceptions do not require voter approval. Many unions across the state are setting their salary negotiating goals at exactly the Act 1 index. They assume that the union is entitled to salary hikes at the Index (or above) even though total teacher costs rise at a much higher rate than the index if you consider benefits and pensions.

        So getting an EIT approved does change the bargaining equation– but in favor of the union and not in favor of the taxpayers.

        You might still want an EIT as a way of “reclaiming” money sent to other districts now, but don’t advocate it because you believe it will reduce property taxes. It won’t. At most, you’d get 1 or 2 years of property tax relief in exchange for a lifetime of paying 1% of your income to the school district.

        So let’s assume that the average increase would be $200 each of those years…that means you’d temporarily avoid $400 of property tax increases in exchange for a permanent grab of 1% of your income. For most voters in T/E, that raises their lifetime expenses. And remember that the School Board could increase those property taxes at any time by taking Act 1 and exceptions. And should Act 1 be eliminated, the School Board could impose more property taxes without a cap. So EIT is not a tax shift…it’s a tax increase. I can understand why people want to view it as a tax shift, but that’s fantasy and not reality.

        1. Let me try this again. Every $ of property tax that’s avoided is permanently out of the tax base, unless the voters approve an increase above the Act 1 index.

          Let’s say that the union knows that the district has options: use fund balance, increase property taxes, implement an EIT. As seems possible, the district adopts a strategy to use the fund balance prior to the next contract, and likely into the first year of the new contract. So the union does not know what the district will do to pay for its next contract, but it knows that anything above a total cost of the Act 1 index will require a referendum, because all options to cut expenses have now been cut to the bone.

          So now let’s say that the district does its best, but takes a strike, but then the school musical is coming up and would otherwise be cancelled, so they cave and expense will go up beyond the Act 1 and Exceptions. (Remember PSERS is still escalating). No fund balance left.

          Let’s say we have $100 million of property taxes and to meet expenses have to find $10 million over 2 years. Assume inflation every year of 2%.
          a) Referendum to implement an EIT that generates $5 million in year 1 and $10 million in year 2 and thereafter. In year 3 then property taxes increase by Act 1 = inflation to $102 million. The EIT increases by inflation automatically by definition = $10.2 million. Total tax receipts = $112.2 million.
          b) No EIT. Referendum to increase property tax by $5 million/year to $110 million in Year 2. Year 3 increase by 2% = $112.2 million for Year 3.

          Same result, except the cost to the taxpayer has increased by only $7 million since $3 million is coming from taxes already paid. Also, business gets a break, employment goes up, more EIT receipts, etc. Property taxes are permanently $10 million plus inflation lower.

          Where’s my bridge?

    1. Jon and Diane were right when they said that education is part of a “complex ecosystem”, and that the driving problem in low performing schools is high poverty and racial isolation.

      Jon did miss the point, though, when he said that there is “bad everything, and why do teachers have to get singled out?” Well, that’s because there are job consequences for serving bad hamburgers.

      They are completely right, though, when they state that it will take a cooperative effort. I’d like to see TE at least do what it can from its privileged position at the top of the heap to lead the way.

      More systemically, as has occasionally been pointed out here, the social divide will keep growing as long as the electoral finance system is awash in money, districts can be gerrymandered, politicians pay back those that funded them, etc. What’s the end game? Revolution?

    2. Mr. Gates is quoted in the above article: “We know that of all the variables under a school’s control, the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching. It is astonishing what great teachers can do for their students.”

      We know that of all the variables NOT under a school’s control, the single most decisive factor in student achievement is poverty. The correlation between poverty levels and PSSA scores is astonishing.

      I would submit that if Mr. Gates were to turn his foundation’s guns to fight poverty then education would take care of fixing itself.

      The narrow focus on testing at the exclusion of everything else over the past 10 years is destructive, even in our best schools.

      Here are a few related items as food for thought, 2 from this week’s Washington Post and a link to a group of articles discussing test scores (PISA) and poverty:

      http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/diane-ravitch/jon-stewart-hosts-ravitch-rips.html (Version posted a similar link above)

      http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/guest-bloggers/a-father-agonizes-should-his-s.html#more

      http://keystonestateeducationcoalition.blogspot.com/2011/01/january-5th-pisa-poverty-and-policy.html

      1. I would submit that if Mr. Gates were to turn his foundation’s guns to fight poverty then education would take care of fixing itself.

        I would submit that Mr. Gates is having his foundation focus on the root cause of poverty – a substandard education. And he’s focusing on the most important variable under a school’s control – teachers.

  5. so which is it… poverty is root cause of poor education or poor education is root cause of poverty. Many we neerd to throw more money at public institutions.

    How about the great society experiment of the 1960’s which continues today in many forms, none of which has improved the outcomes of poverty stricken kids.

  6. I always wonder: why should superrich guys like Gates and Zuckerberg get to shape the country’s educational policies? Americans have always been wary about federal and state government controlling education; that’s why local school boards have so much autonomy. Do school boards, communities and parents trust the billionaires more than they trust Washington and Harrisburg? Or is everyone so desperate for money that rich outsiders can impose whatever new theory they want in a school system?

    I agree with Larry Feinberg: the billionaires should prioritize working on poverty, which hampers kids’ education and strips community resources and tax base. The cause and effect relationship is very clear, as Jonathan Kozol has documented in “The Shame of the Nation” and other works.

    This is not a chicken and egg question. Poor communities need excellent schools but usually don’t get even passable schools. Schools, school boards, and teachers can’t solve poverty.

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