Today’s Washington Post features an op-ed by Bill Gates titled How teacher development could revolutionize our schools.  Teachers are the latest focus of Gates and his foundation.  Before I respond to anything in this particular piece, let me remind readers that the last time Bill Gates got enthused about something in education, it was small schools.   His foundations sank a huge amount of money into getting districts to create small schools while ignoring the research that had been done by those who had focused on the issue for years.  The result was that the endeavor was not all that successful, the foundation has now pulled out of the effort, in some cases pulling the plug on ongoing efforts it had encouraged, and unfortunately tarnishing the concept and making it more difficult for those attempting to do it right.

Gates is now pushing a focus on teachers and teaching.  That in itself would not be bad, except that as seems part and parcel of his approach, he has already locked himself in to certain approaches that are not necessarily going to help students all that much.  And in the process, some of what he is advocating has the potential, especially in the times in which we find ourselves, to do great damage to teaching and thus to the learning of the students.

I will not explore all of the op ed.  I simply have more important things – my students – to which I have to pay attention.  I will focus on only one of his suggestions, which addresses the issue of class size, while combining it with merit pay, all of which is presumably based on some measure of teacher effectiveness.

Gates wants to do away with longevity increases.  He does not want to pay more for advanced degrees.   His arguments against these is largely based on test scores, not even value added test scores, since there is not a lot of other material currently available in the peer reviewed research.  He is paying to develop better measures of teacher effectiveness, including working on a protocol to evaluate teachers by rating videotaped lessons.  Part of the approach being used is the evaluation protocol used by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, in which evaluation of video tapes of PARTS of two lessons is PART of the overall process of determining if a teacher qualifies for National Board Certification -  disclosure:  I am a National Board Certified Teacher.   I worry in reading Gates that his approach seems to be taking PART of that process and attempting to turn it in to the only measure, or at least to magnify it as a measure out of proportion to the other parts of the process.

That said, Gates apparently does not even want to wait to fully pilot this process.  Thus we read two key paragraphs: 

Perhaps the most expensive assumption embedded in school budgets – and one of the most unchallenged – 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.

Let me just focus on this.   In theory, it might make more sense to give the “better” teachers more students, but Gates ignores the fact that many of us already teach too many students.   And the proposal ignores the fact that in many school systems class sizes are already increasing for all teachers because of the financial pressures local and state governments are experiencing.  We recently heard that high school class sizes in Detroit could go up to as many as 60 students.

And yes, as teachers have had salaries frozen -  in our districts we have gone more than a year without step increases – or even worse, experienced cuts – in my case, loss of 7,000 in national board stipends and four furlough days – some desperately need any additional money they can earn to pay their bills.  Believe me, I know.

Yet many of us already teach classes that are too big.  My three Advanced Placement classes currently have 36, 38 and 38 students.  I can in its current configuration only get 39 student desks into my room.  My department chair wants to go in a different direction -  she is trying to lower my class sizes in AP, so that they don’t go above 33.  Thus I may have 4 sections of AP next year, but since AP classes are larger than those for the regular students, my student load will not go down – my regular classes currently have 19, 25 and 31 students.  Next year I will have two such classes, probably both as 30.  Do the math.  I will have as many as 132 AP students (compared to my current 112) and as many as 60 regular students.  That will take me right back to what was my peak load before some students withdrew from our school of 192.

It is odd to see Gates dismissing class size as a means of more effective learning.  It is one of the few reforms which when done right has a solid peer-reviewed research base to support it.   It is especially important in teaching reading and writing – one problem with the size of my AP classes and my total number of AP students is how little time I can give to each student’s writing.  Remember those 112 AP students.  If I give one written assignment that they all turn in, and it takes me only 3 minutes per paper to read, correct and advise per paper, that is 336 minutes for one set of papers.  That is more than 5.5 hours of time outside of school to correct one set of papers.  Increasing class sizes in secondary schools means that teachers lose the ability to work as effectively in helping students to write better.

I have always noted two problems with mandating smaller class sizes.  The first is whether we actually had the physical plant to accomplish it -  smaller class sizes means more classrooms.  The other is one on which Gates is partially correct – to gain the full benefit of smaller classes requires more quality teachers, which in many cases we currently lack.

But what then should be our response?  Should it not be to work on training, inducting, mentoring and supervising our teacher corps so that we have MORE quality teachers?  If your solution is to increase the class sizes of those of us supposedly superior, it does not matter that you pay us more – each additional student in our rooms means that we become somewhat less effective for all of the students in that room. We get forced to move more in the direction of lecture, the classes may become more teacher centered rather than student centered.

Meanwhile, decreasing the class sizes of the “less effective” teachers does not in itself make them any more effective.  Meanwhile, by changing the compensation structure in order to accomplish this, you create an entirely different set of problems, including destroying what should be the cooperative nature of teaching among the teachers in a building and in a department.

In short, Gates is yet again not fully understanding the nature of an aspect of education, taken his partial understanding, getting a bee in his bonnet, and using his billions to try to force education to move in a direction he has decided it needs to go, even though he never taught, and in fact never even attended public schools.  I would not be surprised to find that his largest classes in the elite private high school he attended never even reached the size of my current smallest class.  I do not thing he understands how much the dynamics of a class can change by adding 4 or 5 students, how much it restricts the ability of a good teacher to know students as well as they otherwise would be known.  Perhaps he is thinking about an elementary teacher with one class.  I teach 6.  Increasing my classes by an average of 4 or 5 would mean increasing my total load by 24-30, or almost the equivalent of adding one additional class.

I will refrain from comments about the track record of the company from which Gates derives his billions, although as a Certified Data Processor and a one-time Certified Systems Professional with over 20 years in the field before I became a teacher I am more qualified to talk about his business than he is to talk about my profession.

Rather, let me close with these thoughts.  Wouldn’t it be nice if governors, school boards, and especially journalists and op ed writers, would given even 1/10 of the attention to professional educators as they do to the likes of Bill Gates?  Then, just maybe, we could have an honest and productive discussion of what we need to do to improve our schools.

There are plenty of teachers who could participate in such a discussion.  Some of us devote time to study, to know the data, to try to educate policy makers.  Some of us were in New York with the Education Writers Association.  That was a rare case where our voices were somewhat heard.

I don’t have billions.  My school system and state pension board are taking actions that could force me into retirement for financial reasons.  Following the logic of a Bill Gates, the two new teachers who could be hired to replace me with the same money I receive may financially be more beneficial for the school system, but I question if it would be more beneficial to the almost 200 students I teach each year.

I cost more.  I have several advanced degrees.  I have more than 15 years of teaching experience.  What makes me a superior teacher is that I am constantly reflecting and attempting to become an even better teachers.  Give me another 20-30 students and I will have less time for each student, and even less time to reflect and improve.  Replace me with two rookies and the students they teach will be the material on which those newbies learn how to teach.

Gates may be well meaning.   Unfortunately, what he proposes is not well thought out, and is likely – as was his effort to propagate small schools – be counterproductive to real improvements in teaching and learning.


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About the Author

Kenneth Bernstein

Kenneth Bernstein is a National Board certified social studies teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland, where he serves as the lead union representative for the teachers. He blogs as "teacherken" at Daily Kos and has written for The New York Times, Teacher, CNN.Com, and Huffington Post. He is a 2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher.

3 Responses to A partial response to Bill Gates’ op-ed about teachers

  1. Paul Rosenberg says:

    Three Things To Remember About Bill Gates

    (1) He bought DOS, the foundation of his empire. He did not write or develop it.

    (2) He missed the emergence of the Internet & had to play catch-up.

    (3) He has no background in education.

    So, his education record is not all that surprising.

  2. Jeff Bryant says:

    Excellent post Ken. But we need to get off the defensive and be way more offensive. In particular, letting parents consider how they would like the “founder” of Microsoft controlling what their children learn in school. We need to frame ed-deform as the technocrats taking over and the testing as mass socialization much like the videos of throngs of Japanese kids learning the violin via the Suzuki method.

  3. seabos84 says:

    Class size doesn’t matter – tell that to the ritzy Seattle prep school you went to Bill – Lakeside.

    I worked as a low level serf at Microsoft for 5 years before and after the dot.bomb – this guys is so accustomed to having toadies singing his glories that he doesn’t notice the ridiculous inconsistencies?

    Other than the random technical wonder kids in redmond, for the rest success is a function of back stabbing, ass kissing and mastering doublethink …

    once we bring the marry the egos of Julius Caesar (the Shakespeare one)to powerpoint and 1984 education will … be a thousand points of light!


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