Bill Gates is raising his arm, bent at the elbow, in the direction of the ceiling. The point he’s making is so important that he wants me and the pair of Gates Foundation staffers sitting in the hotel conference room in Louisville, Ky., to recognize the space between this thought and every lower-ranking argument. “If there’s one thing that can be done for the country, one thing,” Gates says, his normally modulated voice rising, “improving education rises so far above everything else!” He doesn’t say what the “else” is—deficit reduction? containing Iran? free trade?—but they’re way down toward the floor compared with the arm above that multibillion-dollar head. With the U.S. tumbling since 1995 from second in the world to 16th in college-graduation rates and to 24th place in math (for 15-year-olds), it was hard to argue the point. Our economic destiny is at stake.
Gates had just finished giving a speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers in which he tried to explain how administrators could hope to raise student achievement in the face of tight budgets. The Microsoft founder went through what he sees as false solutions—furloughs, sharing textbooks—before focusing on the true “cost drivers”: seniority-based pay and benefits for teachers rising faster than state revenues.
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.
Gates hardly has all the answers: he spent $2 billion a decade ago breaking up big high schools into smaller ones and didn’t get the results he’d hoped for. Today, he’s too enamored of handheld devices for tracking student performance. They could end up as just another expensive, high-tech gimmick. But you’ve got to give Gates credit for devoting so much of his brain and fortune to this challenge. His biggest adversary now is Diane Ravitch, a jaundiced former Education Department official under George H.W. Bush, who changed sides in the debate and now attacks Gates-funded programs in books and articles. Ravitch, the Whittaker Chambers of school reform, gives intellectual heft to the National Education Association’s campaign to discredit even superb charter schools and trash intriguing reform ideas that may threaten its power.
When I asked Gates about Ravitch, you could see the Micro-hard hombre who once steamrolled software competitors: “Does she like the status quo? Is she sticking up for decline? Does she really like 400-page [union] contracts? Does she think all those ‘dropout factories’ are lonely? If there’s some other magic way to reduce the dropout rate, we’re all ears.” Gates understands that charters aren’t a silver bullet, and that many don’t perform. But he doesn’t have patience for critics who spend their days tearing down KIPP schools and other models that produce results.
There’s a backlash against the rich taking on school reform as a cause. Some liberals figure they must have an angle and are scapegoating teachers. But most of the wealthy people underwriting this long-delayed social movement for better performance are on the right track. Like the rest of us, they know that if we don’t fix education, we can kiss our future goodbye.
Jonathan Alter is also the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One and The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.