Gates and Weingarten: Fixing Our Nation's Schools

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Bill Gates and Randi Weingarten in Washington, D.C. Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum for Newsweek

Our schools are lagging behind the rest of the world. Why is that? How did we fall so far behind?

Gates: Well, it’s the big issue. A lot of other countries have put effort into their school systems. So part of it is the competition is better. The Chinese, who have a 10th of our wealth, are running a great education system. There are some things we can learn from other systems. They have a longer school day in most countries, and a longer school year in most countries. And some of them have elements of their personnel system that are worth learning from.

Weingarten: What we’re seeing is that the United States, instead of moving ahead, is actually stagnating. We’re basically in the same place we’ve been, and these countries have moved forward. They’ve spent a lot of time investing in the preparation and support of teachers. Many of them teach a common curriculum, very similar to the common standards that Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation have been supporting. And they create the tools and conditions that teachers need to teach, and they have mutual respect and accountability. So kids have a role in terms of education, parents have a role in terms of education, teachers have a role in terms of education, and policymakers do as well.

Gates: I agree with all that, except we spend more money by every measure than any other system. Any way you look at it we spend by far the most money. So that is a dilemma. What are we going to do to get more out of the investments we make? Are there practices in terms of helping teachers be better that we can fit into our system? What can you do to help the teachers be better? You know, a quarter of our teachers are very good. If you could make all the teachers as good as the top quarter, the U.S. would soar to the top of that comparison. So can you find the way to capture what the really good teachers are doing? It’s amazing to me that more has not been invested in looking at how does that good teacher calm that classroom? How does that good teacher keep the attention of all those kids? We need to measure what they do, and then have incentives for the other teachers to learn those things.

Weingarten: Football teams do this all the time. They look at the tape after every game. Sometimes they do it during the game. They’re constantly deconstructing what is working and what isn’t working. And they’re jettisoning what isn’t working and building up on what is working, and doing it in a teamlike approach. We never do that investment in public schooling. What’s happening in Finland is they do that investment in the graduate schools of education before people become teachers. They recruit a very select group of people who become teachers. Now it is also true that Finland has a 5 percent poverty rate and the United States has a 20 percent poverty rate. But there’s this notion of really figuring out what the best teachers do and trying to scale that up.

Bill, you mentioned that the top quarter of our teachers are very good. But that’s probably the case in Finland, too. It can’t be the case that every teacher in Finland is some amazing teacher.

Gates: They actually run a personnel system, which is kind of an amazing thing. You have a review, and you’re told what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. If over a period of time you’re not improving, then you move to another profession. So, Finland, Korea, Singapore—they run teacher personnel systems. In the U.S. we have one of the most predictive personnel systems mankind ever invented—try to remember how many years you’ve worked, and you will know your salary.

Weingarten: Our schools have to be fundamentally different today than they were 100 years ago, 50 years ago. And yet our schools are still organized for the industrial age rather than the knowledge economy. We need to work together to try to figure out a good evaluation system that’s based upon multiple measures and says to a teacher, this is what you’re doing right, and this is what you’re not doing right, and based upon a lot of different things, how do we improve? And if we can’t improve, how do we find a way to counsel you out of the profession? That’s what we’re trying to do.

You say “counsel people out of the profession.” Is that something you can’t do now?

Gates: Under the Colorado law or under the Washington, D.C., system, if the measures show you as being ineffective, I think it’s two years in a row, then you’re up for review, and despite your seniority you can be let go.

Weingarten: Actually, in almost all places if you don’t do well under an evaluation system, you can be let go. The tenure process is supposed to simply be a fairness process. The reality is that managers don’t do their jobs.

Gates: There is no evaluation. For 90 percent of the teachers in America there’s no feedback. Now, we don’t need to argue about how it got that way. Was that the management? Was it the union? That is the way it is. And there aren’t many professions like that. So that’s got to change. It’s got to change in a way that’s a positive message for teachers, and that’s not high overhead, and that’s not capricious. A lot of people moved ahead just using the [student] test scores [to measure teacher performance], which I would claim is better than doing nothing. But it’s not as good as what we’re trying to craft together, where you have these other measures, like videotaping classrooms, peer interviews, and student interviews.

Weingarten: When I taught, the way in which we got evaluated is what I used to call the drive-by evaluation. Somebody would come in for 20 minutes with a checklist and that would be your evaluation. So it was clearly a snapshot. The tests are a snapshot. Neither one of them gets you to this point where you can use an evaluation system to help teachers continually improve and to help kids learn. But that work has to get done collaboratively. School systems by and large do not work collaboratively. They basically work on conflict. Conflict is the status quo in education. In Pittsburgh and in Hillsborough County, Fla., two of the places where the Gates Foundation has heavily invested, you see a culture of working together to make these changes.

Randi, you’ve talked about moving from the industrial age into a knowledge economy. But aren’t unions just relics of the industrial era? Does the concept of a union itself make sense in a knowledge economy?

Weingarten: Of course it does. You look at the different countries that are vastly more successful than we are, and they’re all unionized.

Gates: Yeah, but you won’t find any other country that has the work rules that we have. Go read the American Federation of Teachers New York work rules. It’s a mind-blowing document. They [other countries] don’t have anything like this. There is nothing that says you only have to work this many minutes on this, you only have to work this many minutes on that. In any of the top-10 countries you won’t have anything like that. We’re the only one without a real personnel system.

Weingarten: A lot of that is because the status quo has been this conflict. We have to break out of that. If you create a collaborative environment where teachers are trusted, you break out of the mold of the industrial economy, and the factory model, which is what a lot of these contracts are. Also, in places where the schools are working, people never look at the contract.

Should we have a national curriculum in the United States?

Gates: There’s actually a state-driven move to share standards. There is a resistance to it starting at the national level and being imposed by the national level. But that’s OK, because what happened is a few states took the lead and got together and said, hey, we want to share. And now we have 43 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have committed to use these standards, and that was not imposed by the federal government. Actually, it looks like we’re on a path where five years from now a lot of the states—and 10 years from now, almost all the states—will have a common curriculum. I think this is going to be a good thing. It’s going to drive some efficiency. This curriculum’s not just a standard where they arbitrarily pick things. It’s actually a better curriculum.

Weingarten: In the past we have focused on wide and not deep. What these other countries do is they focus on deep. So if you actually look at some work in Japan or in Singapore on mathematics, kids really understand fractions. They don’t just memorize what a fraction is. They don’t just say one half equals 50 percent and that’s memorized. They understand how you get there. What our new common standards do is they are deeper and fewer. They’re designed, again, around the idea of what do we need to do to help kids in the 21st century, in the knowledge economy? And what do we need to do if a kid goes to school one year in New York but next year in Washington, D.C.? How do we make sure that there are some really core concepts that are common so that we are taking into account the mobility of children?

What about this notion of giving tenure to teachers? That seems ridiculous.

Weingarten: Well, tenure is a proxy for fairness and a proxy to ensure that teachers are not treated arbitrarily and capriciously. But it shouldn’t be lifetime job security, and I think that when you start thinking about how to have good evaluation systems that actually align with the due-process system, then you have the best of both worlds. We do not have an epidemic of bad teachers. But we don’t support our teachers the way countries that outcompete us do. These other countries spend a lot of time figuring out how to prepare and how to support teachers and how to align teachers’ work with what kids ought to do.

Gates: No, we spend more on professional development than they do. We spend more on salaries than they do. We spend more on pensions than they do. We spend more on retirement health benefits than they do. But we have less evaluation than they do. In many districts you have to give advance notice before anybody can come into your classroom. That’s part of the contract. So there are some real differences in terms of the personnel system in these other countries.

Bill, when you talk I can hear the frustration in your voice. Does this stuff drive you crazy?

Gates: The only thing that drives anybody crazy is the results for the students, which right now nobody’s happy with. And so everybody wants to change. But how quickly they want to change, and what they want to change, everybody has their own ideas. I have a graph that shows spending from 1970 to now, and it goes up and up, while achievement is basically flat. Over the next period of time we need achievement to look more like that spending line. And unfortunately, because of fiscal realities, we’re going to have to fight for spending on K–12 to even stay flat.

To me, Bill’s graph seems to demonstrate the effect of organized labor on any industry. You could say the same thing happened in Detroit.

Weingarten: Well, it is the effect of organized labor and others in creating a middle class in this country. Ultimately we have to figure out how to maintain a middle class and yet also how to ensure consistent, high quality. That’s really the challenge that we have to do for workers, and that’s the challenge we have to do for kids.

Gates: These things take time. Even in the best case, if you improve teachers today, the country doesn’t see the benefit of that for 15 years or so. So to be in this business you have to have a long-term view. You know, when [New York] Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg decided to get involved in the schools, he knew that the benefits were going to be way, way out there. So you can’t be too impatient.

Daniel Lyons is also the author of Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs and Dog Days: A Novel.

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