My Turn: Bill Gates on Education and Innovation

By Bill Gates   

During my first year working full time in philanthropy, I met a variety of brilliant people, including AIDS researchers, agronomists developing drought-tolerant crops, and teachers trying to find new ways to inspire students. These people all have different jobs, but they have at least one ambition in common: a desire to innovate. As the world struggles back from the recession of 2009, it's hard to be hopeful about the future. But because of our constant search for progress, I am very optimistic. It's our ingenuity that makes the difference between a bleak future and a bright one.

If we project what the world will be like 10 years from now without additional breakthroughs in health, energy, and food, the picture is quite dark. People in poor countries will continue to die from preventable diseases, energy costs will escalate, and the world's population will overwhelm the land available for farming. But innovations will allow us to avoid these bleak outcomes, improving lives in the U.S. and around the world. With better access to vaccines and drugs, health in poor countries will continue to improve. With better seeds, training, and access to markets, farmers in poor countries will grow more food. With a clean way to produce cheap electricity, we will reduce emissions and avert the worst effects of climate change.

But unfortunately, society does not generally invest enough in innovation—especially in areas where it would help the poor (who aren't an attractive market) and where there isn't an agreed-upon measure of excellence. In the U.S., that means we have not invested nearly what we should in innovation for education. Our education system has been fundamental to our success as a nation, but the way we prepare students has barely changed in 100 years. If we don't find ways to improve our schools, making them more effective and more accessible, we won't fulfill our commitment to equal opportunity, and we will become less competitive with other countries.

It's amazing how much a teacher in the top quartile can help a struggling student. But when it comes to feedback, many teachers lack the guidance to help them be great. Instead of specific reviews that discuss their performance, they often get a checklist of basics, like showing up on time and keeping the classroom clean. We need a new system of evaluation, one that delves into specific weaknesses and suggests ways for teachers to work on them. Such a system must also be predictable, of course, so teachers won't fear that it's capricious. It also needs to incorporate things like feedback from students, parents, and fellow teachers, as well as time spent reviewing actual teaching.

In pursuit of this new system, our foundation has pledged more than $300 million to districts in Tampa, Memphis, Pittsburgh, and a coalition of charter schools in Los Angeles. Teachers in these cities will be among the first in the country to receive incentive pay that is based on effectiveness. We have also set aside $45 million to study fair, reliable measures of effectiveness. If most of the teachers in these locations like the new approach and share their positive experiences, then these methods will spread. Our goal is for them to become standard practice nationwide.

Another crucial innovation in education involves using interactive technology to deliver high-quality materials for teachers and students. Now that watching videos is a standard part of the Internet experience, we can put great lectures online so that everyone can benefit from the best teachers. (Personally, I like the online physics and chemistry courses from MIT.) Alternatively, software can also be used to tailor lessons to individual students, so kids can stop spending time on the things they already know and focus on the areas they are confused about. While it won't replace face-to-face teaching, it could make remedial courses far more effective—helping students move on to the next phase of their education instead of discouraging them into dropping out. That's the kind of innovation that can lead to a brighter future for everyone.

Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This essay is adapted from his 2010 annual letter, available at gatesfoundation.org/annualletter.

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