Bill Gates provides guideposts for nation's governors on education: effective teachers, larger class sizes, charter public schools and no furlough days

Mar 3, 2011

Bill Gates, in Monday’s speech before the National Governor’s Association, offered practical policy changes to improve education within existing revenues.  Mr. Gates’ recommendations echo research and recommendations for improving education from Washington Policy Center.

Mr. Gates challenged the view that reducing class size is the best way to improve student achievement.  He pointed out that this view has driven school budget increases for more than 50 years, so that today, U.S. schools have almost twice as many teachers per student as they did in 1960.  In 1960 the ratio of students to public school employees was 20 to 1; today that ratio is 8 to 1.

Mr. Gates notes that increased staffing and spending have failed to yield the desired results.  Student achievement is roughly the same today as it was in 1960.  Mr. Gates observed that we have poured money into proxies for improving education, like smaller class sizes, automatic salary increases based on seniority and a pay bump for earning an advanced degree.   None of these expenditures has been shown to improve student learning.

Flipping this curve around — to raise student achievement while spending remains flat — is possible, said Mr. Gates.  The key is excellent teaching.  “It is astonishing what great teachers can do for their students,” said Mr. Gates.

He noted that other countries whose students outperform ours take pains to measure, develop and reward excellent teaching.  Our country, he observed, expects teachers to be effective without giving them feedback and training, and by rewarding seniority and earning credits at schools of education, not classroom effectiveness.

Mr. Gates pointed out that members of other professions study what works to improve their performance:  “Farmers, engineers, computer programmers, even athletes, are all more advanced than their predecessors because they have clear indicators of excellence, their success depends on performance and they eagerly learn from the best.”

Policymakers should develop a system to measure, promote and reward excellent teaching.  The Gates Foundation is working to identify effective teaching practices by studying the work of 3,000 teachers in seven large urban school districts, with the goal of developing a fair way of measuring effectiveness that helps all teachers improve.  Policymakers can then use this tool to reward teachers based on student achievement, peer reviews, and other measures, including student evaluations.

Mr. Gates told the governors he has closely analyzed their Common Core standards initiative and is a strong supporter of them.  The standards, he said, are a more focused, less repetitive approach than many states now have.  And by adopting the Common Core standards, teachers will be able to access sharable training materials online to improve their instruction.

Mr. Gates also observed that great schools can get fantastic results for students.  He noted that there are high-quality charter public schools which spend less than traditional schools, yet 90% of their students go on to college.  He commended the fine work of KIPP Academies, Green Dot charters, Aspire and other charter public schools.

Mr. Gates suggested that improving education can occur within existing budgets if policymakers:

  1. Reform the current system of compensating teachers to identify and reward excellence;
  2. Lift caps on class sizes;
  3. Identify the top 25 percent of teachers and ask them to take on four or five more students, then use the savings to pay them more and to develop teacher support and evaluation systems to help more teachers become great. 
  4. Identify high-performing colleges;
  5. Encourage great schools like well-run charter public schools, such as KIPP Academies, Green Dot, and Aspire;
  6. Research and develop educational technology.

Mr. Gates identified what policymakers should not do:

  1. Add more furlough school days, as the U.S. already has the shortest school year and shortest school day of most developed nations;
  2. Put more money into seniority and credits pay;
  3. Limit college enrollments. 

Mr. Gates warned that important choices face policymakers.   Given past government spending practices, he warned that, if we are not careful, we will spend more and more money on pensions and  benefits.

Instead, Mr. Gates rightly suggested, we need to focus on the needs of the young, and make changes to education to better prepare our young people for the challenges they will face in the future.

For more recommendations to improve the schools, see Washington Policy Center’s “Eight Practical Ways to Reverse the Decline of Public Schools.”

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