by David Safier
In a WaPo op ed yesterday and an article today, Bill Gates tells us how we can change education for the better, even with budget cuts. [See Vonnegut Quote-Note at end] His basic assertion: don't raise teacher salaries based on experience or education. Only raise salaries for the best teachers, and put more students in the classrooms of those "Great Teachers."
I'll comment on Gates' ideas in a bit. But first, let's look at Gates' qualifications lack of qualifications to give guidance on public education.
- Gates went to high priced private schools, where the student body was highly selective and the class sizes, I'm sure, were low. His kids go to private schools as well. And he hasn't taught school a day in his life. Nothing wrong with that, but it puts his educational expertise in question.
- Gates made his billions by being a brilliant businessman, not an innovator. He's a great poker player who knows when to raise, when to call and when to fold. Microsoft has never been about high tech innovation, and whatever innovations the corporation made were other people's doing. If MSDOS (which he bought from someone else) wasn't such a huge money maker, Gates would probably be a successful, but far less successful, entrepreneur, maybe one who went bankrupt a few times before he finally hit on something that worked.
- Microsoft managed to stay ahead of the competition by hiring the top 20% of high tech grads straight out of college, offering them great starting salaries and benefits and lots of room to make more money in the future.
- Gates doesn't have a good track record of picking winners in educational innovation. His foundation put millions into small schools, for instance, thinking they were the answer. They weren't, by Gates' own admission. Now he's betting on other educational reforms. There's no reason to think he's any more right this time than last time.
Now, about that pay thing. As someone who made $7100 in his first year of teaching in 1969 (I don't know how that adjusts for inflation), I know I was barely scraping by. It wasn't a living wage. The same is true today. Beginning teacher salaries are simply inadequate. However, teachers are promised if they stick with it, their pay will increase to a reasonable level over the years, both as they climb up the experience ladder and as they increase their educations. Oh, and they're promised a reasonable pension when they retire.
How many people are going to enter teaching if they have another choice, knowing their substandard wages will only go up if they are chosen as among the, let's say, 25% of the best teachers, and are willing to take even more students in their already-crowded classrooms? The inevitable result would be, fewer top college grads entering the profession. Teachers, instead of getting better, will become more mediocre under Gates' plan.
In terms of teachers continuing their educations, let me talk about high school, which I know. Will teachers with a bachelor's degree and maybe a year beyond that have the knowledge base to teach advanced courses in history, literature, science and math to our best and most motivated students? They will be teaching AP courses by staying a chapter ahead of their students — not an ideal recipe for creating top notch, college-ready high school grads. And even those working with the less motivated students, will they have the breadth of knowledge to understand their fields well enough to teach them effectively?
As for class size: from a middle school/high school perspective, when you put 5 extra students in the classes of an "excellent teacher," you're giving that person 30 more students a day spread over six classes. In other words, they will be teaching enough students to make up a seventh class. Say buh-bye to individual attention, even to the extent it exists today with our ever-rising class counts.
VONNEGUT QUOTE-NOTE: A few weeks ago, I wrote about my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quote: "If the questions don't make sense, neither will the answers." Bill Gates' nonsense question is, "How can we get better education with less money?" Gates made Grover Norquist very happy when he asked that. But every answer in response is nonsense. The right question is, "How can we assure that education will be funded at a level sufficient to allow for improvement?" Then, instead of figuring out how to make due while shrinking government until it can be drowned in a bathtub, we can start asking who is not giving their fair share to keeping this country moving forward and figure out how to increase revenues from those who can best afford it so we can fund government at a reasonable level.