Bill Gates on what’s wrong with public schools

Including the huge textbooks, and why bad teachers have to go

Kenneth Whyte
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Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft and one of the world’s richest men, is also one of the world’s leading philanthropists. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is perhaps best known for fighting poverty and disease in the developing world, but its main domestic focus is on education. Gates appears in the new documentary Waiting for “Superman,” which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. A powerful indictment of the U.S. education system, it features educators running the innovative Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools, and follows families desperate to get their children into high-performing charter schools. (Often controversial, charter schools receive some public money but do not follow the same rules or curriculum as public schools.) Gates believes the quality of teachers is of critical importance, and calls for a system of evaluation to reward the best, and get rid of the worst. He talked to Maclean’s editor-in-chief Kenneth Whyte in Toronto.

Q: You’ve said parents should be outraged about the state of education in America. Why?

Schools aren’t developing the potential of our kids, and you see that in the dropout rates, you see that in the number of kids who graduate and then go into remedial courses, you see it in the fact that it’s the first time that we’re actually having decreasing numbers of people with four-year college degrees. Part of the magic of economic growth is how you educate people, and the leading economies have to stay in front of that. From an economic point of view, it affects competitiveness and creates jobs. Or from a social justice point of view, you can take someone in the bottom tier of income and let him compete to be a doctor or lawyer. The education system is the only reason the dream of equal opportunity has a chance of being delivered—and we’re not running a good education system.

Q: One of the interesting facts in Waiting for “Superman” is that it’s not only the lower socioeconomic tiers that are not meeting levels of achievement we’d expect in North American education, but that the top five per cent of students are not as competitive internationally as they were a generation ago.

We benefited in the past by other people not running good systems. Now, with Singapore, Finland, Korea, you’re not going to do a lot better than they do for any group of students. We do much worse for our students as a whole compared to these other countries. And in the 1960s we were the best across the board. Even in the 1970s we were the top in most things. It’s in the last 20 years that the U.S. has moved to pretty near the bottom of the rich countries’ statistics for math, reading, science. There’s really nothing that we’re particularly distinguished at. If you take the top five per cent, we’re average.

Q: So the bigger problem is with the great mass of students?

That’s the thing that really drives our numbers down.

Q: I’d expect most of the innovation that’s economically important would come out of the top five per cent, making it especially important.

It’s disproportionate, but you can’t run a society—in terms of job availability, informed voters, a sense of opportunity—on five or even 25 per cent. You’ve got to have a lot of great middle-class job opportunities and a lot of people whose educations match up to those opportunities. Now, if you have top performing companies, a lot of jobs are being created in your locale. Apple, Google, Microsoft, RIM, they create wealth and jobs because they are enabled by the top five per cent, immigrants and homegrown people, but they create numerically tons of jobs that aren’t as elite in terms of educational requirement: support, sales, finance. That’s actually the bulk of the jobs.

Q: So let’s locate the failure of the education system overall. It’s not a funding problem.

You’ll find some states that still underfund education. But overall, there’s been a doubling of the portion of GDP that goes to kindergarten through grade 12, so there’s a lot more in the way of resources. You can talk about how much of that has gone into pensions versus salaries. How much has gone into bureaucracy versus teachers. But in the U.S., $600 billion per year is spent on kindergarten through 12 education. That’s a lot.

Q: So is the problem the education departments and administrators, or is it teachers’ unions, or the teachers themselves?

We’ve ended up with a personnel system that essentially does no evaluation. It doesn’t identify whether teachers are weak or strong and gives them no incentives for improving their weak points. Nor does the system identify the few teachers that don’t belong in the profession because they either don’t have the ability or they’re just not trying hard enough. And the difference between having good teachers and not is quite substantial. If you could wish for one thing, that’s what you would wish for—a system of evaluation that’s not capricious. It’s not that easy to do but now it’s all based on seniority and do I have a master’s degree—it’s completely independent of student outcomes. It’s a no-pain system. Well, measurement systems are always a bit painful, and they’re never perfect. We have data that shows some teachers are amazing, they get amazing outcomes and, if you, as a student, get a bunch of those in a row, you do great. And some are the opposite of amazing and, if you get a bunch of those in a row, you do very poorly. Yet we don’t evaluate teachers. We don’t celebrate the good ones and study what they do, we don’t figure out how to transfer their knowledge. That fact tends to get blamed on the unions, but everyone’s been involved—the parents, the school boards, the governors, the different levels of government. You can say you need to lengthen the school day, you can say you need to reduce the amount of money that goes into the pension side. There are problems with the common curriculum thing. There are some ways that technology can help. But I put the evaluation system way ahead of all those other things we should also do, and our foundation is funding pilot programs in that area.

Q: The resistance to introducing an evaluation system does seem to come from the teachers’ unions and the teachers themselves.

Yeah, the status quo is very predictable. You know what your salary’s going to be because you know your seniority, you know whether you have a master’s degree. The contract says how many minutes you have to work. It is very comfortable. If you’re a great teacher, you say, why should I contemplate change and some weird measurement system. Well, the upside would be that you like teaching with other great teachers and so when you see that it can be done without much overhead and that it wouldn’t be capricious, then maybe you get drawn in. But to the degree you feel like the people pushing for the measurement system don’t include teachers, don’t understand how tough the job is, that they are going to be making a lot of noise and go to their next cause two years later, it’s a lot easier to say, c’mon, let’s just wait this one out, I’m a great teacher, I’m doing God’s work.
If you’re a bad teacher, you say the last thing I want is an evaluation system. This change only comes when teachers want it to come. They need to be willing to put up with some more feedback. Some of them are interested in that feedback and go and work in charter schools, which are usually run independent of school systems. And charter schools run serious evaluation systems. Evaluation systems are a critical element of why they are so much better.

Q: Is a fundamental change of this sort going to come within the public school system or is it going to come from alternatives to the public school system?

Well the ideas for change—does a longer school day make a big difference, can team teaching make a big difference, can computers help?—that experimentation can’t come from a regimented system, and that’s what most public schools are. But if you want to have broad impact you’ve got to take those best practices and move them into the public school system. The most optimistic view is that high-performance charter schools—they’re getting good results but they are less than two per cent of U.S. schools today —could grow in a decade to be 10 per cent. Some states [and most provinces] don’t allow them at all. So even that 10 per cent would require massive political enablement. That would be hard to achieve. KIPP, the leading chain of charter schools, with about 100 schools, grows its number of schools about 20 per cent a year. There are 13,000 public schools so even if all high performance charters could grow as fast as they can, it’s not that big an impact.
So charters can mostly show us the way: you’ve got to have the evaluation system, more flexible work practices, better use of technology, common standards. They’re not perfect but they show us that it can be done. Whenever I get discouraged I go meet with some KIPP students and teachers and I’m reminded that’s what everybody deserves. It is possible economically. They’re taking kids from the worst circumstances and sending them off to four-year colleges.

Q: There are examples of charter schools like KIPP which produce phenomenal results, but there’s still a lot of controversy around whether or not charter schools as a whole outperform public schools as a whole.

There are several controversies. One is charter schools as a whole do not outperform public schools. If you take chain charter schools, the ones that replicate, they do outperform public schools. But then there’s another debate, which is, if you have to volunteer to do something, then you are different than the people who don’t volunteer, and people volunteer to go to charter schools. Let’s say we wanted to test pink textbooks. Take all the textbooks and paint their covers pink. And say, kids, who wants to volunteer for the pink textbook test? We will show a phenomenal effect of pink textbooks. We know that in charter schools the teachers volunteer, the kids volunteered, and they smash the non-volunteer system. But we’ve had our guys look at the data and it shows that if you take the whole charter school phenomenon, the kids who volunteer for charters and get in have one set of results, and the kids who volunteer and don’t get in have another set of results, and the kids who don’t volunteer and don’t get in have another set of results. You have perfect tiering of these things.

Q: And the results go from good, to not as good, to worse.

Complete separation of results. That’s the high-performance charters. So we’re not saying that if every school was a KIPP school you’d get KIPP-like results, because it is true the pool is slightly special to the overall pool if for no other reason than the volunteer effect. But when you have a public school where four per cent of the kids are going to a four-year college, and that’s because they are tracked into an honours system that is actually a school within a school, and you have 90 per cent [going to college] at a high-performance charter, that’s significant. And the difference isn’t just in math and reading scores. You look at the behaviours of these kids, the collaborations of these kids, the dreams of these kids, the willingness to vote—any measure you like. You like sculptures, honestly, the KIPP kids are better at sculpture. It’s a huge difference.

Q: Some of the kids at charter schools spend 80 per cent of their waking hours on learning.

It’s a high commitment. They use chants, they use iconography, they have all these banners of the colleges that kids have gone to. They’re overcoming a deficit, they’re competing with another sort of way of looking at the world where education is less important. It’s fun to talk to kids about it—what did your friends think when you volunteered to go to a charter school, and now you’re in a different social group, on a path that will take you to a vastly different place.

Q: How would you have done in such a school?

Well the school I went to was a lot like that. Not the chanting or the iconography but I sat in on the physics course, the calculus course. But now is a much better time to be a student. We didn’t do robots back then—nobody did robots back then. I didn’t have Wikipedia to look something up when I was confused. If you’re a motivated student, it’s way better to be learning now than at any time in the past. You want to have an Internet connection and you want to have adults who, when you get confused, can straighten you out and can tell you what learning might connect to your curiosity, your job opportunities, those kinds of things. I envy those kids in KIPP. I’d never want to use the capacity because KIPP goes to inner-city kids but if my kids had to go to a KIPP school, it wouldn’t be that different from the great private schools they are going to now.

Q: You talked about math books as a symbol for educational failure in America. Explain that.

We have huge textbooks—300-page math books. Because they’re designed by committee and everybody wants things to be in them, they are very intimidating. I thought, maybe the Asian textbooks are [going to be] twice as big because they do so much better than us and our kids are going to have to do some weight exercises to carry these books around so we can be in their league. In fact, the Asian textbooks are half as big. Their textbooks are little but they are really drilling in concepts in particular grades and then they don’t go over that again. We do all of it again and again and again.
That’s what happens when you have such different experiences of people in the classrooms, you don’t have good ways of knowing where different students are. If somebody’s behind what tools do you have? There are some of these things where technology is going to help with individual progress, and there are a few places this stuff is being tried now and the material is getting online. We’re funding a lot of people. There are innovators like Salman Khan showing up doing websites that are great.

Q: What has to happen in order to put students first?

If you just say that the bottom 10 per cent of teachers goes away because they don’t measure up, then the U.S. goes back to being one of the best in the world. It’s pretty dramatic.