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Tag: bill gates (Page 2 of 4)

Howl About These Numbers Instead

In the article that triggered the previous rant, both the writer and the subject, Bill Gates, make reference to the frequent howl of politicians and corporate types, that students in US schools have fallen far behind their counterparts in other countries. The line has been repeated so many times that it has become accepted as fact.

Except Alfie Kohn has some evidence-based arguments to use in response to those claims that are far more clichéd talking points than truth.

As always, his essay is very good, well worth saving for your next discussion with someone from the all-testing, all-the-time fan club.

However, this is probably the most important point Kohn makes about improving student achievement in the US, no matter how you define that term.

4. Rich American kids do fine; poor American kids don’t. It’s ridiculous to offer a summary statistic for all children at a given grade level in light of the enormous variation in scores within this country. To do so is roughly analogous to proposing an average pollution statistic for the United States that tells us the cleanliness of “American air.” Test scores are largely a function of socioeconomic status. Our wealthier students perform very well when compared to other countries; our poorer students do not. And we have a lot more poor children than do other industrialized nations.

More than 20% of American children are living in poverty, a rate that puts the US 34th out of 35 industrialized countries, the same ones frequently used in test score comparisons.

That ranking should be far more upsetting politicians and corporate types than the numbers generated from largely irrelevant multiple choice tests.

Don’t Worry, Bill Will Be Fine

In their current issue, Fast Company, a business magazine that focuses on technology and design, presents an interview with Bill Gates, in which he “offers his cure for what ails the education system”.

Although the intro section includes a little criticism, it’s pretty clear from the start the writer has no intention of asking anything that might be considered push-back. The editors even include a sidebar with a list of Bill’s “favorite edtech startups”, all of which are more about the technology and data management than they are about learning.

The whole interview isn’t very long and offers none of those “cures” mentioned in the subhead. But Gates’ answers to two questions stood out as especially shallow.

At the top, the writer asks him what he sees as the “ultimate challenge in education”. Gates replies that we must “get more out of $600 billion a year”, the amount he says the US spends on education. Spoken like a true billionaire money manager.

Then towards the end of the article comes this excellent question.

You’ve said that when you were in high school, you followed your own interests, taking on independent study, working on computer programming day and night. Is there room for that kind of student-driven learning in a highly rigorous, metrics-based environment?

Gates’ response is both disingenuous and clueless.

People who are as curious as I am will be fine in any system. For the self-motivated student, these are the golden days. I wish I was growing up now. I envy my son. If he and I are talking about something that we don’t understand, we just watch videos and click on articles, and that feeds our discussion. Unfortunately, the highly curious student is a small percentage of the kids.

As so many education “experts” do, Gates’ is extrapolating his personal experience to every student in the country. But unlike him, I don’t believe the highly curious kids are a small percentage of the whole. There are many more than he can see who are very self-motivated, just not by the narrow goals dictated by a standardized test-driven system.

Let’s face it, we don’t give our students many reasons or resources to express their curiosity and self-motivation during the time they spend with us in the formal process we know as school. Maybe fixing that would be a better way to spend Bill’s money.

Evaluating Gates

Earlier this week, the Post gave Bill Gates some prime space on the op-ed page so he could offer “a fairer way to evaluate teachers“.*

And he begins with a really crappy analogy, comparing developing “fantastic teachers” with the way that football teams “identify and nurture” their players.

Completely ignoring that those players, although evaluated as individuals, do not work in isolation. Their success, even that of a star quarterback like Gates’ example, Tom Brady, is very much dependent on the great support of many other people in a well-funded organization.

Teachers, however, in the view of Gates, many politicians, and other education “experts”, are expected to be rated based only on a very narrow measure of their work with absolutely no regard for any other factors.

The remainder of the piece is a messy mix of clichés in which he talks about using “multiple measures” and how “teachers want an environment based on collaboration” without any specifics. Certainly he doesn’t offer anything to convince the reader that he has a clue about the teaching process or how to evaluate it.

Although Gates and his business friends have been accorded a great deal of influence in the discussion over education reform, they do so with no accountability whatsoever.  To correct that situation, Anthony Cody writing at Education Week Teacher proposes The Billionaire Philanthropist Evaluation, noting that the kind of accountability they demand from teachers “is a street that goes one way only”.

Needless to say, Gates does not fare very well, starting with his lack of awareness of the social conditions that impact the learning of many students and extending to his poor understanding of effective instruction.

The bottom line?

Mr. Gates falls below standards in all four of the areas that were observed. His philanthropic activities should be suspended immediately pending his completion of the recommended professional growth activities.

Of course that won’t happen. He has enough money to buy a higher grade.


* Just for good measure, the editors included a video of Gates giving expert opinion on cyber security (which he might know something about considering how buggy Windows was while he was CEO), and… the new pope?

If It’s Crappy Enough for Bill…

Vanity Fair this month has a long look at how Microsoft has managed to screw up a lot of things about it’s business over the past decade or more. Having been deeply involved with personal computing since the time the company began1, I found the whole thing fascinating. Your mileage may vary.

However, there is one section of the article that I think should interest anyone involved with public education.

In it the author discusses what she sees as a major cause of Microsoft’s lack of innovation and subsequent decline, a personnel evaluation system used within the company called “stack ranking”.

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed–every one–cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. The system–also referred to as “the performance model,” “the bell curve,” or just “the employee review”–has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, two people were going to get a great review, seven were going to get mediocre reviews, and one was going to get a terrible review,” said a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

Now the CEO who signed off on using this “destructive process” (that would be Bill Gates) is considered a “visionary” leader in the education reform movement. And he and his billion dollar foundation are advocating for several other similarly adversarial assessment programs for teachers such as merit pay and “value added” rankings.

Assessment programs which continue to envision classrooms as discreet spaces sealed off from the rest of the world, and teachers as independent contractors whose work is the only influence on student achievement (aka test scores).

I’m certainly not the first person to make the connection between Microsoft’s stack ranking and Gates pushing the idea that teacher assessment should be a more competitive process. But that point needs to be repeated as often as possible.

The bottom line that Gates and others miss entirely in their efforts to “reform” education is that schools are not businesses and those corporate practices cannot, and should not, be applied to the process of teaching and learning.

Especially an evaluation system that has been a major contributing factor to screwing up what was at one time the most valuable company in the US.


1 Although, in all those many years, I’ve never actually bought a Microsoft product or anything containing one. I do have Windows and Office on my MacBook Pro but those licenses belong to my school system.

It’s Not Khan’s Fault

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent critique of Khan Academy by one of the people who inspired the #mtt2k* mini meme now getting its 15 minutes on YouTube.

If you're not a math ed geek, you probably haven't seen the video of two math professors watching one of the Khan videos and offering their comments a la the wonderful 90's cult classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 (look it up, kiddies). Although there are a few snarky remarks about the style, most of their criticism is directed to the pedagogy and mathematics. Dan Meyer has more details.

Anyway, the Chron article hits exactly my greatest problem with Khan Academy: not the quality of the videos, but the over-the-top reaction they get from some high profile education “experts”.

But let’s also be honest about what Khan Academy is not. Khan Academy is not a substitute for an actual course of study in mathematics. It is not a substitute for a live teacher. And it is not a coherent curriculum of study that engages students at all the cognitive levels at which they need to be engaged. It’s OK that it’s not these things. We don’t walk into a Mexican restaurant and fault it for not serving spaghetti. I don’t fault Khan Academy for not being a complete educational resource, because it wasn’t designed for that purpose. Again, Khan Academy is a great resource for the niche in which it was designed to work. But when you try to extend it out of that niche – as Bill Gates and others would very much like to do – all kinds of things go wrong.

One of those things going wrong is the reinforcement of the idea that learning math is all about mastering the process. That if a student just repeats a set of algorithms enough times, we can declared that they have “learned math”. Or whatever subject you like to substitute for “math”.

However, I think the best summary of this kind of video, lecture/tutorial, self-instruction approach to education is this:

Khan Academy is great for learning about lots of different subjects. But it’s not really adequate for learning those subjects on a level that really makes a difference in the world.

For that “makes a difference” kind of learning, students (of all ages) still need direct relationships with teachers, and others who don't necessarily carry that title, as well as an understanding of how to actually use the information.


* mtt2k = mystery teacher theater 2000

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