Garrulous Mr. Gates

10/14/2010 06:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's been a busy year for Bill Gates. He's been spreading his gospel far and wide. He spent 2 million dollars promoting Waiting for Superman, yet its alleged villainess, AFT President Randi Weingarten and company chose Gates to address her convention, an unlikely choice, to say the least.

I'm not an education expert like Gates, so I'll comment only on a TED talk he gave last year. My experience is limited to teaching 25 years in New York City.  Still, even a layperson such as myself has to wonder where the influential Gates gets his information:

How does that [KIPP charter school] compare to a normal school? Well, in a normal school teachers aren't told how good they are. The data isn't gathered. In the teacher's contract, it will limit the number of times the principal can come into the classroom -- sometimes to once per year. And they need advanced notice to do that.

My principal can and does visit my classroom whenever he golly goshdarn feels like it. He offers no advanced notice, and walks around the building visiting my colleagues in exactly the same fashion. Gates's version of what happens in a "normal school" sounds more like a crass stereotype than any contract I've ever heard of.

So imagine running a factory where you've got these workers, some of them just making crap and the management is told, "Hey, you can only come down here once a year, but you need to let us know, because we might actually fool you, and try and do a good job in that one brief moment."

I'm having trouble imagining a teacher who shines like a Christmas tree on an annual basis. If you can't teach, you don't give a sterling lesson on command. If you hate kids, you don't instantly learn to love them when the principal walks in.

Gates claims a top quartile teacher will increase the test scores of students by over 10 percent in a single year. Thus, he reasons, if all students had this teacher, we'd be doing fabulously. I don't know if I'm in the top quartile, but I raise scores when I have to. Yet when I do, I'm not as effective a teacher.

I try to inspire kids. I try to trick them, for example, into loving any book I teach, with high hopes they'll love not only that book, but another, and then another. Will those kids get higher test scores? Maybe. But isn't it possible a love of reading might pay off in some as-yet undetermined future? Isn't it possible they might make career choices, pivotal decisions, based on something gleaned in my classroom?

Gates suggests teachers lack motivation, perhaps because we're not getting merit pay, or because too few administrators tell us how wonderful we are. Why, then, do we write glowing recommendations for kids, pushing for them to be admitted to universities, special programs, or new careers?

Teachers have intrinsic motivation Gates can neither measure nor (apparently) conceive of.  I appreciate money, and I'll say thanks to praise from almost anyone. But I especially treasure it from kids. Last June I told my class I'd miss them. They shouted, "We'll miss you too!" They asked me if I'd teach them next year. I was honored, far more than by anything Gates could do or say.

But Gates proves things with charts, one of which says:

Once somebody has taught for three years, their teaching quality does not improve thereafter.

That's preposterous. Many societies value wisdom and experience, but if they don't drive test scores, Gates's charts are unaffected.

But charts don't face 34 teenagers at a time. I do. You never know what can, what will happen next. Live kids do unimaginable things, things that constantly perplexed me in year three. Even now, I steal any trick, any tip, anything from anyone if it sounds practical.  My bag of tricks is considerably larger now than it was 22 years ago, and I learn new things every day.

Says Gates's chart:

A master's degree doesn't raise scores.

But if I hadn't studied bilingualism, language acquisition, and the structures of English (that we all know instinctively but have likely as not never thought about), I'd be unqualified to teach ESL. I'd also never have passed the grueling Board of Examiners test the city required back in the day.

For my kid (and yours), I want a teacher with the deepest possible subject knowledge. Teachers compete with cell phones, iPods, and Microsoft's own Xbox 360 (on which teenagers play some of the most sordid and vulgar war games I've ever seen), and need all the help they can get.

Maybe you don't need a master's to move kids from 55 on one test to 65 on the next test. A more worthy challenge is developing a kid who derives joy from class, one who eagerly participates and will continue studying it even when force is not involved. I will give that kid a better grade than test scores indicate, even if charts disapprove.

Anybody who has access to a DVD player could have the very best teachers.

That's because he wants to film what he considers to be good teachers, and amass a video library. But doing that would mean only that anyone with a DVD player would be able to watch the best teachers.

There'd be no interaction, and certainly no assessment of the kid's work by these best teachers. It's not the same as having someone in your face. Gates seems to know that when it suits his purposes. When he describes his experiences at KIPP, he becomes giddy with excitement:

The teacher was running around, and the energy level is high ... and the teacher was constantly scanning to see which kids weren't paying attention, which kids were bored and calling on kids rapidly, putting things up on the board ...
... keeping people engaged and setting the tone that everyone in the classroom needs to pay attention.

Here, I agree with Gates. But in my school, these things happen every day. And of course everyone needs to pay attention. Were someone to make a statement like that to my 14-year-old, it would merit an unhesitating, "Well, DUH!"

96 percent of KIPP's high school graduates go to four year colleges.

That may be true. Or it may not. KIPP hasn't been around that long, and mostly runs junior high schools, so KIPP students in college represent a very small sample. More to the point, the 96 percent figure, if true on any level, doesn't include kids who don't finish the program -- which at some schools could run to more than half. Who teaches the kids who fail KIPP, and who does Gates blame for that? (I'm thinking me.)

Why not give the high schools the kids attend after KIPP some credit? Are they the "normal" public schools, the schools in which Gates claims administrators are contractually forbidden to observe teachers? Maybe Gates should sponsor that contract.

Charts don't show underlying problems with poor performers. What if the kid has interrupted formal education, shuffled back and forth from one country to another, and by high school cannot read or write? What if there is abuse, neglect, or who knows what waiting for the kid at home? Gates seems to think if only we could raise that kid's test score by 10 percent, all would be well.

Gates's employees can't be bothered with rudimentary fact-checking, nor can American print reporters. They're all too busy fawning over him.

Frankly, it broke my heart to see 3,400 teachers in Seattle doing precisely the same thing.  Americans deserve the truth, and if we check a little more carefully, it's not that hard to find.

Thanks to Caroline Grannan for her sage counsel and invaluable advice.