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Can the Philanthropic Billionaire and the President of the AFT find common ground?

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"You know, a quarter of our teachers are very good. If you could make all the teachers as good as the top quarter, the U.S. would soar to the top of that comparison." -- Bill Gates

Someone should probably point out to Mr. Gates that his statistical approach to teacher evaluation doesn't allow for all teachers to be as good as the top quartile. If they were, there would still be a top and a bottom 25 percent as there is in any other field. There's nothing wrong, of course, with trying to raise the bar on teacher quality or trying to attract and retain good teachers within the public school system. But if Gates' reform strategy is to make all teachers equal in skill, he's barking up the wrong tree.

Gates reveals more of his misunderstanding of the teaching profession and school reform in general in a Newsweek interview given jointly with American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, in which he holds China up as his model for American school reform. Gates appears envious of China's highly centralized, low-budget, test-crazy, union-free school system.

Chinese students recently outperformed 15-year-old American students on standardized tests in math, reading, and science. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called China's performance on the PISA exams a "wake-up call," and conservative think-tanker Chester Finn, who served in Reagan's Department of Education, likened it to "Sputnik," the man-made satellite launched by the former Soviet Union in 1957 that shocked Cold War America.

In the Newsweek interview, Gates says:

"The Chinese, who have a 10th of our wealth, are running a great education system. There are some things we can learn from other systems. They have a longer school day in most countries, and a longer school year in most countries. And some of them have elements of their personnel system that are worth learning from."

But Michigan State education professor Yong Zhao notes the growing criticism and calls for reform of the system coming from within China itself -- from students and parents who would certainly take issue with Gates, Duncan and Finn.

'I don't know why this is such a big surprise to these well-educated and smart people. Why should anyone be stunned? It is no news that the Chinese education system is excellent in preparing outstanding test takers, just like other education systems within the Confucian cultural circle--Singapore, Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong.'

Yong refers to a recent story in the Chinese media that created quite a stir.

The story, entitled A Helpless Mother Complains about Extra Classes Online, Students Say They Have Become Stupid Before Graduation, follows a mother's online posting complaining about how her child's school's excessive academic load has caused serious physical and psychological damage.

The Newsweek interview has the world's second-richest man and the union's most influential leader finding common ground on many current school reform issues. They each place school reform in the context of global competition for world market share. They both admire countries with a single set of common national standards to drive curriculum and testing in every school. Neither pays much attention to the growing educational inequities inherent in our increasingly racially and economically bifurcated society. Instead, they each focus on ways to identify bad teachers, push them out of the profession, and revamp teacher evaluation, including use of video cameras in classrooms.

"Football teams do this all the time, says Weingarten. "They look at the tape after every game. Sometimes they do it during the game."

There's an assumption here that the public schools are packed with bad teachers and that's what's causing the system to fail. But there's no evidence to back up this premise and no reason for Weingarten to play along with Gates in search for new and better ways to facilitate mass firings of teachers -- unless it's just to keep foundation grants flowing into the union's school reform fund.

Gates and Weingarten do disagree, however, when it comes to spending on public education -- Randi wants more, Bill wants less. But what's a few hundred million among friends? Maybe they can split the difference.