Some years ago I served as head of a performing arts school in Detroit. Our governing board included a very wealthy man, A. Alfred Taubman, who earned a fortune developing shopping malls. Taubman later gained notoriety (and a conviction) for unscrupulous business practices at Sotheby's, a company he acquired to show off like a glittering trinket.
While the board had other wealthy members, including members of the Ford family, Taubman had the deepest pockets of all. It was quite amusing to watch the pecking order in the room. Whenever Taubman arrived, the conversation turned to him. Whenever Taubman spoke, the listening was particularly acute. None of this ever corresponded to the degree of wisdom he brought to the issue. In fact, he opined with ponderous authority, waggling his enormous pinky ring, on issues where he seemed to have none of the requisite background.
And that brings me to Bill Gates. When his money talks, America listens. If his money talked about computer software I suppose it would be understandable but, unfortunately, he's talking a lot about education these days -- an issue where he seems to have none of the requisite background.
Among his non-productive sojourns into education are the recent rants about class size and teaching. Size doesn't matter, Gates says in his latest campaign, as he advises America's Governors on how to solve their budget problems and fix education with one whack of the axe. His proposal for school budget woes is to increase class size by putting more kids "in front of top teachers." In his supercharged, factory-model solution, the high octane teachers can be identified, the laggards can be laid off, more students can be in the presence of the top performers and they can be given some of the savings accrued by dumping the aging, ineffective, tenured slugs who are clogging the system.
The Gates group's approach to educational reform is nearly guaranteed to kill whatever good remnants of teaching and learning remain in America's beleaguered schools.
Nearly all aspects of the "Gates solution" are flawed, some with breathtaking contradiction.
Let's start with the faulty notion that the "best" teachers can be identified by the performance, value-added or otherwise, of their students on standardized tests. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, this carrot, intended to nourish the profession, has leached all the nutrients out of the classroom, reducing a once glorious profession to an exercise in tedium. The teaching practices that may marginally improve scores for 9-year-olds will inevitably make them less capable and imaginative 15-year-olds. Extending that logic, the teachers who are most effective in teaching to the test will do the most damage. And Gates wants to reward them.
I'll leave it to others to excavate the abundant research supporting the advantages of smaller classes, but this doesn't matter in Gates-world, where it's not really teaching anyway. I have observed the teachers who energetically practice what Gates preaches. They are highly skilled at keeping kids sitting up straight. They can elicit rapid-fire answers to unimportant questions. They don't have to, and seem not to want to, understand anything about the lovely little humans in their care. They're training kids and it's effective in the same way that basic training was effective for me in the Army. And the results are the same: I hate the Army and I don't remember any of the answers I memorized. At least the drill and kill part isn't as literally true.
It is amusing, bordering on hilarity, that Gates et al are assembling a library of videos of "effective teaching" so that other teachers can imitate, thereby becoming brilliant themselves. If there are any characteristics common to great teachers it is that they are inimitable, authentic and, more often than you might imagine, relatively inconspicuous. In many of the best classrooms, teachers create student-centered alchemy, then sit nearby listening to synapses crackle.
As Gates and others blather on about the critical importance of having great teachers, they are creating conditions that make it nearly impossible for teachers to be great. Now that's irony!
If there is anything to be encouraged about, it is the sanity emerging in places like this Huff Post Education page. Not primarily from the bloggers, I must admit. Far too much space and font size is given to Gates and others who blare conventional wisdom from positions of political or economic power. But I am hopeful when I read the hundreds and hundreds of sad, frustrated, and wise comments that follow blog posts. There are hundreds of thousands of teachers in America, many, if not most, wiser than Bill Gates or the Governors he ill-advises. We should listen to them. If only they had Al Taubman's money.