Pro-Child, Pro-School

Bill Gates and Education Reform

Who’s funding a broad-based education reform movement to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars?

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Chuck  Colson

A few weeks ago, I spoke about the desperate need for school reform and how public schools are failing those kids most in need of a good education: poor children. I also pointed out that  greatest impediment to reform are teachers’ unions, whose primary concern is the welfare of the adults who benefit from the status quo.

I’m not alone in this assessment: Arguably the most important proponent of education reform has become none other than Bill Gates. And Gates is putting his money where his mouth is. Gates, a child of privilege who attended an “elite private school” and Harvard University, knows the system already works well for people like him. So he’s funding all kinds of public education reform efforts across the country.

I’ll admit, when I first heard about Gates’ interest in education, I was concerned he’d be promoting liberal policies, but after reading a recent article in the New York Times about his efforts, I’m thinking I may have been wrong. He spent $2 million supporting Waiting for Superman, an award-winning film produced by my good friend and conservative activist, Phil Anschutz. The initiatives Gates is promoting are neither liberal nor conservative -- they simply ask “what is best for children?”

The answer is “better teachers.” As Gates, Anschutz and just about anyone who has studied the problem will tell you, a talented and motivated teacher can make a world of difference. Studies show that difference between such a teacher and a mediocre one is enormous: Children fortunate enough to have such a teacher learn a year-and-a-half’s worth of material during the school year, whereas those stuck with the mediocre one learn about a half-year’s worth.

Gates’ and other reformers’ efforts start from a simple, moral premise: having such a teacher shouldn’t be a matter of luck.

To that end, Gates is spending his own money trying “to identify great teachers, find out what makes them so effective and transfer those skills to others so more students can enjoy top teachers and high achievement.”

This is easier said than done, because the entire system is effectively designed to block this. Teachers are paid by seniority, not performance; bad teachers are almost impossible to fire, and exceptional teachers without seniority are the first ones to be let go during a budget crisis.

To that end, Gates is trying to create a national movement to change this. As the Times story recounted, an Indiana group backed by Gates helped pass a measure that would eliminate seniority-based layoffs.

The response from teachers unions and their supporters was predictable and sad: They accused the group of being “part of a conspiracy by Gates and hedge fund managers” to “undermine” teachers union influence.

That’s a bit rich coming from those who use the political process to preserve their own power and influence and position. In any case, it’s not true: The goal is to make the system accountable to those who need it most and who are not being served by it: children.

At this point, what we know for sure is that the unions’ preferred approach, throwing more money at the system, wouldn’t help even if we could afford it.

To his credit, in the spirit of civic duty and philanthropy, Gates is willing to pour hundreds of millions of his own money to find out what can help.

For our kids’ sake, he deserves our thanks and our cooperation.

Further Reading and Information

Behind Grassroots Advocacy, Bill Gates
Sam Dillon | The New York Times | May 21, 2011

How Teacher Development Could Revolutionize Our Schools
Bill Gates | The Washington Post | February 28, 2011


Pro child
If Bill Gates really wants to see some highly effective dedicated teachers, he should look at Christian schools. Most of the teachers at these schools are there because they love God and want to serve him with their gift of teaching; they are not in it for the pay.

I teach at a Christian school in Michigan and we all work very hard to fulfill the overall need of the child. We strive to prepare them academically for college, but we do so from a biblical worldview. Because we are private, we also have the flexibility to adjust our classroom curriculum to meet the needs of the students. That is what good teachers do. Our staff see their job a service to God, not a paycheck. I wish Mr. Gates would look at some of these schools, instead of ruling them out because they are Christ-centered. He might find some answers here.
No education reform w/o family reform...
I applaud Gates philanthropy, but quite frankly, all the education reform in the world will not succeed w/o a biblical worldview of work, of learning, of existence,etc. being passed to children in the home. It needs to begin in the home, be fostered in the community and reinforced through the learning in the schools. Teach it in the home, exemplify respect and honor for examples in the community, teach it through biographies, and classic literature in the schools. Gates' efforts, while noteworthy, are only a small patch. A patch of unshrunk cloth sewn to an old garment...
Teacher's Opinion
While I appreciate your commentaries and agree with you on most of them, there are many things in this particular one I find one-sided. I am a teacher, as well as a Christian, in a small rural district in Michigan. Our district receives less money than a wealthier district due to Proposal A, dealing with funding based on property taxes, so even when we WANT to do more for our kids, it revolves around a tedious grant proposal process to get federal dollars. We also can’t recruit as many students by schools of choice because we don’t have the money to offer varied programs, as do larger schools. Lately there seems to be a large backlash against teachers and their unions: I definitely don’t agree with a lot of their political viewpoints, but those same unions have secured workers’ rights and educational reform for kids, too. Michigan actually dismantled the tenure laws and voted in new anti-tenure and anti-collective bargaining legislation today. There are many misconceptions about tenure/seniority. Tenure guarantees due process to ensure a teacher isn’t dismissed for personal or political reasons. Tenured teachers ARE dismissed for incompetency and misconduct.
Tenure protects good teachers from the politics of the job, such as nepotism and other unfair hiring and firing practices. School administrators must perform timely evaluations of teachers and document teacher performance. With this vital information, schools can discharge teachers who underperform or engage in professional misconduct. Unfortunately, administrators do not always perform these evaluations.
Critics rightly complain about the time and money it takes to dismiss a tenured teacher. Our union supports changes to streamline the process. I saw the film “Waiting for Superman”, and while it makes valid points, I thought some of it was very misleading to anyone who isn’t actually a teacher. From the outside, all the criticisms and conflicts seem to be legitimate, but I can tell you in the majority of schools, there are caring, competent teachers who are simply overwhelmed and overburdened with handling increasing class sizes, societal problems reflected in the classroom, and more time-consuming data collection and testing. Having a great teacher isn’t a matter of luck: it’s a matter of money. In Michigan, the state legislature has drastically slashed school funding, when our district, as many others, had already made concessions to keep fiscally sound on our own. The cost isn’t due to unions asking for more money, it’s due to our government reducing funding. We have not asked for more money and have voluntarily taken a wage reduction for 5 years in a row. Exceptional teachers WITH seniority - up to a decade of it - are being laid off at our school, and hundreds more around the state as well, simply because the government decided to shuffle the money elsewhere, even when public opinion supports it. I make a decent living and have good benefits, well, I DID, but the “status quo” when it applies to teachers is very inaccurate: we are NOT paid for our school year work during the summer (our salaries are based on school days), and we work far more beyond school hours. Anyone could have become a teacher had they desired to, but many who criticize us for being overpaid and underworked would never hack it in a classroom, and probably have never spent a significant enough amount of time in one to be making these decisions and judgement calls. There ARE bad teachers, just as there are bad dentists, lawyers, doctors, etc., and the entire system isn’t about blocking reform: it is CONSTANTLY reforming: we can’t keep up with all they keep asking us to do! In 2013 all schools will be following a national core curriculum and teacher evaluations and pay will be based on proven growth data, regardless of emotional or educational disabilities or issues. I would wholeheartedly agree with you that schools need reform, but driving out good teachers is exactly what’s happening because no one wants to do that much work for that little money. Today I attended a budget meeting for our district that boils down to a $5000 loss in my salary for next year as well as no prep hour and above 32 students in my third grade class. There simply isn’t enough hours or people to get everything done. If we are demanding such overwhelming accountability from our schools and teachers, let’s ask the government to do the same: they should be the first to lead by example and stop the waste of our money and time.
It's back to the family
While I agree that teachers can and do make a big difference in some children's lives, I think a major cause of poor performance of children in school goes back to the family. I come from a family of teachers and our experience has been: If the child's parents actively participate in their education, the child excels. This participation should be a requirement for enrollment in any school.
Pro-child, pro-school
Sandra, agree with what you said and so glad to hear about your vision for a Christian School for children in Portland. If you haven't already I suggest that you contact Russ G. at Hope Academy in Minneapolis to talk about your plans as Hope Academy seems to be similar to what you are dreaming about. It is a wonderful school! www.hopeschool.org
BP Commentary: Pro-child, Pro-school
You said, Mr. Colson, that Bill Gates is "trying to identify great teachers" but that "the entire system is effectively designed to block this..." I couldn't agree more. Perhaps the greatest block might be the public school system's religious worldview, secular humanism, which is required teaching (directly and indirectly) in our public schools.
Last year while working in my yard, I heard two young boys (nine years old?) conversing about their lives. One said to the other, "I hate my life. I go to school, come home and play video games, go to bed, and do it all over the next day." My son last week took an informal survey of some 12 and 13 year olds. He asked them, "What do you think of life?" Their unanimous response: "Life sucks." If it's incredibly challenging for Christian parents to overcome the empty and foolish values of secular humanism with which our children are saturated, how much more difficult for other parents to teach their children about hope and joy.
I think our nation needs school choice instead of the one public school system that allows only one religion to be taught, that of secular humanism. Then children might be able to better hear that there is hope and joy and meaning to life and that there is a God who has designed an abundant life for his creation, not one of emptiness, meaninglessness, and boredom.
Thanks for listening. My heart breaks for all of God's children--which is why I'm working with a group of other Christians to start a Christian school for low-income, urban boys in North Portland, Oregon. We'd love to talk with Bill Gates!--especially in a year or two when we've had a chance to test our theories.... Sandra Nelson