Bill Gates: ‘It would be great if our education stuff worked but…’

September 27, 2013
Bill Gates (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)
Bill Gates (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

“It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.”

That’s what Bill Gates said on Sept. 21 (see video below) about the billions of dollars his foundation has plowed into education reform during a nearly hour-long interview he gave at Harvard University. He repeated the “we don’t know if it will work” refrain about his reform efforts a few days later during a panel discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative.

Hmmm. Teachers around the country are saddled every single year with teacher evaluation systems that his foundation has funded, based on no record of success and highly questionable “research.” And now Gates says he won’t know if the reforms he is funding will work for another decade. But teachers can lose their jobs now because of reforms he is funding.

In the past he sounded  pretty sure of what he was doing.   In this 2011 oped in The Washington Post, he wrote:

What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students.

Actually, that’s not an approach any educator I know would think is a good idea, but Gates had decided that class size doesn’t really matter. Earlier, he had put some $2 billion into forming small schools out of large high schools, on the theory that small schools would better serve students. When the initiative didn’t work out as he hoped, he moved on by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on teacher evaluation systems that in part linked teacher assessments to student standardized test scores, an approach that many assessment experts have warned against.

Now he says that the success of his experiments on public education won’t be known for a decade, but we already know that evaluating teachers by student test scores is a bad idea.

Education reform should not be driven by private philanthropists with their own agendas, however well-intentioned.

Here’s the video of Gates at Harvard, where he was questioned by David Rubenstein, the billionaire co-founder and co-chief executive officer of The Carlyle Group, a private-equity firm based in Washington D.C., before an audience assembled to help launch Harvard’s newest fund-raising campaign.

This is the interview in which he said that the keyboard combination of hitting the control, alt and delete buttons to log into Windows was “a mistake.”  He also spoke about his own education at Harvard, where, he said, he established a reputation for being the freshman who did not attend classes in which he was enrolled but instead went to other classes that interested him. He is famous for being a Harvard dropout, and when Rubenstein asked if he would ever go back to get his undergraduate degree, he said:

I don’t know. I take a lot of college courses. The online free stuff has gotten very good in these new MOOCS, where Harvard is doing edX and there’s Coursera, Udacity, the Learning Company DVDS — now they have streaming finally. Meteorology, biology , geology — I highly recommend. I just took oceanography last month. These are really really good courses. It’s kind of ironic that I’m a dropout. I love college course probably as much as anyone around.

Education references are sprinkled throughout the interview. Here’s the video:

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · September 27, 2013