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How Bill Gates Would Repair Our Schools

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By Fred Hiatt
Monday, March 30, 2009

You might call it the Obama-Duncan-Gates-Rhee philosophy of education reform.

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Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder turned full-time philanthropist, visited The Post last week to talk, among other things, about how to improve schools for the nation's poorest children.

That so many children in this country cannot live up to their potential because they are born in poverty and attend terrible schools is one of the nation's greatest scandals, as Gates pointed out in his recent letter from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Disclosure: Melinda Gates is on The Washington Post Co. board of directors.) "Only 71 percent of kids graduate from high school within four years, and for minorities the numbers are even worse -- 58 percent for Hispanics and 55 percent for African Americans," he wrote. "If the decline in childhood deaths [in developing countries] is one of the most positive statistics ever, these are some of the most negative."

The foundation has spent about $4 billion seeking to improve high schools and promote college access since 2000, along the way gaining valuable experience on what does and doesn't work. Based on those lessons, Gates names two priorities: helping successful charter school organizations, such as KIPP, replicate as quickly as possible; and improving teacher effectiveness at every other school.

In both cases, institutions stand in the way. School boards resist the expansion of charter schools. Teachers unions resist measuring and rewarding effectiveness. In fact, Gates said, evidence shows no connection between teaching quality and most of the measures used in contracts to determine pay. Seniority, holding a master's degree or teacher's certification, and even, below 10th grade, having deep knowledge of a subject -- these all are mostly irrelevant. It follows that some of the money devoted to rewarding teachers who get higher degrees and to pensions accessible only to those who stay 10 or more years should go instead to keeping the best teachers from leaving in their fourth or fifth years.

One purpose of measurement would be to deploy the best teachers to the neediest schools, and pay them accordingly; another, to fire the worst teachers. But the main point, Gates said, is that effective teaching can be taught: "The biggest part is taking the people who want to be good -- and helping them."

President Obama and his education secretary, former Chicago school superintendent Arne Duncan, are on the same wavelength. During an electronic town hall forum at the White House on Thursday, Obama cited as his priorities pre-K education, charter schools and teacher effectiveness.

Obama and Duncan both stress that teachers shouldn't be judged on standardized tests alone, but they want better standardized tests to measure how much a student improves in a year, so that teachers can be rewarded or held accountable. Like Gates -- with whom Obama had discussed teacher effectiveness the day before his town hall meeting -- they want more emphasis on helping teachers who want to improve. But they also believe that ineffective teachers shouldn't be retained automatically, as is usually the case now. "And it can't be impossible to move out bad teachers, because that brings -- that makes everybody depressed in a school," Obama said, " . . . and it makes it harder for the teachers who are inheriting these kids the next year. . . ."

As it happens, these are the principles that D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is seeking to bring to Washington schools. Like Obama, she says that she wants to work with, not against, teachers. But so far their union has done everything it can to block her, including preventing District teachers from voting on her proposals. The union, among other differences, wants performance judged school-wide, not -- as most reformers would say -- on a mixture of school and individual teacher performance. Union locals, controlled by long-serving teachers, also, not surprisingly, tend to favor pay and pension structures that reward long-serving teachers, not the best strategy to attract the brightest from a generation that doesn't envision spending 20 or 30 years with one employer.

During a visit to The Post at the beginning of this month, Duncan, without commenting directly on the D.C. contract talks, endorsed Rhee's approach.

"We have to reward excellence," Duncan said. "Reward, incent, spotlight excellence -- which is what she's trying to do. We also have to make it easier to get rid of teachers when learning isn't happening.

"The pendulum in the country has swung too far to adults," Duncan added. "She's trying to swing the pendulum back." Maybe the winds blowing from the White House will help Rhee push the pendulum toward an emphasis on children first.

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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