Education Letter to the Editor

More Ideas for Gates Foundation

February 19, 2010 3 min read

To the Editor:

I write in response to James D. Starkey’s recent Commentary on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $45 million grant to study what makes a great teacher (“Attention, Gates Foundation,” Feb. 3, 2010).

The study asks the wrong question. What makes a great teacher can be cheerfully debated over drinks, along with what makes a great doctor or what makes a great leader, but that’s not the point. The question should be how to get great teachers into the classroom.

For no other profession does this country expect the “best” people to work for embarrassingly low wages (the embarrassment being collectively shared by us all). The question of how to get great teachers into the classroom is easily answered: Pay them. With money. I would love to never again hear a politician’s empty platitude about how much we “value” education, if only I could know that we paid teachers a salary commensurate with our expectations for them.

I do take issue with Mr. Starkey’s claim not to have been a great teacher, however. Of the hundred or so teachers and professors I had through two decades of education, he was one of the best.

Mr. Starkey’s suggestion that the $45 million be given to him was obviously tongue-in-cheek. But that is exactly my suggestion. Enough with studies that seek to continue our history of underpaying educators. Enough with special curricula, standardized tests, new technologies, and other mediocrity-enforcing approaches. Use the money where it will obviously do good: Pay the teachers.

Michael Louden

Seattle, Wash.

To the Editor:

James D. Starkey is right on target with his Commentary regarding the qualities of a great teacher, and its questioning of why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is spending $45 million to discover them. His list of 10 such qualities is quite comprehensive. In education, $45 million could be spent in much better ways, such as hiring more teachers, especially in special education, to reduce class size, and by providing funding to poor school districts.

Patricia Kolencik

Associate Professor

Clarion University of Pennsylvania

Clarion, Pa.

To the Editor:

I hereby cast a vote for James D. Starkey’s masterful Commentary “Attention, Gates Foundation,” and for his 10 qualities that make great teachers. Having experienced the great and the ungreat for 60 years, as a student, teacher, principal, and professor, I’m convinced that Mr. Starkey’s qualities—think of them as talents—make all the difference.

The challenge is to figure out how to identify and develop young people having these talents, or the potential for them, and to encourage them to join our ranks. It’s not rocket science—schools have a wealth of experience in developing musicians and athletes. Surely we can launch a talent search for our own profession. Here’s the plan:

1. Every middle school would establish a committee of master teachers and savvy students to identify youngsters with teaching potential, taking care to disregard tattoos, green hair, poverty, wealth, and other irrelevancies.

2. Through middle and high school, identified students would be offered frequent, carefully planned opportunities to develop, such as tutoring other students, helping design lessons, attending summer camps with the similarly talented, doing advanced study in subjects of interest, and helping teach small groups or classes in collaboration with a teaching coach.

3. Concurrently, these students would be scheduled into classes taught by the school’s master teachers, for the simple reason that great teachers consistently cite one or more K-12 teachers as their models. It would be like private lessons, only not private.

4. Scholarships: good for tackles, good for trombonists, good for teachers.

Mr. Starkey’s 10 traits are sources of personal power, which, in a classic political-science definition, is the ability to cause others to do what they otherwise wouldn’t do or wouldn’t do as well. Power is the great teacher’s great asset, and it doesn’t come from textbooks, technology, or even teamwork, no matter how well-crafted or costly. It comes from inside and can be seen in the relationships between the teacher and his or her students—and in the results. It can’t be created for $45 million, but perhaps can be found and cultivated. With Gates’ support, we might be able to unleash thousands of great teachers to do what they do best: inform and inspire.

Jim Haas


Master of Arts in Teaching

Webster University-Kansas City

Kansas City, Mo.

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as More Ideas for Gates Foundation