School & District Management Opinion

The Increasingly Strange Logic of Bill Gates

By Justin Baeder — March 04, 2011 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print


In an op-ed earlier this week Washington Post, Bill Gates offers a breathtaking series of assertions about how to improve the performance of our education system. Gates is putting his money where is mouth is, primarily through the MET (Measures of Effective Teaching) study, but his argument is riddled with holes left by facts he’s omitted.

First, he argues that per-student spending has more than doubled over the past 40 years, while achievement has remained flat, and asserts that we now need to do the opposite—raise achievement without increasing spending. Assuming Gates is referring to NAEP, the only assessment that has been given to K-12 students for anywhere close to 40 years, achievement has risen in both reading and math, at least at the elementary level.

More importantly, though, is that our country’s student population is not static; income inequality has increased dramatically, and our student population is far more diverse than it was 40 years ago. For Gates, who in his spare time is the richest man in the world, this appears to be a non-issue.

Second, Gates argues that class size doesn’t matter, and that teachers want bigger classes in exchange for higher pay. I will leave it to others to debunk this claim on the basis of research, but let’s at least consider the hypocrisy here. As you might have read in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, Gates went to Lakeside School, an elite private school in Seattle. I sometimes drive by the Lakeside campus on my way home from work. Nice place. Here are some helpful facts from their website:


It’s a good thing small class sizes only matter at private schools. It would be cost-prohibitive to lower class size for everyone—especially considering that the money could be better spent on, say, testing and performance pay.

Third, Gates insists that we’re pouring money into the wrong proxies for excellent teaching, rather than recognizing excellent teaching itself:

advances haven't been made in teaching because we haven't built a system to measure and promote excellence. Instead, we have poured money into proxies, things we hoped would have an impact on student achievement.

Whenever you attempt to measure something as complex as teaching, you are using proxies. Test scores are proxies. Video-based ratings are proxies. Seniority is a proxy. There is no simple, objective, proxy-free way to measure teaching quality.

If anyone is using proxies for teaching, it is Gates, with his extreme emphasis on value-added scores, which his MET study treats as the fundamental indicator of teaching performance. This study promises to establish itself as the be-all, end-all study of teaching quality:

To flip the curve, we have 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. To this end, our foundation is working with nearly 3,000 teachers in seven urban school districts to develop fair and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness that are tied to gains in student achievement. Research teams are analyzing videos of more than 13,000 lessons - focusing on classes that showed big student gains so it can be understood how the teachers did it. At the same time, teachers are watching their own videos to see what they need to do to improve their practice.

I don’t know what Gates hopes to find that decades of research haven’t already found. Nearly every educator in the country has heard of Robert Marzano’s books that summarize this research, complete with effect size calculations. We know which teaching techniques and strategies are associated with higher student learning, thanks to tens of thousands of existing studies. Hopefully MET will tell us something useful, but I am doubtful that it will lead to the revolution in professional development (and therefore the revolutionary results) that Mr. Gates expects.

Mr. Gates, while commendable for his commitment to improving educational outcomes, needs to learn some basic lessons about performance. Chief among them is that people matter; simply telling below-average teachers to imitate certain techniques gleaned from videos of excellent teachers does not guarantee superior results. Moreover, the idea that we can somehow increase student achievement by increasing class size for the best teachers—as if they would be thrilled about this, wouldn’t quit, and would be just as effective with half a dozen more students—is beyond naive. Finally, education is a labor market, and we must ensure that our efforts to improve teaching quality do not lower teacher quality by driving the best people out of the profession.

In a forthcoming post, I will examine the halo effect, a serious problem with MET and with many other attempts to improve performance by imitating high performers.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.