Teaching Profession Opinion

Bill Gates Listens to the Wrong People

By Diane Ravitch — November 30, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I hope you and your family had a happy Thanksgiving, and I wish the same to all of our readers and friends.

The struggle for control of American education continues to evolve at a dizzying pace. I read that Bill Gates advised the Council of Chief State School Officers to eliminate seniority and tenure and recommended that schools stop spending to reduce class size and stop giving teachers extra money for master’s degrees. He wants teachers to get paid based on “performance” (i.e., their test scores). I guess we are now seeing a full-court effort to impose the corporate model of school reform, and Gates is the leading spokesman.

No, wait, I take that back, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said something very similar in a speech a day or two earlier, where he seemed almost happy to say that the days of wine and roses are over and schools must learn to do more with less. They seem to be sharing scripts. I don’t know who is the leading spokesman.

I can imagine some of Secretary Duncan’s predecessors, such as Secretary Shirley Hufstedler or Secretary Richard Riley or commissioners of education such as Frank Keppel or Harold Howe saying something very different. I can imagine them going to the public and urging them to support more resources where they are needed and more equitable funding. I can hear them saying that we need to thank our hard-working teachers, and we need a stronger profession. But Secretary Duncan likes to win plaudits from the people who love to cut education budgets. Go figure. The eerie similarity between Secretary Duncan and Bill Gates makes me wonder who is running the Department of Education.

Funny, about the same time I read Gates’ demand to eliminate tenure (that is, the right to due process), I got a letter from a young teacher, expressing his concern about what was happening in his district. When I asked if I could post his letter on my website, he asked me not to use his name because he is untenured. This is not unusual. I have received hundreds of letters from teachers who have asked for anonymity, because they fear reprisals. Some are tenured, some are untenured.

Since Gates is a multibillionaire, he can’t possibly understand what it means to work in an environment where you might be fired for disagreeing with your boss. Nor can he possibly understand that schools are collaborative cultures that need senior teachers who are ready and willing to help newcomers. He can’t imagine that school is different from Microsoft or other big corporations. Let’s be honest. CCSSO and The New York Times pay attention to what Gates says because he is so rich. If he didn’t run the biggest foundation in the world, if he wasn’t one of the richest men in the world, would anyone care about his opinion of education? Really, who would care what he said if he were the chairman of the Whatzit Corporation and sold widgets?

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Kansas City and spoke to the annual meeting of the Missouri NEA. Afterwards, as I was signing books, I spoke to teachers from across the state, from urban districts, small towns, and rural areas. They said things like, “Hi, I have been a teacher for 25 years, and I love it.” “Hi, please sign this for my mother, she is a teacher, too.” “Hi, I’m the third generation of teachers in my family.” “Please sign this for my dad, he’s a superintendent.”

A few days later, I spoke to the Virginia School Boards Association. There were about 800 people, including school board members, superintendents, teachers, and retired teachers. Many of them had served their communities for more than 20 years. The ceremony began with a brief concert by a high school orchestra, consisting of about 12 or 14 youngsters. First, they played a classical piece, then they regrouped and played a knee-slapping number with lots of fiddling. The audience loved it. Then they played “The Star Spangled Banner,” and everyone rose and all 800 people sang together. Deborah, I cried. Big tears rolled down my cheeks. It was beautiful.

As I looked at these groups, I thought: These are the people who teach our children, these are the members of the public who serve their local schools without compensation year after year. They and their children and their children’s children will be here long after the corporate reform crowd has moved on and been forgotten.

These are the people on whom our public schools depend. They care deeply about their children, their communities, and their public schools. They don’t get to speak to the Council of Chief State School Officers. They don’t control billions of dollars. They won’t be quoted in the New York Times. But these are the people who make our country work. I wish Bill Gates would get out and listen to them. They could tell him a thing or two.


P.S.: I see in the latest issue of Newsweek that Bill Gates considers me his biggest adversary. Now that’s really funny! Him, with all those billions and a huge staff. Me, with a computer (an Apple, by the way) and a voice. In the end, what wins: Ideas or money? We’ll see.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.