Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Bill Gates and the Cult of Measurement: Efficiency Without Excellence

By Anthony Cody — February 07, 2013 3 min read
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Bill Gates’ annual letter came out last week, and can be read here.

A preview of his letter stated this:

This year, my letter focuses on the catalytic role that measurement can play in reducing hunger, poverty, and disease. Setting goals and measuring progress are obviously not new ideas. But over the last year, I've really been struck by the impact this can have improving the lives of the poorest.

Measurement has been central to the Gates vision for improving schools in the US as well. But this approach has not, in my view, improved the lives of the poorest among our students.

Ever since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, school reform has been driven by measurement and numerical goals. But unfortunately for the poor, we are not measuring what matters most, nor are our responses to the measurements truly helpful.

Mathematician Cathy O’Neil has offered an interesting critique of the Gates method of solutions via measurement. She writes:

...the person who defines the model defines success, and by obscuring this power behind a data collection process and incrementally improved model results, it seems somehow sanitized and objective when it's not.
Don't be fooled by the mathematical imprimatur: behind every model and every data set is a political process that chose that data and built that model and defined success for that model.

There is an old saying, “when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In our schools, standardized tests are our hammers, and as Cathy O’Neil points out, the standards and the tests that measure what has been learned have lots of questionable assumptions built in.

In his letter, Bill Gates draws an appealing portrait of how teaching is being improved at Eagle Valley High School in Vail, Colorado. Reflecting the findings of the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project, he points out that they focus on “several measures that schools should use to assess teacher performance, including test data, student surveys and assessments by trained evaluators.”

Unfortunately, a closer look at their research shows that the way these various models are validated is by the degree to which they align with test scores. This is circular, as Bruce Baker explains in some detail here.

And Gary Rubinstein has gone even further, digging into the data available from Eagle Valley High. He concludes, “Perhaps there still is a miracle district out there proving that these reforms are working, but as far as I can tell Eagle County, Colorado isn’t it.”

We could choose to measure other things, of course. The idea of measurement is not useless. The trouble is that some of the things we truly value are harder to measure, and so we devolve back to the simplest metrics - test scores. This is defined as the “outcome” that we desire. But this is only one of a host of outcomes that we actually want for our students.

Nothing makes this clearer than the personal decisions made by people with the MOST control over their own children’s education. The schools attended by the very wealthy are not chosen for their test scores - in fact many of them do not give standardized tests at all. Neither do they use student test scores to evaluate their teachers.

While Bill Gates undoubtedly used test score data as the basis for his assertion that class size does not matter much, and should be allowed to rise, it is fair to assume that the small class sizes at the private school attended by his children offer outcomes other than test scores.

What are the outcomes these schools offer?

The Sidwell Friends school, attended by Sasha and Malia Obama, says this:

We cultivate in all members of our community high personal expectations and integrity, respect for consensus, and an understanding of how diversity enriches us, why stewardship of the natural world matters and why service to others enhances life. Above all, we seek to be a school that nurtures a genuine love of learning and teaches students "to let their lives speak."

The Lakeside School, attended by Bill Gates himself several decades ago, and now by his children, says this:

Lakeside's 5th- to 12th-grade student-centered academic program focuses on the relationships between talented students and capable and caring teachers. We develop and nurture students' passions and abilities and ensure every student feels known.
Each student's curiosities and capabilities lead them to unique academic challenges that are sustained through a culture of support and encouragement. All students will find opportunities to discover and develop a passion; to hone the skills of writing, thinking, and speaking; and to interact with the world both on and off campus. Lakeside trusts that each student has effective ideas about how to maximize his or her own education, and that they will positively contribute to our vibrant learning community.

The parents who send their children to these schools keep a sharp eye on the outcomes that really matter. They know that personal relationships are key, and that is something that cannot be measured on a test. It is something that is made possible by small class sizes and a warm environment that recognizes the uniqueness of every child.

This is the opposite of using standardized measurement tools to score and rank every learner, and every teacher.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote back in 1947,

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.

Measurement and standardization delivers efficiency without excellence. When this becomes the driving force in a marketized education system, it fosters conformity and channels innovation towards commercially viable solutions for those unable to purchase the sort of personalized education the wealthy choose for their own children. Measurement in education will not serve the poor. It will merely make the schools attended by the poor more efficient in preserving their poverty.

What do you think? Will more Gatesian measurements improve education for the poor?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

(note: an earlier version of this post appeared at Diane Ravitch’s Blog.)

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.