Bill Gates and Randi Weingarten

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Lyons

Can the billionaire philanthropist and the president of the American federation of teachers find common ground--and fix our nation's education system?

Our schools are lagging behind the rest of the world. Why is that? How did we fall so far behind?

Gates: Well, it's the big issue. A lot of other countries have put effort into their school systems. So part of it is the competition is better. The Chinese, who have a 10th of our wealth, are running a great education system. There are some things we can learn from other systems. They have a longer school day in most countries, and a longer school year in most countries. And some of them have elements of their personnel system that are worth learning from.

Weingarten: What we're seeing is that the United States, instead of moving ahead, is actually stagnating. We're basically in the same place we've been, and these countries have moved forward. They've spent a lot of time investing in the preparation and support of teachers. Many of them teach a common curriculum, very similar to the common standards that Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation have been supporting. And they create the tools and conditions that teachers need to teach, and they have mutual respect and accountability. So kids have a role in terms of education, parents have a role in terms of education, teachers have a role in terms of education, and policymakers do as well.

Gates: I agree with all that, except we spend more money by every measure than any other system. Any way you look at it we spend by far the most money. So that is a dilemma. What are we going to do to get more out of the investments we make? Are there practices in terms of helping teachers be better that we can fit into our system? What can you do to help the teachers be better? You know, a quarter of our teachers are very good. If you could make all the teachers as good as the top quarter, the U.S. would soar to the top of that comparison. So can you find the way to capture what the really good teachers are doing? It's amazing to me that more has not been invested in looking at how does that good teacher calm that classroom? How does that good teacher keep the attention of all those kids? We need to measure what they do, and then have incentives for the other teachers to learn those things.

Weingarten: Football teams do this all the time. They look at the tape after every game. Sometimes they do it during the game. They're constantly deconstructing what is working and what isn't working. And they're jettisoning what isn't working and building up on what is working, and doing it in a teamlike approach. We never do that investment in public schooling. What's happening in Finland is they do that investment in the graduate schools of education before people become teachers. They recruit a very select group of people who become teachers. Now it is also true that Finland has a 5 percent poverty rate and the United States has a 20 percent poverty rate. But there's this notion of really figuring out what the best teachers do and trying to scale that up.

Bill, you mentioned that the top quarter of our teachers are very good. But that's probably the case in Finland, too. It can't be the case that every teacher in Finland is some amazing teacher.

Gates: They actually run a personnel system, which is kind of an amazing thing. You have a review, and you're told what you're good at and what you're not good at. If over a period of time you're not improving, then you move to another profession. So, Finland, Korea, Singapore--they run teacher personnel systems. In the U.S. we have one of the most predictive personnel systems mankind ever invented--try to remember how many years you've worked, and you will know your salary.

Weingarten: Our schools have to be fundamentally different today than they were 100 years ago, 50 years ago. And yet our schools are still organized for the industrial age rather than the knowledge economy. …