Bill Gates–The Great Satan of Education Reform

Business and education are different. And that is putting it mildly. One of the big disconnects is how salaries are calculated and raises are assigned. In education people basically get raises based on two things: longevity and education. In industry experience counts for setting salaries and raises are determined based on some sorts of measurable metrics of accomplishment. In education just getting a degree is grounds for a raise. In business/Industry a new degree doesn’t count for any automatic increase. The assumption is that the education you have acquired will improve your ability and performance and so will be rewarded based on improved performance.

Bill Gates is suggesting (see Gates Urges School Budget Overhauls) that the education model be more like the industry model. He is calling for an end to automatic step increases and separate higher pay levels for advanced degrees. Rather he is pushing for pay for performance. Needless to say teacher unions are not happy about this.

The issue is more complicated than Bill Gates seems to think it is. It’s also more important to deal with than I think the teacher unions think it is. First off pay for performance is not as easy or working out as well at Gates thinks it is. W Edwards Deming, the father of modern quality control in much of the world, was a serious critic of the practice. His view was that there was too much subjectivity and actually much less variance between most employees to justify the differences in raises. While he believed in exceptional performers who were worthy of higher raises he was basically more of a supported of education style raises. Experience and training generally did result in better performance and Deming believed in training as a key to better productivity and performance. In education the evaluation of performance is also a lot harder than in a lot of jobs. The base it all on test scored ideal is seriously flawed for starters. People who don’t understand education really don’t seem to get that. They are looking for easy to gather metrics and have grabbed on to some that are a lot less reliable than they think they are.

On the teacher side I think many ignore the truth that there is a difference, as one superintendent of schools put it to me, between 20 years of experience and one year of experience 20 times. Years if experience is the same sort of simple solution that pay for test results is. That is it seems logical and objective but it ignores basic realities of how people operate. Some people get into a rut and never improve – or worse degrade over time. Many people do get better over time but even so not all at the same rate. And then there is the issue of training. There are teachers who actively look for and take training as a way to improve their practice. There are also teachers who attend training so that they can retain certification/licensure but have no intentions of letting that training change the way they do things. And yet the second group is rewarded in the same way the first group is. That seems somehow wrong to many people.

Ultimately we do need to reform schools I believe. But it is not going to happen unless educators are an active part of the discussion rather than the targets of reformers. Both sides need to understand the other, listen to the other, and be willing to explain why an idea is good or not good rather than just saying “no.” Bill Gates is not against good education. Teachers are not against improving the way education is delivered. But you’d never know that from the rhetoric. Dialogue is what we need but I don’t see anyone really working at making that happen. Rather we see each side (or multiple sides in some cases) just trying to marshal the public, who are generally way in over their heads in education discussions, against the other. This seems to be to be doomed to failure with our students and ultimately the country as the loser.

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