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Monday, October 31, 2011

Bill Gates might know computers but he doesn't know education

From the Washington Post's Answer Sheet

By Anthony Cody

Bill Gates was just in the news again, bemoaning the sorry state of America’s schools, insisting that business leaders like him have a lot to teach us about measuring performance.

Mr. Gates, in years past, has worried about the fact that we rank poorly on international educational comparisons, suggesting this will cause us to fall behind economically. The answer, according to Mr. Gates, is that we must get rid of bad teachers. He said, during his appearance on Oprah last year, that if we got rid of all the bad teachers, “our schools would shoot from the bottom of these rankings to the top.”

In order to be able to fire all these bad teachers, we need to be able to measure their performance. The measurements he wants to use are the data from our students’ test scores, which tell us how much “value” we have added to them. These students are our raw material, and just like any manufacturing process, we ought to be paid and evaluated according to how much value we have added to the product as it passed through our hands. His foundation created the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, which has come up with something they call “multiple measures” of good teaching, but unfortunately it appears all these measures lead back to test score data.

One great thing about the past decade is that teachers have become good at analyzing data. But we are now being presented with data that goes beyond the test scores, and I am wondering if Bill Gates has any interest in this. I think it might be germane. It sheds some fresh light on where the United States is in relation to other countries on some other indicators.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow just wrote:

“We have not taken care of the least among us. We have allowed a revolting level of income inequality to develop. We have watched as millions of our fellow countrymen have fallen into poverty. And we have done a poor job of educating our children and now threaten to leave them a country that is a shell of its former self. We should be ashamed.

Poor policies and poor choices have led to exceedingly poor outcomes. Our societal chickens have come home to roost.

Here are some of the data points Mr. Blow shared, citing a report called “On Social Justice in the OECD.” The OECD is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which has 34 country members and helps governments tackle the economic, social and governance challenges of a globalized economy.. The report summary states:

Poverty and the growing gap between rich and poor is a major problem in the OECD. Of the 31 countries examined, on average, 10.8 percent of the people are poor. This means they have to live with less than half the national median household income.

U.S.: 21.6 percent of children affected by poverty

Particular concern is the phenomenon of child poverty: on average about 12.3 percent of children live below the poverty line. Therefore, it lacks many places on the basic requirements of social justice and participation. The differences within the OECD is alarming: While in Denmark only 3.7 percent of children affected by poverty, the rate in the United States at alarming 21.6 percent (rank 28). Only Turkey, Chile and Mexico cut worse than the largest economy in the world.

Education needs to invest!

Many of the 31 participating OECD countries have significant deficits in the question of equitable educational opportunities. Again, it is the Northern European countries, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark, which are particularly successful in this respect also. The U.S. major economies (ranked 20), Britain (21) or Germany (22) land on the other hand only in the lower third of the rankings. Including school systems and increased investment in early childhood education are key tools to continue to provide more equal opportunities in education.

So the United States, according to this report, ranks next to Greece, Turkey, Mexico and Chile in terms of the percentage of children in poverty. Here is the data. (And interestingly, if you want to connect the dots, and you break out the international test scores according to the poverty level of the students, you will find that American schools NOT afflicted by poverty rank among the top in the world.)

Teachers see this data in a different way. Here is a note from my friend Sarah Puglisi, who teaches third grade in California,

“Homelessness and poverty up close is hard. It smells, actually in my room this year, it takes from the very fiber of a being, it is destructive to those that stand in uselessness looking as well as those suffering it. I’m dealing with a woman and her child suffering terribly now — she should never be alone in this, her faculties are not good enough to deal. She can’t go grow food on some family place, she’s like a forgotten being. And so are the supports that should exist, dysfunctional. But my concern is a child, one not washing, that can’t get into a shelter til after 9 at night that’s out by 5AM, that hasn’t had a real bath in a month. No costume for him. And I need to go buy him a pair of pants or two really, couple shirts and get his clothes and wash them. Among the realities in my teaching work I think I’m beginning to understand what I really need to articulate is what poverty is like to a learner. A child that didn’t pick, nor make any of this. And who is so sweet.”

Many teachers see poverty up close, although our students do their best to hide it. Like wounded birds, they do not want others to see their weakness. They tease one another about buying clothes at Salvation Army, or living in a cardboard box. Those of us who have worked in schools with children in poverty are very familiar with this data.

Are our billionaire education reformers interested in any of this information?

We can choose tax structures that underfund our schools, we can believe that we are collectively “broke” while some people stack up the billions, and still need tax breaks. But the data is in. The gulf between rich and poor is obscene. And the schools alone will not fix this. Sending more children to college will not fix this. Only social policies that aim to reverse the concentration of wealth will make a real difference.

Bill Gates can produce the most elaborate teacher evaluation system in the world, but any system built upon the two dimensional data provided by test scores will be trumped by the smell and taste of poverty in our classrooms, and the cold hard data that shows we are failing to provide the most basic level of support for our children to live healthy lives and learn well in school.

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