A few weeks ago, I spoke about the desperate need for school reform and how public schools are failing those kids most in need of a good education: poor children. I also pointed out that greatest impediment to reform are teachers’ unions, whose primary concern is the welfare of the adults who benefit from the status quo.
I’m not alone in this assessment: Arguably the most important proponent of education reform has become none other than Bill Gates. And Gates is putting his money where his mouth is. Gates, a child of privilege who attended an “elite private school” and Harvard University, knows the system already works well for people like him. So he’s funding all kinds of public education reform efforts across the country.
I’ll admit, when I first heard about Gates’ interest in education, I was concerned he’d be promoting liberal policies, but after reading a recent article in the New York Times about his efforts, I’m thinking I may have been wrong. He spent $2 million supporting Waiting for Superman, an award-winning film produced by my good friend and conservative activist, Phil Anschutz. The initiatives Gates is promoting are neither liberal nor conservative -- they simply ask “what is best for children?”
The answer is “better teachers.” As Gates, Anschutz and just about anyone who has studied the problem will tell you, a talented and motivated teacher can make a world of difference. Studies show that difference between such a teacher and a mediocre one is enormous: Children fortunate enough to have such a teacher learn a year-and-a-half’s worth of material during the school year, whereas those stuck with the mediocre one learn about a half-year’s worth.
Gates’ and other reformers’ efforts start from a simple, moral premise: having such a teacher shouldn’t be a matter of luck.
To that end, Gates is spending his own money trying “to identify great teachers, find out what makes them so effective and transfer those skills to others so more students can enjoy top teachers and high achievement.”
This is easier said than done, because the entire system is effectively designed to block this. Teachers are paid by seniority, not performance; bad teachers are almost impossible to fire, and exceptional teachers without seniority are the first ones to be let go during a budget crisis.
To that end, Gates is trying to create a national movement to change this. As the Times story recounted, an Indiana group backed by Gates helped pass a measure that would eliminate seniority-based layoffs.
The response from teachers unions and their supporters was predictable and sad: They accused the group of being “part of a conspiracy by Gates and hedge fund managers” to “undermine” teachers union influence.
That’s a bit rich coming from those who use the political process to preserve their own power and influence and position. In any case, it’s not true: The goal is to make the system accountable to those who need it most and who are not being served by it: children.
At this point, what we know for sure is that the unions’ preferred approach, throwing more money at the system, wouldn’t help even if we could afford it.
To his credit, in the spirit of civic duty and philanthropy, Gates is willing to pour hundreds of millions of his own money to find out what can help.
For our kids’ sake, he deserves our thanks and our cooperation.
This article published on June 9, 2011. Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.