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Q&A: Bill Gates on Teaching, Ed Tech, and Philanthropy

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Philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates recently dipped into the coffers of bgc3—his personal office, think tank, and incubation engine—to make a multimillion-dollar investment in Graphite, a new venture from the San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media that aims to provide teachers with easy-to-search, Consumer Reports-style peer reviews of ed-tech products. In conjunction with Graphite's launch, Gates offered to respond via email to some questions from Education Week and our Twitter followers.

While downplaying the overall capacity of philanthropy to impact public education systems, Gates said he hopes his investment in Graphite can help spur a "virtuous cycle" between ed-tech entrepreneurs and teachers. He wrote that he and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are striving to do a better job of listening and responding to the needs of classroom teachers. (The Gates Foundation provides grant support for coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation in Education Week and on edweek.org.)

Gates also stressed that while he's a big believer in technology, "something magical" happens with effective face-to-face classroom teaching that "can't be replaced by a strictly online experience."

The email Q&A below has been edited for length and clarity.

Why support Graphite? Why now?

It's probably no surprise that I am a big believer in the ability of technology to enhance education in a big way. But it hasn't yet had the kind of impact that I think it can. One reason is that teachers have a hard time finding the applications and websites that will work for them and their students. They waste a lot of time—and sometimes their own money—trying to find just the right product. With Graphite, teachers can search for these products in a variety of ways (by subject, grade level, cost, etc.) and also see what other teachers and education experts thought of each one. The idea is to help teachers connect with the best available technology that's going to help them do their best work.

What lessons should school leaders and ed-tech entrepreneurs take from your support of Graphite?

For me, much of the promise of technology in the classroom has to do with adaptive, personalized learning for every student. The best applications out there can adapt to different students' learning needs, figure out what they know and what they still need work on. But one of the barriers to adoption is that there are so many products out there, and teachers can't take the time to try them all out. That's the problem that I hope Graphite helps solve. It's like a teachers' staff room filled with colleagues who are committed to finding the best technology for their classrooms and who want to share what works with others. I also hope that with the reviews from the Graphite editorial team and the field notes from classrooms, developers will get a stronger sense of what we need in our classrooms today. Ideally, this contributes to a virtuous cycle where the very best products are widely recognized and used, giving lots of incentives to other developers to continue to innovate in meaningful ways.

Per @melanieawelsh, one of dozens of @EducationWeek followers who submitted questions for you via Twitter, how do you see the role of online learning in K-12 education evolving over the next decade?

When you see a very effective teacher at work in the classroom, something magical happens that can't be replaced by a strictly online experience.

Today, online learning is great for especially motivated students who are driven to learn things outside of school. It lets them supplement what they're learning in class and seek out new things that maybe the teacher doesn't have time to get into. That's exciting, and I'm a big supporter of it. I take a lot of online courses myself. But we need tools and programs that work for every student, not just the super-motivated.

Software can figure out what a student knows about a subject and, with infinite patience, tailor exercises that focus on where they need to improve, even giving personalized hints and encouragement. As hardware like tablets and intelligent whiteboards gets cheaper and more widely available, that can help, too.

You've said that Graphite can strengthen the market for educational technology by helping developers better tailor their products to meet educators' needs. This seems broadly reflective of a new emphasis from you and your foundation on supporting teachers, rather than just seeking to measure their effectiveness. How have your beliefs about the role of teachers in improving public education, and the role of your foundation in engaging teachers, evolved in recent years?

We learned a lot from our early engagement with teachers, and we've been working to do better. Our strategy has been focused on supporting teachers for a long time. I gave a speech to the American Federation of Teachers three years ago where I talked about how great teaching is the centerpiece of a strong education. Key to that is setting up a system that helps every teacher get better.

Teachers are the lifeblood of the education system. It's impossible to improve education without constructively engaging with teachers, listening to them to understand their needs in the classroom.

That's why the community aspect of Graphite strikes me as so important. For example, teachers who are just starting to use some of these applications and websites, or who are trying to find some new ones, can access feedback and encouragement from other teachers who have tested them in their classrooms and can share what really works, or how they mix it up to improve outcomes. It's a great example of how we can support teachers by giving them the tools they need.

How do you respond to teachers like @lapham_katie, who argue that the reforms and technologies you promote serve to stifle teacher creativity?

That's actually the exact opposite of what we are trying to promote. What we are trying to do is identify what makes some teachers so effective—why their students achieve big gains even accounting for income, background, etc.—and how we can help all teachers learn from that. You don't have to visit many classrooms to realize that effective teaching can take different forms. There will always be room for creativity and different approaches that lead to better student outcomes. That's one of the reasons I'm optimistic about Graphite. The idea is that teachers will come up with great uses for ed-tech tools that others, even the developers who designed the software, might not have anticipated.

Broadly speaking, you and your foundation have come under significant fire for giving so much money to overtly steer K-12 education in what some see as a controversial direction. What makes you confident that you are helping steer the country's educational system in the right direction? Per @lfeinberg and @jashsf, why not instead devote the bulk of your energy and resources toward greater investment in early-childhood education—where some see pretty clear evidence that those investments produce tangible results over a child's lifetime—or toward leveling the wildly uneven playing field between wealthy and poor districts in this country?

Melinda and I want more students in the U.S. to graduate from high school ready for college and careers. That's the goal. Then the question becomes, what part can we play in helping to achieve that?

There's an ample body of evidence that teaching is the single greatest in-school factor in a student's achievement. This is something that teachers have known instinctively for a long time, but now we have the data to confirm it. Teachers want to help their students succeed, but most of them don't get the support or tailored feedback they need. That's also backed by research and extensive conversations the foundation has had with teachers. We feel that investing in innovative solutions to these problems is the best way for our foundation to make a positive impact.

Our foundation invests quite a bit to support early education in Washington state, where we're based. I also agree that addressing funding inequities is an important step. But our own efforts are pretty focused in a few areas we believe will help the whole system. To put the numbers in context, the state of California's annual budget for K-12 education (roughly $68 billion) is more than 100 times larger than the annual budget of all of our foundation's work in the United States. So our ability to help level the playing field in this way would be quite limited. I think we can do the most good by using our resources to fund research and advocate for policies that help teachers and students across the country.

Photo: Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates during an appearance in Paris in June.
—Jacques Brinon/AP

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends.

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