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Bill Gates Fails Education 101

Just when it appeared that Bill Gates had finally learned a lesson in humility, he put his foot in his mouth once again. In an op-ed in the Washington Post on Feb. 28, Gates argued that student achievement has remained virtually flat over the past four decades despite doubling per-student spending in K-12 schools because teaching is the one profession that has no clear indicators of excellence ("How teacher development could revolutionize our schools"). His solution is 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."

At first glance, Gates's model seems perfectly reasonable. As he noted, other professions have clear indicators of excellence. "Their success depends on performance and they eagerly learn from the best." But teaching is not like other professions in several ways. First and foremost, inspired teaching is an art and not a science. As I've written often before, outstanding teachers often ignore the principles of effective instruction and still get remarkable results. Frank McCourt, Pat Conroy, and Jaime Escalante, for example, violated a pile of the rules.

What this should tell Gates is that the best his proposal will accomplish is to turn out average teachers. "Great teachers," to use his words, are essentially virtuosos. They march to a different drum. As a result, it is highly unlikely that his plan will achieve its goal. I say this because I don't believe great performers in any creative field can be produced by emulating other great performers. There is something in the style of the latter that accounts for their effectiveness. Art students can study the techniques of Rembrandt all they want and yet never produce anything that comes close. Drama students can analyze the roles that Laurence Olivier played and still not replicate his impact on the audience.

There is one lesson here, however, that all can learn: Just because non-educators have billions of dollars does not make them qualified to be taken seriously when they opine. Yet that is precisely what is happening time and again in today's reform movement. Hubris is a dangerous trait in any field of endeavor. It's particularly so in education. But I don't expect Gates to absorb this truism. He is accustomed to having his way, and the media are complicit.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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