The Microsoft Touch

The Microsoft Touch

Bill Gates should stick to what he does best: selling crappy software. As an education analyst he is a fish out of water. In response to the news that education budgets are being slashed all across the US, Bill Gates put forward an argument (“How Teacher Development Could Revolutionize Our Schools,” Washington Post, 2/28/11) in which he suggests that the US is actually spending more on education. Wow, Bill, I guess that’s the kind of acuity that helped build Microsoft into the world’s greatest knock-off software company.

[ad#article]According to Bill, for decades the US has spent more on education and garnered less from it: fewer graduates, lower test scores, etc. Blame for this sorry state of affairs rests with (drum roll please) under-performing teachers. How’s that for a fresh, new insight? NOT!

Even better, Bill’s silver bullet is to “flip the curve.” In other words, in the finest tradition of boardroom showmanship, Bill contends that we can solve the education crisis by–wait for it–spending less on education and demanding more. Ta-daa! It’s enough to bring tears to a stockholder’s eyes. You go, Billy Boy.

The only problem is that Bill’s curve-flipping argument is utter piffle. The truth is that education budgets have been shrinking for a long time. Yes, you can jiggle the numbers around to create an illusion of prosperity, but the truth is that education has been taking it on the chin for a long time. If you doubt my word, do some research. Educators everywhere will tell you that budgets have been getting tighter rather than fatter. Further, the long-term educational budget squeeze has netted predictable results: teachers are working harder in resource-starved schools and students are treading water.

The good news is that Bill Gates has figured out how to fix all of those problems. Oh, yeah. Bill is going to develop “new metrics” with which to identify high-performing teachers. Next, Bill is going to crowd more students into those good classrooms. (BTW, there’s no need to be concerned about the negative correlation between classroom over-crowding and educational quality is there? Nah.) Naturally, good teachers are going to love this arrangement because Bill is going to increase their salaries by firing all of the bad teachers. And this will all be accomplished at no additional cost to the taxpayer. Wahoo.

Still, I can’t help noticing that there’s just one teensy little problem with Bill Gates’ vision for American education: Bill doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about. Why does a software geek think that he’s qualified to create educational metrics? Given the many quality concerns that have plagued Microsoft over the years, I think it’s fair to say that quality assessment has never been Bill Gates’ strong suit. If education is experiencing a crisis, I would hazard that it is due to the interventions of self-appointed experts like Bill Gates who wield their ignorance like weapons.

If there is one thing that Bill Gates and I can agree on, it’s that the solution to the education crisis is simple. Of late, our highest national budgetary priorities have been investments in failure: bailing out bankrupt corporations, propping up failing banks, distributing bonuses to incompetent bankers, etc. However, I argue that, instead of investing in failure, we should return to the days of investing in success. Certainly, creating an educational system that was the envy of the 20th century world was not cheap, but it is an investment that has paid huge dividends. Perhaps more than anyone, Bill Gates should grasp the fact that the US became the leader of the information society by making a bigger investment in education than anyone else. If we cut our investment in education–as Bill Gates advocates–then the information revolution will certainly surge ahead in the 21st century, but the US will no longer be at the forefront. However, if we want to sustain the kind of opportunities to which Bill Gates owes his success, then we will have to redouble our commitment to education.

Oh, and one last point: expertise matters. Software experts should run software companies. The more we rely on software experts to design educational policy, the greater the chance that we’ll end up with Microsoft Vista-version of schooling.

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