Snippets from a conversation:
Bill Gates, innovation and leadership
By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
JOHN WARNER responded to my Sunday column about Inez Tenenbaum’s decision not to seek a third term as education superintendent by quoting Bill Gates.
Specifically, he quoted from a speech the Microsoft honcho delivered to the National Education Summit on High Schools a while back. Everybody’s talking about it. In fact, Mrs. Tenenbaum was talking about it during our interview last week, holding up Mr. Gates’ efforts as an example of someone doing what she hopes to do once she’s left office — pushing for reform from the private sector. Here’s part of what Mr. Warner cited in comments on my blog:
“America’s high schools are obsolete. By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded — though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean that our high schools — even when they’re working exactly as designed — cannot teach our kids what they need to know today…. This isn’t an accident or a flaw in the system; it is the system.”
I’m afraid my gut response was rather dismissive, along these lines: Yes, everyone’s heard or read what Bill Gates said about our secondary schools system. What I haven’t heard is an understandable explanation of what he would replace it with.
To be fair to Mr. Gates, I went back to read the full speech. (Which you can also do by following the link from my blog.)
I found that while much of what he said was interesting and wise, little of it struck me as new. I was pleased to see that he is as interested in equality of opportunity as we are on this editorial board:
“In district after district, wealthy white kids are taught Algebra II while low-income minority kids are taught to balance a check book!” he said. “The first group goes on to college and careers; the second group will struggle to make a living wage…. (E)ither we think they can’t learn, or we think they’re not worth teaching. The first argument is factually wrong; the second is morally wrong.”
I could also write that — along with what he sees as standing in the way of a solution: “The key problem is political will” (as in, the lack thereof).
His prescription for what should be done sounds much like the central idea behind No Child Left Behind on the federal level, and a number of initiatives — such as more rigorous requirements for graduation — that have been in place in South Carolina since the turn of the century.
“The idea behind the new design is that all students can do rigorous work, and — for their sake and ours — they have to,” he said, adding that the aim should be “to prepare every student for college.”
Then, he spelled out the active ingredients of his prescription: “If we can focus on these three steps — high standards for all; public data on our progress; turning around failing schools — we will go a long way toward ensuring that all students have a chance to make the most of their lives.”
Those are the same principles we’ve already put into action through the Education Accountability Act. It is laudable that Mr. Gates is putting considerable amounts of his own money where his mouth is, transforming hundreds of high schools across the country.
But there’s only so much he can do, even with his resources. Turning around the dropout rate (which Mr. Gates correctly sees as a national epidemic, not just a South Carolina problem) and taking the next steps in making sure all kids are prepared for productive lives will take leadership in the political sphere.
Mr. Warner bemoaned that “Today we’re making incremental improvements, and that is good but not sufficient to make the progress we need. There is no way an educational Bill Gates could emerge because there is no vehicle for them to pursue truly innovative ideas.”
John, I wrote back, the entrepreneurial culture you envision is politically impossible. You know why? Because politicians and their constituents, being extremely jealous of every tax dollar, absolutely refuse to trust educators. Therefore we get rigid standards, tests, measurements and controls that force everyone to follow certain patterns. (I once wrote a whole column on the lack of trust as being the root of all evil in our society. I’ll put that on my blog, too.)
Everything I’ve seen in my career about the politics of public education indicates that the state will never hire teachers, give them resources and say, “Go to town; be creative!”
Mr. Warner agreed:
“Brad, I have been talking to people about this for a long time too. I absolutely agree with you (about the lack of trust).
“There is the trust factor you mentioned, not trusting educators. There is a lack of trust of parents to make the right decisions. There is also a serious lack of trust among minorities, especially older minorities, who have historical experience that honed their instincts to be wary. There (is) a large segment of people who are cynical in general and don’t trust anyone else, especially those in government. Some of our leading politicians in the state have made an art form out of tapping into this latent cynicism.
“In a flat world, only innovation can keep us globally competitive. Public education needs to be a part of that culture. Somehow, we need to find a leader in this state who can empower people to begin to create a culture of innovation.
“Dick Riley brought enlightened leadership to public education 25 years ago. And Carroll Campbell brought it to economic development 15 years ago. Without the next strong leader, it will be difficult for us to make significant progress.”
What can I say to that, except that he’s absolutely right. This is why I hate to see a leader such as Mrs. Tenenbaum leave the public sphere, and why I worry about who will lead us to the next steps in the reform that is so essential to our state’s future.
August 31 column, w/ links
Snippets from a conversation:
What Bill can help, local government can hurt… check this out:
Gates Scholars to lose their Alma Mater?
What is going on in Richmond and this world when bureaucrats are trying to ruin the most successful school the area has ever seen?
details at http://gatesscholarsmaylosealmamater