Gates: Pay top teachers more to accept larger classes

In Monday’s Washington Post, Bill Gates talks about the need to better recognize and reward good teachers. (Yes, this is another call for performance-based pay.)

But Gates also addresses the national emphasis on class size reduction, an education reform that he maintains is misguided. “U.S. schools have almost twice as many teachers per student as they did in 1960, yet achievement is roughly the same,” writes Gates.

He suggests paying the top 25 percent of teachers more money to accept four or five additional students into their classes. Those larger class sizes could free up money to raise the quality of other teachers, he says. (I am still not sure there would be agreement on who the top 25 percent of teachers were.)

Among his points:

We know that of all the variables under a school’s control, the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching. It is astonishing what great teachers can do for their students.

Yet compared with the countries that outperform us in education, we do very little to measure, develop and reward excellent teaching. We have been expecting teachers to be effective without giving them feedback and training.

To flip the curve, we have 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.

To this end, our foundation is working with nearly 3,000 teachers in seven urban school districts to develop fair and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness that are tied to gains in student achievement. Research teams are analyzing videos of more than 13,000 lessons – focusing on classes that showed big student gains so it can be understood how the teachers did it. At the same time, teachers are watching their own videos to see what they need to do to improve their practice.

Our goal is a new approach to development and evaluation that teachers endorse and that helps all teachers improve.

The value of measuring effectiveness is clear when you compare teachers to members of other professions – farmers, engineers, computer programmers, even athletes. These professionals are more advanced than their predecessors – because they have clear indicators of excellence, their success depends on performance and they eagerly learn from the best.

The same advances haven’t been made in teaching because we haven’t built a system to measure and promote excellence. Instead, we have poured money into proxies, things we hoped would have an impact on student achievement. The United States spends $50 billion a year on automatic salary increases based on teacher seniority. It’s reasonable to suppose that teachers who have served longer are more effective, but the evidence says that’s not true. After the first few years, seniority seems to have no effect on student achievement.

Another standard feature of school budgets is a bump in pay for advanced degrees. Such raises have almost no impact on achievement, but every year they cost $15 billion that would help students more if spent in other ways.

Perhaps the most expensive assumption embedded in school budgets – and one of the most unchallenged – is the view that reducing class size is the best way to improve student achievement. This belief has driven school budget increases for more than 50 years. U.S. schools have almost twice as many teachers per student as they did in 1960, yet achievement is roughly the same.

What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.

–From Maureen Downey, at the AJC Get Schooled blog

75 comments Add your comment


February 27th, 2011
10:36 pm

The state is adding as many students as they want and it doesn’t cost them anything. As a matter of fact it is saving a lot of money. The class size law went out the window for next year and I honestly don’t think it will ever be implemented again.

Cobb teacher

February 27th, 2011
10:58 pm

Part of the problem with larger class size is that the classrooms in the schools aren’t built for 32 students. We are packing students into rooms built for 25 students. We don’t have enough room for desks or lab tables to accommodate these larger class sizes.


February 27th, 2011
11:01 pm

Yet the top private schools usually have 15-16 students max in their classes. I wonder why that is?

Also, in 1960, students were better behaved and more respectful, most had both parents in the home and Mom didn’t work, and classes were more homogeneous. In 1960, many of the special education students who are now mainstreamed weren’t even in school.

Comparing today’s schools to the schools of 1960 is apples and oranges.


February 27th, 2011
11:03 pm

Is it fair to blame Bill Gates for Vista?


February 27th, 2011
11:07 pm

Top private schools usually brag about the number of teachers with advanced degrees, as well.

Of course, usually those degrees are in fields other than leadership, and are from reputable universities.

Toto: Exposing naked body scanners...

February 27th, 2011
11:19 pm

“As of Dec. 31, 2010, funds at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust were valued at $15.14 billion.”

Well, well. Now who was behind the law that allowed Foundations to be set up? Let’s overturn this law and start letting these theevz start paying their fair share of taxes.

Toto: Exposing naked body scanners...

February 27th, 2011
11:22 pm

As of Dec. 31, 2010, funds at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust were valued at $15.14 billion.

Let’s get rid of the Foundation law and let these gods pay their fair share of taxes.


February 27th, 2011
11:24 pm

Many detailed studies have been done in the area of science education that show after 24 in a science lab, lab accidents experience a steep increase. Other sound studies show that lab experiences are the best way for students to understand and apply science content (not just reading the science book and listening to lectures). Science teachers with large classes know this so they do not allow their students to perform labs when their class sizes increase above the size that research has proven is unsafe. This has an detrimental impact on student achievement in science – one of the most critical areas for our Knowledge Economy and one of the weakest areas in the United States (only 25% of our college students major in science, math and engineering versus 85% of China’s college students choosing these majors).

Would you want your child to be in a chemistry lab with 35 other students? That’s happening now. Do you think that your child can learn science just by reading out of a book or listening to a lecture? Colleges don’t think this way. Students may be in a giant lecture hall, but they ALL take mandatory labs with in small groups.

I notice, you don’t cite any sources or studies. That would be helpful if you want to take this discussion to a more credible level.

Here is a link to the NSTA (National Science Teachers Association). They explain lab safety numbers and the efficacy of lab instruction in science instruction. Look up the studies they cite:


February 27th, 2011
11:26 pm

Sorry – my bad-
“only 25% of our college students major in science, math and engineering versus 80% of China’s college students choosing these majors” 80% of Chinese college students major in science, math and engineering – not 85%


February 28th, 2011
12:11 am

Didn’t Mr. Gates spend almost a decade advocating for smaller schools
(high schools in particular) ? The natural outgrowth of advocating for
smaller schools would be either a need for more teachers,or increased
expenditures on building more campuses. The Los Angeles Times
should not have published individual teacher rankings in its paper,but
any private individual, or corporation had the right to financially reward
the teachers on their own by donating funds through
,or other means. How many private individuals ,or companies actually did
( I have no way of knowing, but even though I disagree with Mr. Gates,at
least he is putting his money behind his ideas and beliefs)?

Link to Mr. Gates advocating for smaller schools


February 28th, 2011
12:33 am


You bring up an interesting point,but shouldn’t the question
be how many engineers do we need to be competitive ?
The real issue regarding the large numbers of students
studying engineering in China is the differential in pay
is drastically lower than in the United States. There
are many good and experienced engineers in the
United States that are struggling to get hired in their
field. an increased number of young engineers (which
we do need) would have the effect of bringing down
salaries and cutting some of the costs of companies .

HS Public Teacher

February 28th, 2011
1:27 am

This is just too rich….

So this isn’t performance based pay, it is size based pay? Will teachers be pay per pupil in the classroom, now? If so, let’s go with the 3$ per pupil per hour pay that baby sitters get (remember the article, Maureen?)!

I’d love to pull in $100,000+ per year!

2nd grade teacher

February 28th, 2011
3:45 am

Mr. Gates is a business man, not an educator, obviously.


February 28th, 2011
4:15 am

…and when the budgets get tight, the “extra pay” will be cut and the “top teachers” will still be stuck with extra students. (See bonus pay for National Board Certified Teachers.) Rinse and repeat.


February 28th, 2011
4:46 am

It is commonly accepted that athletes, musicians, actors, and others rise to the top of their profession due to hard work, but also a rare thing called talent. Is it so hard to accept that good teachers have a “talent” for the field that cannot be taught or duplicated? Especially by so-called “education classes”….

Former Middle School Teacher

February 28th, 2011
5:19 am

They could put 50 in Ga classrooms if they wanted, teachers have no voice and would not be asked in any case. We do as we are told.

Peter Smagorinsky

February 28th, 2011
5:28 am

Gates is basing his opinion solely on test score results. If preparing students for tests is the purpose of an education, then perhaps class size doesn’t matter so much, as the data suggest. But I was an English teacher, and we teach writing. Let’s say that my class size is 25, and I teach 5 classes, totalling 125 students. (That figure is low for many teachers, but let’s use it anyhow.) Let’s then say that in order for my students to learn to write better–and, as many have argued, therefore learn to think better–I assign weekly extended writing. If I spend a relatively small amount of time on each piece of writing, say 10 minutes, I’m spending 125 x 10 = 1,250 minutes per week (divided by 60 minutes = about 21 hours per week) outside class grading papers. Double my class size and I’m spending over 40 hours a week grading papers outside class, and that’s without spending a great deal of time on each paper. Someone needs to tell Mr. Gates that there’s a whole lot more to most people’s teaching jobs than test preparation.

Peter Smagorinsky

February 28th, 2011
5:31 am

Just a note to @note: Most athletes, musicians, and actors who rise to the top have benefited from good coaching, teaching, and directing. Why should teachers who rise to the top be any different?

Cobb History Teacher

February 28th, 2011
5:53 am

@Cobb Teacher
“Part of the problem with larger class size is that the classrooms in the schools aren’t built for 32 students. We are packing students into rooms built for 25 students. We don’t have enough room for desks or lab tables to accommodate these larger class sizes.”

Exactly try doing cooperative grouping in an average size room with 25+ students. I usually let 1 – 2 groups work in the hall to free up space.

Cast the old teachers out

February 28th, 2011
5:56 am

I guess people listen to Bill Gates because he has amassed so much money. I’d rather we stop listening to people who don’t actually teach for at least 5 years in a classroom where the majority of students are low performers and poor test takers. They will never, ever understand what it actually takes to be a teacher.

Once again, after a few years of teaching, our experience is suddenly worthless? Why? And, why do people keep comparing us to professions where people produce products? How stupid to reduce our students to widgets or commodities.

If Mr. Gates wants to really make a difference, them he should tell us what burned out teachers of classes with 40 kids should do after a “few” years?

Cast the old teachers out

February 28th, 2011
5:58 am

Correction….”then” he should tell us…

Cobb History Teacher

February 28th, 2011
6:01 am

“Also, in 1960, students were better behaved and more respectful, most had both parents in the home and Mom didn’t work, and classes were more homogeneous. In 1960, many of the special education students who are now mainstreamed weren’t even in school.”

You are on point one of the major issues we face in public schools today is behavior. Lord knows we go to enough staff developments on instruction and the latest ways to teach, but this does little to change the behavior of the students. No, classroom management classes won’t help. The students need to modify their behavior and understand that the classroom is not the neighborhood or the playground and that the teachers are not their friends, buddies or peers. We live in an affluent society with plenty of safety nets so there is no drive to get a good education.

HS Math Teacher

February 28th, 2011
6:42 am

The State can’t afford to pay “Master Teachers” the extra 10%. I’d be wary of ANY pay-for-performance, or as in this case, pay-per-pupil. By the way: Didn’t Gates drop out of Harvard?


February 28th, 2011
6:52 am

@ DeKalbite,

But Chinese classrooms are much larger, too. So, which part of the Chinese experiences do you want to highlight?

While back, there was a book based on an international study, and one of the recommendations was to increase class size in return for a reduced teaching load (in terms of the number of periods) – I think it was mainly for secondary schools. I think it is an interesting idea that we can consider. Would HS science teacher teach 4 classes with 35 instead of 5 with 28, or even 6 with 23?


February 28th, 2011
6:55 am

Another bit of blather from a man who knows all there is to know about education because he went to first grade! Thanks, Bill!

Achievement averages are roughly the same as 1960 because, instead of having only the able student and sending the rest off to work or war, we are keeping the disturbed, the mentally handicapped, the autistic, in class. We also are educating millions on non-English speaking kids.

Tell me why do we listen to this guy? Is it because he has money? Because otherwise, all I see is opinions from someone who has never been in the trenches.


February 28th, 2011
6:57 am

Back in the “old” days (early 1990’s) when I began teaching, a class of 30-35 students wasn’t a big deal. However, I had very few ESL students and no special education students. Gifted students were usually pulled out by the gifted teacher. I had a fairly homogenous group of students. I wasn’t expected to differentiate, follow an IEP or 504 plan, formatively assess, provide meaningful written feedback on every assignment, and nail every item on a 99 page evaluation rubric (Class Keys).

I lectured, the students took notes, followed by questions and a lab activity. It was fairly cut and dry…

Now, I have several special education students, 504’s and “repeater” students in the same science class as the future AP students. I have a notebook full of IEP’s, 504’s, and ESL accommodations. I manage quite well when the class size is 20-25. No problems. Everyone’s individual needs are usually met. However, this year I have a couple of classes that are 32+ and I am overwhelmed. For me, the tipping point is 28 students.

Gates is comparing apples to oranges. Visit a high school class in Finland, Germany, Japan, etc. and you will probably see a class make up very different from my classroom.

I’m not complaining about teaching 504 or special education students. I’m just saying that if you expect me to meet everyone’s educational needs, please be understanding of how 4 or 5 extra students can tip the balance from an effective classroom to an ineffective classroom.


February 28th, 2011
6:58 am

I really wish Gates would just go away……


February 28th, 2011
7:03 am

I hate to keep posting the same information, but each time I see U.S. schools and students compared to schools/students in other countries, it drives me crazy in light of the information provided…

On major international reading, math and science assessments, “students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math. When the poverty rate was 10 percent to 25 percent, U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate rose still higher, students ranked lower and lower. Twenty percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75 percent. The average ranking of American students reflects this. THE PROBLEM IS NOT PUBLIC SCHOOLS; IT IS POVERTY.”

Now, does Mr. Gates want to talk about doing something about poverty in the U.S. and who should be accountable? I’d say probably not since the classroom teacher cannot be blamed.


February 28th, 2011
7:38 am

Ability grouping would be far more beneficial to both teachers and students than some across the board class size. However, it’s far too politically dangerous to segregate, as ability tends to align so closely with race. If we want to improve student success, however, it’s time to stop pretending that everyone arrives on the first day of classes with the same level of preparation and ability, and start meeting demonstrated needs instead.


February 28th, 2011
7:48 am

@JW—Gates doesn’t want to acknowledge the poverty issue. Why? Because the system we have in place right now works really well for the Bill Gates of the world….

Michael Moore

February 28th, 2011
8:06 am

Almost every professional content organization has a statement on class size. One of the better ones is at the National Council of Teachers of English,
They also print the following analogy:

No football coach in his right mind would try to teach 150 players one hour per day and hope to win the game on Friday night. No, the team is limited to 40 or 50 highly motivated players, and the coach has three or four assistants to work on the many skills needed to play the game. The ‘student-teacher’ ratio is maybe 15:1. But the English teacher—all alone—has 150 ‘players’ of the game of composition (not to mention literature, language, and the teaching of other matters dropped into the English curriculum by unthinking enthusiasts).

—John C. Maxwel

Inman Park Boy

February 28th, 2011
8:15 am

Other than government jobs, are there ANY jobs where pay is not performance based?? Why are teachers so opposed to this?


February 28th, 2011
8:35 am

First, I am compelled to address some serious misinformation that was posted earlier. China’s so-called engineers are anything but! Please do not rely on any of the numbers about China’s engineering students, graduates or degrees. These numbers were completely made-up! They are not real. Debunked many times by Jerry Bracey before he passed away.

Second, Gates’ comparison to schools in 1960 is ludicrous. There is not room in this forum to recount the numerous reasons. ScienceTeacher hit a few of them. I will add segregation to the list. in 1960, black students in many states did not have access to integrated schools. Between this issue and the special education issue already pointed out, there is enough grounds to completely throw out Gates’ logic and arguments altogether.

When it comes to class size, the research has been quite clear that when examining only student achievement indicators, we only gain significantly when class sizes go below 15. And then, the gains are mostly within a couple of demographic subgroups. Effective teachers get the same results even when class sizes are relatively higher – even up to 40 per class.

If Gates and all the other new-found educational experts were completely honest, they would recognize that what we pay teachers IS an important factor when it comes to attracting and retaining the best. It’s going to take more than just pointing a finger at the current pay structure and placing blame there.

Another area, if we are going to compare US teachers to those in other high performing countries, is related to planning and professional development time. On these points, we do not even come close! Teachers must have more time for planning lessons, evaluating students work, and learning about effective teaching practices. Yet, our schools have been stripped of any resources to adequately provide these essentials.

Students affected by poverty is a very real issue. Schools within hard hit economic zones are especially vulnerable to these effects. This is another problem with attracting and retaining high quality teachers. THEY DON’T WANT TO TEACH IN THESE SCHOOLS. There are many reasons why. Begin with discipline and motivation. Why we continue to blame the schools for these economically induced social ills baffles me. I guess it’s easier to blame teachers for these problems than it is to actually do something about them.

Double Zero Eight

February 28th, 2011
8:40 am

A coach can not take mediocre or below average talent and turn
it into a championship team. A teacher can not take below average
students and have them excel in standardized testing.

“It is what it is”!!!!

Maureen Downey

February 28th, 2011
8:49 am

@Tony, There is some good Duke research that looked at who is an “engineer” in both China and India. I cited it once. When I get to the office, I will go into the archives and see if I can find the names of the professors. Their conclusion was that the engineering degrees in those countries did not match what we consider an engineer — they were more technicians than engineers — and that the US was still outstripping those nations in turning out bona fide engineers.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Augusta

February 28th, 2011
8:50 am

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

To what extent is the achievement gap between well-performing and under-performing schools a function of differences in levels of disruption and disrespect manifested in these two school-types?

How is a poor child supposed to learn his/her way out of poverty if his/her teacher is unable to provide continuous instruction because of the disruptive and/or disrespectful behaviors of a small percentage of his/her classmates?

Hey Teacher

February 28th, 2011
8:54 am

The problem with large class sizes is the paper grading — college classes with large class sizes either have teaching assistants who are paid to do the grading, or give multiple choice tests. Large classes are a nightmare for English teachers because while you have more students, you don’t get additional planning time to grade those papers. If students don’t have feedback, what are they learning?

V for Vendetta

February 28th, 2011
9:17 am

I think we should pay Gates based on the performance of Windows. Then we’ll see how he likes it.

Soon to be former science teacher

February 28th, 2011
9:27 am

Ha! If you only have 32 in your classes, consider yourself fortunate. Science labs in our school are the largest classrooms and my classes are packed with 40+ students. I don’t do labs with any harmful chemicals or that require close supervision because of the incredibly unsafe conditions. It slights the students and probably hurts the potential to produce further scientists, but there’s no way I’m getting sued if Junior slices his finger open because there are too many students in the lab for me to provide adequate supervision for. Do right by our students and reduce maximum class size, GA.
PS: Not that it matters to me that much… I’m off to obtain graduate degrees so I can actually be paid for the work I put in.

Dr. John Trotter

February 28th, 2011
9:27 am

Bill Gates doesn’t have a clue when it comes to public education. In 1960, the students behaved. You had hardly any disruptive and defiant students…who would curse out the teacher at the drop of a hat. Bill needs to stick to software. But, the Broads, the Waltons, and the Gates apparently think that if they can make money they can also fix public education.


February 28th, 2011
9:36 am

V, Gates is paid on the performance of Windows. If people do not like the product they have the option of going elsewhere, Ubuntu, redhat, mac, linux and a variety of others.

Dr. John Trotter

February 28th, 2011
9:58 am

Gates is not limited to the areas where he can sale Windows, right? If he were limited to the southern cap of the Antarctica, the sales of Windows would be down, right? Certain non-learning students are sent to teachers’ classroom, and the teachers are expected to teach these non-learners. Are they incapable of learning? Not necessarily. They just don’t want to learn. The key to learning is motivation. The key to selling Windows are motivated buyers…people who are computer literate and who want to use the system. Sending the Windows Sales Team to remote regions of Africa or Latin America where people don’t have computers would be not only folly but also stupid to expect great sales from the Windows Sales Team. (c) MACE, February 28, 2011.

Dr. John Trotter

February 28th, 2011
9:59 am

Ouch: Typo! “…where he can sell [not "sale"] Windows…”


February 28th, 2011
10:05 am

@teacher&mom – AMEN, SISTER!

Dr. John Trotter

February 28th, 2011
10:06 am

Bill Gates apparently thinks that he has all the answers for improving public education. He apparently thinks that selling the Windows System is very similar to teaching school. Just pay your top Windows Sales Team more money if they are bringing in better results for Microsoft, right? Why doesn’t the same principle work for public education, he thinks? Just pay the best teachers more money. The teachers whose students perform the best on a standardized test should be rewarded with better pay, Gates foolishly asserts.

Bill Gates is not limited to the areas where he can sell Windows, right? If he were limited to the southern cap of the Antarctica, the sales of Windows would be down, right? Certain non-learning students are sent to teachers’ classrooms, and the teachers are expected to teach these non-learners. Are they incapable of learning? Not necessarily. They just don’t want to learn. The key to learning is motivation. The key to selling Windows are motivated buyers…people who are computer literate and who want to use the system. Sending a Windows Sales Team to remote regions of Africa or Latin America where people don’t have computers would be not only folly but also stupid to expect great sales from this Windows Sales Team. (c) MACE, February 28, 2011.

Teacher Reader

February 28th, 2011
10:15 am

Gates needs to get the hell out of education. Classes are packed into classroom like sardines in a can. I’ve had 38 kids in a class and my classroom was HUGE. I had stations for learning, room to walk around, a classroom library, and so much more. When I had 30 here in GA, I couldn’t walk around the classroom to help kids because there were just too many desks in the room.

Discipline is the key for increased student achievement. Come to school to learn or be a burden on your parents. Until we get real discipline in our schools, achievement will always lag.


February 28th, 2011
10:17 am

SO glad I’m not teaching anymore!


February 28th, 2011
10:27 am

I think this blog indicates some of the problems with the public education system. Bill Gates, whose Foundation is trying to stamp out polio on the planet, improve crops and food levels in Africa, increase vaccinations around the world and a host of other initiatives is villified simply because he comes up with an idea that threatens the status quo.

Someone who is successful in business must have help and be able to identify talent and surround himself with it. They understand that standing still is to fail. You must continuously keep learning. And you must believe you can succeed before you have much of a chance. Assuming people can’t learn to be better teachers, that poor children can’t learn, that noone other than a teacher can provide valuable input into the process dooms us to the status quo which is unacceptable and getting worse. Teachers should understand how big a factor motivation and effort are in learning. The same applies to school systems and their success or failure.


February 28th, 2011
10:32 am

I’m looking at private schools for my kids now and top of my list is a small class size. I don’t know how you can expect a teacher to really teach and not just manage over 20 kids in the lower elementary grades.

Fairness for All

February 28th, 2011
11:02 am

Bill Gates is not the enemy. In fact he is doing more than his fair share which should be admired but instead he is criticized by those wanting the status quo to remain. Ms. Rhee is on the right track. We need to reward teachers that perform and get rid of those that don’t. It can and should be done but the atmosphere of entitlement and lifetime jobs has to change first. Wisconsin and others are beginning the process. The really good teachers (for the most part) are not against change and in fact most look forward to it. I was in many college classes of 50 or more and the professors did just fine. That doesn’t change the physical size of the classrooms but that too can be changed with modifications to existing buildings or constructing auditoriums for those classes. Still it appears many in education must be brought to the table kicking and screaming. Perhaps education by computer programs is indeed the wave of the future. That could drastically reduce the need for so many teachers. So many teachers today are against any type of progress, but when the path to progress is cleared of obstacles it will become much easier (and faster)—-it’s simply a matter of time. Those teachers should remember that “if you aren’t part of the solution– you’re the problem”. Where there is a will there is a way.