This interview in Newsweek is one of the most fascinating things I’ve read lately. You have Bill Gates, a multibillionaire and someone who is very interested in reforming our public schools, paired with Randi Weingarten, the head of one of the nation’s largest teachers unions and someone who has spent her career fighting against many sensible attempts at reform.
Time and again, Gates exposes the complete emptiness of the positions held by Weingarten and her charges — and does so without coming across as attacking teachers themselves. Not once does Weingarten respond with anything we haven’t heard hundreds of times before: It’s the school managers who aren’t doing their jobs … the evaluation process is broken (but we oppose all the proposed solutions for fixing it) … tenure is about fairness … blah blah blah.
You’ve heard the unions’ excuses before. You can go to the interview itself to read them one more time, but I’m excerpting some of Gates’ retorts here (emphasis added throughout):
On Weingarten’s notion that, among other actions, we need to invest more in the “preparation and support of teachers”: I agree with all that, except we spend more money by every measure than any other system. Any way you look at it we spend by far the most money. So that is a dilemma. What are we going to do to get more out of the investments we make? Are there practices in terms of helping teachers be better that we can fit into our system? What can you do to help the teachers be better? You know, a quarter of our teachers are very good. If you could make all the teachers as good as the top quarter, the U.S. would soar to the top of that comparison. So can you find the way to capture what the really good teachers are doing? It’s amazing to me that more has not been invested in looking at how does that good teacher calm that classroom? How does that good teacher keep the attention of all those kids? We need to measure what they do, and then have incentives for the other teachers to learn those things.
On the interviewer’s question about whether every teacher is “amazing” in countries with better education systems than ours: They actually run a personnel system, which is kind of an amazing thing. You have a review, and you’re told what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. If over a period of time you’re not improving, then you move to another profession. So, Finland, Korea, Singapore — they run teacher personnel systems. In the U.S. we have one of the most predictive personnel systems mankind ever invented — try to remember how many years you’ve worked, and you will know your salary.
On Weingarten’s assertion that “in almost all places if you don’t do well under an evaluation system, you can be let go”: There is no evaluation. For 90 percent of the teachers in America there’s no feedback. Now, we don’t need to argue about how it got that way. Was that the management? Was it the union? That is the way it is. And there aren’t many professions like that. So that’s got to change.
On Weingarten’s statement that teachers are also unionized in countries with high-performing schools: Yeah, but you won’t find any other country that has the work rules that we have. Go read the American Federation of Teachers New York work rules. It’s a mind-blowing document. They [other countries] don’t have anything like this. There is nothing that says you only have to work this many minutes on this, you only have to work this many minutes on that. In any of the top-10 countries you won’t have anything like that. We’re the only one without a real personnel system.
On Weingarten’s argument, again, that the problem is our lack of support for teachers: No, we spend more on professional development than they do. We spend more on salaries than they do. We spend more on pensions than they do. We spend more on retirement health benefits than they do. But we have less evaluation than they do. In many districts you have to give advance notice before anybody can come into your classroom. That’s part of the contract. So there are some real differences in terms of the personnel system in these other countries.
There are some other great exchanges in there, so read the whole thing. What we really need out of people like Weingarten are fewer excuses, less of a circling-the-wagons mentality, less focus on protecting the most mediocre in her ranks at the expense of everyone else in the country.
Gates is right when he says this shouldn’t be an attack on teachers. What he didn’t say is that people like Weingarten are the very ones telling teachers they should feel besieged.
(Links added at 12:25 p.m.)
– By Kyle Wingfield
Find me on Facebook