A "C" for Bill Gates NYT Column


I have nothing against CEO's taking to the op-ed pages of major newspapers to promote their favorite cause or share their deep corporate wisdom or do some special-interest pleading so long as they don't lapse into pedestrian drivel. But that's exactly what Bill Gates did in The New York Times this morning. Weighing in on education reform – a cause on which the Gates Foundation has done yeoman's work – Gates begins soundly enough, pointing out that a New York Sate Court of Appeals ruling endorsing a plan to publicize the performance of public school teachers would be a big mistake.

Says Gates:

I am a strong proponent of measuring teachers' effectiveness, and my foundation works with many schools to help make sure that such evaluations improve the overall quality of teaching. But publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning. On the contrary, it will make it a lot harder to implement teacher evaluation systems that work.

In most public schools today, teachers are simply rated "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory," and evaluations consist of having the principal observe a class for a few minutes a couple of times each year. Because we are just beginning to understand what makes a teacher effective, the vast majority of teachers are rated "satisfactory." Few get specific feedback or training to help them improve.

O.K. Ditto. I agree.

But then what is Gates' plan to induce teachers to do their job? This is where he gets lost in corporate BS combined with social science mumbo jumbo and loses sight of the only thing that matters: incentives.

Teachers need "specific feedback," he says, noting:

At Microsoft, we created a rigorous personnel system, but we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper. A good personnel system encourages employees and managers to work together to set clear, achievable goals. Annual reviews are a diagnostic tool to help employees reflect on their performance, get honest feedback and create a plan for improvement. Many other businesses and public sector employers embrace this approach, and that's where the focus should be in education: school leaders and teachers working together to get better.

But here's the thing: the reason why Gates employees "internalize" (to use another pop-psychology buzz word) their annual evaluations and strive to achieve the "clear goals" they have "jointly established" with their managers is because they'd be fired if they didn't (or get bonuses and pay raises when they do). If they had fire-proof jobs with guaranteed pay increases like public school teachers, Gates could give them "specific feedback" or report cards or sacred counsel from God Almighty himself and it would matter not one iota. So if Gates wants to do something for the children, he should write an op-ed recommending such private sector practices as pay for diligence and pink slips for sloth.

That effort would deserve an A+ for rigor and courage.