Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hey Bill, We're Not Your Enemies

An education obtained with money is worse than no education at all. ~Socrates

Microsoft founder and education dilettante Bill Gates has recently been advocating for larger classes in our public school. This is just his latest foray into education, an area he clearly does not understand, but over which we are willing to give him a disproportionately loud voice by virtue of his being a famous rich guy. During the past couple years, he's emerged as the poster boy for the Waiting For Superman pell-mell rush to inflict unproven, untried "education reform" on our children in a quest to provide learning-on-the-cheap through standardization, underpinned by a punish-the-teachers approach to evaluating success. 

Sadly, his ideas on education, much like neo-liberal economics or libertarian politics, are based entirely upon theory and not upon real-world experience. Just as the titans of industry convinced us to abandon our historical reliance on Keynesian economic policies ("demand side" economics, if you will) in the 1980's, policies that lead to the US becoming the economic envy of the world, and instead go whole hog into the unproven "supply side" voodoo ideas of drastically cutting taxes on the wealthy and deregulating business, they are now doing a similar thing with education. Just as these very same rich guys have rallied around the idea that smaller government, government so small we can "drown it in a bathtub," is the secret to a healthier and happier existence based almost solely on the fictional writings of Ayn Rand, they are now trying to persuade us that we need to cheerfully and unquestioningly jump onto their education reform bandwagon, because after all, they know how to make scads of money.

Preschoolers are not impressed by bank balances or profit-loss statements, and nor should we. Preschoolers might (but probably won't) sit quietly while you explain how Newton's original theories of gravitation have been superseded by those derived from the theories of special relativity, but you're going to get nowhere until you give them the tools to experiment with gravity in the real world. That's where the rubber meets the road and frankly, even if you're inclined to think Bill Gates knows what he's talking about, we still need to demand evidence, and I mean evidence strong enough to overturn centuries of experience derived from teachers in the real world. But what do you expect from a guy who asserts that experience in teaching doesn't matter?

Teachers know that hands-on experience is everything. Despite Gates' theories, despite his data, despite his wealth, he is still just a gadfly with some crazy theories about what "ought to" work. I've never met an experienced teacher who would agree that doubling class sizes doesn't matter, for instance, unless of course you're also at the same time tripling the number of teachers. I've never met an experienced teacher who agrees that one-size-fits-all cookie cutter education will improve educational outcomes. I've never met an experienced teacher who is motivated to greater educational heights by the threat of being fired simply because our students were unable to achieve a certain arbitrary score on a standardized math or literacy test (although I know that many of us are motivated to act contrary to our best instincts as teachers -- e.g., teaching to the test -- in order to keep our jobs).

Experienced teachers know, as perhaps the greatest teacher of all, Socrates, said, "Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel." And for that you need experienced teachers and children learning through experience. A flame is not kindled by rote, memorization, and longer hours sitting in a chair, but rather by putting our hands on the world and figuring it out for ourselves.

That our educational system is in need of reform is not a matter for debate. We all know and expect better outcomes. Experienced teachers know what will work, but our voices are being ignored by our political leaders and drown out by the titans of industry. As much as Bill Gates knows about making money through monopolistic business practices aided by neo-liberal economics and libertarian politics, he knows next to nothing about education, and worse, he refuses to listen to experienced teachers, instead dismissing us as enemies.

Are there lessons from the business world that could be applied to education? Probably. Is it wrong for rich guys to want to improve education? Of course not. But this is not the bare knuckled world of business we're talking about here. It's much more important. The way these guys have set up the debate, it's an all-or-nothing competition involving enemies and supermen. Really? Is this how business guys think? No wonder we're in economic crisis.

I think it's great, Bill, that you're willing to offer your purse and your voice to improving education, but if you really want to help, roll up your sleeves and get a little wet. Come hang out in our school (or any other school that is engaged in hands-on education) for awhile and see what education is really all about. Talk to experienced teachers. Work beside us. Open your mind and take a little advice before wading in, guns blazing, instead of treating us as your adversaries. Learn how flames are kindled from someone with experience in doing it.

Experience is everything, Bill, and if you still disagree, how would you like to hear my uninformed, inexperienced ideas about how to unclog the bureaucratic process machine that I hear Microsoft has become.

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Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

In the educational world small is better, no doubts about it.

One would hope that legislators will take guidance from teachers, and hands on educators, or those sensitive souls who research and study early childhood educator, in our post secondary institutions. Most of the instuctors and professors I know of promote smaller class size, and methods based on progressive systems such as Reggio, or progressive systems.

Let's hope their voices prevail!

Lindsey said...

I'd never heard that quote before...

"Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel."

but I LOVE it!

*Strikes air guitar pose*
So-crates is most excellent dude!

Anonymous said...

thank you, Teacher Tom!

Anonymous said...

Nicely said... It is a shame that, as every new theory about education, is shoved to the teachers. They hear us less and less, and wonder why nothing has improved.

Ofélia said...

The problem in education is that everyone thinks they know about it. Thanks for your courage. In Portugal we live the same problem. The neo-liberal vision is advancing in the educational system.


Melissa Taylor said...

Well said, Tom. Thank you for articulating this! It's just like the new N.Y.C. superintendent who has zero educational experience, it just doesn't work. I don't know about you but it took several YEARS of teaching before I had a clue, before I felt competent in all areas and understood my kids -- let alone excellent, that took another few years. Visiting schools, touring classroom, while that's great, it's not classroom experience.

And, these people who are advocating for large class sizes, Bill Gates being one among many, I'd love to see them send their child to a class of 40. Really?

Jonson Family said...

I hope you don't mind but I have re-posted this. You could be talking about the issues we are currently facing in New Zealand within the education system. As a teacher and a parent of pre-schoolers I really enjoy your blog and love the way you think! Thank you.