He might be really good at designing operating systems (or not), but Bill Gates has a slight data problem. In an op-ed arguing that class size is unimportant and that teacher evaluation is crucial–and should be combined with merit pay, Gates makes this blunder (italics mine):
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.
Let’s leave aside that adding a few students, in some districts, could raise class sizes to ridiculous, Detroit-like levels. The howler is Gates’ statement that “achievement is roughly the same–it’s not:
Regarding long-term trends, according to the NAEP, African-American students have increased reading test scores by the rough equivalent of three grade levels during the period of 1971-2008…
White students haven’t stagnated either, with a grade level increase. Yes, there are states and localities that are failing (and, oddly, when it comes to educational reform, we only dwell on cities, not underperforming states. I’m sure that has nothing to do with the majority-white racial composition of states versus a large non-white urban population. Nothing at all). But there are states which do very well, and, nationally, we have made impressive gains.
When someone is arguing that we need to be data-driven, yet he doesn’t understand the data, it’s foolish to take him seriously. We should always strive to do better, but if we don’t define the problem (or problems) accurately, we won’t fix (or mitigate) them.
Gates is obviously very intelligent: a lack of comprehension isn’t what’s going on here. This is willful ignorance that rivals that of creationism. Would you think twice before aligning yourself with a creationist–on any issue? I would. You should too.