Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bill Gates' Education Fix?

While the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has greatly contributed to progress in school reform, there are times when Bill's ego leads him to falsely believe he can work his "Windows" magic everywhere. Case in point: his recent op-ed in the Washington Post entitled "School Reform That Works." Gates offers explanations of urban, failing schools that have improved through increased expectations and standards, guided by programs like KIPP. Certainly, this progress is admirable and should be, in some ways, replicated. However, when Gates begins to make broader recommendations on school policy, he reveals an ignorant bias toward the mission of k-12 education in the United States. One example is his misguided belief that "Our goal as a nation should be to ensure that 80 percent of our students graduate from high school fully ready to attend college by 2025." His assumption that a college prep curriculum is necessary for eight out of ten high school students reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of American society and the type of education reform it needs.

Why would Gates choose an arbitrary number such as 80% of high school graduates going to college when statistically only 30% of the country currently has a degree. That is the highest the US percentage has ever been, and it has adequately served a country that even in this crisis is only looking at 8% unemployment. Is he expecting that by 2025 eight out of ten jobs in America will require a college degree? Where are all the jobs for that "over-educated" population he seeks to create. I doubt they'll all be hired by Microsoft. Gates' vision is a foolish over-estimation, and if he'd run his business with the same kind of narrow view of society, I bet Macs would be the dominant platform in the world, not PCs. Gates also praises the schools where 90% of student "enter" a four-year college. That's impressive, but the more important statistic is whether 90% exit with a degree. Research shows the number will be more like 40%, Thus, college serves to be a colossal waste of time and money for many kids. Gates is creating unrealistic educational expectations that will result in a tremendous waste of resources.

Bill Gates has done a lot of good for schools, but he might consider returning to computers, as Microsoft lays off 5000 people, and he reveals a true lack of understanding in terms of the educational needs of this country.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

High School Sports Obsession

The case of America's obsession with sports, seen played out most often in the high school and club sport realm, just got worse in Colorado with the most recent meeting of the high school association. Sadly, with the approval of sports practices during holiday breaks, CHSAA (Colorado High School Activities Association) has once again shown it does not have the best interests of students at heart. The boards' already weak eligibility requirements reveal a lack of interest in academics. Now, the board has shown a disregard for the emotional well being of kids by ignoring the importance of "family time" and the simple need for "a break." Any practices offered by coaches will be "voluntary" in name only, as no athlete will risk disappointing a coach and no coach will risk allowing the competition to get an advantage.

Spokesman Bill Reader claimed the change was necessary because "we're in a different era" now. He's right about that - we are even more sports-obsessed than we were. There's no legitimate reason why teams need more practice, but there is plenty of evidence that coaches aren't wise enough or secure enough to know when to take a break. Before committing to increased emphasis on sports, parents and coaches should read Fred Engh's book Why Johnny Hates Sports. It's a book that asks very important questions about youth sports, and for Colorado students, having to practice on Christmas is now one of the answers.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

No Taxes for Teachers

Ten years ago, when I was teaching high school in Illinois, a colleague of mine and I came up with what we believed to be one of the best ideas in addressing issues of the teaching profession and public school reform - no income taxes for teachers. It seemed to be the perfect plan, considering school districts often struggle to pay competitive wages while balancing budgets, people constantly claim teachers are dramatically underpaid, and critics lament the ability of education to draw the best and brightest of students. While I've never complained about teacher pay - I'm actually quite comfortable with the income I earn - and I don't agree that money is the reason the best people don't enter or remain in the profession, I think a lot of good could come from the no-taxes-for-teachers plan. Now, someone has said it in a larger forum than teachers' lounges and my blog. Thomas Friedman's commentary in the New York Times today proposes investment in education - including an exemption from federal income taxes - as an integral idea for the stimulus plans of the Obama administration.

There are some problems with this assumption, notably the idea that we want the kind of people who would be primarily motivated by this incentive to become teachers. In fact, there is much to argue that "the best and brightest" don't always make the best teachers, and financial compensation shouldn't be a motivation for educators. However, the kind of investment in education that Friedman proposes has a lot of relevance, in that any stimulus plan should create a stronger society with motivated innovators like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who are inspired by their math and science classes. Obviously, this doesn't simply come from modifications to teacher pay - Friedman makes other salient points about who is teaching and how and why. Yet, I am pleased that my idea is gaining some tractions. Can't wait for my windfall.