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Bill Gates - Washington Learns Education Summit

November 13, 2006
Remarks by Bill Gates, co-chair

Thank you, everyone, for that welcome. Thank you, Governor, for launching the Washington Learns report and for promoting this very timely discussion on education here in Washington State.

Whenever I speak on education and the importance of college graduates to our economy, I can always count on someone to say: “Who are you to talk? You never graduated from college!” My answer is: “What do you mean— ‘never’?” When I left college to start Microsoft, I told my mom and dad I was going on leave. That’s been my story, and I’m sticking to it.

I am really proud to be from the State of Washington. Washington is a phenomenal place—with great universities, strong businesses, a lively culture, and great natural beauty. It’s a terrific place to live, raise a family, run a business, and be part of the community.

But today, we’re here to discuss something that none of us are proud of, and all of us should be concerned about—the state of our public schools.

  • Washington has the third lowest college entrance rate in the country.

  • Only 74 percent of our 9th graders graduate from high school in four years.

  • In 2004, kindergarten teachers in Washington reported that fewer than half of their students came to kindergarten ready to learn.

Across the whole spectrum of education, we are not preparing students to succeed at the next level. The statistics are grim enough, but when you look at the human side of it, it’s just tragic.

In Washington and in other states, there are too many high school students who don’t fulfill their promise—not because they fail at school, but because our schools fail them. They take the high school courses required for graduation. They study hard. They earn good grades. They graduate and get into college.

But instead of getting the good grades they were used to getting in high school, they get D’s and F’s. They take remediation courses, but still they can’t keep up—so they quit. These are bright kids. They do everything we ask of them, but we don’t ask enough. And then, after 12 years of not asking enough, we suddenly ask way too much.

This is a huge problem. We’re never going to fix it by making changes at the margins. We need to change the system.

We need to ensure that all our kids are ready for school, ready for college, and ready for work. That should be our vision. To achieve it, we need to be honest about where we are, ambitious about where we want to go, and determined to embrace new approaches and track our progress.

I know we can do this, because Washington is willing to face the facts. Last year, the Education Trust issued a report that found that 34 states inflated their graduation rates. Different states used different tricks to hide the truth—but they all twisted the numbers to make it seem like many of the students who quit high school simply didn’t exist. How can you come up with a solution if you’re trying to hide the problem?

The Trust praised just two states for reporting realistic graduation rates: Alaska and Washington. And Washington’s commitment to honest graduation rates has paid off. Since we’ve gotten serious about reporting real graduation rates, those rates have climbed 5 percent.  

Governor Gregoire and everyone who has worked on the Washington Learns initiative has shown that they’re willing to look directly at the problems of Washington’s schools, and lay out plans for fixing them. I want to thank them for making our schools a priority.

My interest in education and my concern for our schools come from a number of perspectives. I see our schools—in part—through the eyes of a businessman. For some time now, I have been running a business headquartered here in Washington—and we’ve done very well. But to keep the same level of success, we need continuous infusions of top talent.

That puts us in direct competition with a lot of great companies for the best young minds. We have an edge against competitors from out of state when it comes to recruiting people educated here in Washington, so when the pool of graduates from our state universities is strong, there’s a direct benefit for Microsoft. The same is true for many other businesses in our state. The quality of our employees depends to an important extent on the quantity and quality of our university graduates.

Today, we are fortunate to have the University of Washington and Washington State University here in our home state. They are top research institutions. The UW has several of the nation’s leading academic departments, including computer science, bioengineering, medicine and nursing. If we could maintain this standard of excellence, I’d be thrilled; but we won’t—unless we increase our support. Today, Washington ranks 47th in the nation in state and local funding for university research. We’re not giving our university system the resources it needs to stay ahead. If we don’t change that, we’re going to fall behind.

Meanwhile, as we ensure more students are ready for college, we’ve got to make sure that college is ready for more students. Today, Washington ranks 36th in the nation in the number of bachelor’s degrees we award per capita. That’s partially due to low performance in our high schools. But it’s also due to the limited number of slots available at our four-year universities. As I said, businesses here in Washington depend on a large supply of top university graduates. If we’re going to guarantee that supply, we need to make room for more college students, and make sure more students can afford to attend.

That’s my view as a businessman. At the same time, Melinda and I have made education central to the mission of our foundation. We believe that every human being has equal worth. That is the founding ideal of our philanthropy. Of course, it’s easier to state an ideal than to advance it. The big challenge is finding where a dollar of funding and an hour of effort can make the biggest impact for equality. So we look for strategic entry points—where the inequality is the greatest, has the worst consequences, and offers the best chance for improvement.

Internationally, we believe our greatest opportunity is in reducing extreme poverty and fighting disease. Here in America, we believe we can do the most to promote equity by improving education.
 
A year and a half ago, when I had a chance to speak to the nation’s governors on education, I said our high schools were “obsolete” —that even when our high schools are working exactly as designed, they aren’t preparing all our students for what they need to know today. I used that opportunity to talk about the characteristics of a great high school.

It is exciting to play a role in turning around an individual school. But Melinda and I have seen that if we want to make an impact on the greatest number of people, we have to work with our public school systems. So today, I don’t want to talk about the characteristics of individual schools. I want to talk about what it takes to make a strong system of schools.

In our foundation’s experience, school systems that truly excel—from early learning through high school—have four distinctive traits in their approach to education: high standards, clear accountability, flexible personnel practices, and a climate that encourages innovation. Let me address each in turn.

Educational standards have one central purpose—to ensure that students make the very most of their ability. Given the high expectations we have for our state, Washington has educational standards that are unacceptably low.

Twenty-seven states require students to take three or four years of math to graduate from high school. Washington, on the other hand, requires only two years of math—and does not specify which courses count toward that requirement. The science requirement is weak as well—two years is enough to graduate.

If high standards encourage kids to make the most of their talents, then low standards encourage kids to make the least of their talents—and right now, that is our state policy.

The Washington Learns Committee puts a strong emphasis on math and science excellence in its report. I agree with that, and I believe we can learn something from the State of Texas. To get a high school diploma in Texas, students in the graduating class of 2008 will have to pass: four years of science (including biology, chemistry, physics, and one other state-approved course), four years of math (including algebra I, geometry, algebra II, and one other state-approved course), four years of English, four years of social studies, and two years of a foreign language.
 
High standards are indispensable to high achievement, and I don’t see why standards in the State of Washington shouldn’t be just as high as standards in the State of Texas, or anywhere else.

At the same time, high standards in high school need to be supported by high standards at every level below—beginning with early learning. When underprivileged children show up for the first day of school, they’re often already behind—and when kids start behind, they usually stay behind. In some Washington elementary schools, less than 10 percent of 4th graders who took the WASL were at grade level. That’s why we should help our kids start learning before they even get to school.

I want to commend Governor Gregoire for her compelling leadership in early learning. She brought together a group dedicated to this issue and set a direction for the state. She created a cabinet appointment, and made sure that the different agencies that have responsibility for early learning could be held accountable under one umbrella.

The Governor co-chairs, with my father, Thrive by Five, a new bi-partisan partnership working to set standards for the early learning field; find high-quality, affordable solutions; and demonstrate approaches that work. Already, we’re seeing communities come together to improve the quality of child care, increase school-readiness, and improve rates of early literacy.

It’s important to continue this momentum—and that requires continued collaboration and public and private support. We need to make sure that parents know what “school-ready” means; we need to develop curricula to guide child-care providers; we need to expand pre-school options for low-income kids. We also have to have an early learning quality rating system for child-care centers—so the parents know what they’re purchasing from providers, and providers understand how they can begin to offer not just day care but high-quality early learning.

High standards, even at the earliest stages, are indispensable if we’re going to ensure that students show up at kindergarten—and every stage thereafter—ready to learn.

Setting high standards is a crucial step toward improving our schools. But it’s not enough just to set high standards, you have to assess whether they’re being met, and take action when they’re not. You can do this only if there are clear public data on student achievement and clearly established authority for intervening in failing schools. Right now, the only people in our educational system who face clear consequences for low performance are the students.

Less than five miles from here there is a high school that serves a high-minority, low-income population. For more than 20 years, it has been failing its students. Achievement has been low. Test scores have been low. Graduation rates have been low. The school doesn’t meet anyone’s definition of success. The state is breaking its promise of a free education to these students. Yet, there’s been no serious effort to turn the school around.
 
Why? Because we have no law that allows the state to intervene in failing schools. The governor can’t do anything. The state superintendent can’t do anything. No matter how badly the students are served, no matter how low their achievement—state officials have no authority to replace a principal, to put in higher standards, to bring in new teachers. All they can do is sit and watch.

The State of California has a different approach. In 1999, the state legislature passed the Public Schools Accountability Act. The law works in tandem with the Academic Performance Index, which ranks all California public schools based on several measures, including test scores, graduation rates, and attendance.

If a school is identified as low-performing, it can call on a range of grants, incentives, and outside assistance to improve performance. If performance doesn’t get any better, the state superintendent is required to take action, from connecting the school with an outside management team—to letting parents apply to establish a charter school.

Since this Act was passed, about 1,300 schools have been identified as low-performing, or about 15 percent of the state’s schools. Of those schools, three-quarters have improved performance, met accountability requirements, and left the program. The message is clear—California will not accept failing schools.

The Washington Learns report says plainly that we have to set clear goals, and hold ourselves accountable for results. That’s certainly true. But real accountability means more than having goals; it also means having clear consequences for not meeting the goals. Until the State of Washington has the right to intervene in low-performing schools, it will be our state’s policy to accept failure.

Now, let’s say we have greater accountability, and we put higher standards in place—which, of course, means more tough courses. How are we going to hire more teachers to teach high-level courses when there’s already a scarcity in those fields? The answer is we can’t—if we stay within the current system. But we can find those teachers, if we use a performance-based human resource approach in preparing, hiring, developing and compensating our teachers.

The Washington Learns report says that our teacher pay system should recognize staff expertise, use incentives, and reward achievements. I endorse that. Differential pay is essential to improving our schools. Public schools are not part of the private sector, but they are nonetheless affected by market forces—especially as it relates to recruiting and retaining talented professionals. It’s astonishing to me that we could have a system that doesn’t allow us to pay more for someone with rare abilities, that doesn’t allow us to pay more to reward strong performance. That is tantamount to saying “teacher talent and performance don’t matter”… and that’s basically saying: “students don’t matter.”

Pay issues are not the only barriers to teacher recruitment and retention. Rigid certification procedures also keep talented teachers from entering the classroom. I have made several visits to an extraordinary school in San Diego, called High Tech High. Thirty-five percent of the students are black or Hispanic and many qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. All of them take courses like biotechnology. High Tech High, to staff its school, had to find some really capable teachers in math, science and technology.
 
But that hasn’t been a problem. The head of the school says that that 90 percent of his faculty have unusual backgrounds for school teachers. One of the classes I visited was taught by an engineer who was a former Motorola executive. He came into the classroom through an alternative certification process, which allowed him to teach at the same time that he took the courses required for certification. Without this approach, he couldn’t have become a teacher.

Washington has some truly outstanding professionals teaching rigorous courses in our public schools. But we need to find more. That means we need to open up the field of teaching to scientists, engineers and math experts who would love to become classroom teachers, but will not do so under the current system. This would require a difficult policy change. But change is essential if we’re going to recruit the teachers who can help our students meet the state’s higher standards.
 
The fourth element of success affects all the others. It’s the ability to innovate—to try promising new approaches. Innovation is the key to progress. If the old ways don’t work, and you won’t try new ways, you’re stuck with failure. Unfortunately, in some cases here in Washington, we’re sticking with failure. Let me give an example.

The Knowledge Is Power Program—also known as KIPP—is one of the most accomplished school reform organizations in the country. They have a network of public schools in low-income communities across the United States. They serve more than 11,000 students. Ninety percent of them are African American or Hispanic. More than 80 percent are eligible for the school lunch program.

KIPP students are in school from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. on weekdays, for four hours on Saturdays, and for a month during the summer. In spite of the long hours, average daily attendance at KIPP schools is 96 percent.

And the students don’t just show up—they’re learning. KIPP Academy New York is the highest performing public middle school in the Bronx. KIPP’s D.C. academy is the highest performing middle school in Washington, D.C. And in KIPP’s Newark academy, the eighth graders are performing at the 91st percentile in math. Three years ago, they were performing at the 31st percentile.

By now, I hope you’re thinking: “This group sounds great—let’s get them in here!”
 
Sorry—KIPP would like to work in Washington State, but we won’t let them.

Unlike 40 other states in the country, Washington does not allow charter schools—so the state government can’t give KIPP a charter to run its model here. And when KIPP sat down with a local school district to try to get the waivers they needed to set up a non-charter public school, the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement.

So KIPP is not working in Washington, and students here don’t have the benefit of attending the kinds of excellent schools KIPP has created in other states.

As we look to improve our schools, we should recognize the connection between our poor academic performance and our weak efforts to foster innovation in our schools. In fact, we are one of the most inhospitable states in the country for educators who want to try promising new approaches.

The voters in Washington State have rejected charter schools; we have to accept that. But there are other avenues to innovation—approaches that have worked in other states—and we should explore them. They could include providing incentives to draw highly qualified teachers into the profession. Or incentive funds that districts can draw on to intervene in failing schools. Or a statewide “Innovation District” to support new schools in neighborhoods where other schools have failed.

Whether we use one of these approaches or find others, there is no way around it—we have to change our schools. Anyone who opposes dramatic change in our schools has to make an impossible case—either they have to deny that our schools are failing, or they have to argue that the kids are to blame. Either view is wrong. If you believe every child can learn—and the evidence strongly supports this—then if the students don’t learn, the school must change. It’s that simple. If the students don’t learn, the school must change.

The Governor, the Legislature, and the Washington Learns Committee appear ready to take the lead in changing our schools. It won’t be easy—but it’s essential. People who cling to old ways in times of change get left behind.

We have to decide whether we’re going to move ahead or fall behind—and our decision will be seen in the steps we take to improve our schools. If we build a statewide system of schools with high standards, clear accountability, and flexible hiring policies, with a culture that invites innovation—we can make Washington a world leader in education and economic growth for the 21st century. I know we can do it, and I look forward to working with you to make it happen. Thank you. 

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