Press Room




William H. Gates Sr. - Education Grantee Convening

February 3, 2009

As Delivered by William H. Gates Sr., Co-chair

The last time I spoke to this group, I got a big laugh by making fun of my son for being a college dropout. I can’t tell that joke anymore. In the last couple of years, he’s gotten an honorary B.A. and an honorary Ph.D. Now, I tell him I’m full of pride—honorary pride.

I’ve been working at the Gates Foundation for more than 10 years now. I’ve spent that time learning about the toughest challenges the world faces. And the issue I just can’t stop thinking about is education right here in our own country.

The statistics are bad, and there are plenty of ways to slice them: The dropout numbers; our ranking in core subjects compared to other countries.

Here’s one that is intriguing: More than 80 percent of parents want their children to get a college degree, but less than 30 percent of students ever get one. In my experience, when something works less than half the time, we can call it broken.

At the Gates Foundation, our goal for schools is the same goal most parents set for their children: college-ready. We believe that every single school should prepare every single student to succeed in college. This is not merely an aspiration—it’s a specific standard that leads to success. The alternative is our current educational system, in which we too often practice what our outgoing president eloquently decried as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

A few weeks ago, I learned about a powerful illustration of this point. At the University of Washington, my alma mater, there is an initiative called the Dream Project. It was started a few years ago by a group of low-income students who came to an important realization: Most of the students they had gone to high school with never made it to college. They wanted to help, so they took it upon themselves to go back to their old high schools and work with their former classmates. They were surprised by what they learned. 

It turned out that the problem wasn’t that their friends weren’t smart enough. It wasn’t entirely financial aid either. Instead, the problem was that in many of the cases the adults who run these high schools don’t set high expectations. They don’t encourage the young people in their care to strive for greatness, don’t inspire them to imagine a place beyond their horizons. The result is that too many students are meeting the low expectations they’re being held to. For the Dream Project students, it’s clear that they must not only convince students that college is attainable; they must also show some teachers and administrators that every student—every student—has the potential to succeed.

My son and daughter-in-law have made education their top priority for the foundation’s work in the United States. They believe that every child is college material, and every child should be educated accordingly. And I agree with them. I’ve seen high expectations work time and time again when I visit schools. When you ask students to do more, they thrive.

Over the past decade, in partnership with all of you, we have worked with 2,600 schools in 45 states, trying to build models of high-achieving high schools. We assumed that the really good ideas would spread.

In many cases, our strategy didn’t work as well as we had hoped. We focused a great deal on schools’ structure, but simply breaking schools up into smaller units did not always generate the improvements that we were hoping for. In our first four years, most of the struggling schools we helped fund continued to score below district averages on reading and math tests.

But there were extremely encouraging results as well.

In New York City, the small schools we worked with posted graduation rates almost 40 percentage points higher than the rates in the schools they replaced. There have been a number of small school replications that have performed very well: KIPP, Green Dot, Hidalgo Early College High School, YES College Preparatory Schools, Aspire High Schools, the Noble Street network, IDEA Public Schools. The list goes on.

All of you here today have done the hard work of showing us just what great schools should look like. I want to thank you for the work you’ve been doing with us and I want to commend you for dedicating your careers to helping young people thrive.

Yet, even with the successes of so many individual schools, we did not see any evidence that the existence of a great model was going to trigger widespread reform in a district.

Our challenge now is making sure that all students get the high-quality education that schools like YES and KIPP provide.

We spent last year studying the results we’ve gotten so far. We talked to all of you about the lessons you’ve learned over the past decade. We consulted many experts.  

This is what we learned: Without a doubt, what really matters the most is what happens in the classroom between a teacher and her students. A great teacher has more impact than any other single factor on student achievement.

So we are going to sharpen our focus on effective teaching.

Due to a growing body of research on teacher effectiveness, we now know that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is between classrooms in the same school. In short, it’s more important to be assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.

So let me lay out in a very general way some of the themes we’re pursuing as we make great teaching our priority. Vicki Phillips, our education director, will fill in the details.

The first key issue is standards.

They need to be higher. That means college-ready. And they need to be consistent across the country. Common standards are the educational backbone of the world’s top-performing countries, and they are a key ingredient of the work we must do to help our young people become top performers once again. Without them, we have no basis for knowing how good our schools or our teachers are—and, more fundamentally, we have no way of ensuring that they are as great as our students deserve.

At the foundation, we’ll keep working with states and districts to develop a common set of core standards that are tied to the demands of college. More than 30 states have already come together on this issue through an effort called the American Diploma Project, and we’re supportive of the push to bring this number up to 50.

The second theme that runs through our new strategy is data.

Data tell us whether we’re living up to the standards. Without data, teachers and policy makers have to guess about what’s working. But with it, they have the evidence they need to devise smart lesson plans and wise education policy.

Teachers should have data about the students assigned to them. Right now, on the first day of school, a ninth-grade teacher has absolutely no idea which of her students can calculate the area of a circle or identify the elements of a short story.

I’ve heard that some teachers have resorted to keeping their own data in Excel spreadsheets on their own computers. The data help them figure out that student A needs more practice on reading comprehension while student B needs extra help with the quadratic formula. But when the year is over, the data goes away, and the next teacher has to start all over again.

The third theme is supporting great teachers so they can continue to be great.

Data systems, of course, will tell us which teachers are getting the biggest achievement gains every year. If we’re going to retain the teachers whose students excel, we’re going to have to reward them.

I’m amazed that we have a system that doesn’t allow us to pay more for strong performance in teaching. This is the only profession in the world that could be described in this way.

Let me insert this footnote: Our system spends $8 billion a year on teachers with master’s degrees, even though there is no evidence that it helps students achieve.
There’s nothing wrong with a master’s degree, but let’s first put our dollars behind initiatives that we know will bring real results for the kids.

If we don’t pay the most effective teachers more, we won’t develop and keep more effective teachers. That is the way the world works—actually, it’s the way humans work.

When I was a lawyer, I spent considerable time interviewing job applicants for my law firm. I was always impressed by them, and then I started to wonder. Why were none of these exemplary students applying to work in our schools?

We can draw more of the best people to the teaching profession if we ensure that work done well is rewarded, that innovation in the classroom is embraced, and that teachers have the information they need to measure the progress of their students, and, in turn, the support they require to cultivate their own strength as educators.

Many teachers want to be effective. I saw this firsthand when I visited one of the Green Dot schools in Los Angeles—Oscar de la Hoya Animo School.

I spent an hour meeting with four teachers and I was moved by the way they described something called Friday afternoon critique. Every week, they gather together to receive feedback from each other on their teaching. In addition, the principal from the school and an expert teacher from the district office join in to make suggestions and to respond to questions. Nobody’s defensive. They’re just trying to get better. These teachers take pride in their craft. We need to adopt practices that foster that feeling in our schools.

Two weeks ago, right at the beginning of his inaugural address, President Obama called our schools an “indicator of crisis.” I am grateful that he understands the seriousness of the situation.

But he also understands the American spirit—the American values—that will help us address the situation. “The time has come,” he said, “to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” He was talking about our kids.

For our society as a whole and for every precious child within it, that full measure of happiness depends on our schools. Our schools today are breaking that God-given promise. But if we follow the evidence, if we make sure that every child, everywhere, has an effective teacher, we can renew that promise.

Thank you.

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