Melinda Gates talked on Wednesday with a journalist from NPR about the $60 million initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Strong American Schools, whose purpose is to bring education reform at the forefront of the coming political campaign. Let's just hope she was misquoted, because her "Americans need to understand that a lot of times the children are bored in school, and that is why they are not staying in" almost had me falling off my chair. Kids don't drop out of school because they're bored - they drop out because they are so far behind that they can't understand a thing about what's going on. They feel humiliated. So the real questions are: how do you prevent kids from falling so far behind? What mechanisms can you put in place to identify these kids and work with them? Do you put all the poorly-performing kids in a remedial class and give them the best teacher? Do you have them stay late for an after-school program? What if almost everybody at a school is performing poorly? Should you put in the same class students with similar abilities? Or will including better students motivate the merely average ones to work harder? If boredom comes into play this is only a consequence of the students' poor academic skills, not a factor per se in the drop-out rates.
Another point I take issue with: she mentions salaries as a reason for teachers leaving the profession. Again, that's mistaking a consequence for the true cause. Salaries are low because teachers are not respected. Teachers are not respected because they are seen as instruments in the kid's educational path. A teacher who is close to the end of the chain (e.g., a college professor, a law school professor) is paid much higher than someone who is in the middle, because the influence of that second person on the kid's ultimate salary is harder to ascertain. As I have mentioned in a previous post, part-time teaching is a much surer way to appeal to civic duty, bypass the respect issue and attract quality teachers.
Finally, the journalist read a statement taken from the website of the Gates Foundation: "All students in the United States can and must graduate from high school, and they must leave with the skills necessary for college, work, and citizenship." The journalist made it sound as if Ms Gates felt 100% of all high school students should go to college, and she agreed with him in no uncertain terms, allowing him to turn this reasonable statement into a slightly ridiculous goal. A much more appropriate response would have been: "We don't think that 100% of all high school students should go to college, but we do strongly believe that high school students should be able to make that decision for themselves rather than having it forced upon them because of years of inadequate schooling."
This certainly wasn't Ms Gates at her best.