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A weekend interview with Bill Gates



bill_gates.jpg St. Petersburg Times reporter Tom Marshall spoke to Microsoft founder Bill Gates on July 10 in an exclusive interview at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.
He had just addressed 3,000 delegates from the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, where he praised the Hillsborough County school district’s seven-year, $202 million partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In his speech to the AFT, Gates mentioned a time when he briefly tried his own hand at teaching:
“I’ve had one brief, informal experience in teaching that was rather humbling,” he said. “I tried to teach science to two of my kids at the same time. I couldn't do it. So I taught them one at a time. I guess that's the ultimate in class size reduction. I could make that change because they were my own children, and I was trying to supplement their regular learning.
“I enjoyed it. My students did their homework. They didn't disrupt class. Parent-teacher contact was high. (Audience laughs.) In other words, conditions were pretty optimal -- and still it was hard. If you told me I had to teach 30 students, I don’t know how I’d do it. I have watched great teachers keep thirty students riveted for an hour. That takes dazzling skill.”
Read on for extended excerpts from our interview:

SPT - I think the crowd enjoyed your comments about your teaching your kids science. It got a big applause. And I wanted to ask, what inspired you to teach your kids science?  And were you a tough parent?

BG -- Well, I loved science and math, and I enjoy sort of going back over it in a way that – hopefully I try to make it interesting. We were actually on a long family vacation, and so I was doing some teaching, encouraging the kids to ask me about things they were curious about, like fire, how buildings are built and what are they built of, and taking that back to the science concepts...I’d have them go look at things on the web, some video, some textual type things.

SPT -- Where did you go?

BG -- We were actually over in Europe for about three months at the end of (their) school year...We actually covered more than that...We had a nice setup, where they were putting good time in and had the ability to go and review things on the internet. So  I had one that at the time was 13, and the other was 10, and chose to teach them separately rather than together...Initially I thought I could (teach) them at the same time, but that was harder.

SPT --  Tell me about the best teacher you ever had, and what made that person so good.  And I’m wondering whether you think they’d be considered effective in 2010, as we’re looking at teaching in different ways.

BG -- I think great teaching has really two aspects to it. One is drawing the student in and building a relationship with the student. In the earlier years, that’s totally critical. Then the other is explaining the concepts in a very clear way that you really get it, and that’s also important...That becomes the biggest thing as you get up to the college level.

And I had great teachers in 7th and 8th grade who really related to me and encouraged me, told me I could do well. When I was bored they would give me more challenging things to keep me pushing ahead, but always in a way that built my self confidence. So I had some great teachers at that stage...

Part of the reason the foundation focuses on education is because Melinda and I both had great teachers. And what it means to be a great teacher today isn’t any different than what it meant 10 years ago or 20 years ago; it’s just that it’s more important than ever that we have more great teachers.

SPT -- Do you remember one of those classrooms in particular, a teacher who really helped to create a magic environment?

BG -- Well, I should first admit that I went to private school. My dad had me stand on the street and hold up signs for the school levy, all of that...

(English teacher) Ann Stephens is pretty interesting, because she drew me in to do drama and English things, where my natural bent would have been just to be the really good math and science guy. She drew me in to books she liked.

The other two... were math teachers who were great. But I tried to make it fun for them too. And we had fun together, because I had an appetite.

SPT – Did you ever struggle?

BG – I got very poor grades up through 8th grade, because I just didn’t think it was cool. Then, in 9th grade, I had actually confused people about whether I could learn or not, so I decided I’d get very good grades then. When I took drama, which Ann Stephens, gave me, I struggled because it didn’t come in the same easy way. That was hard.

SPT – What should Hillsborough parents think about when they look at these reforms? You mention in your speech, “another wave of school reforms.” Why should they look at these reforms as (being) something other than just another wave of disruptive change?

BG – Well, the status quo isn’t great. If the status quo were great, any disruption wouldn’t be worth trying at all. Unfortunately, particularly in urban school districts, the status quo is way worse than I certainly was aware of when before we got involved in this work. When people first said the majority of minority kids don’t finish high school, I said, ‘That just can’t be, that wouldn’t be allowed.’

I mean, it’s like running a car factory and half the cars are not able to drive. What kind of factory is that? I’m sure people would have been outraged if that was true. But in fact, if you go back and look at the 9th grade class, and then look at the graduating class, it’s true.

These last seven or eight years may have been frustrating for people, but one thing I think we have done well is we’ve shined a spotlight on the truth of what’s going on in schools. Now that’s very uncomfortable, because then it makes...a tendency for blame to be passed around. Is it the budget, the principals, the unions, the students, the inner city? People are so appalled and looking for solutions.

What we’re doing here is a serious piece of work to do something I was surprised hadn’t been done much before, helping to identify best practices and encourage the spread of those best practices. If we had looked at teachers and they were all the same, that would have been a disappointing result. But when we saw the unbelievable variance, then we said okay, how do you get teachers enthusiastic about making the average closer to the best?

Well, there are some pretty clear things...You had better identify who the best is, you had better identify what the best do, and you’d better identify how to transfer that. That sounds pretty simple, but it’s very complex. And that’s what we’re engaged in at these different sites.

Teachers want to improve. They want to see the students they teach taught well by other teachers. They don’t want a system that surprises them. They don’t want a system that’s high overhead. So that’s what we’re engaged with together on a learning path, where there will be adjustments, is trying to find that system.

SPT – What do you say to teachers who are having a case of the nerves this fall, as in Hillsborough, where they’re about to dive into all of this with a brand-new evaluation system?

BG – I would highlight the importance of this work. If the partners, working together, find a measurement system that raises the quality of teaching, and that the teachers like, then it not only will help Hillsborough, it will help all the schools in the country. If, over these two, three or four years, we have success, that word will spread.

So we’re counting on them to get that tuned: the way students are surveyed, the way that you have weekly tests that lead up to the yearly test, the way that you have video of what goes on in the classroom. How do you take those things so that they’re fair, they’re low overhead, they help you know what you should go and improve? How do you do that?

In a way, given how education is not working well for all the students, it’s nice to see there is an opportunity to put in an improvement system. It makes you think, ‘Wow, if this works, it could make a huge difference.’

You’ve probably seen data  from people like Tom Kane and others, that if you’re lucky enough to get a top quartile teacher say four years in a row, the kids who get that track are better than any nation in the world. Whereas the average kid now in the United States has us below basically all of the developed countries in the world.

SPT – Have you visited the Hillsborough Schools, or do you plan to? And I’m wondering what attracted you to that district as a good candidate for this project?

BG – I wasn’t the one involved in the particular selection. But the criteria were to have a place where the union wanted to be part of it, the superintendent had real leadership skills to drive it forward, people really cared about this and were going to learn and adjust it as it went along. You know, Florida has been one of the states where there has been a lot of learning about education, so I wasn’t at all surprised that a Florida site ended up being one of the four. I might have been surprised if it wasn’t one.  Florida has pushed a lot of things through – some of their data systems, leadership systems. And now we’re in it together...

(Communications staff: we have time for one last question.)

SPT – As you look 10, 20 years down the road, what do you think public education will look like in America? How will it be different, and what sorts of change do you hope to see?

BG – Well, there’s two big changes. One is that technology is this huge aid. It’s easy for the teacher to assess where everybody is. For the kid who’s behind, it’s easier for (the teacher) to assign something for that kid to do. For the kid who's ahead, it’s easy to do. So technology should play a very constructive role.

And the teaching profession should have developed very clear notions of best practice: how you measure them, if they fall short, where you go to get improvement in those things. And people should be able to say, ‘Yes: the average teacher today is substantially better than the average teacher in 2010.’ The best may not be that much better than the best in 2010. But that bottom quartile, that third-to-the-bottom quartile, they have basically gone away.

(Signal from communications staff: our time is up.)

SPT – Well, thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

BG – You bet. Thanks for coming up to Seattle for this. I hope as this thing goes along, it goes well; we’re certainly investing a lot in it.

SPT – And please give us a call if you come to Tampa, we’d love to be a fly on the wall.

BG – You bet!

-- Tom Marshall, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Saturday, July 17, 2010 6:37am]


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