SEATTLE — Bill Gates knows something about the power of good teaching. He used to be an underachiever.
"I got very poor grades up until eighth grade, because I just didn't think it was cool," he told the St. Petersburg Times on Saturday in an exclusive interview.
But the Microsoft founder said he turned his performance around and started earning top grades, thanks to middle school teachers who "really related to me and encouraged me, told me I could do well. When I was bored they gave me more to do, to keep me pushing ahead."
Those lessons are serving him well these days, as he helps set the national education agenda as co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In a speech Saturday, he told 3,000 delegates at the convention of the nation's second-largest teachers' union that they shouldn't be afraid of change — they should embrace it, just as the Hillsborough County School District has done.
"I believe these reforms can make a huge difference for students, as long as you keep pushing and bring all America's teachers along with you," he told members of the American Federation of Teachers union.
Speaking to the Times in a conference room at the Washington State Convention Center, he acknowledged that some teachers might fear the seven-year, $202 million changes in Hillsborough, which will overhaul its evaluation system to identify struggling teachers and reward the best ones with extra pay and responsibilities.
But he said the work would give teachers a more predictable system that will help them improve. "If it works, it will not only help Hillsborough, it will help school districts all over the country," he said.
The 190,000-student Hillsborough district has shown itself to be capable of massive reform under the leadership of superintendent MaryEllen Elia, Gates said. He also singled out union president Jean Clements for praise in his speech.
"The union wanted to be part of it, and the superintendent had the leadership skills to drive it forward," Gates told the Times.
He also noted how well Florida tracks its students.
"Florida is one of the states where there has been a lot of learning about education," he said, citing the state's comprehensive data systems. "And now we're in it together."
Gates said the national status quo of lagging test scores and high dropout rates was unacceptable. He said he was shocked when he learned, years ago, that a majority of students in many urban schools didn't graduate.
"I said, 'That just can't be, it couldn't be allowed,' " Gates said after speaking to the AFT for 20 minutes.
In his speech, he singled out Hillsborough, saying the district had ventured where few other school districts dared to go. Districts in Pittsburgh and Memphis, and a group of Los Angeles charter schools are also joining the foundation's reform effort.
"Critics who've long complained that teachers' unions don't care about student outcomes have been forced to reconsider. In Washington, D.C., New York, New Haven, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Colorado, you have taken historic steps to bury old arguments and improve student achievement," Gates said.
Already those reforms — overhauling teacher evaluation systems to identify great or struggling teachers, mentoring those who need help, and paying them according to their effectiveness — are helping teachers to improve their skills, he said.
"Even just watching your own class can offer huge insight," Gates told the delegates, referring to a foundation-funded project to videotape classrooms in the district. "One teacher in Hillsborough said, 'It's amazing how much you can learn when you just sit and watch yourself teach.' "
Gates received a largely positive reception, beginning with a standing ovation. A few delegates booed or walked out, and the room grew silent as he talked about the need to develop tough standards for evaluation and awarding tenure.
"You owe it to your profession and your students to make sure that tenure reflects more than the number of years spent in the classroom." He said it must also be about effective, high-quality performance.
He said good teaching requires "dazzling skill," and related his own struggles trying to teach supplemental science classes to two of his children 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," Gates said. "If you told me I had to teach 30 students, I don't know how I'd do it."
He said his foundation's reform efforts were driven by national surveys of what teachers say they need.
"Teachers want to help set the expectations that they will be held accountable for," Gates said. "You want to be rewarded for results. You want better evaluations. You're tired of subjective, infrequent evaluations by administrators who don't know how to improve instruction."
And he warned that such reforms would never work if they were imposed without input from those who know classrooms best.
"If reforms aren't shaped by teachers' knowledge and experience, they're not going to succeed," Gates said.
But such changes come at a critical time, as cash-strapped districts across Tampa Bay and America consider teacher layoffs, furloughs or program cuts to balance their budgets.
Many Florida teachers agree with much of what the foundation has proposed, such as overhauling the "meaningless" teacher evaluation systems most districts use, said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association. But they fear such changes will be imposed without money to pay for them, as state legislators attempted to do with Senate Bill 6. "People are very frustrated," Ford said. "At the same time things are falling apart, they want us to completely change the way we do things."
Other delegates said they were leery of buying into Gates' message, at least not without careful scrutiny.
"We have gotten some money from the foundation in the past," said James Blanchard, a school psychologist and member of the Baltimore teachers' union. "It always comes with strings attached. It's never for regular services; you've got to try these new things.
"We're in the trenches," he added. "Why don't you ask us what it's like?"
But Gates told the delegates he was committed to doing just that. And he praised the union for taking a chance on reform.
"If you want teachers' unions to lead a revolution in American education, please remember: Sometimes the most difficult act of leadership is not fighting the enemy; it's telling your friends it's time to change," he said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.