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Gates' education critique flawed, says visiting Berkeley scholar

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Billionaire Bill Gates' critique of the nation's public schools is flawed. 

That is the view of Richard Rothstein, a visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley and senior fellow at the Earl Warren Institute at Berkeley Law School.  

Rothstein has taken issue with several assertions Gates made last month in a Washington Post op-ed article titled "How teacher development could revolutionize our schools."

Gate's critique of schools deserves close scrutiny because what he says matters, especially when it comes to education. He arguably has more power and influence on local, state and national education policies than any private citizen, mainly as a result of the multi-billion education initiatives and grants made by his foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Gates' Washington Post article starts with the blunt statement that "student achievement has remained flat."

But Rothstein, in a paper that is circulating in various education blog sites, writes that the only longitudinal measure of student achievement – the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP – shows that U.S. students "have improved substantially, in some cases phenomenally." 

Rothstein says "the improvements have been greatest for both black and white fourth- and eighth-graders in math, as well as substantial for black fourth- and eighth-graders in math. Improvements have been less great but still substantial for black fourth- and eighth-graders in slightly more sophisticated math and reading skills." For actual test scores, go to Rothstein's paper here

"No rational reading of these NAEP data can support Gates' claim that student achievement has remained virtually flat," Rothstein writes. The data, he says, "also don't support the story that the typical teacher of disadvantaged children is ineffective."   

When he is not in Berkeley, Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute in New York City. He is a former education columnist for the New York Times, and the author of "Class and Schools" and other books that question key elements of the dominant reform ideologies shaping the nation's schools.

Rothstein also takes issue with Gates' assertion that the "per-student cost of running K-12 schools has doubled." Rothstein says that is a correct statement in a literal sense, but says that less than half of the increase in funds that Gates refers to has gone to support children in regular school programs. The largest portion of new funds have gone to students in special education programs. Forty years ago, he points out, special education comprised less than 4 percent of K-12 spending, compared to 21 percent today. 

"It is not reasonable to complain about the increase in spending on such children (those with disabilities) by insisting that it should have produced greater improvement in the achievement of regular children," he said. 

Gates also contends that "spending (on schools) has climbed but our percentage of college graduates has dropped compared with other countries." That statement, Rothstein says, is "nominally correct but misleading." He points out the percentage of college graduates in the U.S. has actually nearly doubled (from 16 percent of college-age youth in 1970 to 31 percent today). Gates also implies that a higher college graduation rate will be needed "to build a dynamic 21st century economy."  But Rothstein says "certainly we need a sufficient number of well-trained graduates for such an economy, but there is no reason to believe that a graduate rate in excess of 30 percent is too small for this purpose."

Gate's central assertion – one echoed by President Obama and other prominent education reformists  – is that "we know that of all the variables under a school's control, the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching."  

But in an earlier article he wrote last fall, Rothstein said:

Decades of social science research have demonstrated that differences in the quality of schools can explain about one-third of the variation in student achievement. But the other two-thirds is attributable to non-school factors. 

He argued that the central claim that Gates made in his Washington Post article that "teacher quality is the most important in-school factor" in determining student academic achievement is "actually without solid foundation."

Some studies have found that variation in teacher quality has more of an influence on test scores than do the size of classes or average district-wide per pupil spending. In other words, you are better off having a good teacher in a larger class than a poor teacher in a smaller class. But that's it.  

In an interview from his Berkeley office, Rothstein elaborated: 

There is no evidence that even within schools that teachers are the most important factor. The quality of  principals, the extent of teacher collaboration, the quality of the curriculum are arguably all more important than variations in teacher quality.

"Education is complex, and the relationship between education and the economy even more so," Rothstein wrote. "Our ability to grapple with the challenges these present is not enhanced by factually inaccurate and hyperventilated appeals from those who should know better."


After I wrote this post, I received a response from Chris Williams, the Gates Foundation's senior communications officer. He said he did not wish to respond to Rothstein's specific points, but provided the following statement, reprinted in full below: 

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help ensure that all students in this country have the opportunity to receive an education that prepares them for success beyond high school, and to live a productive life. Unfortunately, this is not the case for too many young people today, and shrinking state budgets create additional pressures that require difficult decisions and tradeoffs. 

While the NAEP data shows some increases in student achievement in earlier grades over the last several decades, the data shows that achievement among 17-year-old students, nearing the end of high school, has remained essentially flat. Leaders throughout the country are faced with tough budget choices when it comes to education. We wish that weren’t the case. But we must continue to work to increase student achievement, and smart reallocation of resources can be one such approach, especially in this challenging budget environment. 


Filed under: K–12, Daily Report


Comments are closed for this story.
Caroline Grannan's picture
Comparing U.S. college graduation rates to other nations' makes no sense whatsoever, and here's why: In some/many/most other developed nations, college is very low-cost or free. In the U.S., it's the expense of a lifetime to many families, possibly second to housing. (My son attends a Midwestern college where the total retail value of his education will be about $230,000, including room and board. Financial aid and scholarships reduce the burden on us, but it required savvy and persistence to pursue the financial aid and scholarships.) In some/many/most other developed nations, college students' living expenses are also covered. Clearly, it's unsound and invalid to compare college graduation rates nation by nation given that enormous disparity. The equivalent would be, say, comparing homeownership rates in a nation that gave families homes for free vs. a nation where families had to pay $300,000 for a home.
babul's picture
I am divided on this whole issue! While I agree with the comments on the post above-- there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration. Educational systems at Europe, Australia, Asia and even our northern neighbor Canada- do not ensure college education for everyone. Students are tracked- and some have no options but to pursue vocational careers as opposed to highly competitive fields and/ or become professionals. The good thing here in the USA is that you have a second and if you are really motivated- a third chance. And there are late bloomers who deserve such chances. So the trick is to help on both ends. There is absolutely no need to try to send all of the kids to college, and no need to waste resources for those who do not deserve to be there, until they get ready to tackle the material necessary to pursue a college experience. Interestingly higher education for most of the world is free- but for only those who qualify. In some counties- students get paid to attend college- but here too- only if they prove their qualifications. And as a parent of two girls attending public schools and where one will be applying to college soon, we are approaching the future with trepidation . As my wife and I work to survive and support our family- I see my daughter shut out of high school programs only meant for people at the low end income bracket. So in a way she is being penalized for our relative success. In the same way- chances of her getting any financial aid at most of the college/s is remote- because of the same reason. I wish there would be a system where parents are only required to pay a certain percentage of their income for their kids education- where the rest of the expenses is subsidized through grants. That would be more equitable. Otherwise- it is a form of reverse discrimination. While it is indeed laudable to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds- it is not fair to penalize kids because they are not from the same backgrounds! A tough situation nevertheless that will be difficult to work out in the near future to please everyone!
Beneli's picture
The Ivy League schools limit the amount of tuition students are expected to pay to a percentage of their household income above $80,000. Below $80,000 the tuition could be quite small (relatively). Check it out, it might have changed. When it comes to college education the principle of 'you get what you pay for' may not apply any more since the average schools are as expensive if not more so than the highly selective ones.
Beneli's picture
While I do not know much about Mr. Rothstein, other than that he is an expert who is paid to give opinions, I know that Mr. Gates has put his money where his mouth is and he knows what he is talking about. We as a country made a structural decision 30 years ago to reallocate our resources towards security and away from social services. On top of this, we made another decision to remove the FG from managing its education aid money, choosing rather to give that responsibility to private financial institutions. This became a very lucrative revenue stream for the banks to the detriment of students. All these decisions, along with other factors such as diminished subsidies for institutions from SGs and FG, contributed to the spiraling of education costs over the years. So that now it has become unbearably oppressive for students and their parents. Having said that, let me say a word or two about what in my opinion affects education quality in the K-12 grades. The single most important factor that determines the quality of instruction, even in a single municipality with a common school board, is the zip code the school is located in. The capability of the individual teachers is a far distant second factor. All the same, while there are natural distributions, the probability of having a poor instructor in a low income (low real estate value) zip code school is significantly higher than in a high income zip code school. Other contributing factors are discipline and expectations. Where both are high, student performance is correspondingly high even in low income zip codes. There is some aspect of education we see in foreign countries when school is out, which we also see here in private schools - school uniforms. As a country, we thrive on controversy so implementing school uniform policy in public schools may never become a reality, even though it can eliminate the bulk of the disciplinary and self esteem problems we see in our public schools. Finally, in the prevailing atmosphere in which teachers have become the scape goats for the educational deficiencies of our public school systems by public policy makers, it is unlikely that any meaningful reforms, even the zero cost ones, will be adopted or even seriously considered. I hope I am wrong. As a parent I have raised four children; all through the public school systems in Texas and California. One is an Ivy League school graduate, another is graduating from the University of California, another is in college and my youngest is a freshman in High School. My opinions are drawn from real life experiences. I went to High School under the British system and am a graduate of an Ivy League school. I can say, however, that it is a lot more likely to have a high performance school in a low real estate value zip code in Texas than it is in California. For whatever reason. Additionally, we need fewer expert opinions when it comes to educational reforms and more contribution from real life people like Gates and parents. And of course political fortitude from our leaders.
Louis Freedberg's picture

Thanks for these comments, especially the issue of whether comparing college going rates in U.S. to those in other countries is a fair comparison, given the different levels of access in various countries, levels of financial aid, as well as how college going rates are measured in different countries. As to the last comment, I do value considered opinion from experts who, in most cases, are also "real life people" like Mr. Gates, or arguably more so. While we are all ultimately bound by a common humanity, or should be, I think we could all agree that Mr. Gates, as the world's 2d richest man, and the richest in the United States, is in a class of his own whose existential reality bears little resemblance to few others on the planet. We journalists rely on bonafide experts like Dr. Rothstein to sort through good research from bad research, and opinions that may have popular appeal but may not be solidly based in data and research.

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