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.