Bill Gates on Ed (and Bennet teaser)

Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter has an article on Bill Gates, which happens to also mention Denver’s own Michael Bennet as a potential Secretary of Education. Gates, as we’ve seen, has spent lots of money with little effect, so it’s interesting to see how his thinking has evolved.  Much of this is pretty basic to ed reformers, but it’s good to see it getting play more broadly via Newsweek:

Betraying his own professional background, Gates shakes his head in dismay at the idea of secondary schools and colleges trying to function at all without simple software that offers them basic statistical information about how students and teachers are performing over time (for-profit colleges are an exception). Everyone in education knows why: unions have simply prevented teachers from being judged, even in part, on whether their students improve during the course of the year. It’s no surprise that Gates is a believer in merit pay and incentive pay and has little use for teachers colleges as presently constituted because there’s no evidence that having a master’s degree improves teacher performance. You never hear Gates or his people talk about highly qualified teachers, only highly effective ones.

Despite this, the following will probably be the most-discussed local news: Bennet is mentioned as a short-list prospect for Secretary of Education, and happens to be author Alter’s favorite.

…Obama also knows that if he chooses a union-backed candidate such as Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor active in the transition, he’ll have a revolt on his hands from the swelling ranks of reformers. That’s why it’s more likely he’ll settle on a superintendent like Arne Duncan of Chicago, Michael Bennet of Denver or Paul Vallas of New Orleans, any of whom would suit Gates and other reform-minded philanthropists just fine. (I have my money on Bennet, whose new compensation system is popular with Denver teachers, if not the union.)

I confess I think this is mostly just speculation, although Bennet is certainly politically savvy enough to pull a rabbit out, and he’s been running DPS with a sharp eye on politics the whole time.  And it is true that as a reformer, Bennet is not nearly as aggressive as Klein or Rhee, so offers the “least objectionable” option between them and LDH.

But the reasoning is a little odd: ProComp was inherited by Bennet, not originated by him (though he did much to improve it), and is in my opinion more hype than substance.  DPS’s approach has lacked any tangible strategy (remember Beacon schools? or Jamie Aquino?) and has mainly meandered between a variety of modest proposals.  If you want insight into Bennet, the best place to look is probably the Denver Plan.  This document, still ocassionally referred to in Board of Ed meetings, is a true tabla rosa, a long grocery list of inputs in which any advocacy group can find something familiar, with barely any mention of tangible educational outputs.  It is, in other words, everything that the Gates camp is largely against.

One of the three goals of the Denver Plan: “Highly-skilled teachers” — the very aim Alter mentions that has given way to a premium on effectiveness.  The difference between skill and effectiveness is not a new debate.  That difference, between teacher skills/qualifications and effectiveness — and more broadly between inputs and outputs — to me sums up the primary rift in Education reform.

I think Bennet would be a pretty good pick for Education Secretary — but I wish his record here was more in line with the thrust of Alter’s article.  And should Bennet stay in Denver, I hope he creates a more substantive record of reform that embraces the critical focus on outputs.

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