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Bill Gates has adopted education as a billionaire's hobby for many years—once supporting small schools projects, but more recently focusing on teacher quality.

Little attention, however, has been paid to Gates's struggles in business (Microsoft) or his complete lack of expertise, experience, or success as an educational entrepreneur.

Until now, in this expose by Vanity Fair addressing the key practices at the foundation of Microsoft's failures ("Today, a single Apple product—the iPhone—generates more revenue than all of Microsoft’s wares combined").

Gates has argued for a need to identify the best (and worst) teachers in order to control who teachers teach and how:

"What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great."
In effect, Gates's plan to address teacher quality is shared among almost all education reformers, including the USDOE and Secretary Arne Duncan, and focuses on labeling,ranking, and sorting teachers—a practice eerily similar to the "Cannibalistic Culture" identified as central to the failures at Microsoft:
"Eichenwald’s conversations reveal that a management system known as 'stack ranking'—a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor—effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. 'Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,' Eichenwald writes. 'If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,' says a former software developer. 'It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.'"

"Competing with Each Other": Students as Weapons of Mass Instruction

It all starts with a lie. A very compelling lie that has the weight of common sense reinforced by the proclamations of people with wealth, Bill Gates, and power, Secretary Duncan: Teachers are the single most important element in the learning of a child.

The problem is, of course, this is factually untrue. Nonetheless, the follow up lie (when you base a conclusion on a false permise, that conclusion is also false) is also compelling: Teacher quality must be improved!

The balance of evidence shows that measurable student outcomes (itself a serious flaw in how we draw conclusions about both student learning and teacher quality) is overwhelmingly linked with out-of-school factors—anywhere from about 2/3 to well over 80% of that data correlated with out-of-school factors.

Even arguing that teachers are the single most important in-school factor in measurable student outcomes is problematic since the research on that claim is mixed at best (some evidence suggests that school leadership and culture are as important, if not more so, than teacher quality).

Gates and the USDOE, then, are making a foundational problem of seeking solutions to problems that haven't been identified. In other words, no one has shown definitively that teacher quality is the primary or even one of the primary causes of low student outcomes.

Now, once we move beyond that problem, approaches to teacher evaluation and pay may need to be revised, but ample evidence shows that the proposals being offered by Gates and Duncan, as well as all across the U.S., are also without solid evidence to support them (disproportionate teacher assignment has been identified, but that reality is somehow often ignored since the privileged children are winning in that inequity [see Peske & Haycock, 2006]).

Incentive-based evaluation and compensation have a long record of being ineffective, counter-production, and not cost effective (see Hout & Elliot, 2011, and Kohn, 1993/1999). Yet, as with the compelling message about teacher quality and student outcomes, competition and incentives are almost universally embraced in U.S. culture without regard for the evidence (see Worthen, et al., 2009, regarding competition).

That leads to the revelations about the previously unexplored problems at Microsoft exposed by Eichenwald—the Cannibalistic Culture of stack ranking by which all workers are evaluated on an imposed scale of ranking in order to identify the elite workers.

If Eichenwald's characterization of the ranking as corrosive is accurate, leading as it did to workers "competing with each other," then we can anticipate a truly disturbing reality to occur when teachers are held accountable for their students' grade as significant percentages of their evaluations and compensation: Teachers will begin to use their students as weapons of mass instruction to defeat the students of the competing teachers, either in their own school or within the district.

This is a debilitating and ethically corrupt outcome that cannot be avoided if we continue to seek incentive-based, VAM approaches to teacher quality.

Education and teacher quality absolutely need to be reformed, but increasing the Cannibalistic Culture for teachers and students is not the path we need as a free people seeking universal public education as a central institution supporting democracy.

Education is a collaborative venture; a culture of competition is poison in the teaching/learning dynamic. Labeling, sorting, and ranking teachers and students is inexcusable in any form as long as we are genuinely committed to fostering a culture of collaboration necessary for learning.

The Cannibalistic Culture has created the winners who call for expanding that game. The Cannibalistic Culture benefits only the winners as it forces the status of loser upon most people regardless—again consider the stack ranking at Microsoft.

Teacher evaluation and education need to be reformed toward a culture of collaboration, a culture that encourages human interactions that are not about winning or losing and not about fighting for ever-shrinking pieces of the pie.

Public education and teacher quality reform currently being pursued is certain to drive good people from teaching and to ask less and less of both teachers and students. We have ample evidence from the disturbing Microsoft story being revealed to us, but we also have the stories of generations of teachers who know how education and teaching need to be supported and reformed.

Teachers want all students to succeed. Teachers want to be treated as professionals. Teachers want school conditions that support their work as educators.

Teachers do not want to use their students to outperform some other teachers' students.

A Cannibalistic Culture will certainly create students as weapons of mass instruction that will destroy universal public education.

Originally posted to plthomasEdD on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 01:29 PM PDT.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge and Education Alternatives.

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Comment Preferences

  •  There is good international evidence (10+ / 0-)

    showing that collaboration is key to improving teaching.  But then again, facts do have a liberal bias...  Sigh

    I have trouble seeing stack ranking being the best solution anywhere.  Imagine you have a sales team and one person consistently does rather better than the others.  So give that one person a big bonus and the others will work harder to try to get a big bonus, right?  What if you gave the crackerjack salesperson money to host a workshop with fellow salespeople to teach best practices for sales?  Perhaps they could all become better?  What if they all shared best practices?  My experience in the work world (NOT sales) is that everyone has good strengths and weaknesses and we can learn from the former to shore up the latter.

    Call me a pinko Commie?  Why thank you!

    ...Son, those Elephants always look out for themselves. If you happen to get a crumb or two from their policies, it's a complete coincidence. -Malharden's Dad

    by slowbutsure on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 02:07:22 PM PDT

  •  You should include a poll to find out (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chi, chipmo, JanL

    which is more idiotic.

    This, or his market-based schemes to end poverty in Africa.

  •  Another way (9+ / 0-)

    to look at it:

    Say you are ill with a mysterious condition and it seems to be life threatening.  Which set of doctors do you want:  

    (1) the team where each individual member's main interest is ego-driven winning and eliminating the sharing of information which might give the other doctors a better chance of winning and/or keeping a job


    (2) the team where doctors collaborate and each share experience and knowledge where the pieces can fit together and result in an answer that no one person alone would have come up with?  

    Bill Gates needs to go into a room of at-risk students and see what works.  They would eat him alive--figuratively of course.  Recently he was wanting to develop bracelets that were similar to mood rings and would show the level of "engagement" of students while being taught.  Of course, the hormonal teenager sitting next to the hot girl would probably have a flaming bracelet but would not be engaged in the lesson.  

    Bill Gates dropped out of college, so it seems that he was less than engaged himself.  Easier to steal ideas from others.

  •  These diaries always amaze me (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FG, HamdenRice, raines

    No other profession could make this kind of argument against performance evaluation with a straight face.

    The nation has poured money into education for three decades with very little to show for it.  Performance like that in the private sector would have gotten most of the workforce fired in short order.

    The fact that is was almost all public sector and the general bias for teachers (considered one of the most respected professions in America, consistently) has deflected much of the public's ire, but in an age of shrinking state and local budgets, patience has finally been exhausted.

    Heck, to quote "Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education" which you cite above:

    schools facing sanctions under NCLB improved the test scores of lower performing students, while schools facing sanctions under the state program improved the test scores of both lower and higher performing students... the meta-analysis found 66 positive, 2 zero, and 8 negative
    ...and here we are at personal attacks on a well-known philanthropist and charity in the name of avoiding any kind of accountability.  In what world does this make a reasonable argument?
    •  very little to show for it? (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      aliasalias, Chi, JanL, plthomasEdD, elfling

      Aren't we the world's biggest superpower? Don't we have the #1 economy? 90% of Americans attend public schools and we do not exclude anyone. I say that in spite of the 20% child poverty rate we are doing pretty good for ourselves.

      Can we improve? Yes. It is how to improve that's the question and as a classroom teacher i couldn't agree more with Dr. Thomas. I want all students to win, not just mine.

    •  It is possible to pour money into something (0+ / 0-)

      for a long time and not get results, if the money is not well spent. Misdirected effort often gets worse results than no effort at all.

      I don't think this an argument against performance evaluation, just an argument against a particular type of performance evaluation, a type that has not been shown to correlate with outcomes in any significant way. It's like we aren't satisfied with our car's gas mileage, so we pump more and more air into the spare tire in the trunk, because somewhere we read that tire inflation helped fuel economy.

      Sure, we can get numbers from tests, but training good test takers is not the purpose of primary and secondary education, although it is becoming that in the 'failing' schools. While we have poured money into education for the past three decades, we have watched our students show up at college more and more ill prepared for higher education, as evidenced in the ever increasing remedial courses that must be offered by colleges to get incoming students up to par.

      It should be obvious to any objective outside observer that we are not getting anything of value for those dollars. Rather than continue to pour money down a rat hole, it might be wise to step back and ask whether we might not be misdirecting our efforts.

      "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

      by Orinoco on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 06:14:44 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  you have no idea what you're talking about (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      1) all professions want to police themselves -- that's the definition of a profession-- it's why there are licensing boards of chiropractors for chiropractors for example.
      2)  I haven't seen doctors out marching to be ranked by their cure rates.  Or cops begging for civilian complaint review boards.

      3) the diarist, however doesn't say you can't evaluate teachers -- just that the stack method is not effective in improving educational outcomes.  And "asking the best" to teach larger classes goes against what we do know about teaching and learning.
      4) the nation  has siphoned money out of education for decades.  As Federal aid has increased,  states and towns which bear the actual responsibility for K-12 education have cut back on spending.  
      5) and if philanthropist is the first thing you think of when you hear Bill Gates, I guest you don't know the IT industry either.


      It's not a fake orgasm; it's a real yawn.

      by sayitaintso on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 06:28:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Point 4 is simply wrong. (0+ / 0-)
        4) the nation  has siphoned money out of education for decades.  As Federal aid has increased,  states and towns which bear the actual responsibility for K-12 education have cut back on spending.  
        As shown in the second chart I linked, State and Local spending on education has increased dramatically over the last two decades.

        Over the last three decades (even after adjusting for inflation) we're spending almost double the amount of money per student.

        If throwing money at education could fix things in this country, it'd have succeeded by now.

    •  It's not true that we have nothing to show (0+ / 0-)

      for it.

      We educate more kids, more challenged kids, and we expect them to know a lot more than we ever did.

      Before the mid 1970's, kids who were difficult to educate were not educated. This includes disabled kids and often poor and minority kids. Only in the mid 70's did the law change entitling every child to an appropriate education.

      When I graduated in the mid 1980's in California, elite 8th graders - maybe 8% - took algebra. Today we expect every 8th grader to take algebra. In my day, maybe half the kids who graduated HS were never even enrolled in algebra.

      When I went to school, we didn't do any formal science until 7th grade. Today's California 5th graders take a science test that includes topics I was never taught in the K-12 system. (My degree is in engineering.)

      Try checking out the sample tests for your state. You may be surprised to find how much more we expect kids to know.

      When you look at international comparisons for spending, it's important to understand that every nation accounts for "what is education spending" differently. A substantial percentage of education budgets go to health insurance for staff, an expense that might be accounted to health care in other countries. Further, many of the interventions accounted to special ed in the US would be counted as health care elsewhere. We fund sports through schools; in some nations, sports are funded as community activities instead.

      The fact is, the US has never done well on the international tests, and yet, we've still dominated in GDP and innovation in all that time. "Yesterday's slackers" haven't brought us down yet. There are a lot of great things going on in our schools that we don't test or measure all that well. Just a simple check on will expose thousands of teachers seeking grant money on their own time for interesting and innovative projects for their kids.

      Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

      by elfling on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 03:27:19 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Republished (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    to teachers' lounge.

  •  You have an interesting definition of failure (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    in business. You're against any kind of evaluations for teachers but the company that is not #1 in tech but merely #2 is a failure for you. So teachers shouldn't be evaluated but tech companies not only should be but all of them should be #1 otherwise they are declared a failure. Your point about stack ranking is a good one but the rest...

    •  Educators aren't against evaluations (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      They're against stupid evaluations.

      We use a form of stack ranking with the kids, too. The standardized tests are generally normed based on the bell curve, at least loosely. There is not a firm threshold score that has been the same for 3 decades, a bar of constant height. If too many kids get a question right, it is removed from the tests.

      If you had a 4th grade test and counted all the kids across a whole state as at grade level or above, what would be the reaction?

      Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

      by elfling on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 03:36:05 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Melinda Gates is on (6+ / 0-)

    the board of directors of the Kaplan University system.  That says something right there.

  •   I can't comment on all the above... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Orinoco, JanL

    but I do know Mr. Gates had best get back to his knitting at Microsoft because their customer service is abyssmal.  Good products without good customer service competing with good products with outstanding customer service...guess who wins.  In this ain't gonna be Microsoft.

    The longer I live, the clearer I perceive how unmatchable a compliment one pays when he says of a man "he has the courage to utter his convictions." Mark Twain

    by Persiflage on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 05:27:22 PM PDT

  •  Thank you for an insightful diary and article link (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JanL, chimene

    As a teacher for 20+ years, I'm glad to see people scrutinizing Bill Gates and other "deformers" disastrous impact on education.

    Evidence of the cannabilizing culture is found in the rampant cheating that has been exposed at the administrative level of many states and school divisions (hello-calling Michele Rhee...)
    This also explains why accelerated teachers (Advanced Placement, International Baccalaurate, Cambridge Programme, etc) would rather quit or die before they give up their students to take a section of regular students. If the score on that student's standardized test at the end of the year is the difference between keeping their job, getting a poor evaluation, or being fired, darn sure their going to keep their advanced kids.

    Warning: That light at the end of the tunnel just might be an oncoming train.

    by history first on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 05:56:58 PM PDT

  •  I'm hoping the Prez reads your diary cause.... (0+ / 0-)

    He is the one listening to Gates...and that is a huge problem for the president. Think a significant number of teachers are going to be inclined to work as hard for the President as they did in '08? Think again....

    I think it is hilarious that Bill Gates, America's top education corporate reformer, who was afforded opportunities galore to develop his interests in computer programming under constructivist learning principles at Lakeside Private Prep School and now advocates for non consensual data driven approaches to learning in an authoritarian setting with an insistence upon high stakes testing for other people's children's teachers. I'm wondering....were his teachers subjected to the same assessment processes he now advocates?

    Educational experience based on behaviorism is mind control.

    by semioticjim on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 07:45:05 PM PDT

  •  why anyone listens to Gates on anything other than (0+ / 0-)

    software piracy and marketing, is one of the mysteries of the universe!

    "real" work : a job where you wash your hands BEFORE you use the bathroom...

    by chimene on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 11:17:51 PM PDT

  •  Great piece calling out the limitation... (0+ / 0-)

    of hierarchical thinking and the kind of destructive competition between "us and them" it invariably fosters.  We can just look at the world's history and our slow transition away from hierarchical governance structures towards more egalitarian ones.

    IMO when Bill Gates was successful as an entrepreneur, earlier in his career, because he created a standardized open architecture operating system that facilitated others developing applications to work on that platform.  This compared to Apple Computer's approach of keeping their system architecture closed and proprietary and not sharing it with others.

    So it is ironic that Gates did not apply that facilitative model to improving schools, that attempts to create an enriched environment where all can prosper, rather than the more directive ranking model that works by defining "us and them".

    Cooper Zale Los Angeles

    by leftyparent on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 06:04:43 AM PDT

  •  What is it with successful business people wanting (0+ / 0-)

    to run things that are not businesses?  

    I have watched with increasing concern as higher education becomes commonly referred to as "an industry".  Now I feel a sense of panic as this philosophy moves towards our little ones in primary school.

    It is practically a no-brainer for anyone to see what is wrong with our public education system - inequality of opportunity has exponentially increased along with wage disparity and other class warfare problems.

    The idea of blaming beleaguered teachers struggling with lack of resources and placing them in competition with those in rich school districts with rich parents is simply nuts.  

    There is a lot of talk about students with every advantage, but what about teachers that work in a situation that gives them every advantage in the classroom?  (Let me add that it is odd that one never hears these teachers calling out their "under-performing" colleagues?)

    Also the info that Ms. Gates is involved with Kaplan is very enlightening in a dark sort of way.  

    How about Gates actually visiting some of these schools with at risk students and seeing what his foundation could do in terms of direct cash injections?

    It gets on my nerves, and you know how I am about my nerves...

    by ciganka on Sun Jul 08, 2012 at 03:28:25 AM PDT

  •  Microsoft's Lesson For Public Education (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I attempted to post this about an hour ago but so far it's failed to appear.  Here's another try:

    Some Daily Kos followers   might be interested in a recent discussion-list post "Microsoft's  Lesson For Public Education" [Hake (2012)]. The abstract reads:

    ABSTRACT: EDDRA2's Mike Martin at <> wrote: (paraphrasing): 

    "Everyone in education should read 'Microsoft's Downfall: Inside the Executive E-mails and Cannibalistic Culture That Felled a Tech Giant' at <>. . . . . . What educators need to know and to trumpet widely is precisely Microsoft's 'astonishingly foolish management decision' to focus on ranking employees instead of focusing on consumers -  a ranking system that Bill Gates is now trying to impose on public education. . . . . Gates' ideas will stop teachers from developing education that is effective for children and instead focus on things that look good in the evaluation system."

    As sequels to the above, see the Microsoft/Gates put-downs at, e.g.:

    1. Barbara and David Mikkelson's Urban Legend "Car Balk" at <>;

    2. Louis Menand's hilarious "The End Matter: The nightmare of citation" at <>;

    3. Gene Glass' insightful "High Button Shoes and Education Reform" at <>.

    To access the complete 11 kB post please click on <>.

    Richard Hake, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Indiana University

    ". . . . it is time to speak some truth to power in this country: MICROSOFT WORD IS A TERRIBLE PROGRAM"
          - Louis Menand (2003)

    REFERENCES [All URL's shortened by and accessed on 09 July 2012.
    Hake, R.R. 2012. "Microsoft's  Lesson For Public Education," online on the OPEN! AERA-L archives at <>.  Post of 7 Jul 2012 13:54:43-0700 to AERA-L and Net-Gold. The abstract and link to the complete post were transmitted to several discussion lists and are also on my blog "Hake'sEdStuff" at <> with a provision for comments.

    Menand, L. 2003. "The End Matter: The nightmare of citation." New Yorker,  6 October, online at .

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