Bill Gates greeted by standing ovation from…teachers?

Patti Freudenberg works for the Clear Creek Independent School District in the Houston-Galveston area, where she is the “Teaching American History Grant Specialist,” currently leading groups of history teachers to historical sites around the US on a Department of Education grant. Clad in leopard print, she arrived bright and early Thursday morning to sit in the very front row of Bill Gates’ closing keynote at the South by Southwest Edu conference. “It’s a hero worship thing,” she said. “I don’t know what he’s going to say. Hopefully he’ll talk about new ways we can use technology. Because education is changing so much–we’re finally moving from the traditional classroom to something that’s more technology rich and media rich. We’re reaching these kids where they actually are instead of what we had in the 1960s.” She’s seen this in her own schools, where pilot programs are bringing iPads into the classroom, making it easier to incorporate more primary source documents and multimedia into social studies classes.

Gates’ wide-ranging keynote, greeted by a standing ovation, didn’t disappoint Patti. He argued that the market for educational innovation is reaching a tipping point–although he acknowledged that from an investment point of view, this is simply a return to the heights of the late ’90s, when annual investment in ed-tech once topped $1 billion just as it did again in 2012. The first time turned out to be a bit of a bubble, leading to few major changes.

But this time, he said, is different, because of new technologies like more-ubiquitous wireless internet, tablet computing, cheap video storage, and data in the cloud, and because of a tipping point in student demand. He envisions a future “five to ten years out” where school budgets for IT, textbooks and assessments will no longer be separated, creating a single K-12 funding pool of $9 billion a year for all kinds of new technology, both content and systems. “We’re just on that cusp, where the tablet and PC are rich enough and cheap enough that that’ll be the way it’s done.”

Equal with the flashy gadgets in the classroom, Gates highlighted the increasing use of back-end technologies to coordinate and manage data that can help drive districts, teachers and even students’ decisionmaking.

Amid all the enthusiasm, what’s still missing in the education space, Gates acknowledged, are “the gold standards of proving that something works.” In the areas of global health where the Gates Foundation has done so much work, you can measure outcomes by countless widely agreed-upon metrics: infant-mother life expectancy, number of malaria infections, number of vaccines distributed. In education, we have standardized test scores; graduation rates; maybe some surveys on job placement or unemployment rates. And we have some initial findings on what teaching techniques may be correlated with success for students. All these attempts at measurement are hotly contested, methodologically weak, several steps removed from the problem, or all three.

But as hundreds of spectators held up mobile phones to photograph Gates on stage, the sheer ubiquity of wireless technology in our daily lives seemed to provide its own internal rationale for its increasing use in the classroom–if for no other reason than that the classroom needs to resemble the wired, independent, collaborative, location-agnostic workplace that our kids will one day be joining.

Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.


POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON March 7, 2013

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F.C. White

Well, if you’re among the lucky few teachers who were at this very “cool” and “happening” event—does anyone know if the Gates Foundation, or another private entity paid for their registration, travel, meals, and lodging expenses?—why WOULDN’T you give him a standing ovation?

Especially if you were one of “the chosen” who got to sit right up close in one of the first few rows?

Look, I don’t mean to personally attack Bill or Melinda Gates—or the many good and smart people who work for them. These people have done many beneficial things that most of us support.

But, Gates—and those other handful of billionaires that have joined with him—are completely and absolutely wrong about education. What they’re doing—intentionally or otherwise—is hurting our schools, demoralizing our educators and students, and slowly beginning the process of a Private Takeover of our Public Schools.

And, without acrimony, and with the respect that both of them deserve, if I had the opportunity to speak with them, I’d ask Bill and Melinda Gates: Are you sending your children to a school where their teachers are pressured, denigrated and demeaned on a regular basis? In the school that your children attend, are they “taught to the test”, knowing that if “the numbers” aren’t “high enough” teachers could be fired and the school could be closed? Are there more than 20 children in a class? Has the school reduced or eliminated instruction in the arts, music, drama, most humanities and social studies, physical education and even recess?

Or, is their “school” one that they only attend on a screen, several hours a day?

I’m not a teacher. Nor is anyone in my family. I’m a parent of a young child in 2nd grade. And I’m among a growing number of parents who are increasingly angry—very angry—at what is being done to our public schools by a toxic stew of “charters”, “triggers”, “vouchers”, and “Testing With An Agenda” (to classify as many students, teachers and schools as “Failing”, as possible).

We don’t have your resources. We don’t have your reach. We don’t have your connections. But we do have a voice. And we’re raising it, as politely as we can, asking you, for a REAL conversation, a genuine dialogue, about the future of our public schools.

Like the United States itself, and our republic’s practice of democracy, we all know that our public schools aren’t perfect. They never have been. And neither are any schools, public, private or religious, in any society, at any time in history.

But the deliberate attempt to take these imperfections, flaws and real struggles that our public schools are facing, and exploit them as part of a long-term campaign to phase them out, and sell them to the highest bidder, is becoming increasingly obvious. And it’s a national disgrace.

And so, I invite you, Mr. and Mrs. Gates, and all who work with you on education issues, to accept the sincere invitation to open up a dialogue—one in which all of our voices are heard for the same amount of time, by the same number of people—with the growing number of students, parents, educators, and citizens who are saying “STOP” to this madness.

Thanks for hearing me out. I wish all of you a very successful conference.

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