Sunday, March 16, 2014

Teaching and Learning from Bill Gates in the Nation's Capitol

Maybe it was Doris Kearns Goodwin's passionate admiration of son Michael Goodwin's Rivers and Revolutions instructional program that brought the image to mind, but this weekend's inaugural Teaching and Learning Conference at the Washington D.C. Convention Center presented by NBPTS felt like standing at the confluence of two rivers.

Or maybe one river and one tributary swollen with unlimited cash.

By far the longest line (besides the one for Starbuck's Coffee) was for Bill Gates' plenary session at 1 p.m. on Friday.  The house was packed.  But that session revealed the gaping disconnect between the world of corporate charity and real teaching.

I had just left NYU professor Pedro Noguera's session on Education and Civil Rights in the 21st Century where he spoke without notes but from the clear experience of his research and work in bringing the bottom up through the only equalizer we've ever had: education.  (His newest book is on teaching resiliency to young men of color, Schooling for Resilience.)

All of Noguera's comments struck a chord.  I still remember the classroom before NCLB. I remember the seventies,  and work daily with children of poverty and second language learners.  Locally we are preparing for the next flood of underserved students which will smash headlong into the boulder of "more rigorous testing" that will supposedly make all children above average. 

Noguera knows the landscape well.  He echoed my world. "We are boring our kids to death." "We were making progress in the '70's when we were paying attention to childhood development."  "Give up on the feds, and even the states, and work locally.  Our kids can't wait.  We need this now."  

He reminded us that America is where public education was born, not as a commodity to be bought and sold by Wall Street investors, but as the only hand-up we can offer citizens to level the landscape.  He told us we need parents as partners in education, not as consumers.

It was a bit of a whiplash to go directly from Noguera to Bill Gates. As an English teacher I would have advised Gates to consider his audience when preparing remarks--though admittedly this involves a leap of imagination into empathy that can be challenging.

He addressed the room of teachers in a boardroom-appropriate flat affect. He indicated that we should help shore up the Common Core.  He needs teachers (now, he has realized) to make the program work. If we get behind CCSS we can make it possible for all kids to go to college. He told us kids need to be better readers.  He told us teachers need to be better teachers.

The audience was polite.  (If teachers have a failing it is that we are too polite.)  

Set aside for a moment that by show of hands throughout the weekend nearly two-thirds of the crowd were already highly accomplished, board certified teachers. And ignore also that we all know with clarity just how well our students can or cannot read with depth and understanding. Even set aside the notion that we are aware that setting high-expectations is a cornerstone to good teaching.  

The argument that more rigorous testing and standards and a college educated workforce are the solutions to the American doldrums is an assumption that is still highly debatable.  But to the very successful Harvard dropout, Bill Gates, college-for-all is the goal.  

Conversely, Tony Wagner, in his plenary speech the following day, indicated that the top innovative companies like Google and other start-ups find GPAs and SATs "worthless."  They are not interested in college degrees, but look for problem-solvers and collaborators.  Our top students generally negotiate the current system of schooling by following rules and meeting deadlines. By that measure, increasing standardization is the enemy.  The schools Wagner revealed in a short video sparkled with activity, color, and students working hard while having the kind of fun Daniel Willingham promises real learning can engender.

Gates stayed on stage to take questions from George Stephanopoulos.  Not much there that I can recall, except my worry that a star-struck audience might get distracted from substantive issues.

After seeing Pedro, Bill seemed woefully out of touch, describing perhaps a teaching and testing system for the children of the upscale Seattle suburbs and not my kids--who miss school to watch over younger siblings while mom goes to her minimum wage jobs--who dismiss the need for homework when they can work through the night at the grocery store, and then fall soundly asleep during Silent Sustained Reading. Or miss multiple days due to asthma attacks, or anxiety, or illness from poor diet, no exercise and infrequent doctor visits, or just stay away to avoid the sheer boredom of spending the days preparing for THE test and then more days taking THE test, remediating for the FAILED test, retaking THE test....

He didn't even seem to understand my own children, all of whom have college degrees and are married to college graduates. Their lives have had slow and rocky starts as they shoulder the shared debt of earning those degrees, trying to start families, find jobs in a depressed market, look for (and not find) affordable daycare.....

Gates didn't hang around to shake hands.


Next Blog:  Arne Duncan and Teacher Leadership