Monday, September 29, 2014

Gates at Politico. Wrong. So Wrong.

Bill Gates popped up once again, spicing up a Politico interview with some of his standard educational wrongness.

First, he proposes that Common Core is simply a technocratic solution for education. He then compares the standards to the standardized railroad gauge or standardized plugs for appliances. Let me take a deep breath and see if I can put in words (beyond the obvious "children are not toasters") why this analogy is simply wrong.

Railroad gauges and plug configurations are, within certain engineering requirements, fairly arbitrary choices. Had railroad gauges been set a few inches wider or a few inches, it would not matter. The purpose of setting a standard is not to impose a choice that's a better choice for the rails, but to impose a choice that makes all the rails work as parts of a larger whole. Within certain extremes, there's no bad choice for gauge width; the actual width of the gauge matters less than the uniformity.

Decisions about educational standards are not arbitrary. Some educational choices are better than others, and those choices matter in and of themselves. The choice of standards matters far more than the uniformity. Human children are not in school for the primary purpose of being fitted to become part of a larger whole. Imposing a bad standards choice simply to have uniformity is a disastrous choice, but that is what the Common Core has done-- sacrificed good standards in order to have uniformity, which is not even a desirable goal for human children in the first place.

(There's an irony here-- the computer biz has been messing with the standards for powering equipment for years. Manufacturers have been forced to rig up a variety of adaptations because they are stuck with a world of outlets locked into old standards, but we also have power-by-USB cords, allowing tech equipment to circumvent the old standards.)

Gates has some intellectual blind spots, and they shine through in this interview.

First, it appears from out here in the cheap seats that he's simply been a boss far too long.

The idea that what you should know at various grades … should be well structured and you should really insist on kids knowing something so you can build on that.

Because that's how education happens? You just "insist" that kids know something at a particular stage of their development. This is the language of someone who's used to simply being a boss, and not having to deal with people who hold onto their own preferences or demand that their individuality be recognized.

Gates also describes the previous fifty standards as a "cacophony," which is an interesting word choice. A cacophony is a big bunch of noise, disorderly. It's what you call the Rolling Stones if you'd rather listen to Bach. With this word, Gates is not suggesting that the previous standards were ineffective or bad or destructive-- he's just saying they were messy and bothersome. This is Cult of Order talk. This is demanding that all the pencils on every desk are lined up just so, not because there's any proof that it's more effective, but because the mess just makes his fingers itch and his head hurt.

And charters. He loves charters. Which-- more irony-- is an odd thing to be in favor of when your other goal is to make all schools essentially the same, anyway.


  1. Bill Gates is a very bright guy. Unfortunately he dropped out of college before he realized that everyone is not as bright as he is and he seems to have never come to this realization. Children, and adults, learn at different rates and in different ways. To impose a one size fits all program on real human beings is, simply, wrong. Even Alfred Binet knew this..

  2. There's a reason people in the cheap seats seem to care more than celebrities in the corporate suites.

    Peter Greene, thanks for expressing the care I see every day in the teachers in my building.

  3. "And charters. He loves charters. Which-- more irony-- is an odd thing to be in favor of when your other goal is to make all schools essentially the same, anyway."

    Could you explain that? It seems to me that's exactly what charters do - standardize. Or, at least, what they are doing, although I'd be the first to agree that that's not the way they were supposed to be. But all these charter chains that are replicating faster than cancer cells are all cookie cutter, "no excuses", "drill and kill" models that all use each other's "best practices". If I were to blindfold you and lead you into one, I doubt you could tell me whether you were in a Success Academy, a YES Prep, a KIPP school or a Rocketship school. Seems to me that charters and standardization go together like love and marriage and horse and carriage and all that stuff.

    1. I think Peter was referring to the original idea behind charters, that they would be "laboratories" that would work in concert with public school systems. With that understanding, there is irony.

  4. "Human children are not in school for the primary purpose of being fitted to become part of a larger whole."

    Isn't that the point of this demented process? Not to see how bright or how creative or how artistic or how tech savvy our kids can be if given the opportunity to soar, but to fit the worker standard once they've graduated from CC boot camp?

  5. What I find disturbing in the video is the fawning behavior the other two participants exhibit over King Bill, nodding in agreement and chuckling along with the sage. It's how we got in this fix.