These days the world's richest man, Bill Gates, is well known for his charity work, particularly fighting polio and stamping out poverty around the world.
In the United States, he's working on a really hard problem: improving our schools. He feels our schools are "failing," he said during an interview on Thursday in Washington, D.C., at economic think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.
This failure is "the greatest cause" of income inequity in the U.S. while also posing "the greatest challenge to America’s continued leadership in innovation," he says.
Yet, unlike eradicating polio or eliminating world poverty, he's less confident that he can solve this problem because its not just a matter of spending more money per student, or inventing new technology. It's all about the teachers.
For instance, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation did one experiment with schools that it labeled a failure. It created a smaller high school of 400 students, rather than the typical school that has 1,500 students or more.
The small school has a lot of good results: better attendance, less violence and 15 percent more kids graduated. But it didn't actually help the kids learn more, he says.
That helped him understand that good schools really come down to one thing: good teachers. And turning so-so teachers into good ones came down to one thing: teacher training.
Teachers get almost no feedback. They get almost no sense of, OK, I’m good at this and I should share that with other people. I’m not very good at this, and therefore I should learn from other people.
So the foundation is investing in technology for that, particularly video analysis. It took 20,000 hours of classroom video to study the traits that make a good teacher, Gates said.
Technology is coming along in terms of taking the classroom video, and ... sharing it, having people commenting on it, delivering personalized learning to your kids so that you can assess where each of them are and tune lessons according to what they’re having the challenge with.
The foundation's latest experiment is a system called "peer evaluators" where measurably good teachers give feedback to other educators. And this time, the experiment is working well, Gates says.
Now the biggest problem is persuading school districts to try it.
"When we invented the malaria vaccine, no school board gets to vote to uninvent it," he quipped, but "if you make an advance on personnel system" schools could choose to ignore it and make it disappear.
Here's Gates discussing teacher effectiveness:
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