Yesterday Bill Gates -- one of the nation's leading education reform philanthropists -- delivered an address to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Over 90 percent of American school funding comes from states and localities. That means state legislatures are where education policy actually gets made, despite fireworks at the federal level. Let's take New York state as an example: Albany controls whether Mike Bloomberg's mayoral control of schools will continue. It decides how many charter schools can open in a year. After lobbying from the teachers' union, it prevented individual student test scores from being considered in the tenure-granting process for teachers.
So when Gates -- a proponent of merit pay, standardized testing, national curricula, and charter schools -- speaks to state lawmakers, he is appealing to the folks who can either empower or put the kibosh on his agenda. And in a nutshell, here is his statement on what that agenda is:
No factor advances student achievement more than an effective teacher. So a true reformer will be obsessed with one question: “What changes will improve the quality of teaching, so every student can have an effective teacher?”
Note that Gates is setting up a litmus test. This is why the "education wars" can get so nasty. Bill Gates is an absurdly wealthy computer scientist and businessman with a side interest in education policy. He happens to believe that data systems, merit pay, and charter schools are panaceas. Lots of people broadly agree, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. But other education experts are skeptical.
For example, yesterday the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, at Harvard Law School, released a short paper noting that research on charter schools has found, on aggregate, that they are no better and no worse than traditional public schools. Of course, a handful of elite charters have extraordinary success teaching poor kids, and are national models. But the majority of charter schools are mediocre and racially and socioeconomically segregated. Research shows such isolation is bad for kids, bad for society, and bad for getting good teachers in front of struggling kids. If we're going to expand the charter sector, the Institute suggests, why not also commit to integrating some charter schools?
Incentives to create charter schools that enroll students from several racially and economically distinct school districts – say, one city and several suburbs – could result in better schools that, as research suggests, are better equipped to reduce inequalities. Why not take what we have learned from the well-functioning charter schools and attempt to replicate that in desegregated settings?
Existing regional cross-enrollment programs between cities and suburbs are popular and have long waiting lists. Hartford, St. Louis, and Milwaukee offer good examples. And yet, Bill Gates never talks about integration.