Where Does Billionaire Monopolist Bill Gates Get Off Saying Bigger Class Size and Fewer Teachers Is the Education Solution?

News & Politics

Once dominant, now America is just average when it comes to education. Its public solution, recently communicated by Microsoft mogul Bill Gates? Increased class sizes, decreased teacher counts, fewer advanced degrees, and probably more mediocrity.

It's the type of technocratic cure-all one would expect Gates to champion, and it will doubtless perform as lamely as Microsoft, which currently hobbles at $30 a share while its more intuitive tech rivals like Apple and Google respectively hover around $200 to $600. But Gates' short-changing of the nation's education system is just another strain of neoconservative austerity going viral in our global village. And it's just as short-sighted as the disaster capitalism that destroyed America's economic integrity: Increasing America's class sizes and downsizing its teachers could cost us more than it could save us.

"Bringing the United States up to the average performance of Finland, the best-performing education system, could result in gains in the order of 103 trillion dollars," claimed the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's three-year Programme for International Student Assessment report released in December. Of course, those are just the numbers. The hypocrisy stings worse.

"The oligarchy making decisions for public-school kids -- like Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates -- send their own children to private schools with comparatively tiny class sizes of 15 or less, while many of the kids in the schools they impose their policies on have classes of 25, 30 or more," Leonie Haimson, executive director for the nonprofit educational watchdog Class Size Matters, told AlterNet. "New York City children are now suffering from the largest class sizes in early grades since 1999, despite billions more spent on education. And class sizes are expected to increase again next year."

Let them, Gates has argued. According to the New York Times and the Associated Press, both Gates and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's CEO Jeff Raikes have floated the theory that teachers trump class size when it comes to educational excellence. The jackpot comes when you reward effective teachers with higher pay, they argue, regardless of their seniority or advanced degrees. Which means, in the real world outside of the fuzzy jargon, rewarding those who can pass their students and satisfy technocrats hypnotized by what the American Federation of Teachers called "quickie observations or crude test-score calculations masquerading as teacher evaluations."

"For those of us who represent teachers on the frontlines, the issue is how this translates to the day-to-day realities of teaching kids," explained an AFT statement targeted at Gates' sales pitch, which has also been parroted by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in an ironically titled speech called "Bang for the Buck in Schooling." "What kind of future are we creating for our kids if education policies, however well-intentioned, result in larger classes and in teachers with less experience?"

One that is similar to the educational present, one would argue, only worse. According to the OECD, the United States is simply average in reading and science but below-average in math, not a good show for a declining empire convinced of its economic policies. With tax-cut compromises hammering Americans already besieged by a worsening unemployment nightmare, arguments over class size are trending toward class warfare. The United States already boasts the largest average class sizes outside of Asia, and those classes are inequitably distributed among the poor and people of color. Not a good show for the first African-American president in U.S. history, whose administration is looking to increase schools' storage capacity and hoping on a return on investment.

But if you follow the money, it leads to very rich people who have two sets of educational standards: One for their kids, and another for ours.

"They want to fire experienced teachers because they cost more, increase class size, and commit our kids to online learning -- none of which they would consider for their own children," said Haimson. "It is the height of hypocrisy."

The AFT quickly tore apart Gates and Duncan's core data. Their austerity measures were based on the fragile assumptions that teacher experience has little correlation to student achievement, postgraduate study is negligible, and that class size doesn't really matter. But experience is everything in any field, pay raises are primary when it comes to retaining hires, and the advanced study of one's field is what keeps you from being shamefully passed up by countries like snowy Finland when it comes to educational excellence.

AFT's own proposals were common-sense suggestions for lowered recession expectations: More funded preschooling to close the achievement gap between the rich and the poor, community-minded schools that also dispense career and degree counseling as well as medical care, and a shared responsibility for educational achievement with the parents, the state and its policies. AFT's research has shown that decreased class sizes result in more graduates, who generate net cost savings of $168,000 per student. Sounds like a smart-money suggestion for the body politic, rather than just the rich. So what's the problem?

"If class sizes in public schools increase, parents with resources may simply leave public schools, choosing charter schools and private schools in hopes of finding smaller classes for their children," the AFT said.

That argument seems to synchronize with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's education mission, which is "to ensure that all students graduate from high school ready for college and career and prepared to complete a postsecondary degree or certificate with value in the workplace." But it's hard to square that last promise with Gates and Duncan's argument that advanced degrees don't matter in the educational long run.

Much harder to reconcile its position on class size, when the Gates Foundation's small-school initiative in New York, which services 100 high-school students per grade, has resulted in increased graduation rates. That data came after a decade of experience, and hundreds of millions donated by the Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Open Society Institute and more. The Gates Foundation recently launched a nine-city partnership between local school districts and public charter schools, which together will probably discover that charter and private school students often outperform public school students because charter and private school classes are often smaller.

It's a no-brainer, wrote Haimson in "The 7 Myths of Class Size Reduction." "Studies from Tennessee, Wisconsin, and states throughout the country have demonstrated that students who are assigned to smaller classes in grades K-3rd do better in every way that can be measured," she explained. "They score higher on tests, receive better grades, and exhibit improved attendance."

So this debate isn't really about the data, or its correlations, but rather the money. Rather than raise taxes -- or even end tax-cuts for the rich, and inject some much-needed revenue into America's so-called economic recovery -- technocratic liberals and conservatives have opted to drive an ever-larger wedge between the haves and have-nots. The haves get corporate-funded charter schools with smaller classes, more graduates, and better returns on investment. The have-nots get holding pens for the poor. There's no data in the universe that would that argue this approach will best serve the public, just limited albeit powerful interest.

The true solutions to America's education nightmare, and its recession, are economically simple and have proven their experience. And they don't benefit just the rich, but us all. In order to truly compete in a global marketplace bypassing your fading empire, you have to share both the wins and the losses, standing united for all. Or else you'll end up losers.

"The solution is to reorganize the economy so the benefits of growth are more widely shared," explained economist Robert Reich. Exempt the first $20,000 of income from payroll taxes, and apply payroll taxes to incomes over $250,000. Extend Medicare to all. Extend the Earned Income Tax Credit all the way up through families earning $50,000. Make higher education free to families that now can't afford it. Rehire teachers."

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