The challenges facing the U.S. education system may seem intractable, at times, but schools looking for inspiration could do worse than following the example of the iPhone, the Xbox, and baseball nerds.
That was one of the unexpected messages last night from Bill Gates as he returned to the Microsoft campus in Redmond — to the same room where he gave his 2008 farewell address to employees — to talk to technology leaders about strategies for using philanthropy to strengthen their own companies.
The comments about tech, sports, and education came when Gates was asked what the U.S. needs to do to become more competitive.
“The United States has amazing assets, including the willingness to be self-critical,” he responded, pointing out that the U.S. went through a “period of great humility” in the 1980s, after being surpassed by other countries in consumer electronics. The U.S. tech industry turned things around, he said, by investing in research and making big bets on the Internet and personal computers.
“Now whether it’s Xbox, iPhone, you name it, that kind of creativity shifted back the other way,” he said.
In the same way, he added, the United States “needs to be humble again” in other areas, as well. “The No. 1 thing, I think, has to do with education,” he said.
One key, in his view, will be measurement — the ability to understand and quantify the differences between good and bad teachers. He pointed to the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in this area, and talked about his belief that charter schools can help lead the way. As it is now, he said, it’s impossible to say for sure whether the teachers today are better or worse than the ones 30 years ago.
“Now, in sports, we can say that. The guys who stepped up to bat 30 years ago were not nearly as good,” he told the crowd. “The way they trained, the understanding of that is really good. For the important stuff, we’re really serious! I mean, our batters are just better today. Our long-jumpers, our pole-vaulters, we’ve got that stuff in really good shape. Incredible!”
Maybe it’s time to bring Sabermetrics into the classroom?