Mr Ed Opens the Gates

Eli Broad and Bill Gates plan to spend $60 million on moving schools up the US political agenda. Here’s what the NYT has to say about it.

Under the slogan “Ed in ’08,” the project, called Strong American Schools, will include television and radio advertising in battleground states, an Internet-driven appeal for volunteers and a national network of operatives in both parties.

“I have reached the conclusion as has the Gates foundation, which has done good things also, that all we’re doing is incremental,” said Mr. Broad, the billionaire who founded SunAmerica Inc. and KB Home and who has long been a prodigious donor to Democrats. “If we really want to get the job done, we have got to wake up the American people that we have got a real problem and we need real reform.”

Mr. Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, responding to questions by e-mail, wrote, “The lack of political and public will is a significant barrier to making dramatic improvements in school and student performance.”

The project will not endorse candidates — indeed, it is illegal to do so as a charitable group — but will instead focus on three main areas: a call for stronger, more consistent curriculum standards nationwide; lengthening the school day and year; and improving teacher quality through merit pay and other measures.

While the effort is shying away from some of the most polarizing topics in education, like vouchers, charter schools and racial integration, there is still room for it to spark vigorous debate. Advocating merit pay to reward high-quality teaching could force Democratic candidates to take a stand typically opposed by the teachers unions who are their strong supporters.

I’m interested in merit pay, though more sceptical about longer school days and standardised curricula. But regardless of the particular policy proposals they choose, a serious push to improve the educational achievement of low-income Americans is long-overdue.

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2 Responses to Mr Ed Opens the Gates

  1. ChrisPer says:

    Ah, this is so misguided. Merit pay will never improve a non-merit work culture. I know many teachers, and grew up with my mum marking assignments among the family business of the evening. There is plenty of merit in teachers, but the academic culture is pure axe-grinding PC and that destroys the possibility of systematic improvement.

    Interesting how vehemently the US school system is condemned by parents, too. As a parent in good Australian state schools, I have been pretty pleased with 75% of everything they have done for my kids – and powerfully impressed with another 20%. I have never seen any Australian parent say the things that those threatened with the US system have. (Except about outcomes-based education, that is!)

  2. Christine says:

    Re the longer school day: just switched my 5 year old’s swimming lessons from 5.45pm to 4.30pm. His attitude switched from screaming every class to having a ball.

    Alright, so more experienced parents might legitimately have questioned my sanity in even trying for a 5.45pm swimming class, and they’d have been right, but I’m still learning.

    But after that, I doubt I’d be up for longer school days without really really strong (non-anecdotal!) evidence that they achieve something useful. I see that tends to be the consensus last time this possibility was raised, too.

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