BOSTON — Among the many prominent thinkers attending the Urban League’s annual conference Thursday, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates made his case for focusing on teachers.
One of the nation’s oldest civil rights groups, the Urban League, is holding its annual conference in Boston this week.
Much of the conference focused on education Thursday — specifically, the persistent achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white counterparts.
Gates has been in the education reform game for a while, pouring billions of dollars into scholarships, research and trying to improve public schools. Gates said there have been advances on most other civil rights issues, but not much progress on education.
“Education may be the hardest civil rights fight of all,” Gates said. “Discrimination is harder to prove and people often don’t know what levers to pull to fix the problem.”
Gates has been looking for the right levers for years and has made some mistakes. He poured approximately $2 billion into breaking large high schools into small schools, believing that students would get more attention. Two years ago, he acknowledged this wasn’t the panacea he had hoped for.
Now, Gates is focused on teachers.
“To truly support teachers, we have to understand excellent teaching,” Gates said. “So for us, the challenge became, let’s analyze the teachers whose students are making the biggest gains, identify what they do and figure out how to transfer those skills to others. Amazingly, we found that the field of education had done little work or research in this area.”
So, Gates is funding research to determine what makes a good teacher and effective ways of measuring them. After his speech, the Microsoft founder answered questions from Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“You called education the civil rights issue of our time,” Henry Louis Gates said. “Yet there are many people — including people in this audience — who would argue that other structural issues, Bill, like poverty, fair housing, stable employment [that] must be tackled before we can expect to see different educational outcomes in low income communities and among children of color.”
While Bill Gates acknowledged that education isn’t the only problem, he maintained that addressing educational issues should be a priority. He also said that there are tangible solutions to the achievement gap.
“I think it’s very helpful when you get discouraged about this effort to go and spend a day to look at these charter schools that have changed the rules,” Bill Gates said. “It’s not about throwing money at the problem, it’s about the way the teachers are picked, it’s about the way the teachers are encouraged, it’s about the culture of the school, the high expectations.”
Critics of charter schools say they do not educate the broad range of kids in the public system. Still, collaborations between charter schools and more traditional schools, including some in Boston, show that public school educators are interested in learning how charter schools work.