To finish up with the AFT convention, I attended Bill Gates' speech.
There were a few protesters outside the entrance to the hall calling Gates a Trojan horse. I asked the AFT press area folks if leadership had said anything to members about the speech. They said that Randi Weingarten had said that AFT had a tradition of looking for speakers with different views. She also asked them to be respectful during the speech.
I sat through several discussions/votes on various resolutions (I missed the one they passed about teacher evalutions). It was pretty interesting and it felt very democratic. (There was quite the interesting discussion about whether children of illegal immigrants should have access to scholarships and loans.)
But finally, the lights went down and Randi was introducing Gates. She was very appreciative of him being there and pointed out that his foundation had given money for the AFT's Innovation project. She talked about teacher evaluations and "not making capable teachers afraid the results will be capricious".
(I stop here to point out the obvious. That ALL groups need money to sustain themselves and particularly, to do new work. That it puts AFT in the odd position of opposing many of the ideas the Gates Foundation has for public education while taking money from them.)
He got a standing ovation and audible boos. He just smiled. After it settled down and he began his speech about 50-60 people got up quietly and left. Some of the audience started chanting, "Nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, goodbye". I thought it a little disrespectful as those leaving said nothing and made a quiet statement. Bill Gates smiled and said, "Welcome to Seattle."
There was a lot of talk about public education being the top priority in the U.S. He did briefly mention charters. He said that public spending on education had doubled since 1973. He got big applause when he said reform would not succeed without teachers' agreement and input. He said it didn't mean that parents and principals did not have obligations; they do. They need to support the teachers as "great teachers are the most powerful point of leverage". He said it was important that the differences between an average school and a great school needs to shrink. He got some silence and boos when he said that tenure has to reflect more than the years as a teacher.
He said that no one can choose a world without change but he also applauded AFT's efforts.
He was calm, he was even charming. (He told a story about trying to teach his two children about science. He said he realized how hard teaching is although he joked that the parent/teacher conference was great.) He did acknowledge some of the mistakes the Foundation made. Most of the crowd ate it up. I was a little surprised at how people reacted but talking to some of them, most had no idea, before they heard him, anything about his feelings about public education.
I wondered how his speech at AFT differed from his one to a charter convention the week previous. Here's some of that speech:
When I speak about our foundation’s work in education one of the questions I get all the time and sometimes even in sort of an excusatory (sic) tone is, “Is it true that you support charter schools?” Well, I love that question because I like to answer, “Yes. We are guilty as charged.”
At the end of the day I asked one of the teachers what they liked about their work. And he said the key thing was that by teaching there he could be sure his students had…all teachers were effective…all teachers cared about that student and in the future grades, particularly there, where there was a charter high school that throughout their education everything that that teacher worked on would be reinforced and so that his hard work would end up making a difference in those students lives.
Charter schools are especially important right now because they are the only schools that have the full opportunity to innovate. The way we educate students in this country hasn’t changed in generations and it isn’t meeting the needs of today’s fast changing society.
I believe the seeds of that new approach are being sewn at your schools. We need the breakthroughs and your charters are showing that breakthroughs are possible. One area that’s particularly ripe right now is the use of technology in the classroom. So far technologies had a very modest effect despite pronouncements about TV or drill software, it hasn’t been integrated. But the possibilities are stronger than ever and I’m confident that there is a real opportunity here and charters can be at the forefront of this.
So charter schools and their ability to innovate are a key part of our foundation’s education strategy. Now the way that we’re working with charter schools has changed. I’m sure people have heard that the way we’re funding charter schools is different. And it’s true. We are looking at helping the charter movement in new ways. Over the last decade we invested in increasing the number of charter management organizations that had proven they could scale. Charter schools were still a new idea and it was very important that this idea of high quality replication really being proven out and so that we would have many significant large networks of successful schools. Now there are a number of those and they have got strong track records and it’s very important that we get both the government and local philanthropic support so that financial constraints are not holding back the expansion. When we have great charters that feel that they can develop additional capacity nothing should stand in the way of that—not charter limits, not facilities problems, not financial restrictions. And so given how important that is we will be strong advocates in helping in new ways. Certainly on the political front getting rid of the caps where there has been good progress, making sure the funding, which has not been equal that that is changed, and finally that there are facilities that are available and that doesn’t become this huge distraction and a problem that holds charters back.
I was very pleased to see the promise of having this three-year goal of reducing the number of these low performing charters in two target states by 30%. That is absolutely fantastic.
What strikes me is how he absolutely seems to believe that only charters can provide the change needed for public education. Secretary Duncan certainly did not say that. Also, how neatly technology manages to present itself in his vision. That works out well for Microsoft.