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a dream deferred?

A Discussion on Education at the National Urban League


Prepared Remarks by Bill Gates

Thank you, Marc.  Thank you all for the privilege of joining you.  The National Urban League has spent 100 years urging America to live up to its promise of equal opportunity. It’s an honor to be part of your conversation.

It will be a special honor, in a few moments, to sit down and talk with my cousin – Skip Gates.  In case you need help telling us apart – he is the Harvard professor, and I am the Harvard dropout.

We all come to this hall from different paths, but I believe we share the same values and the same goals. Every human being has equal worth. Everyone deserves to live a healthy and productive life. Success shouldn’t depend on the race or income of your parents.

Equity has been the driving ideal of our foundation from the beginning.  It’s a test we apply to every grant – here in the United States and around the world.  Equity is a value I learned from my parents. My mom and dad were both dedicated to community service. When I was a young boy, my mom was active in the United Way – and I’d listen as she and my dad talked about how to do the most with that money to give everyone a chance.

Melinda and I faced similar questions as we started our giving. What is the key inequity in this country? What is the pivotal issue for the future? For us, the answer is education. Education is the great equalizer.

Yet perversely, the great equalizer in America is stained with inequality. Our public schools range from outstanding to outrageous. And where a child’s school is located on that spectrum is a matter of luck – where you live, when you were born, who your parents are. There is already enough in life that depends on luck. When it comes to education, we should replace luck with equity.

This is a view that began coming to Melinda and to me nearly 20 years ago – when we were both at Microsoft.

The highest ideal of the computer revolution was access – giving ordinary people knowledge and power that only large organizations had. When I was a kid, I had to sneak into a building at the University of Washington after midnight to get time on a computer. Today, millions of kids have computers in school and at home. Personal computing was a breakthrough. But breakthroughs change lives only where people can afford to buy them, and computers can get awfully cheap and still leave a lot of people without.

If some people have the latest advances others don’t, it aggravates inequality, and makes things worse. When Melinda and I started to see the outlines of the digital divide, we established a library program to help confront it. We worked with all 50 states and wired 11,000 public libraries with computers and internet access. By the time we were done – if you could get to a public library in America, you could get on the Internet.

On our trips to public libraries, we traveled with Bill Gray, then head of the United Negro College Fund. We talked to him about the difficulties African Americans face in education. The guidance we got from Bill and others prompted us to make the first major gift of our foundation: a billion dollars for higher education scholarships, to be distributed through the UNCF.

Our gift came during a time of attack on affirmative action, and it prompted one magazine to run a sarcastic article, titled: “A Billion Dollars is a Terrible Thing to Waste” …. We’ve since expanded the grant to almost two billion.

Of course, these scholarships go to the more fortunate students – the ones who got an excellent high school education and are ready to succeed in college or graduate school. But there are millions of students who never went to a good school or had a great teacher, and never made it to graduation. What about them?

When it comes to education – we know ‘what happens to a dream deferred.’

It becomes a nightmare.

So we began to work in high schools, especially in poor communities with large populations of students of color – to help every child graduate prepared for college. After we got started, we funded a study and found out that things were even worse than we thought. States were manipulating the numbers to hide the problem. They were defining dropouts as students who started senior year and didn’t graduate. They weren’t counting the millions of students who never even made it to senior year.

The State of California said its dropout rate was below 3 percent, but the actual percentage of African American students who didn’t graduate was more than 40 percent. When you think of the young men and women silently erased from the record – it’s nauseating.

States got away with the phony numbers because so many people just didn’t want to face the issue. They knew if there were huge numbers of dropouts, they would be forced to pick an explanation: either poor students can’t learn, or schools aren’t doing a good enough job.

Let me acknowledge that I don’t understand in a personal way the challenges that poverty creates for families and schools and teachers. I don’t ever want to minimize it. Poverty is a terrible obstacle. But we can’t let it be an excuse. Melinda and I have been involved in some remarkable schools that prove that all students can succeed. We know you can have a good school in a poor neighborhood. We’ve seen them and been inspired by them, and so have you.

So let’s end the myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education.

It’s the other way around. Improving education is one of the best ways to solve poverty.

The first step in reforming anything is to find out where that thing is being done well – and why. When our foundation studied the highest-achieving schools, especially the schools where poor children were doing well, we found mounting evidence that the single most important factor in a successful school is effective teaching. Data now show that students with great teachers learn three times as much material in one year as students with ineffective teachers.

The impact of the teacher is pivotal. BUT – that does not mean that parents, principals and administrators have fewer obligations. It means they have greater obligations … to support teachers -- to provide them with the training and the college-ready curriculum and the resources they need to help their students.

To truly support teachers, we have to understand excellent teaching. 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 research in this area. It knew the impact of effective teaching, but it didn’t know what made teaching effective. This gap in knowledge was disappointing, but at the same time it made me optimistic – because it confirmed that the field was now onto something that had been missed.

So our foundation is working with teachers to identify measures of effective teaching – and then develop ways to evaluate teachers that teachers themselves believe are fair.

Then – and this is the key shift – we are working to take these insights and use them to develop a teacher personnel system that can identify the top performers, capture their best practices, and give all teachers feedback that helps them improve.

We’d like to see this kind of personnel system put in place in school districts across the country.

This is the focus of our work. We’re doing it with teachers, administrators, school board members, state policy makers. And we’re especially excited to be working with the Urban League.

Because Melinda and I believe that education is a civil right.

Late last year, Melinda and I went to Memphis to visit some of the schools that are involved in our work. When we were there, we went to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. We were guided by Reverend Billy Kyles, who was with Dr. King that day in 1968. When I walked through the Museum, I saw evidence of all the progress made since Dr. King died – in voting and housing and employment and public accommodations. But I thought: we may have made the least progress in the area that today matters most.

Education may be the hardest civil rights fight of all. Discrimination is harder to prove, and people often don’t know what levers to pull to fix the problem. I know from my perspective, school reform is a hard cause to communicate. I’m inspired by the leaders who do it well.

When I was in Memphis, I met a woman named Tomeka Hart. She is a civic leader, and member of the school board, and the President of the Memphis Urban League. She talked to me about the racial history of the Memphis schools, outlining the obstacles that stand in the way of improvement. She is a strong backer of reform, including our foundation’s teacher initiatives, but she was candid about the challenges.

She said that there was pushback, and that she and other school board members were taking a beating in the community. But they took on the challenge of making sure people had information and understood the reason for change. Now they have widespread community support, because Ms. Hart and her colleagues had the skill and passion to make the case.

That’s what Tomeka Hart and the Urban League are doing in Memphis. That’s what Esther Bush and the Urban League are doing in Pittsburgh. That’s what Warren Logan and the Urban League are doing in Chattanooga.

These are civil rights leaders for the 21st century.

We are proud to be your partners. I believe school change depends on you in the Urban League – and your brother and sister civil rights organizations like the Leadership Conference and NALEO [nah-LAY-oh]. The best school reform ideas in the world won’t make their full impact unless you’re on the ground arguing for change.

We need activists who can turn frustrated parents into informed protestors. We need communities who will stand in the schoolhouse door—not to keep people from coming in, but to keep students from dropping out. And we need students to understand that twelve years of school today is not enough; every student needs a meaningful credential beyond high school.

Higher education is crucial for jobs. I was studying some of the graphs and charts in the Urban League’s State of Black America report, and the statistics on labor participation caught my attention. Overall, black participation in the labor force is below white participation—but the gap comes exclusively from the large number of black students who never finish high school. Once they have graduated high school, African Americans on average do just as well—or better than—whites.

Education is the great equalizer. But to get that equality, they have to GET that education. That’s what will “put urban America back to work.”

We need everyone pushing for change – especially parents. It’s a lot to ask a busy parent. A lot of them are going to think: I don’t have time to fix America’s schools; I’m trying to get my child to pass Algebra. But there is one answer to both worries – support effective teaching. If parents push for this one thing, it can affect everything. This is where school reform and parent involvement and student performance and civil rights all come together. Teaching is the nerve center of the whole system.

If we can mobilize parents to push for and support good teachers for their children, we will finally get the political weight we need to change the way things are...

I know the Urban League can help lead the way. 


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