January 30, 2013

School Choice Week 2013: open the Gates!

By School Choice Week 2013: open the Gates!

Bill Gates, writing on CNN today, argues that schools could be improved by adopting the “Measures for Effective Teaching,” a project that would “develop reliable measures to identify great teaching.” No doubt teachers, like everyone else in the world, can do their jobs well or badly, and should be subject to some kind of evaluation and measurement in their performance in order to weed out the bad and encourage the good. But merely measuring progress is not enough. We can all measure the progress of the Titanic as it sinks, or the Freedom Tower as it rises. The real question is, what can we do about those measurements?

Unless people can choose to remove their children from classrooms overseen by ineffective teachers and place their children with good teachers, mere measurements will accomplish little. School choice programs, which empower parents rather than bureaucrats to decide where to send students, give them that power. Yet, sadly, Bill Gates has long refused to promote school choice, satisfying himself instead with well-intentioned, but often empty policy proposals.

And although measurements are a good idea in the abstract, they don’t necessarily result in better service, because there are all sorts of different things that different people need from teachers. A teacher whose style is great for me—like my ninth grade English teacher, Mr. McCafferty—may not be great for other students. Like any other practitioners of any other service—lawyers, doctors, cooks, or software designers—there are a lot of different factors that go into the question of whether a teacher is good or bad at his job. That’s why we allow people to choose what lawyers, doctors, cooks, or software companies to do business with. Why not teachers, Mr. Gates? Would measuring Microsoft’s progress have been enough to make it an effective company, without the competition to pressure your company into improving? Wasn’t the customer’s freedom to choose the real key to your performance?

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