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The importance of teachers in education

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, co-founder and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: It's been a busy day for the nation's governors. Not only did they have that session with the president this morning about their budget problems and what to do about the health care law, they had to sit though a session on education policy as well and what to do about public education when there's not enough money to go around.

The guy giving the speech runs an outfit that does have money to go around. In fact, that's why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation exists. Bill Gates says he's speaking out now because education is the key issue facing the country. Bill Gates, welcome to the program.

Bill Gates: Great to be here.

Ryssdal: So think about this for me as the businessman you were for so long instead of a guy running a really big foundation and answer this question: For all the billions of dollars that we have spent fixing our school for the past 20, 30 years, what have we actually bought? What have we got?

Gates: Well our achievement has been pretty flat while other countries have managed to improve their achievement. And so now what we're going to have to do is get better performance. Now fortunately there's two things I think can help us achieve that. One is by looking at what the great teachers do and transferring those skills. And the second is using some technology to help students who fall behind get some personalized learning. That's a new capability that works in our favor.

Ryssdal: Well let me pick up on that technology comment of yours. You have been talking for a long time -- a generation probably now or more -- about the prospect of technology as a positive force for change, and yet education by most measures seems to be resistant to that. Tell me how get education to adapt technology, not just in the classroom, but systemically.

Gates: Well you have to have a willingness to do pilot programs. The questions of when you have a kid who's behind in math, identifying exactly what they're missing and drilling in on that, we haven't incorporated that into the education system and yet I think a lot of the charter schools are doing that. Some high schools are working with people like... to see how they can mix classroom learning and online learning and get the best of both of those things.

Ryssdal: I was struck by one of the things in your speech today about class size. You seem not to be a fan of spending a lot of money to get fewer kids in a classroom, which I suppose from a financial standpoint makes a lot of sense, but how do you defend that point to a parent with a fourth grader in a class full of 35 to 40 kids?

Gates: Well no one is talking about running the class sizes up to 40 or anything like that, but the investment that counts the most is making sure you have a great teacher. If we didn't have these budget constraints, then it'd be great to invest in both effective teaching and continuing to reduce class size. But now that we have the challenges, our point is that we really ought to deal with the variable that matters the most and if you ask teachers for a little additional pay, would you be willing to teach a somewhat larger class size, they say yes, and if you do that with the effective teachers, then everyone is better off.

Ryssdal: You realize, though, that there districts in this country -- many of them -- with 35 or 40 kids in a class?

Gates: Yeah. And once you get up in those ranges, then you're not investing enough in education. And what we're being asked is as people are having tough trade offs, what is the highest priority? And helping teachers be more effective, we'd put at the top of the list.

Ryssdal: OK. So how do you get better and more effective teachers because that was a large part of your speech today. You have talked before about tracking the best teacher genome. I mean, how do you make this happen?

Gates: Today teachers are given almost no feedback. The amount of time that goes into helping to evaluate them, telling them areas they should improve in, is just very different than most professions. And so we've engaged in pilot projects with a number of districts around the country where the teachers, the teachers' union, the superintendents are all involved in running a personnel system that identifies these amazing teachers and helps them spread what they do to the other teachers.

Ryssdal: Bill Gates, he's the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which, we ought to say, financially supports the education reporting here on this broadcast. Mr. Gates, thanks very much for your time.

Gates: Thank you.

Ryssdal: If you want to check out the presentation Bill Gates made to the nation's governors today, check out this link.

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