Pop quiz: Is Bill Gates a) the savior of American public education or b) a cloistered billionaire who should stick to something simple like eradicating polio? Both views have proponents. There's Malcolm Gladwell's hero's tale in his book Outliers about the young Gates spending "10,000 hours" in computer labs honing the skills that would spawn one of the world's most important technology companies. And there's the counterpart: the standardized-test obsessive, the avatar of school privatization, the sworn enemy of teachers' unions. "We've gone far down the track of Bill Gates deciding how our children are going to be treated and educated," says Leonie Haimson, a parent-activist with the group Class Size Matters. "Parental rights are going to be meaningless because the richest and most powerful man in America is going to decide what is best for us."
Both notions are caricatures. When Fast Company sat down with Gates recently for an exclusive conversation, a more nuanced, portrait emerges. Gates is endearingly wonky—during a keynote speech at the South by Southwest conference, in March, he expressed his big goal for education in graph form—but his passion softens his technocratic impulses. Reserved at the start of our interview, he quickly warms up, bouncing one foot crossed over his knee and cracking a slight smile when he gets in a zinger.
"We're stuck at $600 billion a year," Gates notes wryly, referring to the annual amount spent on education in the United States nationwide. "We spend more money than anyone else. We should be able to at least match other countries [in outcome], if not renew the lead that we had historically."
Gates is as enamored of technology as he's always been, but is also now quick to stress the human side of education. "Allowing [teachers] to know where they're really good and where they're not," he says, "I might pick that as the first dream."
After almost two decades of pursuing improvements in U.S. education through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates maintains a sweeping and grand ambition. His goal for the next 20 years, he says, is to graduate roughly twice as many kids from college, move the United States up in the international rankings, and do so without spending more money. It's as if Gates wants to apply a version of Moore's law (in which the number of transistors that can fit on an integrated circuit double every two years) to education.
After his keynote speech, Gates met with Fast Company's Anya Kamenetz in the Crystal Room in Austin's Driskill Hotel. [Editor's note: Kamenetz was a Gates Foundation education grantee in 2011.] In a wide-ranging discussion, Gates laid out a broad vision of the future of education, the power of best practices, and how seeding the ed-tech ecosystem could help students and teachers both in the United States and around the globe.
Fast Company: What's the ultimate challenge in education?
Gates: In K-12, we're in an era where, unfortunately, we're not going to be able to increase the amount of resources, because state budgets are tight and medical costs are constantly increasing. So can we get more out of $600 billion a year? No Child Left Behind [the annual testing program started in 2002] let us know that we weren't doing very well. But it was fairly minor in terms of identifying particular ways of solving the problem.
Does the status quo lead to some doomsday scenario?
Well, we're kind of spoiled by being a leading country in the world. We'll have to get used to giving that up—if you're not training your workforce, you certainly don't have the most vibrant economy and you won't be able to afford a military that's stronger than all other countries' put together. In the long run, your human capital is your main base of competition. Your leading indicator of where you're going to be 20 years from now is how well you're doing in your education system.
Whatever we figure out, our example could be deeply influential. And if we don't get it right, other countries will move a lot more slowly [in modernizing their education systems]. Despite the things we're not the best at, we're still very much looked to for how tough societal problems can be solved, including that of equal opportunity.
During your SXSW speech, you held up a vial of the polio vaccine as an illustration of the power of innovation to solve a problem by redefining it. What's the big win in education that's similar in scope?
The foundation's biggest investment, even bigger than what we're doing to enable technology, is in creating a personnel system for K-12 teachers that lets the average teacher move up to be as good as the top quartile. Instead of just being in isolation and getting no feedback, you can be videotaped, you can have a peer evaluator advise you on your performance. When we combine that with student surveys and principals' feedback, we can help teachers learn from the best.
Another dream would be to revolutionize [student] self-assessment, so that in any area—math, psychology, economics, whatever—you could assess your skills and know what you may need to learn. The ideal there is creating a skills-based credential that is well trusted and well understood enough that employers view it as a true alternative to a degree. You could unbundle the idea of "Where did you get this knowledge?" from "What knowledge do you have?"
That would unleash unbelievable open innovation. We see it a little bit today, where a dropout can bring in a sample of computer code and say, "I wrote this code, why do you care what grades I got or whether I went to college?" But that's an extreme example.
Skills-based credentials would create a lot of transparency in higher education. You'd understand how much value schools add, so they can compete on that, as opposed to school-ranking algorithms that are about inputs, basically, and not about outputs.
The performance of independently run public charter schools has been mixed. Breaking up large schools into smaller ones has yielded few improvements. There is little robust data about the impact of laptops, tablets, and other technology on graduation rates or test scores. Do we know enough about what works and what doesn't to undertake large-scale interventions?
These are complex questions, in part because students are heterogeneous. What works for one student won't work for another.
I'll give you an example. The students who go to Western Governors University [an online, not-for-profit university that is on Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies list in 2013] are older, in their late twenties, early thirties. They have a career goal in mind. They are fairly motivated to finish, and the curriculum is very oriented toward credentialing them for a higher-income occupation. So the persistence you see in that self-selecting group is quite phenomenal. They have very low dropout rates. But you can't just say, "That course material and structure must work for all 18-year-olds." In fact, we know it absolutely does not. That population has a less clear idea of why they're at school, and they have other distractions.
Are we overrelying on standardized test data?
Measurement is always going to be a tough problem. There are some oversimplistic systems that people are asking to put in place right now. But we can make massive strides even with imperfect measurement systems. That doesn't mean just test scores; it means observing in the classroom and asking questions.
And there's another challenge: Even as your measurement gets better, you're never going to have total agreement on the goals. In a budget, how important is art versus music versus athletics versus computer programming? At the end of the day, some of those trade-offs will be made politically.
If we have a good personnel system and good technology, we'll be able to get a lot more for any amount of resources we put in.
You've said that when you were in high school, you followed your own interests, taking on independent study, working on computer programming day and night. Is there room for that kind of student-driven learning in a highly rigorous, metrics-based environment?
People who are as curious as I am will be fine in any system. For the self-motivated student, these are the golden days. I wish I was growing up now. I envy my son. If he and I are talking about something that we don't understand, we just watch videos and click on articles, and that feeds our discussion. Unfortunately, the highly curious student is a small percentage of the kids.
In general, the idea that you are tested on your ability to multiply and divide is a good thing. It's kind of like, should you teach phonics or just let kids not ever learn to read? Yet you can take these things too far. When people create a test in, say, art or music, that can distort the teaching. We don't think that's a good thing.
You mentioned that you like to watch Great Courses DVDs from the Teaching Company. Which ones?
It's a pretty long list! I highly recommend one called Big History [by David Christian], which is sort of the history of the world. Timothy Taylor on economics is phenomenal. The biology and meteorology courses are great. I'm easily at 80 of these things at this point. I'm an addict. I watch these on the treadmill. I have wireless headphones. Or when I'm traveling.
I've talked to a professor who teaches both with the Teaching Company and Coursera, the online course company [also on 2013's Most Innovative list]. He mentioned the wide quality disparity in school lectures.
That's one more goal: to revolutionize the lecture in terms of cost and quality. The idea that you can store video essentially for free should mean that anyone can watch the best lecturers in the world. Rather than a student getting one of 3,000 people across the country who try to teach beginning physics or statistics or remedial math, through a process of comparison, competition, and improvement, you get someone who is pretty special and has the budget to do something fantastic. Lectures should go from being like the family singing around the piano to high-quality concerts.
Very few of the MOOCs [massive open online course companies] offer as high a quality video as the Teaching Company. That doesn't mean they can't get there. Plus they add interactivity and peer learning. What you want is the best of each of those things. It's going to take some competition and measurement, and a feedback loop before we get it all. But it can be done.
[Photos by Melissa Golden]
A version of this article appeared in the May 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.