Bill Gates Tries the Dad Approach With Angry Teachers Union Members

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At the national American Federation of Teachers convention held in Seattle over the past week, union president Randi Weingarten acknowledged the anger many teachers feel over an education reform effort that is sweeping the country. She chastised what she called the "blame the teacher crowd," adding that she had never before seen such harsh criticism of the profession. Yet on Saturday, the man widely seen to be one of the key players in that reform effort--Bill Gates--addressed the convention.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has poured money into education experiments around the country. And as a Washington Post piece today suggests, Gates needs buy-in as he pushes the ideas du jour of his foundation and other reformers, including the Obama administration. One of the most talked-about notions: tying jobs and pay to teachers' performance rather than seniority.

Gates made his pitch to the 3,000 teachers at the convention in terms worthy of the best guilt-inducing parent. (See pdf of Gates' speech) If teachers fought just for better pay, etc., then they were fighting only for themselves. If they campaigned for the ideas he laid out, then "it's teachers fighting for students." He sweetened the pill with lavish praise for teachers and the respect he said they deserve.

If there was any group of teachers Gates had a chance of winning over, this was it. Despite its criticism of teacher-bashing within the reform movement, the AFT has sought to portray itself as an innovative partner in efforts to improve schools. In contrast, the National Education Association has often directly opposed reform efforts. (Teachers belong to either the NEA or the AFT depending on which umbrella group the union in their district is affiliated with. The Seattle Education Association, for instance, is part of the NEA.) The AFT, in fact, runs an "innovation fund" to support various projects around the country--a fund to which the Gates Foundation has donated $1 million.

Even before Gates delivered his speech on Saturday, convention participants ratified a proposal to support teacher evaluations based at least in part on student test scores. Just how this idea works its way into specific contracts with districts is still in play. The AFT has been criticized in the past for saying one thing and doing another.

Gates' speech went down well, garnering a few standing ovations. Yet he faced a reminder, too, of just how mad some teachers are as a few dozen in the room walked out on him.

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