An Interview with Bruce D. Price: Some Thoughts on Bill Gates, Education and Influence

Jul 2, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
  1. Bruce about 4 years ago, you wrote ” An Open Letter to Bill Gates About Education”….what was it all about ?
In 2007, Bill Gates helped prepare a report on American productivity. The report concluded that public schools are so bad they are a threat to the economy. I was tremendously impressed by this directness. We need that. Unfortunately, the report went on to suggest scores of small fixes, not the radical reform we need. Bill Gates seemed to think that our Education Establishment would listen to him, that it would be enough if he made smart suggestions. I argued that he underestimated the rigidity and anti-intellectualism of our Education Establishment. They have been, according to many observers, leveling our public schools for 75 years. Dumbing-down is another name for leveling. Are our elite educators suddenly going to change their stripes because Bill Gates says they should?
2) Four years have passed- has education gotten better, worse or stayed the same ?
The Gates productivity report merely seconded what the “Nation at Risk” report said back in 1983: the public schools are so bad they seem to constitute an attack by a hostile foreign government. In short, nothing’s getting better, perhaps the opposite. I think of our Education Establishment as an obstinate cult. Ever since John Dewey and his followers took over education in the 1920s, they have consistently pushed what is called “progressive education.” Here’s what that really means. John Dewey wanted to use the public schools to create a new kind of citizens, people who would accept a new kind of country. A socialist country. “Progressive” was always code for “socialist.” People obsessed with social engineering simply don’t care whether kids can find Alaska on a map.
3) You have written extensively about education- So- Common Core—Good, Bad or Rotten to the Core?
Who is creating this stuff? The same people who created the schools that Bill Gates, a few years earlier, condemned in death-of-a-nation terms. Why would anyone trust these people to do a good job? Second, the last thing we need is more power concentrated in Washington, D.C. States and communities should be in charge of education. Third, I’m afraid the Education Establishment will use a web of standards, assessments, and alignments to make everything uniform and, inevitably, worse. Aren’t we better off with independent private schools, dynamic charter schools of many kinds, robust homeschooling, and much better public schools across the board? To get that, we need diversity, choice, competition, and experimentation.
4) Now, details—-there are a lot of different theories about what is wrong with education.  Your take ?
I believe that most of the administrative, financial and cultural issues usually discussed are secondary. The big problems are not on the surface, they’re down in what might be called education’s intellectual machinery. That’s where you find the theories and methods that the professors of education have concocted. Computer programmers coined the phrase “garbage in, garbage out,” which pretty well describes our dilemma. Virtually every important method used in the public schools is defective. Whole Word makes children illiterate. Reform Math keeps children from mastering and appreciating mathematics. Constructivism is a slow inefficient way to teach anything. I could take you through the whole range of counter-productive theories and methods. They should be eliminated. (Simply ask the 50 best private schools what they are doing, and copy that. You’ll be in much better shape.)
5) Teaching is a tough job- How are teachers supposed to keep up with ever changing technology, and increasing numbers of students with various exceptionalities—eg. V.I., H.I., ADD,LD,ED, BD, CP, CF, OHI etc ?
I always say that public education has three sets of victims: students, parents, and teachers. I don’t discuss teachers very much because I don’t blame anything on them. They are caught up in the machinery and I feel sorry for them. They are like soldiers in the army; they don’t have much power. I’m interested in the generals in the Pentagon, so to speak. They are the problem.
6) Bill Gates has been donating some money to education—tax write off or sincere effort to improve education?
I don’t know what’s in his mind. My sense is that he has not used his power to maximum advantage. Last month I published a follow-up piece called “Bill Gates Is Too Trusting.” The thesis was that he took the ed professors at face value. He assumed they wanted what he wanted: better education. Where’s the evidence for that? I proposed he go around them, and have his foundation set up teams to create better curricula in reading, math, and so on through the other subjects. He could displace all the junk that’s out there now and rescue the country. Only someone with his prestige and organizational skills could do this.
7) Computer, lap tops, ipads, iphones etc—will any of these truly help students to learn?
I would like to see every trick, digital and otherwise, used to make education more exciting and productive. That’s not the same thing as saying we should have all these devices in the classroom disrupting students. School should be as orderly as possible; students should have a sense that school is a serious place.  Nothing, however, is out of bounds when it comes to making the learning process itself faster and more successful. In that process, fun and games are invaluable. In my dream school, kids are learning like crazy but they experience it as pleasurable.
8) You say many theories and methods are dysfunctional. How do they survive?
This is one of the most striking things about our educational situation. The Education Establishment contrives to keep every idea in play – good, bad, and ugly. You never see any systematic testing of one idea against another. What you see instead is that in any discussion with ten people, six theories are being expounded and defended. Which means a vast waste of time and energy. We’re drowning in a swamp of sophistry. All this confusion provides cover for bad ideas, old and new. So we never make any progress.
9) What’s the most important thing to fix first?
Reading, absolutely. Rudolf Flesch explained everything in “Why Johnny Can’t Read” almost 60 years ago. But our Education Establishment set up the International Reading Association to bash Flesch and to persuade parents that children can learn to read by memorizing English words as graphic designs. Preposterous. With phonics, nearly every child learns to read in the first grade. That is the minimal acceptable standard. Parents must insist on it.
10) In a few words, what is your educational philosophy?
Nothing grandiose. I think you could build excellent schools on two simple principles: facts are fun and knowledge is power. Unfortunately, the Education Establishment believes that facts are boring and knowledge is a waste of time. Naturally, they create mediocre schools. It’s wonderful news that Classical academies are springing up; they use ideas developed by Greek and Roman educators. More good news is that E. D. Hirsch is extending his Core Knowledge curriculum to every grade. Merge Classical and Hirsch, you couldn’t go wrong! Bottom line, the brain is wired to learn. Children want to learn. Start there.
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