Gates or Superman?

Bill Gates stole the show this week with his debut at the annual Aspen Ideas Festival. He appeared first in a cameo role in an advance screening of a forthcoming movie, “Waiting for Superman“. (No, he did not appear sporting a cape and red underpants, we are happy to say – and the movie did not actually argue that even metaphorically he is the Superman in question.) The movie is a powerful, and at times heartbreaking, call for the sort of reforms to America’s publicly-funded school system that Mr Gates is backing through his foundation, and is intended to help create the sort of public outcry and mass advocacy movement that is almost certainly needed if the long history of failure by education reformers in America is ever to end.

“Waiting for Superman”, which showcases icons of philanthrocapitalism such as Harlem Children’s Zone and KIPP charter schools, is the work of another of the philanthrocapitalists who we feature in the book: Jeff Skoll. His mission driven for-profit moviemaking company, Participant Media, has again backed the film-making duo responsible for the Oscar-winning climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”, and it is believed that a similarly large marketing budget has been allocated to try to turn school reform into a cinematic blockbuster. It deserves to succeed, but turning a worthy subject into a hit twice will take some doing.

Still, the movie has a villain from central casting that the audience can hiss at and boo: the teachers unions and especially the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten. The movie’s message, put simply, is that teachers are mostly great, and need to be appreciated more, whilst the unions, through their implacable opposition to the sort of high-performance charter schools that we now know can successfully educate poor kids, are the root of all evil.

Interestingly, in a discussion after the film, Mr Gates took a far more conciliatory approach towards the unions. He argued that Ms Weingarten has lately been willing to engage in some pilot schemes to assess teacher performance – previously a complete no-go area for the unions – with a view both to identifying and spreading best practice and to rewarding better teachers more generously and weeding out the worst performers. Mr Gates will even deliver a keynote speech to the American Federation of Teachers annual convention on July 10th, which may prove a lively audience. His message: studying and measuring the performance of teachers and allowing the resulting knowledge to influence best practice and staffing decisions, is essential if America’s schools are ever to be improved. And unless any system of performance measurement has the support of the majority of teachers, it is doomed to fail.

Mr Gates hopes that the pilot schemes will convince the majority of teachers that performance measurement and its consequences are an opportunity, not a threat. The heart-rending images in “Waiting for Superman” of young children realising that their dreams had been crushed by their failure to win in a lottery the few available places in charter schools make clear how important it is that Mr Gates is right.