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This Thursday and Friday, Dropout Nation takes a look at why defenders of traditional public education struggle against the intellectual, moral and political forces behind the nation’s school reform movement. Today, Contributing Editor Steve Peha — who straddles the fence between both sides — wonders why status quo defenders can’t offer their own compelling vision. Tomorrow, Editor and Publisher RiShawn Biddle will offer a few answers. Read, consider and offer your own thoughts.

People ask me a lot of questions about education. These days, people are asking, “What’s Bill Gates up to?” I think they want me to say, “No good!” But I don’t. Instead, I say something like this: “Bill Gates is doing the same thing he’s always done—trying to make the world a better place.” People hate this answer, but I believe it’s true.

Bill Gates is a smart man. Two things make him even smarter: he doesn’t worry about making mistakes and he doesn’t care what people think when he does. If it seems he’s playing a big part in the present evolution of American education, it’s probably because he doesn’t waste time fretting about the future or pouting about the past.

Perhaps it is precisely because of these qualities that so many people believe that he must have a hidden agenda—some intricate plot to realize a grand hegemonic dream of controlling American education from a Windows-based smartphone. But I think most of us mischaracterize him, his motivations, and his foundation. In the process, we miss an opportunity to be just as intelligent and influential.

What Would You Do?

What if you had big dollars, an agile mind, and a sincere desire to change your country’s education system? My hunch is that you’d study a lot, listen to experts you liked, speak and write about your ideas, and use your money and reputation to realize your vision of the way you think things should be. That’s certainly what I’d do; I think that’s what most people would do. And that’s exactly what Bill Gates is doing.

Furthermore, if you had created one of the largest and most successful businesses in the world, you’d probably apply many of the same business principles you’d been so successful with to education.

And because education is not a business, you might make some mistakes.

Your mistakes (along with your determination and efficient disregard of criticism) might make people nervous; they might think you were arrogant, narcissistic, or just uncaring. Such is the case with the way many people in education feel about Bill Gates. Many of us are nervous because he wields great power and influence, and because, in our opinion, he doesn’t always make good decisions.

No one in education, however, has a perfect batting average. So what it comes down to is how many times one gets up to the plate. Bill Gates gets up to the plate very often. His detractors, by contrast, are rarely even on the field, preferring instead to heckle from the stands.

Is it possible that one of the most successful entrepreneurs in American history might have a little more confidence in his own judgment than many of the rest of us do? Might that cause him to back a bad idea once in a while? Or to make inaccurate statements in important speeches? Or to fund dubious ideas simply because he can afford a trial and error approach? Like all entrepreneurs, Bill Gates often takes questionable but well-calculated risks. But this is hardly the stuff of Darth Vader.

Who Ya Gonna Trust?

Many people do not trust Bill Gates. They think he’s up to something. And they’re right—he’s up to changing American education. But to say he’s “up to” it is merely to say he’s got the courage to take strong positions and to back them up with strong actions.

Some of us may be losing sleep over this, but I can assure you that Bill Gates is not. Unlike many of us who wear ourselves out with worry, I imagine that Bill Gates bounds out of bed each morning bright-eyed and battle-ready.

Most of the time, most of us tend to trust the people we think are a lot like us. On many issues in education, I trust people like Anthony Cody and Richard Rothstein. Both of these men—Mr. Cody an educator; Mr. Rothstein a policy analyst—have published very successful disagreements with Bill Gates. They’re also not billionaires (as far as I know), so they’re a little easier for me to relate to.

But if they were billionaires would they be doing anything different than using their resources to promote their ideas about education to change it to fit the way they think it should be? And if one of them suddenly hit the PowerBall would it make sense for me to switch my allegiance to under-funded underdogs just because wealthy people sometimes make me nervous? [Addendum: During the editing process, a couple of paragraphs were inelegantly summed up in an earlier version of this piece for space considerations, stating that Mr. Cody was already advocating his ideas with other people’s money. This unfairly puts him in the same category as Rothstein, who, as an employee of a think tank, is doing so. Dropout Nation regrets that inelegant summation, which didn’t fully reflect Steve’s thoughts.]

Mr. Cody and Mr. Rothstein are people I admire greatly. I like to think that if most Americans understood what they had to say, and heard them say it regularly, their thought-leadership would drive the national dialog. In the game of ideas, both of these men—and many other sharp folks—easily beat Bill Gates in the game of edulogic.

While his detractors play their game from the grandstand, he plays the real game—up at bat taking his cuts at wicked sliders and fastballs so fast they make Stephen Strasburg look like a little leaguer. The best his critics can hope for is that he strikes out. But he’s smart enough to remember that even a .300 hitter can make the Hall of Fame. He also knows that heavy hitters who swing for the fences strike out a little more often than those who focus on singles and sacrifices.

The Secret Recipe

The secret recipe for serious change in America has always been more or less the same: well-articulated ideas backed by money brought to bear on important problems through constant exertions of power and influence. Bill Gates knows this recipe well. To many of the rest of us, it’s something of a mystery. Even if we do understand it, it still feels wrong somehow—like an injustice, or an affront to democracy, or sometimes merely distasteful. Much as I consider myself a passionate advocate for education reform, Bill Gates’ approach feels uncomfortable to me.

Fortunately, the secret recipe is not a secret. Anyone who has studied even a small amount of our nation’s history and politics knows it by heart. For good or ill, it’s simply the way we do things in America.

So why don’t the folks who are so concerned about Bill Gates use the same secret recipe he does? Why don’t they do the money, power, and influence thing? The Gates Foundation doesn’t really spend very much on education each year—only a few hundred million dollars. That’s nowhere near the largest part of their portfolio.

There are many people on, shall we say, the “progressive” side of life, who are just as smart and just as interested in education as Bill Gates. While perhaps not as individually wealthy, a group of these people could easily pony up the same kind of cash the Bill & Gates Foundation does for school reform. So why can’t we get George Soros involved? Or Arianna Huffington? Al Gore’s made a buck or two in the last decade or so, and I think his progressive bona fides are still intact.

And why does Bill Gates automatically get Bono on his side? Why didn’t we call him first? (Or at least get The Edge.) Did we forget to buy enough U2 albums? Or did we merely forget that one the world’s most enduringly popular rock stars is smart as a whip, socially aware, and probably committed to some of the same things we are? Sometimes I think that part of our problem is that our side doesn’t know how to use a Rolodex.

What about Spielberg? Beatty? Penn? Clooney? These guys have big hearts, big bank accounts, and progressive outlooks. Or how about John and Teresa Heinz-Kerry? Russell Simmons and Magic Johnson would surely have plenty to offer. There’s Jobs, Woz, Ellison, and the whole Silicon Valley crew. Sun Microsystems founder Scott McNealy could certainly be doing something more powerful than Curriki, and George Lucas could make a huge impact if he morphed Edutopia into something focused on defining high quality teaching.

Why can’t we pull folks like these together around our vision of a better education for every child?

For that matter, why is Michelle Rhee the only person beating the bushes for a billion dollars this year? She seems no more popular in many education circles than Bill Gates. Her record in education has certainly been less than perfect, and she’s said and written things far worse than any influential philanthropist. If she can find a million fans and raise a billion dollars, why can’t we?

Don’t think we’ve got the cash? Wrong. Teachers union dues, for example, amount to a far greater financial influence than that of Bill Gates; it’s just that unions don’t get very much for the money they spend because they tend to spend it on the wrong things. Instead of being angry with The Gates Foundation, why not create a foundation to counter its work in some constructive way that adds value to the national dialog?

There is no mystery about Bill Gates (or Michelle Rhee); there is nothing untoward that he is “up to”. He’s trying to do exactly the same thing we’re trying to do; he’s just mastered the game. The mystery is why we’re not stepping up to challenge him on the same playing field. Those of us who disagree with him may feel anxious and frustrated. We may impute sinister motives. But that doesn’t rock the vote as MTV likes to put it.

What we need is not more carping about Bill Gates, or Michelle Rhee, or TFA, or KIPP, or any of the other powerful and prominent entities with whom we may be uncomfortable. What we need are entities just as powerful making a different case for improving education in America—the case we believe in—by marshaling the same type of resources and influence.

In the end, the question isn’t, “What’s Bill Gates up to?” He’s just changing education in a way that matches his worldview using the strategies that work best in our culture. The real question is, “What are the rest of us up to? If what’s holding us back is some awkward sense that people just shouldn’t play this way, or that large scale education problems should be worked out differently than we work out every other kind of problem here in America, then we’ve got something much bigger to worry about than what Bill Gates is up to.

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