Gates: Spending cuts don't have to harm learning

Even in the midst of large spending cuts, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said Monday that schools can improve the performance of students if they put more emphasis on rewarding excellent teaching and less emphasis on paying teachers based on seniority and whether they have a master's degree.

Gates will speak with the nation's governors in Washington later Monday as they confront deficits that will require them to make many difficult decisions over the coming months. In advance of the speech, he told The Associated Press that he's concerned that many states will reduce how much money goes to education. At the same time, he's convinced that spending cuts don't necessarily have to harm students.

One way to save money would be to get more students in front of the very best teachers. Those teachers would get paid more with the savings generated from having fewer teachers overall.

"There are people in the field who think class size is the only thing," Gates said. "But in fact, the dominant factor is having a great teacher in front of the classroom."

Gates still serves as the chairman of Microsoft's board of directors, but much of his time and considerable resources are devoted to improving the health of people in developing countries and to improving student performance in the United States. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working with school districts in six states on changing how teachers are evaluated. The evaluations include student surveys as well as video cameras that reinforce for teachers the most modern communication techniques.

Gates said the evaluation systems currently used to grade teachers too often give the vast majority of teachers the top rating. The problem with that system is that "the great teachers stayed great, but the average teachers remained average," he said.

Gates was asked to weigh in on events taking place in Wisconsin where workers belonging to unions, many of them teachers, are protesting efforts that would hurt their ability to negotiate labor contracts. In particular, would it be easier to improve schools if unions had less say in how resources are spent?

"We're not involved in those issues at all. No system is going to work unless teachers like it," Gates said.

He also noted that unions have been a partner with his foundation in the school districts where they are trying to change how teachers are evaluated.

Gates said the United States is still a worldwide leader in many aspects of its educational system, noting that its top universities are viewed as the top universities in the world. But there are too many areas where the system fails.

"The place where you really see the inequity is the inner city," he said.

Gates also said he's still confident about the economic future of the United States, even as other countries have gained or moved ahead on key measures of learning. He said the country will benefit from the innovation that takes place in those countries, even as they buy airplanes, software and pharmaceutical drugs from the United States.

"We shouldn't think about this like sports where one person wins and another person loses," Gates said.