Bill Gates, are you serious?

Bill Gates has spoken about education. Speaking principally about the US education he speaks of his dream about good teaching:

“you can take that top 10% and have them help the others to get best practices, the best teaching ideas to spread over the country”.

It sounds great! Spreading best practice works in business, and surely this is a great idea that should be adopted.
The problem is teaching is not the same as a business process.

  1. Best practice is not always transferable

A teacher working in a deprived area has a very different job to a teacher working in a Grammar school in a leafy suburb in the UK. The job is very different, in terms of the information presented, format but also the expected achievement of the students. Much of teaching is getting students to follow you and understand the content on a personal level. How can you spread this as best practice? There are elements of acting in teaching so should we get drama students to watch Nicolas cage (who is in the top 10% of actors) to learn how to emote? That is, clearly not going to work as although Nicolas Cage is a famous actor, he cannot act.

  1. The assumption that the 90% need to improve

An outstanding inspirational teacher can help a student in areas outside their subject, but may not deliver the best results within their subject. How do we measure the extra that the best teachers give? The 90% set the environment in the school for the 10% – a teacher great at discipline gives the next teacher in the day a settled class ready to learn. They may not be measured as the top 10%, but are essential for the running and discipline of the school.

  1. The measurement problem – we don’t know that the 10% is better than the 90% in We don’t know what a good teacher looks like in terms of exam grades.

Students are often measured by their ability by a previous teacher, or school. Secondary schools rely on data given to them about students when they are 11, and measure their exam performance when they are 18 against this data. This data is frequently inaccurate when the student is 11, but also this data can go out of date over time.

So: Can you come up with a better strategy?

Let us have a look at some of the best educational systems in the world.

Finland routinely tops global rankings, and there a number of ways that they achieve this


Teachers in Finland are well respected and paid. The best graduates consider being teachers. This is actually more like successful businesses, where the best companies consider recruitment and retention to be essential to their organisation. In both the UK and the US it can be argued that teaching is a second-class graduate destination, and certainly the salary does not support the best graduates joining the profession. Teach First attempted to attract the best talent, but the clue is in the name – Teach First means that the graduates are expected to teach as a young graduate before they embark on another career, taking any expertise with them. Teach First graduates have higher recruitment costs,  inevitably lost long-term as those teachers leave.

As an alternative could look (as is commonly done) in Shanghai


Shanghai is effectively a city-state run as an SAR by the Chinese government, but it should be clear that Shanghai is clearly part of mainland China. The difference between the west and China is that students respect teachers, and are taught to from a very young age. A poor test score commonly means a student is physically assaulted by their parents. Students are taught to never question a teachers knowledge, even if a teacher makes a mistake.

To copy this strategy would require a cultural change in the society in the US or UK. In another Chinese-influenced state Singaporean students are put under incredible stress to achieve high grades (although since suicide is illegal it is difficult to measure the most drastic solution students may take)



We have to change something, and although money is tight underpaying teachers means that we are not getting the very best to be  teachers. Certainly easier than changing societal norms..