Why Is Bill Gates Writing Code for a Coleco Adam?

Bill Gates is addressing the Council of Chief State School Officers today. According to the NYT, he’ll tell them to bite the bullet and start making sound budgetary decisions like rewarding teachers based on merit instead of time served, and not handing out raises simply for the trappings of higher learning, but rather for demonstrated prowess in the classroom. In principle, that’s good advice.

But it’s an ultimately futile effort, and here’s why:

Bill established himself early on as a pretty sharp computer programmer, and no doubt he still is. But there’s only so much you can do when the hardware you’re writing for is a pile of junk. Public schooling is the Coleco Adam of education systems.

The Adam was a pretty cute looking machine for its time (1983), but it had some fundamental flaws. Among other things, turning the power on or off had a habit of sending out electromagnetic pulses that fried the data on its storage tapes. Oops. Now a good programmer might figure how to mitigate the damage caused by that problem (I dunno, treat the two tapes as a RAID 1 array, maybe?), but then the machine also had its power-supply located in the mandatory (and noisy, and slow) printer that came with it. So if the printer had to be serviced, you were left with a paperweight. Hard to fix that one in software.

It’s the same with public schooling. By its very design, it lacks the freedoms and incentives that relentlessly allow and pressure executives to make sound decisions in the free enterprise sector of the economy. Bill’s a sharp corporate executive as well as a sharp programmer. He’ll no doubt give the state superintendents of public instruction some reasonable advice. And ultimately it won’t matter.

If they make great decisions, these execs will at best get a pat on the back. If they make terrible ones, it likely won’t affect their compensation or careers much, because millions of families have little choice but to send their children to the official state-run schools. Given the state-run system’s monopoly on $13k / pupil of tax funding, it’s hard for most parents to pay for a better quality education for their kids.

This is a systemic problem. Without the necessary freedoms and incentives, good decisions made today will eventually be supplanted with worse ones in the future because public schooling has no built-in mechanism to consistently encourage the good over the bad.

Bill, it’s a hardware problem.