Bill Gates and education

The funny thing about computers is that, despite all of the time they save people, they really can’t help us make big decisions yet.  Peter Drucker made similar observations many years ago…starting with the famous quote “The computer is a moron”.  The computer crunches and shows you numbers really quickly.  It can show up that a graph is trending upwards.  But ask it *why* that graph is trending upwards, and you’ll be waiting a very long time.  Sometimes even people interpret the same things two different ways.  There are problems which are still very difficult for a computer to answer.

Given that computers can’t yet replace people at some decision making level, I often imagine the impact of better computing on the world in the following manner.

People in this world have certain high level decisions to make.  They also spend some associated time in supporting those decisions.  In effect, you can imagine the person (say, yourself) as the top of a pyramid.  Processes, software code, and physical infrastructure, like robots, form the body of the pyramid…a rigid structure of branching tasks that turn the decisions at the top into reality.  At the bottom, all the tasks getting done lie in sleepy repose.

As we develop our processes to be better and computers get more powerful, the pyramid gets bigger.  One person is doing more and more things.  Life is better and society improves as a whole.

The key thing about this model is that there is always a human being at the top.  We spend all this time and effort building this infrastructure, but, the simple fact is, none of these advances in productivity matter if you don’t have a good solid person at the wheel.  Until computers start thinking for us, people are important.  Heck, you might even say that they become more important, since the absolute amount of work that one person is getting done, or screwing up, continues to increase.

Which is why I was really glad to hear that Mr. Gates is making education one of his biggest priorities.  If you subscribe to the idea that everything fundamentally begins and ends with people, then building great people is the place to start.  In fact, you can imagine that very little else matters, because in the grand scheme of things, great people can fix a lot of things.

But of course, it gets me thinking.  Bill Gates is offering a lot of money.  Which is a good thing, if money is the problem.

Is money the problem?

We’ve doubled our education spending since 1971, adjusted for inflation.  Are schools 100% better?  Heck, are schools better, period?

Internationally, other countries continue to deal us the double whammy of spending significantly less on education while scoring significantly higher on comparative tests.  What does that mean?

It’s hard to look at these facts and say that money is the issue.  In fact, you might be able to point to the person asking for more money and make some sort of case that spending more money is hurting the United States, not helping.

I also have another mental model for evaluating the situation.  Would I want a great person with less money dealing with the problem of education?  Or a mediocre to bad person with more money?

Invariably, the answer is obvious.  Take the great person.  The wrong person in the wrong position will simply be throwing away more money with his decisions, no matter how much he is given.  Money has to come after great people, not before.

OK, so if this really isn’t about money, than what is it about?  And what is Bill supposed to do with all that green?  I think I’ll save that for another day.

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