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Originally published July 10, 2010 at 6:56 PM | Page modified July 10, 2010 at 11:31 PM

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Bill Gates wins teachers' applause

Rowdy delegates to a national teachers convention Saturday gave several standing ovations to Bill Gates, whose billions in foundation grants for experimental-education-overhaul efforts over more than a decade have sparked widespread controversy and debate.

Seattle Times Snohomish County reporter

Rowdy delegates to a national teachers convention Saturday gave several standing ovations to Bill Gates, whose billions in foundation grants for experimental-education-overhaul efforts over more than a decade have sparked widespread controversy and debate.

There were scattered boos and hisses among the 3,400 attendees at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) convention in Seattle, and a small group of dissident teachers walked out on Gates' speech, but many at the Washington State Convention Center seemed to welcome the Microsoft co-founder's message that teachers must be partners in any efforts to improve student achievement.

"If reforms aren't shaped by teachers' knowledge and experience, they're not going to succeed," Gates told the delegates.

Randi Weingarten, AFT president, said she welcomed the dialogue with Gates, whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has led efforts to improve education, including charter schools, which while public are largely nonunion and run by autonomous management organizations.

Teachers have also been critical of Gates' support for linking teacher pay to classroom performance.

"We may disagree on how to define student achievement and student learning, but there's tremendous consistency in recognizing the need to help teachers and invest in teachers," Weingarten said.

About 60 teachers walked out of the convention hall during the speech and led chants afterward of "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Bill Gates has got to go." Some were critical of Gates' support for the federal education initiative "Race to the Top" which pits states against each other in a competition for education funding and rewards those that adopt changes, including tying teacher pay to student achievement.

"Bill Gates is an enemy of public education," said Detroit high-school teacher Steve Conn. "It shouldn't be a race with winners and losers. Public education should be a fundamental right."

All the state winners in the first round of Race to the Top grants in March received financial help from the Gates Foundation in preparing their applications. The foundation gave states grants of up to $250,000 to pay for a consultant to help them craft their applications for federal funds.

The AFT supported Race to the Top applications in those states and school districts in which teachers were involved in the planning. The union also supports using student achievement as one measure of teacher performance, as long as it is not the sole measure, Weingarten said.

During his speech, Gates acknowledged that his foundation has made mistakes on the road to better public schools. He said it initially supported small high schools, believing that relationships were key to increasing graduation rates and driving academic success. But he said the schools that made the biggest gains didn't make just structural changes, they also improved teaching.

Now he said his foundation is working with teachers to develop a teacher-evaluation system that is fair and will help teachers improve. He said it is also working on ways to bring the most effective classroom practices to all teachers.

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"We need to understand what makes teachers great and help all teachers learn from them. This is worth our best combined efforts," Gates told the delegates.

The AFT, with 1.4 million members nationally, is the nation's second-largest teachers union, after the National Education Association. Most Washington K-12 teachers are members of the NEA, but about 6,000 college and university teachers in the state are members of the AFT, union leaders said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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