What Do You Think?
Students and Teachers Comment on Bill Gates' Fixing Obsolete High Schools
Thom Powell: More thoughts on 'fixing our obsolete high schools'
Monday, April 04, 2005
THOM POWELL, The Oregonian
I t is encouraging to see that Microsoft founder Bill Gates wants to fix our "obsolete" high schools ("Fixing our obsolete high schools," March 3). Though Gates asserts that high schools are not doing the job, he does not offer any solutions other than simply "redesigning" them like some sort of outdated computer.
He's right about one thing: Education has not meaningfully changed since the time of Socrates. Older, wiser teachers try to provide useful knowledge to younger, less wise students. The only things that have changed over the years are the kinds of knowledge conveyed and the amount of people who go through the system.
I shared Gates' essay with the eighth-graders I teach at Robert Gray Middle School, a public school that serves a neighborhood composed of citizens and students of every income level and ethnicity that can be found in Portland. I asked students to answer Gates' central questions: "Why do so few low-income students go to college?" and "What could fix the system that Bill Gates describes as obsolete?" Granted, my students are not experts in public education, but neither is Bill Gates. And unlike Gates, these students are currently experiencing public education, so their answers may be as cogent and perceptive as any.
Interestingly, the most common answer to both questions was the same single word: money. It is an answer that one of the richest men in the world can understand. Could it be that money that stops low-income students from enrolling in an $80,000 college degree program? "Duh!", as the kids say. And if high schools need serious revamping, could money he the key limiting factor?
Here in Oregon, we have The Katz Plan. It is Oregon's attempt to do precisely what Mr. Gates suggests: revise high school education to produce citizens with skills that are valuable to employers. Has the Katz Plan, also know as the CIM and CAM, succeed? Definitely not. It gave business interests the changes they asked for in the public school system: more emphasis on processes (like public speaking and problem solving) and less emphasis on content. It fails because it is as a one-size-fits-all approach that does not accommodate the vast range of student intellect and ability that exists in every high school. It is a cumbersome system to administer that relies too heavily on record-keeping and complex evaluation matrixes. The fact that it was implemented on the very same year that Measure 5 gave the state of Oregon total fiscal control of education didn't help. It seems that when the bill came due, even the State of Oregon has no interest in paying for the bold changes in education that they themselves enacted. Pay attention, Bill!
Can we ever really just spend our way to improvements in public education? You better believe it. I teach 183 eighth graders every day. Thirty in every class, and in a classroom with only twenty nine places at the lab tables. Discipline problems result from the overcrowding in the converted first-grade classroom where I have taught science for the past twenty years. The furniture is decrepit. So are the textbooks. Every day, I help students repair their lab stools before they can sit on them. Things get worse every year, money-wise, so forgive me if I chuckle at Mr. Gates suggestion that we RE-design a system that was never really designed in the first place. It is just emerged as a mish-mash of efforts to do the best that can be done given the desperate financial constraints and the multitude of societal problems that must be accommodated and endured.
Despite these distractions and limitations, guess what? Most of the kids from our ragged little middle school actually finish high school and then go on to college. Why? Because their parents expect them to, that's why. And guess what happens to the kids whose parents do NOT expect them to go to college? Gasp! They don't go! Does this mean high schools have failed these students'? Bill Gates thinks so.
That probably because high school just happens to be the place where many kids are when their life implodes for the first time. Then they start taking drugs, decide to drop out, and maybe even begin to commit crimes. Does that mean high schools created these problems? Mr. Gates gives scant attention to the brilliant minds that continue to emerge from these very same high schools. What do these high achievers have in common? Simple: Successful students have benefited from nurturing, stable home lives. Other households in the same neighborhood contain deep domestic dysfunction of one sort or another and they usually generate children that are incapable of meeting serious academic challenges. There may be a few miraculous exceptions to that rule, but that is the general rule.
The dirty little secret of the education biz seems to be: show me a messed up kid and I'll show you a messed up home life. Perhaps the most glaring of all family dysfunction that manifests itself in education today is the absence of the fathers' influence in the lives of teen-aged males. Here's something that Bill Gates can do something about. If he wants to help high schools succeed, he might consider sending his all his workers home a little earlier so they can make their kids dinner and help them with their homework. He would be doing his area high-schools a tremendous service.
This may be news to Mr. Gates but is not news to those of us who have spent their career in education: high school is a train wreck for some kids, but that train was put on the wrong track way before high school. High schools can only do their job when parents and neighborhoods are working properly. When families and neighborhood are not working, neither do the high schools. Mr. Gates surely knows the first rule of computer programming: GIGO. It is kind of brutal to apply to it high schools and their students, but GIGO stands for "garbage in, garbage out."
Thom Powell of rural Clackamas County is a teacher at Robert Gray Middle School and the author of "The Locals," a book about cyrptozoology.
Don't blame schools for students' lack of success
Monday, March 14, 2005
LOUISE R. SHAW, The Oregonian
I t is popular these days, whether you're the president of the United States or the president of its most successful computer software company, to blame schools for the failure of students.
If kids are dropping out, it's the schools' fault. If a large majority of students aren't going on to college, it's the schools' fault. If kids aren't ready to be good citizens, it's the schools' fault.
While I respect Bill Gates and his accomplishments and philanthropy, and while I appreciate his desire to improve the education and thus the life of American students by taking their governors to task ("Fixing our obsolete high schools," March 3), there is something else to consider.
The view that our schools are at fault is an extension of an attitude I remember seeing some years ago, when President Bush addressed a student forum. Concerned high school students asked him questions that went well beyond the economy or international concerns.
"What will you do to curb drug use among teenagers?" one asked.
"When my girlfriend broke up with me, it tore me apart. Can you make a national hotline where teens can get advice when they're sad or angry?" another asked.
"Please make a program that teaches people why they shouldn't drop out of school," said a 17-year-old from Texas who had done that very thing.
Please, the teens asked, make a government program or pass a law and fund it to take care of everything that makes our lives less than perfect. Please be our family and our support group and our conscience. Please save us from ourselves, they seemed to be saying.
There is an opinion running rampant in our country that every problem is the government's fault and thus must be fixed by the government. I have seen enough to know otherwise.
I taught at the middle school and high school of an upper-middle-class neighborhood for two years as a substitute. I was an outsider on the inside, and I saw the worst and the best in human nature -- but mostly the worst.
I came away convinced that it isn't what classes a school offers that makes kids ready for the real world. It isn't even how dedicated the teachers are or are not. It is what the kids themselves bring to class.
Advanced academic courses alone will not make a child successful. It's an attitude of hard work and respect that will make the difference in any endeavor, whether in class or in life. That attitude is already firmly established by the time middle school comes along. And teachers, no matter how determined their efforts and despite their pay levels, can't instill it if it isn't there by high school.
I'm suggesting, however politically incorrectly, that the necessary attitude is something kids bring with them, meaning in fact, that they must get it at home.
Put bluntly, a desire to take difficult classes, get good grades, graduate from high school, attend college and make a difference through a successful career is something that has to be nurtured and encouraged in the family.
Time magazine recently ran an in-depth feature entitled "Parents behaving badly," about parents who aggressively defend their children's behavior -- even cheating. Or parents who oppose grades they consider too low for their child or who otherwise undermine what teachers are trying to do in class.
The first time I had a disruptive student as a sub, I naively approached the vice principal with what I considered a great suggestion: "Have his parents come see the problems he is causing, and they'll put a stop to it."
"His parents are worse than he is," I was told.
The next disruptive student had concerned parents. They asked me one morning how he was doing and I said he would frequently yell things out loud and couldn't stay in his seat and disrupted every class he was in. They nodded, gave him a hug, said they loved him and left me to deal with his increasingly difficult behavior.
One teacher was told by a parent: "I send him to school for six hours a day -- you deal with him."
Such kids will likely not do well in college. They will not, in all probability, finish high school. Maybe even completing middle school is a stretch.
Those kids didn't have a desire to learn or to be part of a team of learners. Their parents either taught it or allowed it or turned their backs on it.
Those were the worst cases, but not the only ones. Student lies were as regular as the classroom bell. The lack of respect, the lack of motivation was everywhere.
And Algebra II isn't going to help that.
Nor will advanced English.
Certainly a supportive and encouraging home environment will not guarantee a successful child. What parents teach isn't always what children live. But certainly a family that respects the authority of teachers and encourages a child to accomplish and excel will have more of an impact on that child's future than a teacher who changes every year or every 45 minutes.
My kids have taken a college-prep test or two during their high school years, but that's not what made them ready for college. As with other kids, it's having a work ethic. And getting along with people, doing your part, trying your hardest, being honest and setting goals and making them realities.
And that's not something the government is going to teach them. No matter how good its schools.
Louise R. Shaw lives in West Linn.
Thursday, March 24, 2005
SKIPP THOMSEN, The Oregonian
In an editorial piece this month in The Oregonian, Microsoft founder Bill Gates advocated the reform of the American high school system ("Fixing our obsolete high schools," March 3). Saying "only one-third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work and citizenship," Gates called for a more rigorous curriculum and classes relevant to individual students' goals. Students from West Linn High School offered thoughts on the subject last week.
What kind of classes would better prepare you for life after graduation?
Ryan Taylor, 15, sophomore: "Some of the classes here are pretty rigorous, but it depends on what you want to learn. There should be more chances to specialize your classes." Dan Wieber, 16, sophomore: "There is an honors law class here, but not everyone wants to be a lawyer. Some people want to be cooks or mechanics. There should be specific classes for different types of jobs." Gonzalo Olea, 18, senior, exchange student from Santiago, Chile: "Here there are different math classes for different types of math. In Chile, there is just one class for math, and they teach you algebra, geometry, everything. There are only seven subjects in my school, like history, biology, just the basics. No foreign language except for English. There is no shop class or music class. The system here is better." Olivia Fontaine, 17, junior: "Classes should be more aimed towards what you want to do instead of learning lots of stuff that you are never going to use in life." Indianna Turkisher, 15, freshman: "Here we don't have wood shop. We don't even have home economics."
What classes should be required? Which ones should be electives?
Sharlie Tidd, 14, freshman: "Here you only have to take two years of science and two years of math. I think a lot of people do just that and then take a lot of electives and things that won't help them in the real world. I want to go into forensics, and I don't necessarily need four years of English. But I need four years of math and biology. But I'm required to take the English." Wieber: "Math is one of those classes that should be required because math will always be useful no matter what career you have. I think they should require math classes for all four years." Taylor: "I think they require enough (math) now. It depends on what level you're in and what type of job you want."
Besides classes, what could high schools do to prepare you for college or a job?
Leia Curren, 15, freshman: "I think (high school classes) should be more like college classes. Like, if the teacher is gone one day, instead of having a crazy substitute who plays a video for the teacher, there should be more freedom. They should trust the students more." Tidd: "They should prepare us more in middle school. Because what we do now goes on our transcripts and everything, and I don't think people are ready for that. They need to press the fact that what we do now stays with us forever." Fontaine: "They watch us all the time and make sure we are in line. I don't see how that prepares us for college because if they can't trust us, once we get to college we can just mouth off and do whatever. I don't think they teach us enough responsibility as high schoolers, I guess."
Skipp Thomsen: 503-294-5115; firstname.lastname@example.org