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Can Bill Gates Succeed in Reforming Education With Small High schools?
The Education Of William Gates
BY ANDREW WOLF
June 23, 2006
William H. Gates III, the chairman of the Microsoft Corporation, announced last week that he will be phasing out his day-to-day involvement running the company he founded, in order to increase his participation in his charitable enterprises.
Mr. Gates comes from a household that loves to give away money, so much so that he and his father, William H. Gates II, have raised loud support for the reinstatement of the federal estate tax. It seems that to the Gateses it doesn't matter much how it goes out the door, as long as their money doesn't stick around littering the house.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is to philanthropy what Microsoft is to computer software. While the foundation spends billions around the world promoting a variety of health initiatives, it is his effort to "reform" America's high schools that has attracted the most attention. So it isn't surprising that Business Week devoted its cover story this week to what is increasingly being perceived as a faltering effort.
There is so much attention to Mr. Gates and the ways he dispenses with his fortune that there was even a bit of a journalistic dust-up this week over the Business Week cover on Mr. Gates's efforts, as posted on the Romenesko blog on Poynteronline, a Web site frequented by journalists. It seems that almost a year ago, the Seattle Weekly newspaper used the same headline, "Bill Gates Gets Schooled," and remarkably similar artwork as did Business Week a year later. The Seattle crowd is crowing, asking, "Do journalists in New York do any original thinking at all?"
It turns out that Business Week came up with its cover on its own. But editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler says that both the Seattle story and his own magazine's "are well worth reading," which is certainly true.
What makes last year's Seattle Weekly story so delicious is the fact that it chronicles the story of the failure of the Gates initiative in Mountlake Terrace High School, located in a suburb of Seattle. This is Mr. Gates's home turf. Business Week focused on the experience of Manual High School in Denver. Both schools are demonstrably worse off for Mr. Gates's efforts, which is acknowledged by top officials in his foundation. Now the party line is that failure is nothing more than "research and development" for the foundation's future efforts. The trouble is that the guinea pigs are tens of thousands of America's children.
As bright as Mr. Gates is, and as correct as he was in identifying the national problem of low high school graduation rates, he missed a number of essential points, things that have doomed his experiment to failure.
One essential point missed by Mr. Gates is that by the time students reach high school, it is too late to make things right. Students fail in high school because they lack the academic basics they need in order to do high school level work. There is a huge drop off in performance, nationwide, between fourth and eighth grade. This is the reason for the high school crisis. By the time Mr. Gates comes around with his medicine, the cow has long left the barn.
For those who can keep up academically, the small schools Mr. Gates is pushing actually work to their disadvantage. The reason high schools are traditionally larger is so there can be a critical mass of students for such things as Advanced Placement classes, electives, choice of foreign languages, teams, clubs, etc. In other words, the things that make successful high schools successful. Higher performing children were well served by larger schools for generations. We are now shortchanging them by design, and a price will ultimately be paid for this myopia.
But at the center of Mr. Gates's problems was his reliance on the establishment of school "reformers." What he didn't grasp is that it is the reformers who are the status quo in public education. They are the problem, not the solution. The core problems will not be solved by those who thrive on perpetual "reform," efforts that after a while exist only to maintain themselves.
Here in New York, Mr. Gates has funneled tens of millions for the small high school initiative through an organization called New Visions. This is a group with experience - experience squandering the money of well-meaning rich individuals. Back in the 1990s, they conducted a disastrous effort to create small high schools financed by the Annenberg Foundation. Amazingly, they have found even deeper pockets in Mr. Gates to fund the same program they already botched once.
As the Microsoft mogul heads into the "semi-retirement" he announced last week, he would be well advised to take a close look at just where his money is going and seek out advice from those who haven't already failed at fixing our schools.
Wikipedia: Bill Gates
Downsize High Schools? Not Too Far
By Diane Ravitch
Sunday, November 6, 2005; B07
The latest fad in American education is the small high school. Spurred on by grants of $1 billion from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, dozens of cities are downsizing their high schools. It is time to step back and ask whether high schools can be too small to be effective.
Last spring, Bill Gates told the nation's governors that today's high school is obsolete and that the United States risks losing its competitive edge in global markets to nations with better schools. Thomas Friedman, in his best-selling book "The World Is Flat," warns that the United States is failing to prepare enough students for careers in mathematics, science, technology and engineering.
The nation's business leaders, governors and educators apparently agree, because Gates's remedy -- small high schools -- has become the remedy of choice in many cities and communities.
No one seems to have asked, however, whether a high school can be too small and whether tiny high schools will fix the dual problems of low performance by our best students and low graduation rates overall. Most new high schools enroll fewer than 500 students, and advocates for small schools think they should be even smaller, perhaps around 300, so that the school has the feel of a community or a big family.
But a high school can be too small to provide a solid curriculum and to offer advanced courses in mathematics and science and foreign languages. Our nation has had many decades of experience with small schools in rural areas, which were indeed like a community or family, and they were seldom exemplars of rigorous academic preparation. In many cases, they did not offer even the courses in calculus, trigonometry or physics that students need to prepare for college study.
The reason the issue of school size dominates educational discussion (aside from the Gates family's billion dollars) is that too many super-size high schools, especially in urban districts, are demonstrably unsuccessful. These schools, which enroll thousands of students, have been handicapped by the common practice of social promotion, which sends barely literate teenagers to high school despite their lack of basic skills. Lost in the milieu of a giant shopping mall in which no one knows them or guides them, many students become alienated, become discipline problems and drop out.
Clearly it makes sense to refashion the high school to meet the demands of the 21st century. But does it make sense to replace today's educational behemoths with high schools for 200 or 300 students? Such schools may be appropriate for youngsters in need of intense remediation, but they will be too small to provide highly qualified teachers of mathematics and science or the other academic courses needed by able students.
What is the ideal size of a high school, a size that maximizes personal relationships between students and adults and that produces high academic achievement? The research on this crucial issue is surprisingly thin. Most of the "research" on small schools consists of testimonials by advocates for small schools.
The only rigorous study was conducted by Valerie E. Lee of the University of Michigan and Julia B. Smith of Western Michigan University. Lee and Smith analyzed federal data for nearly 10,000 students in 789 public and private high schools of varying size. They sampled the performance of these students in mathematics and reading as they progressed from eighth to 12th grade. Lee and Smith concluded that the ideal size for a high school is 600 to 900 students. Size matters, they said, because it affects social relations within the school and the ability to mount a reasonable curriculum. Schools that are too large lack any sense of community and cannot shape student behavior; schools that are too small cannot offer a solid curriculum.
In their study, low-income students made the greatest academic gains in schools of 600 to 900 students. Indeed, the performance of low-income students was worst in schools with more than 2,100 students. Size did not make as much difference for students from advantaged backgrounds, but even their performance peaked in the schools that enrolled between 600 and 900. Academic gains for both low-income and high-income students declined as enrollment fell below 600, and declined again in schools that enrolled fewer than 300.
Small schools of fewer than 300 may be appropriate for some students, especially those who have been educationally unsuccessful, but they are not the right size for most students. If we move too far in that direction, we may have the paradoxical outcome of higher graduation rates and persistent mediocre achievement.
The writer is research professor of education at New York University and a member of the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution. She is also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
© 2005 The Washington Post Company