Friday, June 30, 2006

Business Week: Bill Gates Gets "Schooled"

This blog has, over the past year, criticized the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Small Schools Initiative for missing the boat when it comes to challenging bright kids. The theory is fine -- kids in small schools feel like they're part of a community. They're less likely to drop out.

Unfortunately, when the Gates Foundation has taken on troubled schools and split them into 3-4 small schools, too often they have not concentrated children by ability or interest (say, a selective math/science school). Sometimes, the schools have been downright hostile to the idea of ability-grouping, choosing to "detrack." But gifted kids learn best when they're challenged to the extent of their abilities in an environment with their intellectual peers. Because the gifted children from the previous big schools are scattered around these new Gates small schools, there are too few gifted kids in each individual school to justify programs that meet their needs. So, their needs aren't met.

Now some other publications are picking up on this. Business Week ran a cover story in its June 26 issue called "Bill Gates Gets Schooled." The opening anecdote describes one Manual High School in Denver. A low-income school with low test scores, Manual was a testing ground for the Gates's ideas. People working with the Foundation split the 1,100 student population into three small schools. But these new schools had no particular theme and became indistinguishable. The new principals had no experience managing schools. Even worse, notes Business Week, "Because the schools were so small, they couldn't offer as many electives as before. French was eliminated, leaving only Spanish for many students who already spoke it. Advanced Placement courses were reduced. Sports teams struggled just to field squads. When the famed choir was limited to one school, the popular director left, and that program withered, along with band and theater."

Fortunately for Manual's students, Denver laws allow kids to transfer to other schools if there's room, so most of Manual's best students managed to escape this downward spiral. But of course, that just accelerated the trend. With just 580 students enrolled for this fall, Business Week says, Denver is shutting the school.

Lest anyone think Manual was just a particularly rough test case, Business Week visited 22 Gates-funded schools around the country. Notes the magazine, "they deserve no better than a C when it comes to improving academic performance." Gates schools show only slightly improved reading achievement, and worse results in math. Kids do graduate at higher rates. But if they know less when they graduate, it's hard to see how that was an improvement.

Business Week notes that some schools have turned out quite well. Mott Haven Village Preparatory School in the South Bronx, for instance, has doubled its graduation rate, and, more importantly, posts Regents pass rates of 96% for math and 98% for English ("Regents exams" are the tough exams that show New York students have mastered the high school curriculum -- about half of state high school students pass the exams each year). Of course, it's not clear that being small is what pushed Mott Haven's success. The school has an excellent principal. Gates money pays for SAT tutoring which, when you think about it, often winds up being advanced, accelerated, one-on-one work.

But another school profiled, High Tech High in San Diego, shows the philosophical problems with some of the Gates Foundation's work. High Tech High graduates 99% of its students, with most being college-ready. High Tech High also has an amazingly charismatic principal, Larry Rosenstock. He attempted to work with a network of other schools to recreate his success. But it hasn't gone smoothly.

"One point of contention has been Rosenstock's belief that dividing students into honors and non-honors classes lowers expectations for ordinary students and undercuts the benefits he sees when teens learn as a team," says Business Week.

What Rosenstock -- and the Gates Foundation -- don't seem to understand is that only in the presence of absolutely top-notch teachers and principals (like Rosenstock) can un-tracked schools have a chance of succeeding. Most teachers aren't so adept at figuring out every child's needs and meeting them. It would be great if all teachers were Teacher-of-the-Year quality (the kind Rosenstock can lure with the $17 million his school received from Gates) and capable of meeting gifted kids' needs in the regular classroom. Even with the addition of Warren Buffett's money to the Gates pot, I don't see that happening on a national level any time soon. Untracked schools have a better chance of winding up like Manual in Denver instead. It becomes a great race to the middle -- the lower middle. Only 16% of students at Gates schools make the grade in math, Business Week, says, compared with 27% of students at traditional schools in the same districts. In other words, for all the Gates Foundation's money, students in the schools it funds have often wound up slightly worse off.

I have hope that this strange love of detracking is just a result of the ideology of the people the Gates Foundation has hired to manage its education programs. Foundations have a tendency to attract people with utopian do-gooder ideas that sometimes crowd out a realist commitment to results. But Bill Gates was a very gifted little boy. Now that he is stepping down from Microsoft to devote himself full-time to the Foundation, he may demand more accountability and evidence of results for his investments -- particularly among the brightest kids at his schools.

At least I hope so. It's a shame to squander the minds of gifted kids in low-income schools just to pursue a certain ideology.

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