Thursday, December 04, 2008

Bill Gates: Small Schools "Disappointing"

Last month, Bill Gates made one of the most remarkable education speeches ever. You can read the remarks, delivered at the Forum on Education here.

Here's the gist. Over the past decade, the Gates Foundation has spent about $2 billion on its goal of having 80% of minority and low-income students graduate from high school college-ready. The Foundation has mainly supported this through a "small schools" initiative that breaks existing low-performing schools into 400-student blocks. The theory is that these small schools will reduce drop-out rates -- even in the absence of other major improvements -- by making students feel part of a community. When all the teachers and principals know your name, you have to keep showing up, right?

As we've discussed in the past on Gifted Exchange, though, these small schools come at a cost, particularly for advanced or gifted students. Advanced students are already more rare than they should be in predominantly low-income schools (for a variety of unfortunate reasons that readers here are familiar with). The benefit of a large school is that you can concentrate top students and give them classes with their intellectual peers. A school with 2000 kids might have 20 such students -- in theory, enough for a class and some social interaction. Break that into 5 smaller schools, though -- with no concentration by ability/readiness (which the Gates Foundation has not supported) -- and you suddenly have 4 advanced kids per school. That's only one per grade. So the gifted/advanced program goes out the window.

This is a problem, because a lack of advanced classes does not hurt all bright children equally. Kids from higher-income families often have the social supports in place to get tutoring after school, take distance learning classes, or even go to the library and such if schools don't meet their needs. As Malcolm Gladwell describes in his recent book, Outliers, at least one in-depth study of poor and better-off children found that lower-income children receive far less parental "cultivation" than their peers. There are positive aspects to this: They often devise their own games and (as he quotes one researcher) can be less "whiny." But the lack of cultivation puts them at a disadvantage in terms of using their smarts to make their way successfully in the world. If their schools don't cultivate them, no one will. A lack of advanced classes for bright low-income children is a decision to waste their talents. There is really no other way to describe it.

So anyway, we've been against the "small schools" initiative for years. Now, Bill Gates has acknowledged that the results have been "disappointing" too. This is one of the things I love about the Gates Foundation -- they studied their efforts, and found that the evidence did not support their theory. Rather than bury the evidence, or insist that the study didn't capture the right things, or that the small schools initiative hadn't really been tried, Gates shared the findings. Here's what he said in his speech:

"In the first four years of our work with new, small schools, most of the schools had achievement scores below district averages on reading and math assessments. In one set of schools we supported, graduation rates were no better than the statewide average, and reading and math scores were consistently below the average. The percentage of students attending college the year after graduating high school was up only 2.5 percentage points after five years. Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for."

He went on to make several important points. First, this is what he said about the schools that did work:

"In general, the places that demonstrated the strongest results tended to do many proven reforms well, all at once: they would create smaller schools, a longer day, better relationships—-but they would also establish college-ready standards aligned with a rigorous curriculum, with the instructional tools to support it, effective teachers to teach it, and data systems to track the progress.

"These factors distinguished the schools with the biggest gains in student achievement. Interestingly, these are also limiting factors in taking these gains to scale. A model that depends on great teaching can’t be replicated by schools that can’t attract and develop great teachers. A school that has great instructional tools cannot share them with schools that don’t use the rigorous curriculum those tools are based on."

This is a problem, because the Gates Foundation's entire philanthropic mission is to find ideas that work and then scale them up.

So what to do? The Foundation's philosophy may be shifting to focusing on teachers, not school structure. "The defining feature of a great education is what happens in the classroom," Gates said. "Everything starts from that and must be built around it. So we’re going to sharpen our focus on effective teaching—in particular supporting new standards, curriculum, instructional tools, and data that help teachers—because these changes trigger the biggest gains, they are hardest to scale, and that is what’s holding us back."

He had a few other intriguing ideas. One -- which we will talk about more on this blog later -- is the idea of doing vastly more research on exactly how students learn and what curricula work. "The education sector desperately needs an infrastructure for creating better instructional tools—always with measurement systems in place so we have evidence that the new way works better than the old way. Without evidence, innovation is just another word for 'fad,'" Gates said. "Doctors aren’t left alone in their offices to try to design and test new medicines. They’re supported by a huge medical research industry. Teachers need the same kind of support."

I like this idea. Why not treat teaching as a tough profession which -- like medicine -- requires smart people with effective diagnostic and treatment tools? It is not (as Michelle Rhee has said) simply a profession for people who like cutting out bulletin board displays for the various seasons.

Of course, even with all Bill Gates's money, resources aren't infinite. So -- given that great teachers are so important -- we have to figure out if we're paying for the right things.

Right now, it really doesn't look like we are. As he said, "Money is tight. We need to spend it wisely. We’re now spending $8 billion a year for teachers with master’s degrees, even though the evidence suggests that master’s degrees do not improve student achievement. We’re spending billions on a seniority system, even though the evidence says that seniority, after the first five years, may not improve student achievement. We’ve spent billions to reduce class size, even though there is no strong evidence that spending money to reduce class size in high school is the most impactful way to improve student performance. And the last thing we can afford—-whether the economy is good or bad—-is to pay teachers who can’t do the job. As President-elect Obama and others have pointed out: We need to give all teachers the benefit of clear standards, sound curriculum, good training, and top instructional tools. But if their students still keep falling behind, they’re in the wrong line of work, and they need to find another job."

It is "disappointing" that the first few billions of Gates Foundation education money have not helped advance his mission of giving every person the opportunity to live a healthy and productive life. But if Bill Gates is willing to spend another $2 billion in figuring out exactly how to create good teachers and better feedback systems, I think he'll find this to be a far better investment.


Anna said...

So now I'm curious. What did lacey say? :).

Ian said...

2 billion bought the answer that small schools are not the silver bullet that will fix education.

Though many could have told him that the money had to be spent and the failure publicized so that we can move on the the next big idea for solving the educational crisis.

I think the money was well spent.

Anonymous said...

hmmm...any concerns about parenting????

Anonymous said...

Wow, as a teacher working in an inner city school (Virginia) for 10 years-the answer is indeed easy-PARENTS. Nearly 90% of the student population at my school (88% Black)do not have a father in the home. Students with 3rd grade reading levels...with parents with a reading level between 2nd and 3rd- grade at best-.. along with no stimulation at home is a recipe for disaster. This is not a racist issue-I'm Puerto Rican-and my parents gave me books to read as a kid, that sure helped alot......

Ronald Court said...

If, as the commenter preceding me says, the answer is "Parents", then how does one get low-income kids to learn if they have a single (if that) parent who may be illiterate? In my humble opinion, that commenter is only making excuses.
If you really want to know how to teach disadvantaged kids, visit the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland CA ( as I did recently, spending three days there. Its middle school was in mandatory 3-week summer math session. I saw 38 6th graders rigorously working and solving complex multi-step math problems above their grade level, and being taught by just ONE teacher! These are no-nonsense schools (there are now 3) founded by Dr. Ben Chavis (not the hip-hop dude), an American Indian. ALL the kids were of all nationalities and ALL were inner-city.
Get and read "Crazy Like a Fox" to learn how Dr. Chavis turned one of Oakland's worse schools into one of its best, bar none.

Anonymous said...

When i was a freshman in highschool in 2006 my High School had just started the small schools program. My class was the so called "ginny pigs". Besides all the defaults this program had, it did make me feel a sense of belonging. Each small school was one little family. Our principal knew us all very well, each small schools teacher knew us by name and not just by face. I had the same English teach freshman year thorugh junior year, which was awesome! We grew a connection with him. In preparation for college we took an AP Literature course. To make things fun and interesting we would have competitions between each small school. I must say that small schools, in the beginning, seemed like a terrible idea. But as my senior year came around, everything seemed to be working out. Once all of the glitches are worked out, and schools get the hang of it, the program will run smoothly. Also...high school is well known for having cliques or people feeling like they dont belong....small schools allows you to meet new people, people of a different culture, beliefs and or interests. Students just might find that cliques are unnecessary and no one should be an out cast if they like something out of the ordinary. I support this idea of small schools 100%.