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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 07/12/2010

Bill Gates' troubling involvement in school reform

By Valerie Strauss

Bill Gates, one of the smartest and richest guys ever in the history of smart and rich guys, told the annual convention of the American Federation of Teachers that he just realized that teaching is super important.

Really.

He told the assembled teachers (according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website):

“There is an expanding body of evidence that says the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching. You’ve known this for a long time. We’re all learning it now.”

Never mind that there is a strong body of evidence about the overwhelming importance of out-of-school factors in student achievement (things like family income, or education level of the mother, or whether or not a kid comes to school hungry, in pain, exhausted).

I can’t decide which part of the Gates speech was more bewildering. [Disclosure: Melinda Gates is on the board of directors of The Washington Post Company.]

Was it the part where he tells teachers that he has figured out how “we're going to help more teachers become great” and that part of that means linking teacher pay to student achievement (aka, standardized test scores).

Or the part where he hails the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion “Race to the Top” competition?

Or the part where he tells teachers how hard teaching really is (as if they don’t know)?

Read the speech yourself here.

Meanwhile, keep reading below for a piece by a New York City school parent and activist who explains Gates’ troubled involvement with public education.

It was written by Leonie Haimson, executive director of the nonprofit Class Size Matters, and founder of the NYC Public School Parent blog. [A version of this article appeared on huffingtonpost.com. [That earlier version stated incorrectly when Tom Toch left Education Sector. This version is correct.]

By Leonie Haimson
Bill Gates sure is a popular guy. He appeared over the weekend at the annual conference of the American Federation of Teachers in Seattle, after having recently been the keynote speaker at the http://www.nationalcharterconference.org/.

Last week, Warren Buffett announced he was giving an additional $1.6 billion to the Gates Foundation, which already had a $35 billion endowment; by far the largest in the nation.

In the past eight years, the foundation has spent nearly $4 billion promoting his personal education agenda; at first providing subsidies to districts that would agree to close down large neighborhood high schools and start small schools in their place; and now encouraging the rapid and widespread proliferation of charter schools. Gates also is aggressively promoting efforts to create programs that link teacher evaluation and compensation to standardized test scores.

And his generosity has not merely been expressed through his foundation. In 2008, he contributed $4 million to help persuade state legislators to extend mayoral control in New York City.

As Gates explained at the time: "You want to allow for experimentation.... The cities where our foundation has put the most money is where there is a single person responsible."

In other words, he supported mayoral control because it allowed him to impose his large-scale experiments on inner city public school students, without fear of resistance from communities; instead, he has only to convince one person. No wrestling with elected school boards, nor with parents who resent having their children’s schools closed, privatized, or otherwise radically transformed; no need to bother with any of the messy artifacts of democracy which might stand in his way.

According to publicity materials put out by the Gates Foundation, it has "improved 2,602 schools, engaged 40 school districts, and reached at least 781,000 students."

Actually, it has reached lot more students than that, as its small-schools initiative had a profound impact on inner city schools with the most disadvantaged children.

In recent years the Gates initiative has turned districts upside-down, at first establishing as many small schools as possible, creating thousands of new administrator jobs, eating up classroom space, and compelling the neediest kids who were excluded from the new small schools to travel long distances to attend even more overcrowded large schools in worse conditions than before, relegating those schools to failure.

The small schools created in their place, with several schools sharing one building, were forced to fight fiercely over scarce space, losing science labs, art rooms, libraries, and intervention spaces in the process. The same situation is now unfolding in NYC as the rapidly proliferating charter schools are wedged into public school buildings. As a result, the existing public school, with much higher concentrations of English language learners, special needs students, and homeless children, is now in many cases forced to provide instruction and mandated services in hallways and closets.

Such large-scale experiments on children would never be allowed similar fields like public health, where first carefully controlled pilot studies must be performed, with the informed consent of parents, to ensure that the proposed interventions have positive results, and the risk of collateral damage is minimal.

Consider the consent and experimentation protocols enforced when trials for new drugs are undertaken; or the consent and monitoring procedures that were used in developing and implementing the Salk vaccine program against polio, despite the urgency to battle the epidemic of a devastating disease.

Now the Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan has taken up the Gates agenda, writ large, but with a perhaps better sense of public relations, calling this single-minded approach "innovation" rather than experimentation.

Former Gates officials fill the high ranks of the department; including Jim Shelton, former education program director at the foundation and now Assistant Deputy Secretary for "Innovation and Improvement." Joanne Weiss has already been promoted from heading its "Race to the Top" fund to become Duncan’s chief of staff. Weiss was formerly chief operating officer of the NewSchools Venture Fund, which finances charter school expansion with dollars provided by Gates.

Not surprisingly, the $4.3 billion federal "Race to the Top fund" and the other grants being doled out by the Education Department are pushing states to eliminate their caps on charter schools, to forcibly close many schools and/or mandate that they fire their teaching staff; then turning them over to charter school operators or start new schools in their place while adopting teacher evaluation systems linked to standardized test scores.

After pretty much setting the priorities for the administration, the Gates Foundation then stepped in and "helped" states write their applications for the "Race to the Top" funds. Along the way, numerous states, in the midst of plunging tax revenues, changed their laws on charter schools and teacher evaluation to qualify for these funds.

All this, despite the fact that an expert panel from the National Academy of Sciences pointed out that there was no research backing for this agenda, and urged caution before the federal government essentially bribed cash-strapped states to enact its provisions.

Since the panel’s findings had to go through a lengthy peer review process, as does all good science, it did not make the short deadline that the US DOE set for public feedback on the "Race to the Top" proposals, leaving them free to ignore it.

When George W. Bush adopted environmental policies that ignored the scientific consensus from expert bodies like the National Academy of Sciences, he rightfully got blasted by advocates and the mainstream media. Where was the outrage when the NAS experts on testing and evaluation were ignored by the Obama administration?

Instead, there was ....silence. The NAS warning was pretty much ignored, as educators and politicians were steamrolled by an undemocratic oligopoly of the deep-pocketed Gates Foundation and elected officials (some authoritarian types like NYC’s Bloomberg, others merely weak-kneed and cowed by the inside-the-beltway group think.).

But the Gates Foundation has been quite clever in ignoring evidence that contradicts its corporate mindset.

In 2002, the foundation commissioned a survey through Public Agenda that asked teachers and parents about their views on small schools, before launching its big offensive. While the vast majority of parents and teachers responded that they believed that class size was more important than school size, the foundation was not deterred from going forward with its goal of foisting small schools on the nation.

Small schools may or may not be preferable, yet whatever the size of the school, it is the classroom where most learning takes place, and the size of the class is thus an even more critical factor. Unlike the earlier generation of small school proponents, Gates never made class size an explicit, core element of his reforms, but instead focused on the more amorphous buzzwords of "rigor, relevance and relationships."

In 2006, Gates again commissioned a study, called "The Silent Epidemic", which found that three fourths of the high school dropouts surveyed responded that they would have been deterred from leaving school if they had been offered smaller classes:

"While some of the students’ best days in school were when teachers paid attention to them, many others had classes that were so big that teachers did not know their names. In our focus groups, participants repeated again and that they believed smaller class sizes would have helped ensure that teachers maintained order in the classroom and would have provided more individual attention. .... the need for smaller class sizes and more personal instruction emerged more than 12 separate times from the participants in our four focus groups Seventy-five percent of survey participants agreed that smaller classes with more one on one teaching would have improved students’ chances of graduating."

Yet again, such findings did not seem to influence their policies, or lead them to encourage school officials to make smaller classes an essential element in their reform.

Subsequently, in independent evaluations of the small school initiative commissioned by the foundation, the value of class size came up repeatedly in interviews with students as teachers, as either the most critical aspect of their new schools, or as a focal point for dissatisfaction when despite their expectations, class sizes remained too large or had increased over time.

Some of the new small schools failed miserably; while others succeeded, but when I asked the researchers who wrote these studies why they had not examined class size to determine its possible relationship to these schools’ ability to improve student engagement and achievement, they responded that they had not been allowed by the Gates Foundation to include this as a factor in their analysis.

What is the next experiment Gates is likely to foist on our schools? It looks to be online learning, as the new magical answer to "personalized" instruction.

This practice has been once again pioneered in NYC schools through the discredited practice of "credit recovery," in which students are encouraged to spend a few days online, cutting and pasting their answers into a software program, in order to quickly gain the credits they need to graduate, even if they have failed all their courses and/or never attended class. (See here and here for how this scam is now operating in NYC schools.)

Watch out, America! You have nothing to lose but your public school system, at the hands of perhaps the richest man in the country who, like a spoiled child carelessly playing with toys, breaks one after another.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this misstated when Toch resigned from the Education Sector.]

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By Valerie Strauss  | July 12, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Teachers  | Tags:  bill gates, bill gates and teachers, bill gates at aft convention, gates foundation and education, gates foundation and race to the top, gates speech to teachers, teachers  
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Comments


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Posted by: williamjones12 | July 12, 2010 7:17 AM | Report abuse

Bill Gates seems like a genuinely goood person and a dedicated philanthropist. My issue with him is that his influence is completely out of proportion to what it should be.

Public schools do not exist to serve the whims of the few, the privileged and the powerful. They exist to serve the entire community. No lasting reform can take hold when it is driven by the agenda of a small group of people. Yes, systems can change to reflect the will of those in power, but these changes will not last when they are driven from needs outside of the vast majority of wider community.

One example of this can be seen in MicoSofts now-severed relationship with the School of the Future (SOTF) in Philadelphia. I remember the board meeting when then-ceo of schools, Paul Vallas, heralded this school-corporate relationship. It sounded like a great idea at the time. However, over the past 4 years, the school has suffered due to tech issues, curriculum issues, weak achievement and administrative turnover. A year ago, MicroSoft pulled their support from the program.

This school is one of the small schools that the Gates Foundation funded and it was highly mediocre despite some very promising elements. So, why did it falter? Well for starters, the wonderful project-based, technology-based curricula was inappropriate for the student population, many of whom came to the high school several years below grade level.

This should have been understood given that SOTF was NOT a selective admit school, but largely a resource for the poor, West Philly community where it resides. Why was this basic need not anticipated? It certainly wasn't due to a lack of goood intentions. In my opinion, it was due to a disconnect between then decision-makers and those whom the school was actually supposed to serve.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | July 12, 2010 8:07 AM | Report abuse

This influence of Bill Gates is beyond 'troubling'; his sphere of influence as has been reported here smacks of - totalitarianism, and not benign, eiter. I read through his speech, and it is nauseatingly patronizing;it is also very carefully crafted to make teachers think he, Bill Gates, really 'gets them'.

For instance, the statement:

"Teachers said in huge numbers that they don’t get enough feedback. They’re not told how they can improve. They’re not given training that can address their weaknesses or help them share their strengths with others."

This statement is probably true enough; it's WHERE in the speech this statement occurs - towards the beginning, as if this was teachers' number 1 complaint. It's clever, because it is closely allied with what I suspect is many teachers' REAL number 1 complaint: SUPPORT. I've had plenty of evaluations, gotten plenty of feedback, but when push came to shove in areas where I thought additional support would improve my teaching (i.e.,better scheduling of students so I wouldn't have such a wide range of skill levels in one class), it often didn't happen.
The speech is also very clever because it DOES include some things that will help improve one's personal teaching: video feedback IS a very powerful tool.

A lowered ratio of 14 students to one adult is mentioned: as they say, "There's lies, there's damn lies, and then there's statistics". Would that that statistic meant we have classes of 14 students! Those adults include all of the administrators and counselors and probably the accountants and janitors.

Everyone Gates' is offering is harnessed to maintaining LESS teacher contact with students; instead of simply creating smaller classes, retooling teacher approaches will enable classes to stay larger, and strengthen the umbilical cord students have to their computers by doing more and more online.....people contact? Who needs that? Oh, wait, we can have that virtually.

Well, if I had the kind of money and influence Gates' has, here's what I'd do:

1) Build beautiful, and I mean BEAUTIFUL, school complexes where buildings are inviting, the light is good, small classes can convene, comfortable, ACCOUSTICALLY superior meeting rooms are available, there is plenty of green space, and nutritious food is served. Student art & poetry as well as STAFF art and poetry would be displayed throughout the complex.

2) I would be damn sure the humanities and arts and wellness classes had a much larger part of the curriculum pie.

3) The faculty would have frequent retreats and sabbaticals.

4) Parents and teachers would have more help being partners instead of adversaries.

5) And there would be a few less machines.

6) Much more, but I'm out of characters......

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | July 12, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse

This influence of Bill Gates is beyond 'troubling'; his sphere of influence as has been reported here smacks of - totalitarianism, and not benign, eiter. I read through his speech, and it is nauseatingly patronizing;it is also very carefully crafted to make teachers think he, Bill Gates, really 'gets them'.

For instance, the statement:

"Teachers said in huge numbers that they don’t get enough feedback. They’re not told how they can improve. They’re not given training that can address their weaknesses or help them share their strengths with others."

This statement is probably true enough; it's WHERE in the speech this statement occurs - towards the beginning, as if this was teachers' number 1 complaint. It's clever, because it is closely allied with what I suspect is many teachers' REAL number 1 complaint: SUPPORT. I've had plenty of evaluations, gotten plenty of feedback, but when push came to shove in areas where I thought additional support would improve my teaching (i.e.,better scheduling of students so I wouldn't have such a wide range of skill levels in one class), it often didn't happen.
The speech is also very clever because it DOES include some things that will help improve one's personal teaching: video feedback IS a very powerful tool.

A lowered ratio of 14 students to one adult is mentioned: as they say, "There's lies, there's damn lies, and then there's statistics". Would that that statistic meant we have classes of 14 students! Those adults include all of the administrators and counselors and probably the accountants and janitors.

Everyone Gates' is offering is harnessed to maintaining LESS teacher contact with students; instead of simply creating smaller classes, retooling teacher approaches will enable classes to stay larger, and strengthen the umbilical cord students have to their computers by doing more and more online.....people contact? Who needs that? Oh, wait, we can have that virtually.

Well, if I had the kind of money and influence Gates' has, here's what I'd do:

1) Build beautiful, and I mean BEAUTIFUL, school complexes where buildings are inviting, the light is good, small classes can convene, comfortable, ACCOUSTICALLY superior meeting rooms are available, there is plenty of green space, and nutritious food is served. Student art & poetry as well as STAFF art and poetry would be displayed throughout the complex.

2) I would be damn sure the humanities and arts and wellness classes had a much larger part of the curriculum pie.

3) The faculty would have frequent retreats and sabbaticals.

4) Parents and teachers would have more help being partners instead of adversaries.

5) And there would be a few less machines.

6) Much more, but I'm out of characters......

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | July 12, 2010 8:24 AM | Report abuse

Well. I hope your post will get Bill Gates' attention.

I tend to believe he is a reasonable guy.

Posted by: NeverRead | July 12, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

"Bill Gates, one of the smartest and richest guys ever in the history of smart and rich guys"

rich yes, but basically he's a business man who illegally and immorally shut down all the competition.. if cars ran like his software does, we'd all be dead.

Posted by: newagent99 | July 12, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

Valerie-

You are seriously misguided my dear. Why don't you be useful, roll up your sleeves, and tackle some serious education matters instead of picking on Bill Gates? The unions and those opposed to reform resent his money and influence-any you are their mouthpiece.

Too damn bad. Unions have had decades and trillons of dollars to improve education and have done little other than demand fat paychecks and protect lousy teachers.

As a parent, I will put my faith in Bill Gates and his Foundation vs the entrenched dysfunctional establishment any day.

When you and Jay Matthews start writing about the serious problems facing our schools and pointing the finger at the problem-LOUSY TEACHERS and INCOMPETENT ADMINISTRATORS, only then will I take you seriously.

Your columns should be in the funny papers.

Posted by: takebackourschools | July 12, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

@PLMichaels: your beautiful schools could never be built even by Gates because the bureaucracy and politicizing of their construction would doom them.

@Nikki: your story highlighted what Gates has been 'low-key' discovering: throwing money at a problem doesn't solve it. Gates is no longer an advocate of 'small schools' because it hasn't worked; his focus has now shifted to teacher quality.

@Ms. Strauss: As teachers we can complain about poverty and 'other factors' all we want, but we can only control ultimately what we do in the classroom.

The more subliminal fear I sense is a fear of wealth creators. I sense that many people in education look at wealth creators as inherently evil, and that 'profit' has no place in the 'pure,' 'virtuous' world of education. No one has to take Gates' money; I'm convinced we can improve schools without it. Schools should develop plans for improvement then seek funding from those who support those plans versus folks dangling funds in front of them that have strings attached and we sign our souls away. This is an example of how teachers must be more proactive about reform, generating concrete, specific solutions for which you seek support versus jumping onto the latest fad.

Posted by: pdfordiii | July 12, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

This is interesting, but Bill Gates is hardly the only person experimenting on our children. What about the frequent changes to language and math teaching? We oscillate toward and away from phonics or whole word recognition. Look at elementary school math, which currently seems rigged to give an advantage to students with strong language skills, since every math problem is now a word problem. Slightly higher math is also being held hostage to unproven theories. Some decades we allow 8th graders to take Algebra, other decades we insist that young minds can't grasp abstract math until later in high school.

I think there are more fundamental problems with our education system than the influence of Bill Gates. While I don't entirely demonize teacher's unions, I am troubled and frustrated that we don't have systematic ways to measure teacher quality. Why should it be that these members of our society are subject to less job evaluation than any other professionals?

Posted by: jayef | July 12, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Why do most critics of reform today sound like reform itself is the problem rather than a response to decades of completely inadequate schools for many of the students most in need of a quality education. To speak of the "overwhelming importance of out-of-school factors" takes teachers and schools off the hook for improving the efficacy of teaching and learning. How is it that the progressives, unions and activists who used to push for reform have now become the army of no, the defenders of the status quo. Times have changed, technology has changed, culture has changed, but without a strong push for accountability and new ways of educating our schools will not change, and they desperately need to.

Posted by: gideon4ed | July 12, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Education people aren’t the only ones alarmed by Gates’ excessive power. People involved with world health are deeply concerned with his manipulations of policy there, too. Read the 2008 report by Global Health Watch by going to http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/2009/09/gates-induced-wariness.html

Even Chester Finn has expressed uneasiness about what the Gates Foundation is doing.

From Ravitch’s book (“The Death and Life of the Great American School System”): "Writing about the foundation's efforts to ‘broaden and deepen its reach,’ [Erik W.] Robelen noted [Education Week, 2006] that almost everyone he interviewed was getting Gates money…but never in the history of the United States was there a foundation as rich and powerful as the Gates Foundation. Never was there one that sought to steer state and national policy in education. And never before was there a foundation that gave grants to almost every major think tank and advocacy group in the field of education, leaving almost no one willing to criticize its vast power and unchecked influence."

Robelen also found that the Gates Foundation increased its spending on "advocacy work" from $276,000 in 2002 to $57,000,000 in 2005. In other words, Gates just buys whatever he wants.

Consider the possibility that Gates’ extreme wealth has turned him into a megalomaniac, but people aren’t able to recognize it because they are star struck by his wealth and celebrity, and can’t get past public persona as a nerdish “nice guy.” I don’t think Microsoft got where it is by being “nice.”

Gates is being allowed to rule the U.S. public education roost, but he has no experience in education, limited experience interacting with average people, and extremely limited experience dealing with children (other than his own children). However, he does have a personal vision of public education and is willing to outgun and out-maneuver everyone else so it can be achieved.

Posted by: pondoora | July 12, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Several times in the past few days I have had to open the HELP screen to find out how to do in Microsoft Word 2007 what I used to do easily in Microsoft Word 2000. Microsoft's "improvements" fix things that were working just fine and make the product more difficult to use. I don't think the founder of Microsoft is any one to look to for school improvement.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 12, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Gates has a Napoleon complex. His sword is his money. His dopamine neurons are tickled by conquest, and given the state of the ecomony and the ethically ill leadership in politics and of some in education, it's open season on our kids. The logic and findings of the noted panel of the National Academy of Sciences can be ignored by Gates because, well, it can.

My next computer will be a MAC.

Posted by: shadwell1 | July 12, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Teacher quality, good organization and class size are all important. Class size is extremely important.

It is very easy to be effective and engaging with 20 students. It is not so easy with 35, depending on student age and subject.

I'm surprised they missed that fact. They cannot have teachers on their advisory boards or if they do, they are not listening to them.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 12, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

When Gates was in the computer field he made a lot of money - but not by improving the field. He made money on a weak, buggy operating system that required an enormous amount of support to keep it running. Thus was born the computer technician, to keep Gates windows machines up and running in spite of his buggy operating system.

He also squashed a lot of his competition, who were more innovative than he was.

I always felt Microsoft under Gates was holding the computer field back.

Posted by: jlp19 | July 12, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

@pdfordill:

Why do small schools not work? I'm sorry but your statement was nonsense and completely refuted by the evidence in Philadelphia.

Our small schools report just came out in Philly and was a resounding success. So the answer is yes, small schools work. However, they need to target their often specialized programs to more motivated and prepared students. Given that Philadelphia has almost 170,000 students, I think it's a good bet to provide some small-school alternatives that can reap big academic rewards.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | July 12, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

jayef,

"Why should it be that these members of our society are subject to less job evaluation than any other professionals?"


I worked for many years in business, and then recareered to education. I see much more review and job evaluations going on in teaching than in business.

It's the media that keeps saying that there are job evaluations going on in education. But that is not the truth.

Posted by: jlp19 | July 12, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Thanks jlp19, for the note on the job evaluations, I am so tired of reading how teachers are not "held accountable", when in truth we can be evaluated and we are presenting every single day of the year.

I really wonder what is up with the media and the so called reformers with all this anti-teacher attitude. It is just downright misleading and bad for our country.

I have nothing against Gates or school reform that is flexible, useful and not based on the false premise that the great majority of teachers are lousy.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 12, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

@gideon4ed

I can only speak for myself. I am for school reform if it is really reform and is in the best interests of the students.

It seems to me that what is being promoted as reform is actually a demonizing of teachers and unions and a glorification of standardized testing, which is being used as proof for schools to brag about how great they are, whether or not they actually have good programs.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 12, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

IMO it will be telling, to see what happens in light of the new "home computers hurt" findings.
("Researchers measuring a home computer's educational value to a schoolchild in a low-income household are finding that test scores tend to go down, not up.") -
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/business/11digi.html

Posted by: annahaynes | July 12, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

celestun100,

I used to work in the computer field. I saw Microsoft gain dominance with its buggy products. Microsoft has been a disaster for the computer field. It held the industry back in its quest for dominance.

The most common phase I used to hear technicians say was "I hate Microsoft." I could tell you story after story of problems with its operating system and other products.

Microsoft gained its dominance not by quality, but by brute force. Now we see Gates trying to control the education industry by brute force. He hasn't changed.

If he didn't have the father and wife he has, he would still be brutalizing the computer industry. He's only giving money because he loves his family. But he is still the same corrupt game player.

Posted by: jlp19 | July 12, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

celestun100,

You may not have anything against Gates, but I do and so do many who still work in the computer field.

Posted by: jlp19 | July 12, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Our school district went through the small schools initiative. It has been very successful here. I think due to buy in from the teachers, excellent principals and thoughtful planning and implementation. We have one building which houses all the small schools. We now have the advantages of a large high school with the connections of a small high school. I want to thank The Gates Foundation for improving our high school.

Posted by: wannabeanon | July 12, 2010 8:01 PM | Report abuse

@Nikki1231
Allow me to clarify: small schools have not been the panacea that guarantee success. I agree in theory with small schools; I teach at a small school. Yet the real number is the RATIO of adults to students. A small school by definition has a small adult-to-student ratio because the number of students is smaller; if you're going to have a 1,500 student body, a 24:1 ratio would need >63 teachers.
Indeed there are samples of successful small schools, but they have not produced for Gates, it seems, the sustained, superior success for which he was hoping.

Posted by: pdfordiii | July 12, 2010 9:27 PM | Report abuse

Uh? Don't want the Gates money to try out his ideas, then don't take it. Seems pretty basic to me. Guy is putting his money (and time) up to support what he believes are the types of reforms schools need. If a district doesn't agree, how are they harmed by refusing to go along? OTOH, if it's my school district, I'm doing everything I can to get Gates to back up the district and see what happens.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | July 12, 2010 9:36 PM | Report abuse

Not only are you seriously misguided. You should be writing for the tabloids where sensationalized news fits in very well.

Posted by: jdhollinger | July 13, 2010 1:43 AM | Report abuse

Leonie Haimson's essay is without doubt the finest and most well supported argument I have ever read about Bill Gates ill-conceived notions for school reform. And Valerie Strauss has once again identified a mature and well articulated voice. Thank you.

PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large's comments were also very insightful, as they appreciate the processes by which both children and teachers learn. There is one additional item to his list (as he ran out of characters) that goes to the CORE of what Gates thinks so important to great learning environments; that size does matter.

Harvard College (part of the University) offers a remarkable variety of highly regarded program disciplines to it's students. Depending on each individual student's needs and interests, the ability of such large institutions to provide choices that smaller schools cannot is certainly among their most attractive attributes.

Even before attending Harvard, Gates attended Lakeside School, an exclusive preparatory school where he met future co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen. At Harvard, Gates was part of a very small and brilliant group (of computer geeks) that included Steve Ballmer, who later succeeded Gates as CEO of Microsoft. These kids recognized both the potential of small computers (PC's) and the absence of big business' understanding of the value of such machines or how to make them work. The "dumb luck" of their timing was the most essential ingredient of their future success, as they soon positioned themselves to control, and in many instances steal, the inventions of other brilliant computer scientists as evidenced by the volume of long lasting, but very often successful patent infringement lawsuits filed against Microsoft for decades afterward.

Without the time to attend class, and the world's greatest fortune before him, Gates became yet another famous Harvard College dropout. And he never had the opportunity to fully appreciate the value that only larger schools can provide. Not only are there more courses of study, but also many more students with whom to collaborate, and to find mutual interest and inspiration.

Even in the most challenged urban public schools, located in high-poverty and socially disfunctional neighborhoods, smaller is not better. Class size does matter, as smaller schools cannot adequately deal with significant variation in achievement (grade level); and small populations lessen the potential of students finding scholastic peers with which to partner.

Cornell University's motto is, "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study"; a long, but easy to understand statement by it's founder who began his adult life as a carpenter, developed a plow that efficiently buried telegraph lines, and became a founder of Western Union. Many Cornellians believe the Harvard motto, "Veritas" (Truth), may be too brief, and confident to a fault.

Posted by: AGAAIA | July 13, 2010 4:43 AM | Report abuse

Sure, Bill and Melinda Gates are two extreme undesirables in need of strict scrutiny. GET OUT!!! Their work on aids, measles, etc. in under developed parts of the world is a real cause for concern.

"The education system is built on the three pillars of mediocrity: lockstep pay, lifetime tenure and seniority," was New York City's Chancellor of Education, Joel Klein's assessment. And who developed and sanctioned this core of mediocrity? The educational establishment headed by none other than your local, state, state, and especially federal (NEA) teachers unions.

Gates, and a number of other prominent business types have seen the existing model of public schools in this country for what it is - an embarrassment - and are attempting to create some meaningful reforms, despite a massive effort on the part of teacher unions, especially the NEA, to the contrary.

Competition is the ethos of our culture. It is in every aspect of our lives and has been what made this country great, at least until recently. Conspicuously absent from inside the school house gate, competition is on the verge of being injected into the inner sanctums of our schools and will prove to be the holy grail of a floundering system.

Posted by: phoss1 | July 13, 2010 6:22 AM | Report abuse

"Competition is the ethos of our culture. It is in every aspect of our lives and has been what made this country great..."

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About 'United States v. Microsoft', Wikipedia has this:

Many decisions that led to antitrust litigation over Microsoft's business practices have had Gates' approval. In the 1998 United States v. Microsoft case, Gates gave deposition testimony that several journalists characterized as evasive. He argued with examiner David Boies over the contextual meaning of words like "compete", "concerned" and "we".

BusinessWeek reported: "Early rounds of his deposition show him offering obfuscatory answers and saying 'I don't recall,' so many times that even the presiding judge had to chuckle. Worse, many of the technology chief's denials and pleas of ignorance were directly refuted by prosecutors with snippets of e-mail Gates both sent and received."

Gates later said that he had simply resisted attempts by Boies to mischaracterize his words and actions. As to his demeanor during the deposition, he said, "Did I fence with Boies? ... I plead guilty. Whatever that penalty is should be levied against me: rudeness to Boies in the first degree." Despite Gates's denials, the judge ruled that Microsoft had committed monopolization and tying, and blocking competition, both in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

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Bill Gates has been the personification of anti-competite business practices, and is considered the 'Jay Gould (Railroad baron and one of the most reviled people of American industrial age)' of the computer age by most within the industry.

Watching him try to fix schools, is like watching a carpenter try to fix a television with a hammer. And he is going to break lots of schools in the process.

Posted by: AGAAIA | July 13, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

Bill Gates& Co. have discovered that teachers are important.

Perhaps it will only be another two or three decades before someone else realizes that the most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work!!

Then students also will have been discovered!!

Will Fitzhugh: fitzhugh@tcr.org
www.tcr.org/blog

Posted by: fitzhugh1 | July 13, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Every time I post this comment, it is removed from the WaPo but I'll try again.

Bill Gates, a college dropout, is not (IMO) qualified to make important education decisions. Neither is US Education Secretary Arne Duncan whose only degree is a B.A. in Sociology.

Posted by: lacy4 | July 13, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

"Small Schools" aka Charter schools are not a panacea. Some can work with selected students. See the CREDO study at credo.stanford.edu/reports/MULTIPLE_CHOICE_CREDO.pdf . Note that this is done by STANFORD, hardly a right-wing institution. Only 35% of charter schools performed better than ordinary public schools.

Posted by: shadowchb | July 14, 2010 10:30 PM | Report abuse

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