Magazine

Grading The Gateses


Through years of writing about education, one thing I have learned is that our readers care deeply about America's public schools. So we expected a lot of reader reaction from the Cover Story my colleague Jay Greene and I wrote, "Bill Gates Gets Schooled" (June 26), and we weren't disappointed: Well over 100 letters and online postings, many passionate, have arrived so far.

Some readers scolded us for our skeptical assessment of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's efforts to fix failing high schools. "The foundation deserves an A for making the effort," responded James Warren, an editor for the Chicago Tribune (TRB), in a review of our article in that paper on June 19. Warren was especially disappointed that we began with an account of the failure of the foundation's efforts to remake Denver's troubled Manual High School. "The story could have instead opened with bona fide Gates successes," he wrote.

Other readers questioned the foundation's accomplishments. "There are no quick fixes. The Gateses' approach will yield some successes, but overall they will have the same impact as a mosquito bite on an elephant's ear," wrote an online reader. Similarly, an angry teacher posted: "It rankles me that so many who have never taught believe they know how to 'fix' the schools....Let's leave teaching to the teachers, and let Mr. Gates and friends 'fix' Windows."

We heard from a number of teachers directly involved with Gates-funded schools, and though opinions were divided, all agreed the work is difficult. Gary Nelson of Bountiful, Utah, left his publishing job to help launch a charter high school patterned after San Diego's High Tech High, which we profiled. "The experiment has proven how difficult creating new schools can be," Nelson wrote, adding that he left several months ago feeling his contributions "were no better, and probably much worse, than the teachers and administrators at traditional high schools."

Many readers suggested there were other reforms that had as much, if not more, promise as the Gateses' small-schools approach. Some focus on improving teacher quality. "Family, family, family -- correct the parents first, and the kids will learn in almost any environment," wrote one online writer, summing up an oft-expressed view. Others advocated everything from using modern brain science to developing professional schools like those in Japan. Here is a sampling of what our readers said:

At least the Gateses are trying. I cannot be critical or say that it is money wasted. Is it the silver bullet? Not likely. Will it generate data that social scientists, educators, and politicians can use to build forward momentum? Absolutely. Progress, not perfection. What have you done to advance society and make the world a better place today? -- "Rich," posted June 16

Holding schools accountable to Gates for funding is absolutely meaningless if Gates doesn't hold senior managers in [his] K-12 unit accountable for results. Learning curve or not, [his] managers spent $1 billion and got very little back. If Gates found this true at Microsoft (MSFT), he would change management.... Second, Gates pretty much ignored the experience of big-name executives like Lou Gerstner, Phil Condit, and David Kearns at New American Schools Development Corp. That investment yielded the best evaluations of program effectiveness to date. If Gates is serious about sustainable quality at scale, he needs to clean house, change staff incentives, and get scalable models. -- Marc Dean Millot, editor, School Improvement Industry Weekly, Alexandria, Va.

I am impressed that the Gateses are publishing results, even though they are negative. Of course, that seems logical to them. Every other profession -- except education -- publishes results from experiments whether they worked or not. So while medicine no longer pours boiling oil on wounds, education continues to recreate past mistakes. Bottom line: The Gateses should keep telling the truth about their return on investment in education. -- Kathleen Madigan, Washington, D.C.

It should be no great surprise that [their] efforts are producing lackluster results. The good people behind these initiatives do not have a grasp of cause and effect, at least in urban areas, where the need does seem greatest. And they're way too confident in their ability to tell a "successful" school from a "failing" one. -- Bill Stoneman, Albany, N.Y.

The answer to better student performance is to base teachers' pay directly on student testing. Do this using a five-year running average (to wash out student quality anomalies) of a teacher's twice-yearly administered test results. -- Elmer F. Clune, Tonawanda, N.Y.

Even with new buildings, smaller schools, visionary principals, committed teachers, and the best tests money can buy, it's difficult to overcome a home life that does not value education. As long as parents send kids to school without pencils, do not respond to teachers' requests for conferences to discuss a failing student, don't set limits on behavior, and don't read books or newspapers, there will be kids left behind. -- Howard Flantzer, Kendall Park, N.J.

International test data show that overseas kids do better in math and science. Are they smarter? No, they go to school a longer day and year -- 230 days a year in China, 220 in Korea, and 210 or more in Japan, vs. an average of 180 in the U.S. Add up the difference over a 13-year school career, and Asian students receive two to more than four years more academic instruction. Controlling for this variable alone virtually wipes out the difference in test scores. -- James P. Lenfestey, Minneapolis

One fundamental assumption by Gates is wrong. He is trying to make all students, regardless of their background and personal abilities, go to college. This is not possible even with all his money. The point of education should be to give all children some professional and technical training so that they can make a decent living.

The Japanese have had professional schools at the secondary level since the early part of the 20th century, including engineering, business and accounting, agriculture and forestry. So children from the poorest families could get some degree of training. BusinessWeek.com [noted] the National Academy Foundation effort to run 500 career academies. This is the closest to what the Japanese are doing and will be the most effective. -- Dr. Pinghui V. Liu, Boca Raton, Fla.

Allow the dollars to follow the students, and I guarantee you that all schools will either get better or die. -- Jeffrey T. Pett, Holland, Mich.

There is far too little discussion of how to use brain science. Using new tools to develop cognitive skills -- our basic ability to learn and process information -- could move students much farther, much faster. The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled. -- Betsy Hill, Wilmette, Ill.

I worked in the Bronx as a high school math teacher. Our large school was divided into small schools. The best students were sloughed off into the small schools, allowing administrators to crow about their progress. Other students, most socially promoted to high school, were left with no role models. Once the "average" student is admitted into small schools, "progress" will evaporate. -- Ric Klass, Westchester County, N.Y.

I work in one of the Gateses' small schools. In my opinion, small schools can work. But there must be: 1) commitment from the district, because modifications to procedures are sometimes needed; 2) the ability to hire motivated staff at all levels (having uncommitted, unmotivated staff is like having huge boulders tied around your neck); 3) a focus on instruction and evaluation; and 4) alternative placements for students who repeatedly break school rules. -- "Committed2SS," posted June 16

Read "Bill Gates Gets Schooled" from BW's June 26 issue, and related online extras at http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/toc/06_26/B3990magazine.htm

By William C. Symonds


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