I'll give Bill Gates credit for directing a huge amount of money, through his foundation, at education reform. And I very much appreciate his effort to try to determine what works instead of resorting to fads or politics. But when he writes,
The private high school I attended, Lakeside in Seattle, made a huge difference in my life. The teachers fueled my interests and encouraged me to read and learn as much as I could. Without those teachers I never would have gotten on the path of getting deeply engaged in math and software. . . .I know he's not proposing that public schools be brought up to the standard of his private high school, currently costing well over $25,000 per year in tuition and fees. But his findings in relation to the most successful public schools, supported by Gates Foundation grants, are interesting.
How many kids don't get the same chance to achieve their full potential?
But a few of the schools that we funded achieved something amazing. They replaced schools with low expectations and low results with ones that have high expectations and high results. These schools are not selective in whom they admit, and they are overwhelmingly serving kids in poor areas, most of whose parents did not go to college. Almost all of these schools are charter schools that have significantly longer school days than other schools.Gates observes, "We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school" - I suspect that plays a role in why charter schools were more likely to be successful. They have the opportunity to start fresh with administrators who were better positioned to try something new, and perhaps also much more interested in doing so.
Honestly, I've seen school administrators in public school systems enact policies that seem designed to stifle innovation, and make the extraordinary more ordinary, either because they don't understand alternative models to education or (in my cynical view) because it's more work. Also, while charter schools don't discriminate in who they admit, there's going to be some self-selection both in terms of the parents and kids who are willing to tolerate extra rules or requirements, or even to overcome the lethargy that keeps them in the default neighborhood school. They also get to recruit teachers whose philosophies align with their own.
Consistent with the Washington Posts editorial stance, Gates argues that this means we need more charter schools.
Many states have limits on charter schools, including giving them less funding than other schools. Educational innovation and overall improvement will go a lot faster if the charter school limits and funding rules are changed.Yet let's be honest here. School funding levels are only part of the picture. I suspect it's a "donut hole" phenomenon, and schools like Lakeside or Sidwell Friends establish that extremely high funding can bring additional benefits to their students, but there's a basic level of funding beyond which additional dollars don't seem to have much impact on student performance. The fact that charter schools on the whole aren't outperforming, or are underperforming, public schools has less to do with funding and more to do with the fact that the people who set them up don't always share Gates' zeal for quality and performance, or don't have the requisite skill set to turn that interest into reality.
When the idea of charter schools was first raised, I found it very intriguing. I saw real potential for experimentation and improvement. But the reality is, building and running a school is hard work. The amount of institutional lethargy behind institutions of higher learning (particularly schools with large teaching colleges) was perhaps not surprising, but was disappointing - I haven't seen any real leadership from that direction. Some charter school entrepreneurs seemed (and seem) more interested in providing an alternative culture (e.g., charter schools that follow a particular religious model) than a better educational model. Some appear to be driven almost entirely by profit. There are true believers out there, but there don't seem to be as many as Bill Gates appears to believe.
Also, unless charter schools have equal responsibility - no indirect subsidy by letting their students use sports facilities or play on sports teams at nearby public schools, equal responsibility for special education students, etc. - they shouldn't get equal funding. I'm not arguing that some states or school districts don't underfund charter schools, as that appears to happen with some regularity, but mere inequality of funding does not of itself mean that charter schools aren't equitably funded.
Gates speaks of improving teachers:
One of the key things these schools have done is help their teachers be more effective in the classroom.It's no surprise that the best schools, public and private, support their teachers and help them achieve, maintain and build on their classroom effectiveness.
Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school.I hate "research shows" lines tossed out like that, with no indication of what the research actually means. If you compare an AP math class to a remedial math class, you're going to see a huge difference in performance between the two classrooms. But for all we know, they may be taught by the same teacher. And if they're not, it's not an indictment of the teacher who's working to bring the unprepared kids up to speed, but results from the fact that they're in a classroom full of kids whose math skills were far below grade level from day one.
The teacher in the remedial classroom may in fact be the better teacher. The worst math teacher I ever had taught honors math at my high school - I was stuck in her class for 11th and 12th grades. Our class performed despite her, not because of her, yet we still significantly outperformed the school's other math classes on standardized tests.
Whenever I talk to teachers, it is clear that they want to be great, but they need better tools so they can measure their progress and keep improving.So teachers are like Windows Vista, but want to be more like Windows 7? I joke, but I agree with this:
So our new strategy focuses on learning why some teachers are so much more effective than others and how best practices can be spread throughout the education system so that the average quality goes up.I just hope they also spend some time looking at administrators.
I applaud the notion of having 90-100% of high school students graduate ready to enter college. However, I think it's more important to our nation that we help a young potential Bill Gates graduate from a public high school, as ready as Bill himself was to... drop out of college and co-found a cutting edge tech company. These goals don't have to be mutually exclusive, but I don't see any way to pretend otherwise: with enough time, energy and resources you may be able to get 90% of the kids in any given high school ready for college, but unless you're assuming that the smartest and most capable will "take care of themselves", you can't afford to lose them in the shuffle as you focus on raising the common denominator.*
* Thomas Friedman argues in favor of an open door policy, bringing in more entrepreneurial immigrants. I'm all for trying to attract students and innovators from around the world, to study and set up shop in the United States. No doubt, even if we forget the role of education, particularly sciences, maths, and other difficult disciplines not directly associated with Wall Street riches, and the importance of nurturing the next generation of leaders in scientific disciplines, other nations will not.