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Gates and High School

Perhaps it would be worth saying something about the substance of Bill Gates' take on high school reform instead of just offering some historical musings.

Via Eduwonk I see that the op-ed wasn't just out of the blue. It was adopted from a recent speech that contained a bit more policy meat:

Yet every governor knows that the success of one school is not an answer to this crisis. You have to be able to make systems of schools work for all students.   For this, we believe we need stable and effective governance. We need equitable school choice. We need performance-oriented employment agreements. And we need the capacity to intervene in low-performing schools. 
I agree in principle, though obviously a lot turns on one's ability to design a school choice program that's actually equitable and, in particular, on the difficult question of finding a workable way to implement performance-oriented employment agreements. And then there's this:
Turn around failing schools and open new ones. If we believe all kids can learn – and the evidence proves they can –then when the students don’t learn, the school must change. Every state needs a strong intervention strategy to improve struggling schools. This needs to include special teams of experts who are given the power and resources to turn things around.
I think I read a Washington Monthly article about this once, but looking through their archives I can't find it. The article, however, was very convincing. The background for the whole conversation is talk of extending the No Child Left Behind approach to the high school level. NCLB is, I think, a mixed bag, with some good ideas and some serious design problems . . . all things considered taking it high school seems like a good idea.

March 1, 2005 | Permalink


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How do you recognize success? That's one of the problems with NCLB- you have to keep improving test scores, year after year, and if you don't you're "failing." Obviously schools where you need metal detectors are not working, but what's the line at which we're satisfied? At what point is an education system good enough, since in theory you could teach calculus to 4th graders, but you wouldn't want to pay for it.

Posted by: SP | Mar 1, 2005 5:33:11 PM

Matt -- here.

Posted by: Brad Plumer | Mar 1, 2005 5:48:31 PM

I think you missed the story here, Matt. Even High School kids can understand that every cent of profit that Microsoft makes from monopoly power is a T A X on the economy and on free enterprise itself. If you listen to Gates yammer about education, you've taken the bait. Explain to him what's wrong about illegal monopolies and the corrupt business men who engineer them.

Posted by: poputonian | Mar 1, 2005 5:55:11 PM

Matt, I think you're looking for Hot for Teachers by Jonathan Schoor. Though, that's more about teachers, the Tucker/Toch article that Plumer links to is about bureaucrats.

Posted by: niq | Mar 1, 2005 6:38:49 PM


I think it's important to separate the substance of Gates' argument from your generally accurate criticisms of the substance of Gates' sleaze.

Yes, Microsoft has lied, cheated, stole, and dicked the entire world over, and particularly the tax-supported schools in their home state, for fun and profit. Not to mention creating a Stalinist word processing monopoly that paternalistically and hideously reformats everything we write.

Nonetheless, as when a despicable Congressman on the wrong side of the aisle makes a public argument for a worthy cause, the proper response is to take the ball and run with it. I agree with Gates that the fundamental problem with our public schools is that they treat all children outside of gifted & talented programs as if they are marginally retarded. We need to challenge the little brats and make them use their brains.

If America will pay greater attention to this idea when it comes from the mouth of a highly regarded robber baron, then bless his little black heart and hand the bastard a mic.

Posted by: Violet | Mar 1, 2005 7:08:09 PM

I happen to teach in a high school. I'm amazed at how many people who rarily if ever set foot inside one have such a bounty of knowledge about how they work. The only thing we ever hear in the wonderful media is what loudmouths say. Accusations pile up and kids hear them all. I go to work and have to resell the notion that education matters for them and that they will never again be surrounded by so many people whose sole purpose is to assist, nuture and challenge them. The first step to improving schools is to shut the fuck up and act by volunteering or offering to maybe just maybe pay teachers what they deserve. Schools are asked to do more every year. We get paid crap. I've been in for 15 years and I make 34,000. Son't tell me to find another job. I had one that paid twice what I make now. I love kids. I don't do it for the money. I'm a good teacher. The people I work with are brilliant and dedicated. Bill Gates can blow me.

Posted by: bill | Mar 1, 2005 7:16:18 PM

thats "don't" not son't

Posted by: bill | Mar 1, 2005 7:18:29 PM

I want to agree with you Violet, but I can't get it out of my head that schools are where Gates distributes his heroin. That's all a school is to him ... a seedbed to cultivate future MS automatons. No? It's same thinking Pepsi and Coke use in giving 'deals' to schools. So my first thought is they all should be condemned, not listened to.

Posted by: poputonian | Mar 1, 2005 7:19:44 PM

Schools cannot be expected to correct all of our society's ills. Schools are there to educate our children, but in too many cases they have to spend resources and time just keeping the children reasonably safe, not teaching them. I don't care how many times you replace a school in a failed neighborhood, you are not going to turn it into a model school. Let's work at correcting the big problems we have in our society, such as a too low minimum wage, glorification of alcohol and drug use, glorification of sports millionaires, etc. When we do that, I think we will find our schools showing great improvement too.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Mar 1, 2005 7:45:08 PM


We've obviously got different assumptions, because I don't think any of your "big problems" are problems at all. But don't you think shitty schools qualifies as a "big problem"? More importantly, aren't schools a cause more than an effect of society's ills?

Posted by: steve | Mar 1, 2005 8:02:08 PM

I feel better now. Vaughn is right. Perhaps a parenting licence (I bit my own tongue). More positive feedback when things go well. Realistic positive feedback for kids. Pay attention to virtues worthy of our children. We have become the most stressed out society in history. That needs a fix.

Posted by: bill | Mar 1, 2005 8:04:58 PM

I just don't think that Americans actually value education very much. It doesn't matter what governmental strategies we try to implement to make schools better, as long as parents don't care.

Posted by: Matt G. | Mar 1, 2005 8:07:39 PM

My high school had gates, but they never locked them, so we would just go out into the parking lot, get high, go grab some food, maybe jam out to some tunes...

Good times.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Mar 1, 2005 8:22:46 PM

It doesn't look like many of you actually watched Gates' speech on CSPAN. His ideas seem pretty on target to me and several friends who've taught in h.s. His main point: the current school system was designed more than 50 years ago under the assumption that less than one-third of students needed to go on to higher ed, and that the remainder just weren't worth giving a quality education or even capable of learning. Clearly these assumptions have changed, and become ethically suspect. So, whatever the evils of Microsoft, if his foundation is helping to redesign some 1,500 high schools around the country to prepare students of all income levels and ethnicity to succceed in college (as he claims), then why not give him some credit? Plus, he's willing to spend some time with state governors (he was speaking to the National Governor's conference) who are the ones who most need to act to redesign the schools. Anyway, the issue is the sad state of US schools -- now ranked among the lowest among industrialized nations on many criteria -- not Gates and Microsoft.

Posted by: julian | Mar 1, 2005 9:00:08 PM

"We've obviously got different assumptions, because I don't think any of your "big problems" are problems at all. But don't you think shitty schools qualifies as a "big problem"? More importantly, aren't schools a cause more than an effect of society's ills?"
We certainly do have a different outlook on schools. No, I don't think schools are more of a cause than an effect of society's ills. I know from experience that parents are the biggest influence on whether or not a child does well in school - any school. And, the rest of the child's local society is the second biggest factor. We just can't pass the buck to schools and teachers.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Mar 1, 2005 9:29:18 PM

Newsweek said Pablo Escobar, the Medellin coke kingpin was "a Robin Hood-like figure to the locals, building hospitals, schools and housing." We could get his input, except he's dead. But if we could get it, it would have as much value as Gates' input.

Gates is the embodiment of private greed over public good. He broke every rule of free enterprise to hoard wealth at the expense of competitors and society. He forced emerging threats to sell their companies to him, and if they didn't he ran them out of business. His methods were coercive and cutthroat. He is society's scum and should be doing time, not lecturing governors about schools. Society has paid an enormous sum through corporations that cost shift the Microsoft monopoly charges into what consumers pay for products. It's a monopoly tax. Not to mention we're stuck in an obsolere computing paradigm.

For those who are enamored by Gates' philanthropy, you must not have been paying attention in the mid 90s when he was singled out by a group that studied philanthropy and named the stingiest, wealthiest person on the planet. Only then did Gates set up his foundation. If Gates wants to help schools he should stop his monopolistic tactics and let innovators thrive. That might start a trend in American business where opportunity could then spead into the plight-zones and schools would improve. The root cause of this problem, after all, is the opportunity deficit that's caused by American business (which is furthered by politicians like George Bush), and the disadvantageous playing field faced by the individual.

Posted by: poputonian | Mar 1, 2005 10:15:10 PM

poputonian wrote:

"For those who are enamored by Gates' philanthropy, you must not have been paying attention in the mid 90s when he was singled out by a group that studied philanthropy and named the stingiest, wealthiest person on the planet."

Bill Gates has donated billions of dollars to his foundation, and has publically stated that he intends to donate all but a few million dollars of his entire fortune to the foundation by the time he dies. His foundation is the single most powerful and effective body organizing to fight infectious disease in the developing world today. Within the next 10-20 years there is every reason to believe that the Gates Foundation will have saved the lives of millions (yes, millions) of people in the third world who otherwise would have dies of preventable, but deadly diseases. But who cares - after all, Macs are kewl.

Really. Put the bong down.

Posted by: sd | Mar 1, 2005 10:32:41 PM

I strongly oppose the easy use of the term "failing schools". ¿What is a failing school? ¿A school where most of the kids come from homes with unemployment problems? ¿A school where most of the kids's parents are barely semi-literate? ¿A school where most kids live in poverty, ignorance, unemployment, crime, alcoholism, drug abuse, etc.? I mean ¿how can you judge a school like that with the same criteria as a school of mostly upper middle class kids? ¿Why not rate schools according to how they do related to the socioeconomic background of their students? It's certainly more difficult and deserving of reward to get a kid from a very poor home into college than a upper class kid.

Posted by: Carlos | Mar 1, 2005 10:40:50 PM

NCLB was recently studied by a distinguished group. Bottom line: the little good in it is overwhelmed by the bad. General point: there is no topic that attracts so much ignorant opinion like education. Education is like Hollywood: No one knows nothing. But in fact Bill G is at least trying to study the problem realistically, which is more than can be said, for example, on behalf of the Department of Education or the Administration that celebrated NCLB.

Posted by: rod | Mar 1, 2005 10:42:13 PM

I don't have a Mac and I don't touch pot. Gates has stolen more than he's given back. Morality isn't a ledger system where you add up all your good deeds, subtract your evil ones, and if it comes out on the plus side, you get to go to heaven. Charles Keating of S&L debacle infamy gave Mother Theresa a million dollars. His secretary made a six figure income in the 1980s. Trouble was, he was defrauding elderly people out of their money. Pick your favorite hero, sd. Ken Lay? Same thing. Church on Sunday, steal Monday through Friday. It's an old ruse.

Posted by: poputonian | Mar 1, 2005 10:43:36 PM

I was not at all impressed with what I heard Gates say about high schools in a highlighted bit I heard tonight while listening to On Point. Gates seemingly wants to blame lack of student achievement primarily on high schools, but there are many other variables in the mix, especially a young child's home environment. If Gates had emphasized pre-school programs, I'd have taken what he said more seriously.

Posted by: David W. | Mar 1, 2005 11:57:42 PM

The robber barrons of the 19th century left us with well endowed universities, national road and railroad systems, thousands of libraries and a network of hospitals and clinics. Welcome philanthropy, encourage it.

I also welcome fact and reality based discourse.

The Gates Foundation isn't saying much new, they're just backing they're words with a billion dollars of private money. http://www.gatesfoundation.org/Education/ for more on their programs and the full text of Gates's speech.

Our challenge isn't to catch up with the rest of the industrial world. It is to leap-frog it. To redefine both success and the means to get there.

Frankly, I want gradeschoolers to be learning what's taught in high school now. I want car mechanics with a high school education to be hacking telematics to create new products. I want Hollywood waitresses to be dropping their acting coaches for a shot at creating a new coiffure rendering engine. I want middle school science fairs packed with patent attorneys passing out cards. I want social security to come with an education benefit. I want class sizes under 20 and teacher salaries over $50k. I want to rehire all the fine arts, science, and social science teachers, the coaches, the counsellors, and the nurses laid off. I want technology refreshed at least every two years, so we're not graduating masters of the obsolete. I want serious funding for continuing teacher education. I want graduates who can think critically when they hear political bullshit.

There are those who don't believe education is the business of government. Of any government. So they've worked effectively at taking away money from public schools and school districts, strangling them in paperwork and bureaucracy (NCLB just the latest) so the public despairs and hands education over to the private sector.

I think that's wrong.

I believe that education is a human right, a civil right, something our society owes every child and citizen. From cradle to grave. If we push the limit, if we reimagine what education will be for us, this will be an American Century as much as a Chinese and Indian one.

Gates is on the right track. Let's promote good behavior.

Posted by: Phil Wolff | Mar 2, 2005 12:40:53 AM

There was a time when graduating high school was a significant accomplishment. Then so many people did it that it became useless as a way to make distinctions between qualified people. Going through the university system became a significant accomplishment. Then so many people did it that it became useless.

So now having a high school diploma is essentially necessary to get anything even resembling a quality job, but not sufficient. As more and more people go to college (spending time and money in the process) college degrees are becoming necessary but not sufficient. How long will it take before post-graduate education is necessary but not sufficient?

Posted by: Matt G. | Mar 2, 2005 8:42:38 AM

Education demands 3 things:

Humane, well-educated teachers
An environment where learning is valued
Motivated students

All the rest is frou-frou.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis | Mar 2, 2005 9:21:21 AM

And which of those necessities are actually present in most American schools? My guess is that we're looking at 0 of 3 in most cases. At best, we might have motivated students intersecting with competent teachers.

Posted by: Matt G. | Mar 2, 2005 9:24:19 AM

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