The cover story of the current edition of Business Week features the news that Bill Gates will be stepping down as chairman of the Big Monopoly of Redmond at the end of 2008.
But there’s a more interesting piece farther back in the issue, Bill Gates Gets Schooled, about the efforts of the large foundation Gates runs with his wife to foster school reform.
They’ve decided to make the improvement of high school education in this country one of their causes (one that could use a large dose of innovation!) and have been using their money fund projects centered around the “small high school” concept.
Along the way, however, they didn’t count on the fact that there are many people and institutions building road blocks to making anything more than cosmetic changes to the traditional high school.
Six years and a steep learning curve later, the Gateses see just how intractable are the many ills plaguing America’s worst schools. It has been a difficult, even humbling experience. Melinda Gates says she and Bill didn’t realize at first how much cooperation it would take from school districts and states to break up traditional big schools. “If you want to equate being naive with being inexperienced, then we were definitely naive when we first started,” she says. “There are a lot of places where many people have given up, or decided that ‘bad schools are not my problem.’ There are also a lot of entrenched interests.”
At least they see the $1 billion the foundation has spent so far on their education reform programs as “research and development for educators”.
But it won’t take a lot of research to discover why school reform is so hard. All they need to do is to notice that the primary occupation of our overly large school this week is not teaching students.
Everything is tied up with preparing to close schools for two months.
Then in August, we’ll all spend lots of time, energy and money opening them up again.
Organizing schools around a calendar appropriate for a rural community in the mid 20th century is just one small part what’s wrong with an educational structure that is largely inappropriate for the needs of 21st century students.
While the “small high schools” pilot programs sponsored by the Gates Foundation have largely failed, at least they are trying to foster more than cosmetic changes. Beyond more tests, more drill, more of the same.
At least they now understand that making fundamental changes to American education is not going to happen fast. And they seem committed to a long process.
Melinda Gates says she and Bill are pacing themselves. “Sometimes you get other people who come in and do small pieces of this, and then their money’s spent and they go away,” she explains. “This is something that we’re going to stay after for a long time. You come to talk to me in 20 years, and we’ll still be tackling this problem.”
I’ve never cared much for Gates’ business practices. However, I do admire the man for putting serious money behind his belief that public education can and should be overhauled.
We need many more people with far less money working towards the same thing.