An Open Letter to Bill Gates
Dear Mr. Gates:
I write with great admiration and appreciation of your remarkable philanthropic efforts on behalf of health, poverty and education. Changing the world is a spectacular goal. Congratulations on your plans to dedicate more of your time to charity and on Warren Buffett's enormous contribution to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's efforts.
I know nothing about infectious diseases, vaccines or sustainable agriculture. I defer to you and other experts on those topics. A recent Business Week cover story, Bill Gates Gets Schooled, was eye opening. That article reports the mixed success of your foundation's efforts in public school reform and your candid admission of disappointing results. It must be depressing to spend a billion dollars on school reform and all you got was a lousy t-shirt. I humbly share the following recommendations to help guide your future initiatives.
Decide what you believe
You and all your advisors should read Seymour Sarason's book, What Do YOU Mean by Learning? Sarason makes what should be an obvious observation that discussions of learning, teaching and school reform often fail to discuss what the stakeholders mean by learning. Without such a serious ongoing discussion, failure is predictable.
With all due respect, the Gates Foundation needs to decide what it means by learning and stop funding competing organizations. Investing in the Met Schools (see "Radical Reformer," November 2005, page 46) and Achieve, Inc., simultaneously is like funding both sides of a war.
Apparently it is rocket science
The Business Week article tells the story of a Denver High School that received Gates Foundation funds. The school was broken up into four smaller schools in an attempt to make schooling more personal and have fewer students fall through the cracks. However, the school's award-winning choir, a perennial source of pride and excellence, crumbled when students were dispersed to four different schools within the building. Surely, some smart adult could have figured out a plan to move children from one corner of a school to another for choir practice?
Schools are complex organisms full of unintended consequences
A recent Los Angeles Times article chronicled how the noble goal of breaking large high schools into small, more personal, learning communities does foster school pride. However, it also may cause those communities to become tribes hostile to one another and result in limited elective options for students.
The impossible is easy, the easy is often impossible
This is my axiom to explain the chaotic nature of schools. It may indeed be easier to build a residential campus in Paris for New York City ninth graders than to hire a French teacher for their neighborhood school.
When seeking clarity, ask yourself a simple question: "Would I proudly send my child to this school?"
Drop the business metaphors
Stop talking about schools as businesses and using terms like efficiency, productivity, supply chain and measurable outcomes. Such metaphors are weak and create needless tension among your "partners" in education.
Drop the school metaphors
The clich?s used by educators to describe their practices and objectives can prove just as stifling and counterproductive as business metaphors. Reflexive mantras like "Sage on the stage" and "You must invest in professional development" fail to acknowledge the complexities of education and provide alibis for failure.
Stop talking about results
Such short-term language may be appropriate for quarterly profit statements, but not education. Learning is messy, individual and natural. Schools do not manufacture widgets, but create an environment in which children and teachers may grow.
If you do wish to focus on results, be honest about what works. Education is notorious for having ideology trump evidence. Your talk of "more rigorous curriculum" and scores directly contradicts research funded by your foundation. The Met/Big Picture schools are wildly successful despite the complete absence of any traditional notion of curriculum. If you want results, build a lot more schools like the Met and let go of the fantasy of one-size-fits-all magical curricula.
You need to meddle
If you pay the bills, then you have a right and responsibility to run the school. A hands-off approach to schools you fund creates confusion among the stakeholders. Your support, insight, expertise and clear expectations must be apparent and consistent.
Work with the living and do no harm
You have acknowledged that it is easier and more effective to build new schools than fix some existing ones. Keep creating great schools where children can flourish and building models others can follow.
Solve the college readiness problem
If you find that preparing poor, urban, rural and minority students for college is too difficult, then build some colleges with open enrollment in those communities to offer opportunities students would otherwise be deprived of.
Admit that math education is a disaster
Almost nothing done in the past 50 years has helped students be more numerate. Work with Seymour Papert to invent a mathematics curricula that students could love, rather than coming up with tricks to help a few more memorize algorithms irrelevant to their lives and the complex world in which they learn. Computers have a clear role to play in learning about such sciences of complexity.
Show some courage
You are the richest man in the world. That's like having tenure. You may work without fear! You and Oprah spent two hours on television alerting the public that too many schools are failing too many children. However, you seem reluctant to discuss the underlying causes of poverty, inequitable funding formulas and the resegregation of our nation's public schools. The Gates-funded Manual Arts High School in Denver that has now closed was destroyed by the resegregation of the school. Civil rights are critical for students and you need to lend your voice to that struggle.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings likes to say, "Schools are the same as they were 25 years ago." That is demonstrably false. I graduated high school 25 years ago and enjoyed a full-range of electives, three music classes per day, great bands, fabulous plays, no AP courses, little tracking and teachers did not soil themselves over the need to raise scores on deeply flawed standardized tests. The climate of fear, name-calling and punishment paralyzing schools today is a recent phenomena produced by those professing to help.
We will have achieved success when all schools are demonstrably great places where children prefer to be and authentic learning exceeds our expectations. I wish you well in your quest to create such a reality.
Gary Stager, email@example.com, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.