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Is Bill Gates a Good School Leader?

It's joked that he has more money than God. But is Microsoft's Bill Gates spending enough of his fo

His report card looks good in many lights: Since its formal foray into education in 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has seen many of the schools it supports surpass district-wide student performances. In 2006, the New York City Department of Education announced that the 15 new small schools it opened with the foundation's funds reached a 73 percent graduation rate. The facilities these schools replaced had 31 to 51 percent graduation numbers. ?

That is not an isolated victory. Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in Washington, D.C., says 100 percent of its graduating seniors were accepted to a college or university. Eighty percent of these students are the first generation in their families to continue their education. Meanwhile, MetWest High School in Oakland, California, had higher exit exam scores than its 24 competitors in the district. An impressive 83 percent of students who started school at Noble Street Charter School in Chicago, as freshmen graduated there in June 2006.

"Bill has said that American education is a public sector function for a number of reasons, including the fact that our schools are located in our communities."
-Marie Groark, spokesperson, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Naturally these kind of results flowing from Seattle, begs the question: Would Bill Gates-the chairman of Microsoft who attended a strict private school and later Harvard University, a kid who read Fortune magazine for fun and was debugging BASIC programs in exchange for free computer time as a teen, the mogul dubbed "the richest man in the world"-make a better education leader than Uncle Sam?

He certainly has the financial means. To date, the Gates Foundation has supported more than 2,000 new high schools across the country, including 27 in Chicago, 175 in New York, and 85 throughout Texas. Gates' network of early college high schools totals 170, allowing students in 25 states to earn college degrees along with their undergraduate diplomas. The foundation reports investing $1 billion to date into facilities that offer what it terms the new 3Rs: rigorous instruction; a relevant curriculum; and meaningful, supportive relationships. Gates' name also crops up in scholarship programs and in conjunction with select early education initiatives.

And those figures are from before Warren Buffett gifted the foundation with $31 billion dollars, which the foundation must give away down to the penny starting in 2009 or face tax complications.

"Never before has any individual or foundation had so much power to direct the course of American education," Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of education at New York University, wrote in an editorial to the Los Angeles Times. She claims Gates' $1 billion, handed out without any external review, means this one man looms larger in the eyes of school leaders than the U.S. Department of Education-which she says has only $20 million in discretionary funds at its disposal.

"Never before has any individual or foundation had so much power to direct the course of American education."
 -Diane Ravitch, senior fellow, the Hoover Institution, and professor of education, New York University

"The department may have sticks, but the foundation has almost all the carrots," she wrote. "In light of the size of the foundation's endowment, Bill Gates is now the nation's superintendent of schools He can support whatever he wants, based on any theory or philosophy that appeals to him." No wonder she cautions fellow educators to pay attention for clues as to how this will play out.

Such talk doesn't flatter officials at the foundation itself. "Bill has said himself that American education is a public sector function for a number of reasons, including the fact that our schools are located in our communities," says Marie Groark, a spokesperson for the foundation. "American education in its definition is something we all have a role in, not just one foundation or even one Department of Education."

Hail to Gates

Educators like Chris Barbic, head of schools at the YES College Preparatory School in Houston, Texas, throw their vote of confidence behind Gates. This public school had adopted a smaller school philosophy for the sixth through twelth grade campus before the foundation began passing out funds to this effect. The dollars that flow from the Texas High School Project the Gates Foundation supports have meant Barbic could ratchet up two of his schools to a sustainability level, open a new one in the fall of 2006 and another in 2007. When fully mature, the YES system will involve 700 kids from open enrollment in each of five schools, all concentrating on college prep courses. It's not unique if you're a magnet school, Barbic admits, but the structure is virtually unheard of among traditional, big public high schools. "Gates' influence is definitely positive," he says.

Leon Botstein, president of Bard High School Early College in New York City, also had argued to update the traditional high school model long before Gates' arrival. So his 500 students' success doesn't shock him. But he is grateful for the vote of confidence.

"We are spending a mass amount of public money poorly, and what the Gates Foundation can do is not take it over but help direct it. He's simply adding a critical mass of fuel so that a large fuel-guzzling engine can be turned around in the right direction. He's not replacing the engine."
-Leon Botstein, president, Bard High School Early College

"The visibility of the Gates Foundation and its attachment to very discrete aspects of what's wrong as opposed to general blah-blah is helpful," Botstein says. "And people are impressed with anything that has the Gates name on it, because it speaks of innovation, excellence and the contemporary. It's about brains and the economic power of knowledge.

"Gates has a gravity that Hollywood doesn't have, and a trust factor politicians don't have. Microsoft is about a fundamental change, so it offers the correct symbolism rather than yesterday's hit movie or today's favorite rock song," Botstein adds. Turning education around, he contends, will require someone or something of that caliber to rally all the players. And that much private money in play creates a enormous political pressure point, Botstein points out, so bring it on.

"The more private companies and individuals invest in education, the more they recognize how important it is to get the public investment done right. Foundations are picking up the pieces of what the public is unable to do," he says.

From Paul Houston's standpoint as executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Virginia, if there's a fly in the ointment it's that Gates' background isn't in education. "The danger is what I call the era of amateur school reform," says Houston, "where we have nonprofessionals making the decisions about the directions we should go. I would not at all want to go over to Microsoft and tell them how to do their business. Even though I've managed large organizations in my day, that doesn't make me an expert in their business."

"There's a certain level of arrogance implied in that, and that could be very dangerous," he adds. On the other hand, his personal meetings with Bill Gates have revealed a "very bright person who studies issues." Overall, the AASA executive gives the Microsoft-based money a green light in its potential.

Botstein is on the same page. "Sometimes you have people picking up grand schemes that have no particular connection to the problems in the field," he notes. He compares it to the difference between military strategy from battlefield generals versus scholars who study war. The latter, in his judgment, "are full of pieties about how wars are to be conducted, which has no relationship to what really happens when the war begins." However, he hasn't seen signs of this disconnect to date in the Gates Foundation's young existence.

These educators also refuse to lay the blame for the DOE's stopping funding for small high schools at Gates' feet. In fact, it reinforces the problem with government control, in Botstein's eyes. "If you have a government that is not committed to public education, it will try to fill the deficit by shifting the responsibility to private sources. That's catastrophic," he labels, "but that's not Bill Gates' fault. It's the government's."

For Barbic, it's the "chocolate and peanut butter make a Reese's cup" syndrome. "We aren't doing anything that hasn't been talked about before by education experts. The difference is that Gates was able to bring the resources to bear to actually implement it so it gets beyond the discussion stage. Ideas are great, but if you don't have the money to do it, it's just a report, you know."

Shut the Gates

Gates is hardly the only rich man pouring resources into this field. Wal-Mart's Waltons have also written checks totaling more than $700 million since 1998. Wal-Mart's Waltons have reportedly said they aspire to donate as much as 20 percent, or $1 billion annually, of their wealth to education issues like charter schools and vouchers.

That's why Boston-based critic Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, speaks for many when he says Bill Gates has good intentions and decent ideas about improving schools. His money probably can be put to good use-but no thanks anyway is Kohn's conclusion.

"The danger is what I call the era of amateur school reform, where we have non-professionals making the decisions about the directions we should go. I would not at all want to go over to Microsoft and tell them how to do their business."
-Paul Houston, executive director, American Association of School Administrators

For starters, allowing public school programs and policies to be determined according to a private individual's priorities is "unsettling and profoundly undemocratic," he believes. Bill Mathis, superintendent of schools for Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union district in Brandon, Vermont, puts it even more bluntly: "Do you want a democracy or an oligarchy?" he asks. And that's coming from an educator who admits he's in sync with Gates' direction.

Next, Kohn is troubled by the fact that these philanthropic benefactors represent corporate America. What benefits giant corporations is not necessarily in the best interest of children. "A reliable sign that the priorities are seriously askew: using the word competitiveness in connection with classrooms and kids," he explains.

Slow and Steady

It's true education is a slow-moving boat compared to industry, Botstein contends, and the dichotomy could spell frustration for both. He maintains Bard High School works because Gates' money represents the last 10 cents of every dollar-the city of New York shows its support by footing the overwhelming majority. But Groark, predictably, sees no conflict. "The foundation brings to the table the ability to take risks that perhaps the Department of Education can't," she notes.

It can also stumble, as Ravitch points out. While smaller schools indeed have fostered better student-teacher relationships that lead to better English scores and graduation rates, that correlation hasn't held up in math. And chopping a high school into smaller pieces in Denver Public Schools meant axing advance placement courses, foreign language, choir, debate and athletics. Enrollment plunged as students fled for buildings big enough to offer these perks. She describes the Gates Foundation's reaction to these setbacks as "chastened" as it refines its direction.

And that type of flexibility is exactly why a business influence belongs in education, says Groark. "Business does not succeed if it maintains the same strategies for 20 years. The same is true of the foundation," she says. "We have an obligation to cultivate lessons learned and incorporate that into our grant-making strategy. One of the biggest values we can bring to this field is to share what works and what doesn't work with others, so they don't make the same mistakes we have."

"The point is," Mathis counters, "we shouldn't have a system that would be so intimately connected to the foibles of one person or one group or one particular philosophy. Private money should not be in play." After all, Gates' billion may represent just one-fifth of one percent spent on education in this country annually, but with fixed costs so high, the people competing for those discretionary dollars will do what the funders ask. "A little bit of money will have a tremendous influence," he repeats.

From the Horse's Mouth

Groark simply sticks to her original assertion: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has not set out to replace the DOE in the first place. "Their mission is much bigger than ours," she insists. In fact, none of Warren Buffett's money is earmarked at this time to float into the education side of the house because "incremental growth in our giving isn't going to help solve the problem-working together is what will help get us to the next level," she says.

That's the same way Botstein calls it out in the field. "We are spending a mass amount of public money poorly, and what the Gates Foundation can do is not take it over but help direct it," he contends. "He's simply adding a critical mass of fuel so that a large fuel-guzzling engine can be turned around in the right direction. He's not replacing the engine."

Julie Sturgeon is a contributing editor.