To the Editor:
I applaud the interest that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has taken in thinking through the problems facing secondary education. Tom Vander Ark, the foundation’s executive director of education initiatives, believes strongly that smaller school size is an important part of the answer to these problems (“Lessons From High School Reform: Achieving ‘Success at Scale,’” Commentary, June 22, 2005). I disagree. Small schools will do nothing to reduce the overcrowding in many urban areas.
To bring about change, Mr. Vander Ark advocates transforming “large, struggling high schools, primarily by converting them from large schools into small schools or small learning communities.” In congressional testimony in 2001, he suggested high schools should have no more than 400 students, the approximate size of the elite private schools dotting our country.
What does this all mean when it comes to overcrowding? Let’s use my own school as an example. I teach in a New York City high school with 3,800 students. It is four stories high, and some might even say it is “struggling.” To raise standards, the Gates Foundation would break up the school I have grown so fond of teaching at and carve out four new small schools. Doing so will account for 1,600 students.
I want to know what happens to the remaining 2,200 students. Do they get shunted off for the time being to some other big high school, complicating the workload of that school even more? Mr. Vander Ark does not say.
The Gates Foundation is fast becoming a major force in secondary education. I think it is about time they did say.
Forest Hills, N.Y.