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Why Did the Gates Small-High-Schools Program Fail?

By David Marshak — February 19, 2010 6 min read
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During the last decade, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s small-high-schools program funded the growth of the Big Picture high schools, founded by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor (34 Big Picture high schools in 17 states). These small, personalized high school programs graduate 92 percent of their students on time.

The Gates Foundation also supported the growth of the EdVisions network of schools, founded by Doug Thomas and Ron Newell (47 high schools in 12 states). The SAT average composite score for students from EdVisions schools in 2007-08 was 1749 (the national average was 1518); over 82 percent of EdVisions graduates went on to two- or four-year degree programs in 2008 (the national average is 68 percent).

In addition, the foundation funded the growth of High Tech High, or HTH, to five high schools in the San Diego area. One hundred percent of HTH’s graduates have been admitted to college, with approximately 80 percent admitted to four-year programs. About 35 percent of HTH graduates are first-generation college students.

The high schools in these three networks all work—and students in these schools all consistently outperform teenagers in conventionally sized, conventionally structured high schools with comparable demographics. Yet Bill Gates seems not to understand what his foundation has achieved in supporting the build-out of these networks of schools.

In his 2009 annual letter, Gates admits that “many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” Yes, most of the schools. Gates continues: “But a few of the schools that we funded achieved something amazing. They replaced schools with low expectations and low results with ones that have high expectations and high results.” So, according to Gates, expectations of students are the primary driver of school improvement.

This is nonsense. Expectations matter, but high expectations are not derived ex nihilo; they are only one element within a culture of personalized education. The successful schools in the Big Picture, EdVisions, and HTH networks are built on the same common values and structures:

• Each small high school is a separate school, not a program or an academy within a larger school. Thus, each school has its own leadership and budget.

• Each small high school has a clearly defined mission and values, to which its leaders and teachers are deeply committed.

• Each small high school in its own way focuses on personalizing education for its students. This value has two manifestations: a commitment to deeper, more significant relationships between students and teachers in which teachers accept greater responsibility for advising students as well as instructing them; and a curriculum that, to some meaningful extent, relates to students’ immediate lives, interests, concerns, and ambitions.

• Each small high school hires teachers who are committed to the values of personalized education and who want to engage students within these more profound personal relationships.

Gates cites none of these key values and structures in his letter, and he doesn’t seem to understand them. Tom Vander Ark, the first education director for the Gates Foundation, ignored these elements when he poured hundreds of millions of dollars into breaking up large, urban high schools into “school-within-a-school” academies.

Before the foundation launched its small-high-schools program, Vander Ark talked with educators who had created successful small high schools in prior decades, people such as Deborah Meier, Dennis Littky, and Doug Thomas. These folks explained to him how and why these four elements—separate school, clearly defined values and mission, personalized learning, and teachers hired to fit the school’s mission—were critical to their schools’ successes. Yet Vander Ark chose to ignore them. Under his direction, the Gates Foundation wasted more than a billion dollars on “school-within-a-school” academies that were guaranteed to fail.

In some cases, district administrators sought and received Gates grants to transform multiple high schools in their large, urban districts all at once, without input from school-level administrators or from teachers. In other cases, school administrators themselves got Gates grants, without any prior engagement of teachers.

Once Vander Ark and Gates shifted their focus from startup schools with proven track records to “school-within-a-school” academies in large, failing urban high schools, it was no surprise to anyone who understood the small-high-schools movement that results would be underwhelming. Vander Ark and Gates ignored the research; they ignored the advice of the successful practitioners; and they acted with arrogance and contempt toward the existing high school faculties, whom they assumed would do what they were told in the academy model.

To no one’s surprise, the veteran teachers fought back. Some resented the top-down assertion of the Gates Foundation that Bill’s money meant he could tell people what to do. Others really did not want to take on the level of deep engagement with students that small, personalized high schools demand. Others did not like the academy to which they were assigned or the colleagues with whom they were placed. The resistance of veteran teachers was certainly not the profession’s most noble hour, but it was entirely predictable, given the culture of typical American high schools. Vander Ark was warned about this. He chose to ignore the warning.

Now Vander Ark and Gates have bad-mouthed their own small-high-schools program, failing to distinguish adequately between the highly effective work of some schools and the much more widespread failure of most. As far as I know, neither Vander Ark nor Gates has publicly accepted responsibility for the terrible decisions they made to fund “school-within-a-school” academies. And the foundation has moved on to funding states’ applications to the federal Race to the Top grants competition and a new research agenda focused on isolating the “essence of effective teaching” from the messy complexity of human personalities. Good luck with that.

The fundamental lesson of the Gates Foundation’s small-high-schools program remains clear: Small, personalized high schools work very well indeed, and they work particularly well for teenagers who are underserved in conventional, factory-model high schools. They dramatically reduce dropout rates, and they significantly increase the rate of college attendance and success.

Elliot Washor has explained how small, personalized high schools work. The following conditions are necessary, he writes, if we want “all youth to experience productive learning”:

Relationships: Do my teachers care about my interests and me? Can I work with and learn from adults who share my interests?

Relevance: Do I find what the school is teaching to be relevant to my career interests?

Choice: Will I be able to choose what, when, and how I will learn?

Challenge: Do I feel sufficiently challenged in doing this learning and work?

Practice: Will I have an opportunity to engage in deep and sustained practice of those skills I wish to learn?

Play: Will I have opportunities to explore and to make mistakes without being chastised for failing?

Authenticity: Will the learning and work I do be regarded as significant outside of schools?

Application: Will I have opportunities to apply what I am learning in real-world contexts?

Time: Will there be sufficient time for me to learn at my own pace?

Timing: Can I pursue my learning out of the standard sequence?

Only small, personalized high schools can consistently deliver these conditions to young people.

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as Why Did the Gates Small-High-Schools Program Fail?

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