To the Editor:
In his first annual letter on the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates writes that many of the small schools his foundation has taken an active interest in have failed to increase student achievement (“Bill Gates Praises Charter Models,” Feb. 4, 2009). According to Mr. Gates, his foundation is less successful at changing an existing school than helping create a new one. He cites as one problem at existing schools the principal’s inability to hand-select teachers or change the curriculum.
I have trouble understanding Mr. Gates’ explanation. With respect to the curriculum, schools are teaching what they should be teaching—material covered on the standardized tests. What exactly does he want to change? I also do not understand why he blames teachers for his failures. If teachers are doing something wrong, then Mr. Gates should spell out what those wrongdoings are.
It’s revealing that small schools have not succeeded where big schools now exist. In many urban areas, it is difficult to find space to build new schools, especially ones that would offer the athletic fields and gymnasiums big schools have. In this era of fiscal prudence and “not in my backyard” thinking, it makes little sense to go about reforming education by starting new schools. It is best to work with what we already have.
It is time that Mr. Gates made peace with big high schools. These schools can offer Advanced Placement and honors courses, plus a host of extracurricular activities that small schools could never dream of—and parents like such options. Moreover, big schools have something in common with the Gates Foundation: They want to see students succeed.
The key to graduation success is two-pronged: reduce freshman and sophomore classes by one-third, and add support staff such as guidance counselors who can better assist incoming students in making the transition from junior high to high school. The Gates Foundation can help make those things a reality.
Forest Hills, N.Y.
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as To Bill Gates: Make Peace With Big High Schools