Back in 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had a big idea about how to fix the problems of American education. Break up large high schools and turn them into small schools and "small learning communities" of 400 or fewer students.
The foundation believed that its new small high schools would lift graduation rates and student achievement, especially among minority students, because of the close relationships between students and teachers.
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In 2005, Bill Gates told the National Governors Association that "America's high schools are obsolete." The next year, I heard him in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum, where he said that the key to the success of the small schools created by his foundation was that they made everything 'relevant,' through hands-on activities and familiar topics.
The foundation spent some $2 billion promoting the dissolution of large high schools and the creation of small schools. Big-city superintendents stood in line, ready to jump on the Gates' bandwagon, and today there are small schools in every urban district.
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Funded by Gates, some 2,600 new small high schools opened in 45 states and the District of Columbia. New York City alone has more than 200 such schools, with high schools devoted to such themes as leadership, the sports professions, technology, health professions, the media, diversity, peace and social justice.
On November 11, the Gates Foundation convened a meeting of leading figures in American education to admit candidly that the new small high schools had not fulfilled their promise. The foundation acknowledged that 'we have not seen dramatic improvements in the number of students who leave high school adequately prepared to enroll in and complete a two- or four-year postsecondary degree or credential.'
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The bad news about the Gates' initiative began to accumulate in 2005, when a Gates-funded study by the American Institutes for Research showed that students in traditional, comprehensive high schools were learning more mathematics than those in the Gates' small schools. The researchers also found that 'relevance' was not correlated with the quality of student learning. Then in 2006, additional research commissioned by the foundation concluded that the Gates-funded small schools had 'higher attendance rates but lower test scores' than other high schools within the same school districts in both reading and mathematics.
We must give the Gates Foundation and its founders credit for their honest self-scrutiny. Most proponents of education reform defend their ideas against all critics, regardless of what evaluations show.
At his recent meeting in Seattle, Bill Gates pointed to New York City's Gates-funded small high schools as a success because early reports showed a 70 per cent graduation rate compared to a district-wide average of 50 per cent. But what Gates did not realise was that the small schools in New York City were permitted to restrict the admission of English-language learners and disabled students, meaning that the large schools got a disproportionate share of students with high needs.
Last April, The New York Times revealed that some of New York City's small schools achieved higher graduation rates by practicing 'credit recovery,' meaning that students could get full credit for a course they had failed or never attended by showing up for an extra class for a few days or by finishing a project out of school.
But even in New York City, Mr Gates acknowledged, less than 40 per cent of the graduates from the small high schools were ready for their college classes at the City University of New York.
The Gates Foundation's mistake was in believing that there is a silver bullet to solve the problems of inner-city schools, which enroll large numbers of students who are poor, have limited English language proficiency, and are more likely to require special education. Small schools are just right for students who need intense remediation and lots of extra attention, but they do not offer the same menu of advanced courses and electives, extracurricular activities and vocational courses that most students associate with going to high school. And many students have health problems and issues related to their family's poverty that even the smallest of schools can't solve.
Our nation used to have huge numbers of small high schools; they were rural schools which were unable to offer the same educational opportunities as big-city high schools. The press for small schools, now taken up by almost every big-city district, has diverted our attention from the need to strengthen curriculum and instruction, beginning in elementary schools.
Whether a school is small or large, the essential questions in education cannot be ignored: What should students learn? How should they be taught? Are classes too large, especially for struggling students? Are teachers well-prepared in the subjects they teach? Do teachers have the resources they need? Do students arrive in school ready to learn? Until we answer these questions, the size of schools is not a relevant issue.
The good news is that the Gates Foundation, with its vast resources, has pledged to devote its attention to what happens in the classroom. The first thing it will learn is that there are no quick fixes. If it targets its dollars wisely, exercises a measure of humility, and continues to evaluate its efforts rigorously, it can make a positive difference.Diane Ravitch is a member of the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.