SEATTLE – Bill Gates raised some hackles with his withering assessment of American high schools, but at least the billionaire founder of Microsoft is putting his money where his mouth is.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested $2.3 billion since 2000 in new visions of education, with smaller schools and more personalized instruction to prepare young people for the working world and post-high school learning.
The foundation has programs in 42 states and the District of Columbia; it supports more than 1,500 high schools – about half totally new and the others redesigned. Its three scholarship programs, designed to fill tuition gaps left by other grants and aid, have assisted more than 10,000 students.
At one of its schools, the Truman Center in Federal Way, about 20 miles south of Seattle, 12 teacher/advisers tend 208 students – helping them figure out what they care about and how to pursue it. Two days a week are set aside for job-shadowing and internships in the real world.
Shawn Dube was going nowhere in 2001 when he transferred to Truman, one of 16 schools in the state being transformed with a five-year grant and scholarships from the Gates Foundation’s Achiever program.
“It was kind of a last-resort thing that I was there,” recalls Dube, now 18.
An internship at an upscale local restaurant put Dube on his path. He found a mentor, eagerly honed his skills and is now a first-year student at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He plans a stint in France and dreams of a restaurant of his own.
Shawn’s mom, Kim Dube, credits the Gates program with giving Shawn the confidence to chase his dream and scholarships to finance it.
“My husband and I didn’t go to college,” Kim says. “It just got him past that fear.”
Since 2000, the education branch of the Gates Foundation has been working to upgrade the nation’s high schools, which Gates characterized as “obsolete” in a February speech to the National Governors Association.
In that speech, he spelled out his “new three R’s” for building better high schools:
Rigor: Making sure all students are given a challenging curriculum that prepares them for college or work.
Relevance: Making sure kids have courses and projects that relate to their lives and their goals.
Relationships: Making sure kids have adults who know them, look out for them, and push them to achieve.
“The idea is that every district should have a rigorous academic alternative for kids who do not succeed in the traditional high school setting,” said Gates Foundation spokeswoman Marie Groark.
Such alternatives don’t come cheap. And with states struggling to pay for basic education and keep up federal accountability requirements, what happens when the five-year grants expire?
“If you don’t get a commitment from the school district to continue, it’s just an exercise you go through,” said Leon Horne, a middle-school teacher and former union leader in Tacoma.
The foundation’s intent with the grants is to get the ball rolling by demonstrating alternatives that work, Groark said. “Our goal for all our work is sustainability – that we can disappear.”
Followup and monitoring will be essential, said Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.
“The big question is the learning goals,” Malcom said. “What is it we want these children to know? … Are they going to be job-ready, and are they going to be college-ready?”
New tests, mandated by federal law, are designed to help assess student progress.
The sustainability of the foundation’s work will depend on whether it fosters innovation from inside or tries to impose it from outside, Malcom said. School districts will be more likely to support – and help spread – innovations developed within schools and communities.
That’s a belief the foundation shares.
“When we give a grant, we give it because the community wants it and asks for it,” Groark said. “It’s not the Gates Foundation telling the community to do something. It’s the Gates Foundation supporting work that’s already begun.”
There’s no question that most high schools don’t work, Malcom said. But the structure is very difficult to break down for various reasons, including the often massive size of the buildings themselves.
Creating small schools, usually schools within schools, has been a fundamental part of the foundation’s approach.
The Truman Center, for example, has just six classrooms – crammed with projects, art, words of wisdom. “Quiet rooms” are set aside for those who need to concentrate. The only doors are on the bathrooms and to the outdoors.
“Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age,” Gates told the governors in February.
“Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting – even ruining – the lives of millions of Americans every year,” said Gates, himself a product of the rigorous standards and hands-on instruction at Seattle’s private Lakeside School.
“Only one-third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work, and citizenship,” he said. “The other two-thirds, most of them low-income and minority students, are tracked into courses that won’t ever get them ready for college or prepare them for a family-wage job, no matter how well the students learn or the teachers teach.”
Despite his position atop one of the world’s biggest technology companies, high-tech education reforms have been a small part of the foundation’s work. Online schools are the subject of just two grants, totaling less than $3 million.
The foundation’s education wing has a staff of about three dozen, eight or nine of whom monitor grant recipients.
At Truman, school officials write frequent reports to keep the foundation up to date, and foundation officials make yearly visits, said Principal Judy Kraft.
The foundation gets points from educators and observers for its hands-on approach.
“Their staffers are engaged in ways other funders are not engaged, in part because their staff comes from the education field. They’re not heavy-handed at all,” says Patricia Sullivan at the Center for Education Policy in Washington, D.C., which receives some funding from the Gates Foundation.
That’s not to say all goes smoothly on foundation projects. In Tacoma, teacher Horne said, it took three years to work out union concerns and get teachers set up for foundation programs at three of the city’s five high schools, a year longer than the usual training phase.
“I don’t think they’d really thought the whole thing through,” said Horne, who suggested the program’s test run in Tacoma might have been more effectively conducted at a single school.
He also noted that the foundation’s vision – of one teacher/adviser overseeing a small class throughout high school while teaching most subjects – seems to clash with the federal No Child Left Behind law, which calls for teachers with high expertise in specific subjects.
Still, across Washington state, where the foundation is based, it is generally acknowledged as a positive force, said Charles Hasse, president of the teachers union, the Washington Education Association.
Although teachers sometimes bristle at guidance from outsiders, he said, “the people at the foundation are seen as partners at improving education and essentially allies of classroom teachers.”
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