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23rd June
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, June 23, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

William H. Gates III, the chairman of the Microsoft Corporation, announced last week that he will be phasing out his day-to-day involvement running the company he founded, in order to increase his participation in his charitable enterprises.

Mr. Gates comes from a household that loves to give away money, so much so that he and his father, William H. Gates II, have raised loud support for the reinstatement of the federal estate tax. It seems that to the Gateses it doesn’t matter much how it goes out the door, as long as their money doesn’t stick around littering the house.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is to philanthropy what Microsoft is to computer software. While the foundation spends billions around the world promoting a variety of health initiatives, it is his effort to “reform” America’s high schools that has attracted the most attention. So it isn’t surprising that Business Week devoted its cover story this week to what is increasingly being perceived as a faltering effort.

There is so much attention to Mr. Gates and the ways he dispenses with his fortune that there was even a bit of a journalistic dust-up this week over the Business Week cover on Mr. Gates’s efforts, as posted on the Romenesko blog on Poynteronline, a Web site frequented by journalists. It seems that almost a year ago, the Seattle Weekly newspaper used the same headline, “Bill Gates Gets Schooled,” and remarkably similar artwork as did Business Week a year later. The Seattle crowd is crowing, asking, “Do journalists in New York do any original thinking at all?”

It turns out that Business Week came up with its cover on its own. But editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler says that both the Seattle story and his own magazine’s “are well worth reading,” which is certainly true.

What makes last year’s Seattle Weekly story so delicious is the fact that it chronicles the story of the failure of the Gates initiative in Mountlake Terrace High School, located in a suburb of Seattle. This is Mr. Gates’s home turf. Business Week focused on the experience of Manual High School in Denver. Both schools are demonstrably worse off for Mr. Gates’s efforts, which is acknowledged by top officials in his foundation. Now the party line is that failure is nothing more than “research and development” for the foundation’s future efforts. The trouble is that the guinea pigs are tens of thousands of America’s children.

As bright as Mr.Gates is,and as correct as he was in identifying the national problem of low high school graduation rates, he missed a number of essential points, things that have doomed his experiment to failure.


One essential point missed by Mr. Gates is that by the time students reach high school, it is too late to make things right. Students fail in high school because they lack the academic basics they need in order to do high school level work.There is a huge drop off in performance, nationwide, between fourth and eighth grade. This is the reason for the high school crisis. By the time Mr. Gates comes around with his medicine, the cow has long left the barn.

For those who can keep up academically, the small schools Mr. Gates is pushing actually work to their disadvantage. The reason high schools are traditionally larger is so there can be a critical mass of students for such things as Advanced Placement classes, electives, choice of foreign languages, teams, clubs, etc. In other words, the things that make successful high schools successful. Higher performing children were well served by larger schools for generations. We are now shortchanging them by design,and a price will ultimately be paid for this myopia.

But at the center of Mr. Gates’s problems was his reliance on the establishment of school “reformers.” What he didn’t grasp is that it is the reformers who are the status quo in public education. They are the problem, not the solution. The core problems will not be solved by those who thrive on perpetual “reform,” efforts that after a while exist only to maintain themselves.

Here in New York, Mr. Gates has funneled tens of millions for the small high school initiative through an organization called New Visions.This is a group with experience — experience squandering the money of well-meaning rich individuals. Back in the 1990s, they conducted a disastrous effort to create small high schools financed by the Annenberg Foundation. Amazingly, they have found even deeper pockets in Mr. Gates to fund the same program they already botched once.

As the Microsoft mogul heads into the “semi-retirement” he announced last week, he would be well advised to take a close look at just where his money is going and seek out advice from those who haven’t already failed at fixing our schools.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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