Small is Beautiful: A View from the Gates Foundation

In a recent issue of BusinessWeek magazine, an article appeared that is entitled Bill Gates Get Schooled. The article focuses on the struggle that Gates and educators working with funds from Gates Foundation experience as they try and reform high schools. The foundation is trying to find out what makes high schools work so that students from inner-city neighborhoods who traditionally have not done well in school—do well, and can advance into higher education. Have they been successful?

Since 2000 the Gates foundation has funded several hundred high schools, with a very large cluster of them being in New York City. As the article points out, the Foundation has raised the awareness that high schools need to be given the attention they deserve, given the horrendous drop-out problem this country faces.

One of the key approaches to high school reform is making high schools SMALLER (200-600) students. Researchers 30 years ago recommended this, but it was not implemented as high schools instead of getting smaller, increased in size. Anyway, the Gates schools have attempted to manipulate the school culture of high schools by making them smaller, and therefore more intimate. Students won’t fall through the cracks–they’ll be noticed, and involved.

Did the students do well acadmically? Yes and No! They did well in English and reading. Not as well in math. I am not sure whether science was studied. But even when the writers of the article pursued the academic question, the evaluators of the Gates programs were not satisfied in this area. Simply making a school smaller, they say, will not result in increase academic performance. What needs to be done?

In their opinion, greater attention needs to be given the pedagogy implemented in the high schools. Although there was not much discussion of what pedagogies, the fact that this is addressed is important. My suspicion is that an inquiry-oriented, problem-based approach is needed. Students need to be involved with each other, and with the subjects that they are exploring. Didactic, text-book based environments are not the way to go. A constructivist philosophy, with cooperative learning fully implemented and understood by the teachers is essential.

I have first hand knowledge that more than 30 years ago a high school of more than 3800 students was divided into “units” of 300 students. Students had their own physical environment—classrooms, assembly area, lunch area. Teachers were organized by unit, so that within a unit there would be several English, mathematics, and social studies teachers. The science department had it own building, so students left their “unit” to take science, as well as art, music, and physical education. It was an experiment in making a large high school more intimate for students by dividing into several smaller schools. One of the differences in the Gates model is that in one case in NYC, an existing high school was divided into three schools within the building (separated only by a floor or two)—and each was a distinct and separate high school. That was not the case in the experiment I described from 30 years ago.

I recommend you check out the Gates article in BusinessWeek, and also the Gates Foundation.

How do you think high school education should be reformed? Let us hear from you.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.