Bill Gates Admits That Small Schools Are Not The Answer

There are many advantages that small schools offer over large factory-model schools. They allow greater attention to be paid to students who need an identity as well as recognition that they may need additional assistance. However, Bill Gates admitted at a session held at the Form of Education, that they are not the silver bullet he had believed.

The Gates Foundation has spent approximately $2 Billion in the past ten years supporting a “small schools” initiative that breaks existing low-performing schools into 400-student blocks. The theory is that these small schools will reduce drop-out rates — even in the absence of other major improvements — by making students feel part of a community. When all the teachers and principals know your name, you have to keep showing up, right?

Now, Bill Gates has acknowledged that the results have been “disappointing” too. Gates shared the information. Here’s what he said in his speech:

“In the first four years of our work with new, small schools, most of the schools had achievement scores below district averages on reading and math assessments. In one set of schools we supported, graduation rates were no better than the statewide average, and reading and math scores were consistently below the average. The percentage of students attending college the year after graduating high school was up only 2.5 percentage points after five years. Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for.”

The evidence is clear that smaller impersonal schools are no more effective than larger impersonal schools.

So what is the answer? “The defining feature of a great education is what happens in the classroom,” Gates said. “Everything starts from that and must be built around it. So we’re going to sharpen our focus on effective teaching—in particular supporting new standards, curriculum, instructional tools, and data that help teachers—because these changes trigger the biggest gains, they are hardest to scale, and that is what’s holding us back.”

It is something we already know. We need to create better qualified, highly effective teachers. Simply relying on “highly qualified teachers” is not the answer. We have all had highly qualified teachers (teachers who knew the material) who were not highly effective (knew how to teach the material.)

As he said, “Money is tight. We need to spend it wisely. We’re now spending $8 billion a year for teachers with master’s degrees, even though the evidence suggests that master’s degrees do not improve student achievement. We’re spending billions on a seniority system, even though the evidence says that seniority, after the first five years, may not improve student achievement. We’ve spent billions to reduce class size, even though there is no strong evidence that spending money to reduce class size in high school is the most impactful way to improve student performance. And the last thing we can afford—-whether the economy is good or bad—-is to pay teachers who can’t do the job. As President-elect Obama and others have pointed out: We need to give all teachers the benefit of clear standards, sound curriculum, good training, and top instructional tools. But if their students still keep falling behind, they’re in the wrong line of work, and they need to find another job.”

As I have indicated in earlier blogs, in these times of economic crisis, education takes a disproportionate hit in cutting back. In the state of Florida, the state legislature recently suggested a cut in educational spending equal to almost $467 Million.

We cannot attract enough people who are willing to work in poor conditions, without sufficient administrative support and for a low salary.