Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Bill Gates and the American Equivalent of City Academies.

There can't be many people in Britain unaware that this week, Warren Buffet announced that he would be giving $31bn to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. At the press conference, they said the money would be used to cure world diseases and to improve American education.

The Gateses has been invovled in American education since 2001, when they tried to rescue a failing Denver school with $1 million. (And of course this is the inspiration for New Labour's City Academy idea). Their first attempt was a failure, but they kept trying.

According to this BusinessWeek article,

Six years and a steep learning curve later, the Gateses see just how
intractable are the many ills plaguing America's worst schools. It has been a
difficult, even humbling experience. Melinda Gates says she and Bill didn't
realize at first how much cooperation it would take from school districts and
states to break up traditional big schools. "If you want to equate being naive
with being inexperienced, then we were definitely naive when we first started," she says. "There are a lot of places where many people have given up, or decided that 'bad schools are not my problem.' There are also a lot of entrenched interests."

Visits to 22 Gates-funded schools around the country show that while
the Microsoft couple indisputably merit praise for calling national attention
to the dropout crisis and funding the creation of some promising schools, they
deserve no better than a C when it comes to improving academic performance.
Researchers paid by their foundation reported back last year that they have
found only slightly improved English and reading achievement in Gates
schools and substantially worse results in math. There has been more promising news on graduation rates. Many of the 1,000 small schools the Gateses have funded are still new, however, and it's too soon to project what percentage of their
students will finish school and enter college, also a foundation goal. The
collapse of Manual High is an extreme case, but one that points to a clear
lesson: Creating small schools may work sometimes, but it's no panacea.

The Gates have spent $1 billion so far, and the results are mixed. Some schools are showing progress, but others are not. Starting schools from scratch is easier than repairing schools that are broken.

I would urge people to click on the link and read the entire Business Week article. I'm in two minds about the whole idea. On the one hand it's a nice that fresh money is coming in that eases the burden on the tax-payer. On the other, it seems clear that without buy-in from the parents, you get failure. And without rigorous standards imposed from the outside you get failure. Our traditional method of getting parents involved is local democracy, and locally elected people controlling schools. And our traditional method of imposing standards is via the Department of Education.

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