March 6, 2005
Governors back Gates’ view of ‘obsolete’ high schools
By Paul M. Krawzak
and Veronica Van Dress
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON — When Microsoft founder Bill Gates pronounced the high school “obsolete” at the National Governors Association meeting a week ago, you might have thought someone would take exception.
Instead, governors and education officials reacted with approval to the Harvard dropout’s speech, even those who quibbled with his choice of words.
“There may be exceptions to that certainly,” said Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican. “But (for) the traditional model that is probably prevalent in much of the country, that is not an unfair characterization.”
While obsolete might not be an accurate description of all high schools, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said, Gates “in many cases is absolutely right.”
“I think it was a very provocative and needed jolt,” Granholm, a Democrat, said of Gates’ remarks delivered at the governors’ national education summit.
“I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed and underfunded, though a case could be made for every one of those points,” Gates told the summit participants. “By obsolete, I mean that our high schools, even when they’re working exactly as designed, cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.”
Gates’ KnowledgeWorks Foundation funded the transformation of McKinley High School in Canton, which, last year, created five small schools within the same building. Minerva Morrow, one of the principals, said it’s not that traditional schools have not been successful, but, “I think you cannot beat a personalized environment for a student.”
The challenge for McKinley, said Morrow, is to continue to maintain each school’s independence while accelerating academics, minimizing student crossovers between schools and keeping the athletic traditions as a whole school.
“Obviously we’re not meeting graduation requirements,” she said. “We want our graduation rate to be higher. We want to be better and we’re being told we need to be better. That’s why (we created) small schools.”
Changing the structure of the school has made a difference, according to Morrow. She said she visits nearly every classroom in her small school daily.
“Obviously doing business the way we’ve been in education has not produced the successes that we need, so something has to change. Not just for the sake of changing. We need to change our strategies,” she said.
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, chairman of the governors association, offered the qualification that “all high schools clearly are not” obsolete.
Gates’ speech was a call to action to transform the high school, said Warner, a Democrat. He believes that as a result of the summit, many more of the nation’s governors will make high school transformation a high priority.
“There are great high schools all across America, but the overall performance of high schools in preparation for college or preparing students to go into the work force — they’re not doing a good enough job,” Warner said.
Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, agrees with Gates’ basic message but adds that the boyish-looking billionaire might be surprised at the progress being made at some schools.
“His basic point, I don’t disagree with. But there is a transformation going on and if you would go into a newer high school built in Wisconsin in recent times you would find a school that doesn’t meet Bill Gates’ vision completely but moves certainly well down that line,” Doyle said.
Gates underestimates “the kind of innovations that are going on in many of our high schools,” he said. “You would find them well-equipped technologically, making great use of distance learning and offering advanced-placement courses.”
Students can take German using computer labs at McKinley, said Morrow.
“We need to integrate more technology, but we do have a media center and every day I go by the computer (rooms), they’re booked with students doing research and using technology as a foundation for their education,” she said.
Advanced courses are offered, but Morrow believes “rigor doesn’t always mean adding classes.”
“It’s also how we are presenting the information so that we are giving them a 21st century education.”
Multiple teaching styles are used at McKinley because children learn differently, she said.
Although past education summits have promoted higher standards and more accurate assessments of student progress, this was the first that focused on the high school.
The governors said a high dropout rate, lagging student performance compared to other nations and the need for so many to take remedial courses in college point to the need to align high school graduation requirements with the knowledge and skills demanded by higher education and the job market.
In his speech, Gates said the traditional high school dates to a time when most people could earn a living without the training and skills that are necessary today.
“The idea behind the old design was that you could train an adequate work force by sending only a third of your kids to college, and that the other kids either couldn’t do college work or didn’t need to,” he said.
But today, he added, jobs that pay a family supporting wage usually require some post-secondary education, whether at a four-year college, community college or technical school.
Gates described his “new design” high school as one characterized by the three R’s — rigor, relevance and relationships with teachers and staff.
In such a school, he explained, all students would take challenging curriculum that prepare them for college or work, their course work and projects would relate to their lives and goals, and they would benefit from “a number of adults who know them, look out for them and push them to achieve.”
Believing these goals are easier to achieve in smaller schools, Gates has donated millions of dollars through his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the redesign of high schools like McKinley.
Taft supports the Gates-funded project in Ohio to break up 20 large urban high schools.
“That creates an opportunity for change and improvement,” he said. “We need to raise that bar higher because currently a high school diploma is not necessarily valued as meaning a student is prepared for college or work.”