Big Philanthropy, Small Change (and the same mistakes made again and again)

Have You Heard revisits Bill Gates’ efforts to *rethink* American high schools. Writer Michael Hobbes spent two weeks embedded at his former high school, Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School, chronicling the school’s transformation into small learning communities in this feature story. Inspired by what he saw at Hale High, and the role of teachers in re-imagining the school, Hobbes delved deep into what happened when Gates et al tried to scale up the small schools reforms. His story, recounted in episode #25, is a scathing indictment of big money reformers who think school improvement is simple work, requiring only the right *fix* and deep pockets. Did I mention that Hobbes wrote a great story? I recommend making this episode of Have You Heard a multimedia experience… Full transcript is available here.

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  1. Teachers who were excited about the small schools initiative thought they were going to get small classes as well — which is what most teachers believe is the best way to allow them to become more effective. However, in some cases these teachers never got small classes and in others, class sizes grew when the funding stream ended.

    Sadly, because the Gates Foundation and Bill Gates himself are ideologically opposed to reducing class size, they never made this a central tenet in the small schools initiative but instead urged schools to focus on “rigor, relevance and relationships” — far more amorphous goals, difficult to define no less measure.

    As a result while the research groups hired to evaluate the small schools initiative were asked to analyze these schools based on these three “Rs”, they were barred from investigating whether class size was a significant factor in the success or failure of these schools — even though in the interviews, teachers mentioned this issue over and over again. Sadly as a result, nothing important was learned by this failed experiment.

    The Gates foundation seems to be set to repeat these mistakes in the evaluations they have funded of their latest enthusiasm: the so -called “personalized” learning schools. When these schools are successful in boosting student achievement — which so far has been mostly elusive — the results are used to promote computer-based learning, even though the evaluations themselves admit that personalized learning at these schools also often includes tutoring and small group instruction.

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