The Gates Foundation and Small Schools
Illustrator: David McLimans
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s richest philanthropic organization bankrolled by the world’s richest man, wants to use “small” to transform America’s urban high schools.
While an influential small schools movement has been around for decades, largely due to the work of progressive-minded reformers such as Deborah Meier and Ted Sizer, Gates has made small schools the biggest and hottest high school reform in education today.
Gates has the financial muscle to back up its goals. With a $28.8 billion endowment, the foundation is almost three times the size of the next largest U.S. foundation.
The foundation’s education program “fact sheet” notes that its efforts are focused on two main areas: college scholarships for disadvantaged students and “redefining the American high school” by creating new small, high- quality high schools and converting low-performing large high schools into smaller learning communities.
As in its other program areas, the foundation is focused on bridging the gap between options available to the rich versus those for the poor. As Bill Gates said in a speech before the National Education Summit on High Schools in February, “If we keep the [high school] system as it is, millions of children will never get a chance to fulfill their promise because of their zip code, their skin color, or the income of their parents.”
While its high school reform appears to focus primarily on school size, the foundation views small schools not as the end but the means to its primary goal of increasing graduation rates and preparing students for college.
“It is not just about size,” Jim Shelton, the foundation’s program director for education, told Rethinking Schools. “It is always about how you deliver quality instruction in a way that kids learn. But size is an enabler. It allows you to have an environment in which kids will know each other and the adults will know the kids.”
In the last four years, Gates has poured almost $1 billion into its K-12 education research and policy grants, with about $735 million going specifically to its high school reform efforts. Since 2001, most of its grants have gone to high schools, according to Marie Groark, senior policy officer at the foundation.
To date, money is being used to start 1,500 high schools, with more than 400 already open and the rest slated to open in coming years. So far, about half have been new small schools and half of them conversions of large schools into smaller units with varying levels of autonomy. For new small schools, which the foundation has come to believe is a better model than converting existing schools, the goal is a maximum of 100 students per grade level.
In recent years, the initiative’s pace has accelerated. Of the 1,500 high schools due to be funded, just a handful started in the first year, 2001-02; 150 opened in the fall of 2003; and 250 in the fall of 2004, according to Groark.
Clearly, the possibility exists that Gates will morph the small schools movement into the Gates small schools initiative. Which leads to the question: What are the implications both for small schools and urban reform efforts?
The answer is elusive, in part because the first group of small schools to receive Gates money didn’t open until the fall of 2001, so there is not much to judge yet. There are also differences over whether it is more productive to emphasize the positives in the Gates initiative or to openly discuss concerns so that mistakes can be avoided. Some, meanwhile, dismiss the reform as the latest example of a “silver bullet” whose proponents don’t understand the complexity of education reform.
Pluses and Minuses
Norman Fruchter, director of New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy and someone familiar with New York City’s decade-old small schools movement, says the Gates initiative addresses perhaps the thorniest problems in urban reform — moving beyond the creation of a few good schools to transforming an entire district.
“The Gates Foundation has given an enormous boost to small schools,” Fruchter says. “Because of the extent of the funding, they have leverage with school systems that no one else has. They have helped make small schools a part of districtwide reform agendas in a way that wasn’t possible before.”
There are other strengths to the Gates initiative. While some wealthy Americans such as John Walton focus funding on vouchers and privatization, Gates has refrained from bashing public schools. (See “Who’s Behind the Money?”) And many laud Gates’ willingness to “think big” and tackle the problem of large urban high schools that churn out African-American and Latino dropouts with factory-like precision.
But some worry that the Gates scope is limited and too focused on size as a necessary prerequisite for reform. They fear the foundation will not sufficiently demand other needed policy reforms that will help small schools fulfill their promise.
“Gates has not asked many questions about what will sustain small schools and whether, without other systemic reforms, they can be sustained with quality,” says Meier. “A small school can be as horrible as a big school,” she says.
As founder of several small schools and author of books such as The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons from a Small School in Harlem, Meier is perhaps the mostly widely known proponent of small schools.
Meier worries that Gates is overly preoccupied with increasing the number of small schools, with insufficient attention to quality. “Everybody I know who has taken Gates money is in a serious quandary because they don’t see how they can pay attention to what they have started and still keep starting new schools,” she says. “And they are rushing around to do fundraising to deepen and sustain the work Gates has compelled them into doing.”
Because of its magnitude and scope, the Gates initiative inevitably raises concerns. Some are intertwined with the initiative itself, such as the sustainability of the project over time and the focus on small schools and learning communities as the most important prerequisite for improved teaching and learning. Others wonder whether Gates is paying sufficient attention to overarching issues such as the legacy and role of racism in urban education; funding inequities and budget cuts; severe segregation by race and income; the shortage of experienced teachers, especially in math and science; tracking and racial stereotyping that often keeps students of color from honors courses; the growing mania with standardized testing that has accelerated with the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB); and the dangers of privatization.
Theresa Perry, an associate professor at Wheelock College in Boston, has written several books on the education of African-American students. She is especially concerned that Gates looks only at racial outcomes, such as disproportionate dropout rates, and not at how race and racism affect every aspect of what goes into urban education. Gates, she says, “doesn’t have an understanding or a theory of practice that includes how race and culture and identity and partnership with the community are essential components in school performance.”
Historically, there have been a number of large, high-achieving black high schools, Perry notes, such as Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. Even today, black achievement does not always easily correlate to school size. “How does Gates account for the fact that there are large schools where black kids achieve at the very highest levels?” she asks. “How do they justify the lack of resources in some of these small schools, where kids don’t have access to high-level math and Advanced Placement (AP) classes, sports programs, or art studios? Has Gates redefined what constitutes educational opportunity, because now schools don’t have to have a gym, or a science lab, or an art room?”
Gary Orfield of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, who has done groundbreaking work on the relationship between hyper-segregation and academic achievement, notes that “the small schools approach in general does not attack the issue of segregation by race and poverty, which to my mind is the core problem.”
In particular, Orfield says, small schools need to grapple with the historical tendency of school choice to increase stratification and segregation unless policies are instituted as a counter-balance. “A really good small school is an asset and it’s better than a comprehensive, big drop-out factory,” Orfield says. “But it would be good to add to the small school an explicit component around civil rights and diversity.”
Few criticisms of Gates, however, have made it into the mainstream media. This is partly due to the media’s generally superficial coverage of education and to its tendency to idolize the rich and famous. But it is also because many reformers don’t want to unnecessarily alienate the Gates Foundation.
As one person said, not for attribution, “I’m not going to say too much bad in public about Gates because I wouldn’t mind having some of their money.”
The Foundation’s Initiative
The 49-year-old Gates, a Harvard University dropout, has dominated Forbes’ list of the world’s richest men for more than a decade; the 2005 list put his net worth at $46.5 billion. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, based in Seattle, was formed in 2000 through the merger of the Gates Learning Foundation, which was focused on technology and public libraries, and the William H. Gates Foundation, which focused on global health. (William H. Gates Sr. is Bill’s father, and co-leader of the Gates Foundation.)
The Gates Foundation has four areas of concentration: education, global libraries, the Pacific Northwest, and global health. Overall, the foundation targets programs that aim to reduce the gap between rich and poor. Its global health grants, for instance, focus on the developing world and problems such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and inadequate vaccination of young children.
In education, the Gates foundation focuses on small schools and research to support the initiative, and on its Gates Millennium Scholars, a 20-year, $1 billion college scholarship project.
The foundation’s K-12 reform efforts are increasingly concentrated on high school reform, primarily through its small schools initiative. Some of its major grants include more than $100 million to New York City, $35 million in Texas, and more than $36 million in Ohio. It has funded citywide efforts
in Chicago, Oakland, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Boston, Kansas City, San Diego, and Indianapolis. Statewide initiatives include Oregon, Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, and Maine. (The foundation is also funding what it calls “early college high schools,” which will be located on college campuses and allow students to earn college credits along with their high school diploma.)
Tom Vander Ark leads the Gates education program. Before he came to the Gates Foundation, he was superintendent for five years of the Federal Way Public Schools district in Washington. Before that, Vander Ark was with Cap Gemini, a global consulting, technology, and outsourcing company. He was also a senior executive with PACE Membership Warehouse, a big-box retailer.
In his written statements, Vander Ark has often noted that the Gates money is not to either supplant public investment or chill private investment, but is a catalyst for reform. In some cities, such as Milwaukee, the small schools initiative is dependent on Gates money. In others, the initiative also receives funding from other foundations such as Carnegie, Joyce, Annenberg, or the Open Society Institute. The Gates money is funneled through intermediary organizations, rather than given directly to school districts. It consists of support, technical assistance, and start-up funds to help start new schools or convert large schools, and it generally lasts for the first few years of transition.
One of the intricacies in assessing the Gates initiative is that beyond the issue of size, many of the foundation’s public pronouncements are of sound-bite quality. Who can argue, for example, with Gates’ oft-stated admonition that the American high school is in need of reform and that it’s a national disgrace that so few African Americans and Latinos graduate? Similarly, few among the general public would disagree with what Gates calls the “Three R’s” essential to its small schools: academic Rigor, courses Relevant to a student’s life, and meaningful Relationships.
Sweeping statements about the implementation of the Gates high school redesign are also problematic because the initiative seems to evolve differently in different cities and states depending on intermediary groups’ history, politics, and capacity to oversee large-scale reform. District and state politics are also strong influences.
In Ohio, Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, has nothing but praise for Knowledge-Works Foundation, the Gates intermediary in that state. “KnowledgeWorks is a very enlightened foundation, and has been a breath of fresh air in Ohio,” Mooney says. “It believes it’s important to involve the teachers in the schools and insists that the union be a partner in its major reforms, particularly the small schools high school initiative. It is not at all pro-privatization or anti-union.”
In contrast, Milwaukee’s intermediary is the Technical Assistance and Leadership Center (TALC), which is headed by Dan Grego, an ardent supporter of private charters and publicly funded vouchers for private schools. One-third of the $17.25 million Gates grant in Milwaukee goes to support TALC’s operations and consultants. In addition, the Milwaukee grant specifically sets aside $2 million to establish private voucher schools, including religious schools, according to the grant as submitted to and accepted by the Gates Foundation.
“We have privateers in charge of our high school redesign,” notes Bob Anderson, assistant executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association and the union liaison for the small school initiative.
Strong concerns over privatization and anti-unionism have also arisen in Chicago [See “We’re Not Blind. Just Follow the Dollar Sign”]
One of the biggest question marks is whether there is sufficient long-term support and funding to maintain Gates’s small schools. The dilemma is especially acute given that the initiative is unfolding at a time of budget austerity.
The foundation is funding the American Institutes for Research and SRI International to evaluate its initiative. The Year 2 Evaluation Report released in April 2004 is quite explicit about the problems facing the Gates small schools. Sustainability issues involve both the intermediary organizations and their ability to “scale up,” and problems within the schools, such as teacher burnout and lack of qualified staff and administrators.
But the main sustainability problem involves money.
While data is not conclusive, it generally costs more per student to run a small school than a large one, although the cost per graduate is slightly less. A study by the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy based on 1995-96 data in New York City found that schools with fewer than 600 students spent approximately 23 percent more per student than schools with more than 2,000 students. But because the small schools had a higher graduation rate, the cost per graduate was slightly less: $49,553 compared to $49,578 at large schools. (This is because the dropout rate at the small schools was lower.)
A more recent study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington found that Denver spent 18 percent more per pupil on its small high schools than on average, while in Seattle the increase was only 3 percent. In both cities, per-pupil spending varied widely for both small and large schools.
For now, the Gates small schools rely on what is known as “soft money” — grants given outside of district- or state-funded allotments. In New York City, for instance, new small schools working with the Gates intermediary organization will receive an additional $400,000 over four years.
The fear is palpable in some places as to what to do when that Gates money runs out. The Gates Year 2 Evaluation notes that some intermediary groups “have resigned themselves to needing a steady stream of ‘soft money’ for their schools and noted that needed fundraising activities were draining their capacity.”
One intermediary, it said, has set a fundraising goal of $1,000 per pupil per year to offset gaps between costs and school funding.
In some places, additional “soft money” may not be enough to run a quality program. Aspire, a national charter network that is one of the Gates grantees, is described in the foundation’s Year 2 Evaluationreport as “sobered up” by what it has learned of finances. “Until we figure out a secondary model that is financially or fiscally sound,” an Aspire staff member told evaluators, “we aren’t opening any more schools.”
Districts share similar worries about the sustainability of their Gates-funded small schools. The report underscores that of the districts involved, “all agreed that accessing funding through other organizations will be crucial to small schools’ success, and even their continued existence.”
Jim Shelton, the foundation’s program director for education, argues that “the majority of the schools we fund are self-sustainable when they get to scale.” One problem, he said, is that when some people created small schools, “they tried to keep all the things that they had in big schools.”
Shelton added that “there are tradeoffs to be made when you choose to go small” and that one needs to look at the resources available and make choices.
“There is definitely a case that you should never go below standards to support the academic and developmental mission of a school,” he explained. “But that does not mean that if kids have a choice of schools, that every school has to have a football field, a full basketball court, or a full orchestra.”
There are other tensions as well. In some cities, critics say the small schools are dumping problems on large schools.
New York City is a striking example. Some 94 small high schools have been opened under the Gates-led initiative. Another 50 are slated to open next fall. Nonetheless, 90 percent of the district’s 300,000 high school students will remain in large schools — which are becoming even more crowded so small schools can stay small.
Although citywide enrollment has only grown slightly, enrollment is up by more than 20 percent in a number of New York’s large high schools. At A. Philip Randolph in upper Manhattan, a large high school that has had a history of success for African-American and Latino students, enrollment is up 48 percent from two years ago. Honors and elective classes have been cut, staff turnover has increased, and discipline problems have skyrocketed.
New York City also typifies another tension: the tendency of small schools to enroll fewer special education students. A 2005 report by the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy shows that the small high schools established in New York City in 1990 averaged about half the number of special education students, compared to all New York City high schools.
Milwaukee has a similar problem. Some large high schools have special education populations of 24 to 29 percent, and most have 16 to 20 percent special ed enrollments, according to district data for the 2004-05 year. Several new small schools set up under the Gates initiative, however, have special ed enrollments in the single digits. The Advanced Language & Academic Studies School, for example, has only 5 percent, and the Town of Lake College Preparatory High School has 8 percent.
Information from the Gates Foundation is strikingly silent on the issue of special education. The Year 2report, for instance, breaks out school data by
race, income, and English Language Learners, but has no statistics on special ed. The same is true of several other Gates-funded studies.
A search of the Gates Foundation website does not yield any results in the education program for “special education,” “exceptional education,” “disability,” or “disabilities.” Nowhere in the Gates literature is there any encouragement that special ed students should be embraced as a welcome and necessary component of a public school seeking to serve all children.
Tracking and Academic Quality
The Gates Year 2 report raises a number of red flags, from the large class sizes (up to 50 students in some cases), to unmanageable workloads and burnout of teachers, to the self-selectivity under which students and teachers choose the schools and, in general, tend to be more informed and pro-active. (The report notes that this self-selectivity “may undercut the foundation’s goal of serving the neediest students.”)
Two especially complex problems involve tracking and academic quality — problems afflicting urban schools overall. Small schools, the report notes, may end up tracking in two different ways. One, which mirrors the problem in large schools, is by offering different courses to different communities within the school. The other crops up with large schools that convert to schools-within-a-school and then gravitate toward separate schools for the high achievers, the middle achievers, and the low achievers.
“Although none of the conversions had this intention and none has produced tracking in this extreme,” the report says, “several have come close.”
Overall, the report concludes, the fundamental challenge facing these conversion schools “is how to provide a rigorous program serving the needs of historically underserved students while also providing the level of challenge needed by those students who previously took advanced courses reserved for high achievers. The survival of the conversion schools may well depend on their ability to meet this challenge.”
Another emerging problem is the difficulty in providing a rigorous curriculum, especially in math. The report notes that too few teachers are skilled in teaching to a breadth of student levels within one classroom, and so may teach down to the lowest common denominator and thus dilute academic rigor. Another difficulty is that teachers in the small schools often act as “generalists,” teaching a variety of courses and crossing disciplines. This has raised particular problems in math and science, where generalists may not have the knowledge base to teach advanced courses.
Some small schools have solved this problem by using computer software to teach math or by linking up with nearby community colleges, according to the Year 2 report. But, the report adds, “We came away with the impression that these are ‘Band-Aids’ rather than a coherent solution to the problem of providing a high-quality mathematics program.”
Overall, the report’s executive summary notes that the foundation’s emphasis on school structure is a dramatic departure from reform strategies that stress specific academic content, but that the jury is still out on whether the approach will improve student learning.
The initial start-up schools, which were schools of choice, have been “quite successful in putting in place a school climate characterized by close relationships, high expectations, and strong teacher communities, [suggesting] that the school-structure approach is a potent one,” the summary notes. “So far, however, it is less clear how successful the foundation’s new-small-school approach will be in terms of providing high-quality curriculum and instruction for all students.”
No Child Left Behind
No discussion of the Gates initiative would be complete without looking at how it relates to the albatross weighing down all of public education — Bush’s NCLB and the test-happy agenda of the standards movement.
In its “attributes of a good school,” the Gates initiative stresses a relevant curriculum and a personalized and performance-based approach to instruction. Yet these are clearly at odds with the standardized, non-individualized, memorization-based approach of NCLB.
While Gates has been cozy with the nation’s governors and the standards-based National Education Summit, where he recently gave a keynote speech, he and his foundation have tended to steer clear of contentious policy debates.
“Gates hasn’t done anything right now that we find problematic,” notes Monty Neill, head of the national advocacy group FairTest. “It’s the absence of things that bother us. They should be grappling with the consequences of this testing craze. Otherwise, they are not going to get the schools they want.”
Meier likewise worries that Gates is too cavalier about the dangers of NCLB. “At the present, Gates is not addressing this dilemma,” she says. “The people who are serious about the small schools work are running around to find other foundations, both to change the legislative climate, and to document the good work going on in small schools.”
Despite her apprehension about the direction of the Gates initiative, Meier argues that those who came to the small schools movement in order to promote democracy, equity, and quality education need to remain involved. “I don’t think a small schools movement led by foundations and wealthy corporations is likely to be fueled with the same spirit that I had in mind,” she says. “But it’s there. We need to work hard to infuse it with that original spirit.”