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Bill Gates on the State of the American High School

“America’s high schools are obsolete.
By obsolete, I don’t just mean they’re broken, flawed or underfunded,
though a case could be made for everyone of those points. By obsolete,
I mean our high schools...even when they’re working as designed...cannot
teach all of our students what they need to know today.”
Bill Gates,
National Education Summit on High Schools

If anyone else but Bill Gates had made the pronouncement that today’s high schools are “obsolete,” it probably would not even get so much as a yawn. After all, it’s been argued for several years now that our present educational system is clearly flawed. But for Gates to address the nation’s governors, along with other business and educational leaders in a February speech at the National Educational Summit on High Schools, and declare that today’s high schools are not designed to meet the specific needs and interests of our students, and leaves them ill-prepared to meet the challenges that will be expected of them later on when they enter college and the workforce, is akin to the proverbial shot that’s definitely been fired as a challenge for all of us to do something about it. Whether what he has said is heard and acted on remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested almost a billion dollars for the purpose of doing just that, helping to redesign and rebuild the American High School.

In doing so he also proposes in his speech a specific framework for developing better high schools that will be more responsive in meeting the needs and challenges of our students today. “The new three R’s,” as he says that will be the “new building blocks” are:

Rigor—making sure all students are given a challenging curriculum that
prepares them for college or work;
Relevance—making sure kids have courses and projects that clearly relate to their lives and their goals;
Relationships—making sure kids have a number of adults who know them, look
out for them, and push them to achieve.

There is much work that needs to be done in making such a transformation reality, but I would not just start with our high schools. It has been tirelessly argued that our entire educational system is a systemic failure. Because so many of our students who are graduated from our high schools are ill-prepared to meet the challenges that lie ahead, we have experienced a tsunami of educational reform during the last several years from NCLB to individual states determining their own specific mandates. The graduating class of 2007 here in Maine for example is going to be in for a real shock. Under the competencies defined by the Maine Learning Results that they will be required to demonstrate mastery of in order to graduate, very few will be able to do so.

As educators, business and community leaders, we need to join the debate in discussing how we can positively change the school culture from pre-school through 12th grade to make it more responsive to the behavior and learning of our children. But more than simply challenging our most cherished assumptions in regard to teaching, and what an education should look like, we need to develop, as Gates argues, a sound pedagogy that informs educational practice, especially in terms of acknowledging that effective teaching can only occur by tailoring instruction to the specific needs and interests of our students, and by making what we teach, whether it’s English, science, social studies or math, relevant.

It is not that teachers teach that is important; it is that students learn. “Reform” is not the operative word. Reform will not keep a rust bucket running forever. There are only so many times it can be repaired before it just won’t go anymore.

copyright © 2005 by S. L. Cunningham
All rights reserved.