Dear Tom: What Is Going On at the Gates Foundation?

Dear Tom:

You'll understand if I'm a little confused about what's going on over at the Gates Foundation.

Over the past couple of weeks, you guys seem to have been signalling what many knew was long in coming: a move away from focusing solely on the creation of small schools, new and converted, towards a broader, more district-based reform model.

I've written you about this before:: Big Cities, Small Schools, and a Return to Systemic Reform, The End of Small Schools -- Or A Begginning?, and Gates Foundation: Not Just About Small Schools Anymore. In fact, Seattle is still reeling over the announcement that the foundation is pulling out: Schools flinch at Gates Foundation criticism (Seatle PI).

I know, there are some good reasons for the foundation to have rethought its initial strategy, including questions about whether new small schools can work in large numbers or imposed from outside, and whether new small schools affect districts. Some of those are included in news clips from this week: Study Raises Issues on Small High Schools (NYT), Will new high schools combat old problems? (Philly Notebook).

This week, however, news comes that you've made another round of grants to help districts create small schools: LA Thinks Small (LAT via DA Daily), Bill Gates, wife escalate giving to L.A. schools (LA Daily via Eduwonk). Unless I'm missing something, the announcement looks very much like the usual small schools effort.

What is going on?




Curious about how foundations come up with their ideas and put them in action? Here are a couple of recent clips to look at:
Inside the gift horse’s mouth (PDK via Education Sector), eBay Founder takes lead in social entrepreneurship (USAT).

Here are some older clips I've linked to in the past:
Researchers Ask Tough Questions Of K-12 Charities (EW), Philanthropists bring in new strategies to change schools (USAT).

UPDATE: I forgot to mention Richard Lee Colvin's excellent article on Gates and more in Education Next, titled The New Philanthropists.

UPDATE 2: A new piece about the pros and cons of small schools in the Washington Post: Downsize High Schools? Not Too Far.


Blogger Caroline said...

Well, first, Bill and Melinda Gates rock for their commitment to pouring their wealth into humanitarian causes.
May they live long and prosper (more).

However: Anyone who follows school issues with a clear-eyed perception sometimes has to wonder how much due diligence they've really done before they start sending out the checks.

As a charter skeptic, I'll start with a charter scam. The Gates Foundation gave megabucks to San Francisco-based Envision Schools to open schools that benefit low-income urban minorities. Envision promptly opened its first school, Marin School of Arts & Technology, in Novato, Calif. -- a mostly white suburban school district in the nation's second- or third-wealthiest county, Marin. Are they just sneering at the Gateses and going "ha -- we got their money now and we can do what we want?"

Meanwhile, MSAT has been by far the lowest-performing of Novato's three high schools, ESPECIALLY on the state of California's similar schools index (meaning compared to other schools with its demographic profile). That's despite getting $800 more per year per kid in district funding than the other two high schools, by law. MSAT, desperate, pulled up its test scores this year (to a degree that is completely suspicious except to the incredibly gullible, frankly) -- but is still on notice by the Novato school district to shape up or close down, which I believe is for kicking out discipline problems, dumping them on the lower-funded schools.

But the Gateses are still providing the bucks, and funding more Envision schools (two in San Francisco as well). I'm afraid that their generous nature may make them easy marks for a smooth-talking scam artist.

So, perhaps someone convinced the Gates Foundation that small schools were the new miracle to end all miracles -- just as that salesperson's predecessor, 40 years ago, convinced the Carnegie Foundation that giant mega-high schools were the new miracle to end all miracles -- and they're learning the hard way that it just ain't that easy.

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Mike G said...

Russo poses another great question: is Gates Foundation taking a new policy position on small schools?

Think airlines. The biggies are all bankrupt. They look to the small, super-efficient upstarts - Jet Blue, Southwest. They say "We can do that" and start their own small airlines...i.e., Delta starts Song.

But it's not small per se. It's relentless, obsessive customer focus. Delta just pulled the plug on Song in last month.

Here in Boston, there are 5 charter highs, 5 pilot highs (district-controlled charters), and now 12 Gates-funded schools-within-schools. Similar although not identical populations. Anyway:

Charters: 60% proficient on MCAS

Pilots: 40% proficient on MCAS

Schools-within-schools: 15% proficient on MCAS

Small is necessary-but-insufficient condition for urban high school success.

- Goldstein Gone Wild

12:13 PM  

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