Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Flunking Out, by Bill Gates

April 17, 2005, 1:51AM


Our high schools just aren't doing the job we need to create an effective 21st century work force. We have to reinvent them.


Our high schools are obsolete.

By obsolete, I don't just mean that they are broken, flawed and underfunded — although I can't argue with any of those descriptions.

What I mean is that they were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age. Today, even when they work exactly as designed, our high schools cannot teach our kids what they need to know.

Until we design high schools to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting — even ruining — the lives of millions of Americans every year. Frankly, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow. The idea behind the old high school system was that you could train an adequate work force by sending only a small fraction of students to college, and that the other kids either couldn't do college work or didn't need to.

Sure enough, today only one-third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work and citizenship.

The others, most of whom are low-income and minority students, are tracked into courses that won't ever get them ready for any of those things — no matter how well the students learn or how hard the teachers work.

In district after district across the country, wealthy white kids are taught Algebra II, while low-income minority kids are taught how to balance a checkbook.

This is an economic disaster. In the international competition to have the best supply of workers who can communicate clearly, analyze information and solve complex problems, the United States is falling behind. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates in the industrialized world.

In math and science, our fourth-graders rank among the top students in the world, but our 12th-graders are near the bottom. China has six times as many college graduates in engineering.

As bad as it is for our economy, it's even worse for our students. Today, most jobs that pay enough to support a family require some post-secondary education. Yet onlyhalf of all students who enter high school enroll in a post-secondary institution.

High school dropouts have it worst of all. Only 40 percent have jobs. They are nearly four times more likely to be arrested than their friends who stayed in high school. And they die young because of years of poor health care, unsafe living conditions and violence.

We can put a stop to this. We designed these high schools; we can redesign them.

We have to do away with the outdated idea that only some students need to be ready for college and that the others can walk away from higher education and still thrive in our 21st century society. We need a new design that realizes that all students can do rigorous work.

There is mounting evidence in favor of this approach. Take the Kansas City, Kan., public school district, where 79 percent of students are minorities and 74 percent live below the poverty line. For years, the district struggled with high dropout rates and low test scores. In 1996, it adopted a school-reform model that, among many other steps, requires all students to take college-prep courses. Since then, the district's graduation rate has climbed more than 30 percentage points.

Kansas City is not an isolated example. Exciting work is under way to improve high schools in such cities as Oakland, Chicago and New York.

All of these schools are organized around three powerful principles: Ensure that all students are given a challenging curriculum that prepares them for college or work; that their courses clearly relate to their lives and goals; and that they are surrounded by adults who push them to achieve.

This kind of change is never easy. But I believe there are three ways that political and business leaders at every level can help build momentum for change in our schools:

• First, declare that all students must graduate from high school ready for college, work and citizenship. Every politician and chief executive in the country should speak up for the belief that children need to take courses that prepare them for college.
• Second, publish the data that measure our progress toward that goal. We already have some data that show us the extent of the problem. But we need to know more: What percentage of students are dropping out? What percentage are graduating? And this data must be broken down by race and income.
• Finally, every state should commit to turning around failing schools and opening new ones. When the students don't learn, the school must change. Every state needs a strong intervention strategy to improve struggling schools.
If we keep the 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 their parents' income. That is offensive to our values.

Every kid can graduate ready for college. Every kid should have the chance.

Let's redesign our schools to make it happen.

Gates, chairman of Microsoft, is co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


  1. At first glance, I disagree with Mr. Gates: not all students should have to be prepared for college. Yes, more and more careers are requiring college and even graduate school, but that is not true of all fulfilling, lucrative professions. For example, technical and trade schools provide good opportunities for many people and do not require a liberal arts background for sucess. Some students know early on that they have these interests and should not be channeled into classes that will discourage/bore/frustrate them into leaving high school and not pursuing the opportunities available through a college alternative such as a technical school. There are those who will argue that a well-rounded education is beneficial, if not necessary, for everyone. But, how beneficial is it if a student loses interest to the point of leaving school?
    Of course, many students do not know in high school what they want to do with their lives and whether college will be a part of their future. Now we're talking. This is where I think we could really make some immediate changes that help students explore their options and learn what it will take to get them where they want to go.
    One of the best ways to do this is through electives. Unfortunately, the right to take electives seemss to have to be earned. Low achieving students are busy taking remedial classes that just turn them off to school instead of the rarely offered (to anyone really) classes that could get kids excited about multiple subjects. How motiviating it would be to some students, for example, to take a class on comics and the graphic novel. Think about the skills that could be incorporated into such a class that have to do with, design, literacy, publication...not to mention that students could see the connection between success in this field and higher education!
    In the end, I do agree with Mr. Gates because I am afraid that while there is a choice in whether or not to prepare students for college, it will be the same students (culturally, linguistically, economically, diverse) that are left out.I think that in redesigning

  2. “Our schools just are not doing the job we need to create an effective 21st century work force.” (Bill Gates). Gates makes a comment about our public school system that hits right on target, our high schools are becoming obsolete. Unfortunately money in today’s society is what makes the world go round. So if there is so much emphasis on money, why not invest it on something that is guaranteed to have an impact? The high school system across our country does work “with only a small fraction of students” they feel are college bound. Not only is that a slap to the face of the students outside the “small fraction” but an insult to the objective of an educational institution. The goal for many schools is to achieve success academically; the only way that can be possible is if ALL the students are encouraged and motivated towards attending a post-secondary school. While a high school diploma is a very important accomplishment, especially with the excessive high school dropout rates, most jobs today do require some level of education after high school in order to financially support a family. Gates feels that putting a stop to the way the high school system works today is possible, that it can be “redesigned.” While I agree that the idea that only a certain number of students are needed to be ready for college is wrong, I find it very difficult to change the system due to the fact that the legislation and policy needed to make that change does not come overnight. If all students are placed in college prep courses and encouraged to pursue academic success beyond high school as it was done in Kansas City, then retention rates will rise and the level of student success will rise along with it. In Texas however, there isn’t that opportunity to focus on provided every student college prep courses because so much emphasis is put on the state TAKS test which serves as the only form of evaluation not only for students but for teachers as well. Gates offers some recommendations into making this “redesign” of the system possible. While two of his recommendations seem reasonable and attainable, such as every student must declare their goal will be to graduate and every politician should encourage students to prepare for college. It is very unlikely that it will be the primary objective for every politician and executive in this country. And while every state should commit to turning around failing schools, without proper funding and proper curriculums it remains an up-hill battle for many poor districts, the majority of whom are in poor minority communities. The system as is needs changes because priority on education should not be ranked according to Zip Code, skin color or income. In the state of Texas, it should not be evaluated according to 1 test either. Without any changes, today’s students will continue to believe that a high school diploma is all that is necessary to survive. It isn’t fair for them to realize that their high school education is not enough to compete in the real world because no one else told them otherwise.