Bill Gates's 2009 annual letter on what the Gates Foundation is up to says:
Nine years ago, the foundation decided to invest in helping to create better high schools, and we have made over $2 billion in grants. The goal was to give schools extra money for a period of time to make changes in the way they were organized (including reducing their size), in how the teachers worked, and in the curriculum. The hope was that after a few years they would operate at the same cost per student as before, but they would have become much more effective.
I don't know the full history of the "small learning communities" fad, but one important proponent was Bill Ayers, the unrepentant terrorist and extremely distant acquaintance of President Obama, who set up the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago in 1991 with his sidekick, Mike Klonsky.
Ayers, with others, then put together a proposal that got $50 million (plus matching contributions) for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge out of Old Man Annenberg, a famous GOP donor. Barack Obama was recruited in 1995 to become Chairman of the Board of Ayers's baby, which gave handouts to "community organizations" to help them relate to the Chicago public schools. Years later, a quantitative study found that the Obama-Ayers plan had done nothing for test scores (but it had done a lot for the Obama brand name among the activists who got the moolah).
Indeed, Ayers' Small Schools Workshop and Obama's Chicago Annenberg Challenge had the same mailing address from 1995 to 1999: 115 S. Sangamon St., Third Floor. Whether Ayers's Small Schools Workshop and Obama's Chicago Annenberg Challenger operated out of the same office or whether they had separate offices across the hall from each other is unknown. Obama's outfit gave over $1 million dollars to Ayer's outfit, which presumably made things matey on the elevator each day.
What's the relationship between Bill Ayers and the Gates Foundation? The first Google entry I came up with was a 2001 article entitled "Can 'Small Schools' Save Berkeley High?' In it, a school administrator named Rick Ayers was quoted as saying:
"In the transition, we're gonna have a half-million dollars from the feds and close to a million from the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation--that's what we're asking for," Ayers says. "But a million and a half isn't a hell of a lot of money , and you don't want to prop up a program on just that. But that money will put teachers into a position to lead these changes. We have to demonstrate that we can do the Small Learning Communities with the budget that we have. It isn't just small schools; I wish it were."
I said to myself, "I betcha Rick Ayers is Bill Ayers's brother."
Sure enough. Rick spent seven years on the lam from his days in the Weather Underground with his brother Bill and Bill's wife fork-loving wife Bernardine Dohrn before serving ten days in jail. (Here's a downright amorous 2001 profile of Rick Ayers and his small schools plan in the San Francisco Chronicle.)
It's not totally clear whether Rick got in on the small schools racket from his brother's example or vice-versa, but I would guess that Bill is the dominant personality among the Ayers siblings.
Rick Ayers long headed the small learning community within Berkeley called Community Arts & Sciences (CAS). The Berkely Daily Planet reports:
CAS students take on internships at hospitals, schools and other community institutions. They have traveled to foreign countries like Cuba and Mexico to learn about social justice. They participate in media literacy projects: the Berkeley High School Slang Dictionary, a class project where students contribute to an index of contemporary teen argot, is the most prominent example.
But the small schools experiment has not reached the heights Ayers hoped it would. Ayers and other small schools advocates are convinced the advantages of small schools can only be fully realized if all of Berkeley High is divided into small communities—which isn’t expected to happen anytime soon.
The Revolution has not failed. The Revolution has been betrayed. Only complete conquest by the Revolution will reveal the benefits of the Revolution.
The Gates Foundation grant of $1,000,000 to implement Rick Ayers's plan to create four small schools within Berkeley High ran out in 2007. Apparently, it was not renewed. Math test scores in Rick Ayers' CAS hit disastrously low levels by 2007.
What about Bill Ayers and Bill Gates?
I've found Bill's Sancho Panza, Mike Klonsky, boasting/complaining that the Small Schools Workshop brought the Gates Foundation to both Chicago and Baltimore, along with a lot of kvetching about the Gates Foundation that makes it sound like Bill Gates never quite pulled the trigger and wrote a check to Bill Ayers (unlike the megabuck he gave to Rick Ayers).
Back to Bill Gates's 2009 Annual Letter:
Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way. These tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum. We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school.
Even so, many schools had higher attendance and graduation rates than their peers. While we were pleased with these improvements, we are trying to raise college-ready graduation rates, and in most cases, we fell short.
So, basically, Bill Gates has finally found out that Bill Ayers's big idea doesn't actually make kids smarter. (This is not to say that big schools are better than small schools, however. School size is just not all that important an influence, and Gates was deluding himself when he seized upon it as a magic bullet.) Perhaps it has now dawned upon the Microsoft zillionaire that Bill Ayers advocated "small learning communities" as a political tool. (Among other advantages, it gives radical teachers more time to indoctrinate a core cadre of their students in leftism.)
And, you know, it seems to have worked pretty well at politics, helping launch Ayers' extremely distant acquaintance Barack Obama's career all the way from the third floor of 115 S. Sangamon to the White House.
The funny thing is that the Ayers Brothers' "small school" fad had already failed at Berkeley H.S. in the 1970s. A reader who was there in the mid-1970s alerted me to this old Time Magazine article, April 10, 1972:
Now a few public schools are trying to create some alternatives of their own within the system, using wings of existing buildings, storefronts and lofts to house small subschools, each with a different educational emphasis. The intent is to break up the impersonal mob scene that many schools have become, and to give students choices—even if it sometimes means letting them choose racial separation.
... But the trend has gone farthest in Berkeley, Calif., which now has 18 such schools at all levels and plans to add six more next fall. ... In 1968, Berkeley became the first city with more than 100,000 people to integrate its schools voluntarily by busing both whites and blacks (38% of the pupils ride to school). But Berkeley's integration brought demands from minority groups for more attention to their particular learning problems and more emphasis on their cultures. At the same time, many of Berkeley's middle-class white kids were in open rebellion against what they considered stultifying school rules and courses.
For both groups, "the melting pot never melted," says Larry Wells, coordinator of the alternative schools. Instead of trying to submerge diversity, Berkeley is now trying to encourage it, replacing the image of a melting pot with that of a mosaic....
Berkeley High is a six-block-square complex of buildings holding 3,000 students. For approximately 1,800 of them, the conventional curriculum of courses—and a rich fare of electives—is fine. But 1,200 students have chosen to enter the more cohesive atmosphere of one or another of the six alternative high schools that are housed within the big complex.
Community High, for example, is earnestly disorganized. There long-haired boys and girls help screen prospective teachers, call staff members by their first names, and get phys. ed. credit for karate. Both blacks and whites take courses in "Soul in Cinema" and transcendental meditation. ...
Most of the alternative high schools are kept integrated by aggressive recruiting and informal quotas (Community High, for example, has 65 Third World students and 120 whites, with a white waiting list of 75). The Agora School aims specifically at fostering an appreciation of racial differences and keeps its staff and student body exactly one-quarter each white, black, Chicano and Asian. But three other alternative schools that meet away from Berkeley High are less concerned about integration.
Blacks Only. The Marcus Garvey Institute, housed in a former factory, is devoted to "taking care of business," chiefly for black students, including some who are on the verge of dropping out. Graded, seminar-type classes offer "Black Economic Development," emphasize basic math and reading. Whites are welcome, the staff insists, but since blacks assumed control this fall, whites have dropped to 12 in the enrollment of 60. Going even farther, Black House accepts only blacks, and Casa de la Raza takes only Chicanos....
More than just race is at stake, for the issue touches upon the central problem in all the proposals for decentralizing the nation's large institutions. from auto plants to city governments. Self-determination easily becomes narrow parochialism. In Berkeley, principals of the conventional schools that accredit the small units worry that the alternative schools may become too haphazard to remain worthy of their diplomas. The small schools' volatile independence, on the other hand, is often precisely what makes them useful as escape valves....
Berkeley's original subschools began with modest grants from the Ford and Carnegie foundations; the system now has a 21-year, $3.5 million grant from a new federal experimental schools program that provides $200 extra for each child in a subschool—on top of an average per-pupil expenditure of $1,675, one of the highest in the nation.
My reader writes on what happened later in the decade:
In the fall of 1975, there was a crippling teachers' strike, the grant money had run out and the sub-schools were crumbling. We all had a private laugh at the black separatists suddenly having to change their rhetoric and actually seek common ground with the rest of the school to try and keep their fiefdom going. Only one or two of the sub-schools survived, informally, and those were for white overachievers.
Then, Rick Ayers revived the failed small (radical indoctrination) schools within Berkeley H.S. idea around the beginning of the decade and got a half million from the feds and a million from the Gates Foundation. Academic failure ensued once again, and just before the Gates Foundation grant ran out in 2007, Ayers quit and enrolled in the Ph.D. in Education program at UC Berkeley so he can train teachers rather than students, propagandizing wholesale rather than retail.This is an example of a general rule: Although the K-12 education industry is obsessed with promoting "new methodologies" (i.e., panacea-of-the-month), there aren't any. Schooling is an old, old business, and just about everything has been tried before, and proven not to be the miracle breakthrough that was hoped for. But memories are short, and a sucker is born everyday, with Bill Gates being merely the richest sucker, so why give them an even break?
I wrote in VDARE.com last summer that educators need to stop falling for this year's Solution of the Century every year.
A huge amount of time is wasted reorganizing schools and retraining teachers for the latest fad, which, typically, was tried and discarded so long ago that nobody can remember anymore. (So don't take these ideas I'm tossing out all that seriously!)
Many teachers and administrators don't mind all the reorganizations because sitting around playing office politics versus each other is more fun than trying to get students to memorize the Times Tables.
The dogma of racial equality helps explain much of the educartel's susceptibility to the latest cult craze. Nobody has ever been able to get blacks and Hispanics to consistently perform as well as Asians and whites on a large scale. And, since the obvious implication of this reality is unthinkable (in many minds, quite literally), then it must be the schools' fault. What else could it be?
This logic is then used by reformers to justify implementing their pet obsessions. If the schools are small, for instance, that could be the reason for the racial gap. So, make them bigger. If they are big, then make them smaller. Just do something!
For example, the insanely rich Gates Foundation has been pressuring public schools to deconstruct themselves into "small learning communities"—which was what Americans were trying to get away from back when they built big learning communities.
One way to gain a wiser perspective on K-12 fads is to think about how you chose which college to attend. For some reason, ideology tends to get in the way less in individuals’ college choices than in debates about public school policy.
Did you pick a small college or a big college?
And did you make the right choice?
You may have a strong opinion on the subject of the optimal college size. But, whatever it is, you have to admit that other people disagree with you. After all, both Caltech (864 undergraduates) and University of Texas at Austin (36,878 undergraduates) seem to have done pretty well for themselves over the years. Different sizes come with objective advantages and disadvantages. For example, when I attended huge UCLA, there were professors on campus expert on practically every topic under the sun, but my parking lot was a half-hour walk away. Moreover, different people flourish best in different size schools.
Education fads are seldom motivated by statistical research, since it's hard to move the needle noticeably for a large number of schools. As we've known since the Coleman Report during LBJ's Great Society, the students are more important than the school.
Instead, education vogues are launched by statistical outliers.
Small schools are particularly likely to be outliers, because they are small. There are so many of them, and unusual things can happen more easily when fewer people are involved.
These flukes aren't necessarily false results. When the right principal, right teachers, and, especially, right students come together, good things can happen.
Not surprisingly, though, outliers are hard to replicate on a large scale.
Lots of new educational fads are launched by charismatic individuals who can personally make them work. Charisma can accomplish amazing things. Rasputin apparently could stop the Crown Prince of All the Russias' internal bleeding just by talking to him. Nevertheless, "Hire lots of Rasputins!" is not a reliable strategic plan for hemophilia clinics.
Similarly, there are millions of schoolteachers in America. As the law of large numbers would suggest, most of them are not charismatic superstars like the ones they make inspirational movies about.
Not surprisingly, Bill Gates is now calling for more teachers to be charismatic superstars like the ones they make inspirational movies about:
It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one. Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.
Whenever I talk to teachers, it is clear that they want to be great, but they need better tools so they can measure their progress and keep improving. So our new strategy focuses on learning why some teachers are so much more effective than others and how best practices can be spread throughout the education system so that the average quality goes up. We will work with some of the best teachers to put their lectures online as a model for other teachers and as a resource for students.
Yeah, I'm sure that will do the trick.
Look, it's hard to be a good teacher throughout your whole career. It's not all that hard for a new charter school to find teachers who are experienced enough to know what they are doing but not so experienced they are worn out. It's especially hard to keep caring so much about other people's children after you have children of your own. Lots of school systems down through the ages -- e.g., Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, 1950s Catholic parochial schools, and Jesuit high schools -- have had a solution for that particular problem of teachers running out of energy for dealing with other folks' kids after they have had kids of their own: celibacy.