High School Reboot: Microsoft wants smarter kids. Does Overstock.com? 

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Hey, Patrick Byrne! Listen up! Your fellow CEO, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, says that Utah’s high schools are obsolete. Not flawed or screwed up or underfunded. Friggin’ obsolete!

Our high schools are dinosaurs, Gates asserts. Like the rest of American secondary schools, they have not embraced the 21st century imperative of preparing every kid for college. That’s the “major reason why the United States has now dropped from first to fifth in the percentage of young adults with a college degree,” Gates says. “In the international competition to have the biggest and best supply of knowledge workers, America is falling behind.”

The United States is also lagging in science and math. In a test of 15-year-olds in 30 industrialized countries, American kids came in at 24 in math, 17 in science.

And as you have often observed, Dr. Byrne, the drop-out rate for minority students is scandalous if not downright immoral.

Six years before you were born, as Gates toddled around in diapers, Dean Collett, was teaching math at Highland High School. He continued there as a teacher and counselor for 51 years—half a century!—retiring in 2007, the year of the Utah voucher dispute. Although hedging on “obsolete”—he gives local schools a B-minus—Collett concedes most of what Gates says is true.

For generations, Gates says, high schools have prepared about 30 percent of their students for college. In the other 70 percent—as both of you point out, Dr. Byrne—are the minority students who have been shunted off the college-prep track. They are the ones who take Consumer Math not Calculus. It is an intolerable situation, according to Gates. Every student must be readied for college, not just a select few.

“High school should prepare everyone for college or some sort of postsecondary training,” Collett says. But many kids bypass college to enter the work force. “Kids want quick money,” he explains with a shrug.

Without a college degree, the quick-money-minded “will struggle to make a living wage,” says Gates. “Students who graduate from high school but never go on to college will earn, on average, about $25,000 a year. For a family of five, that’s close to the poverty line.” The poverty line is well understood by minorities.

Without an overhaul, schools “cannot teach our kids what they need to know today,” Gates insists. He and Collett are of the same mind when it comes to what it will take to overhaul the average high school. Rigor and relevance need to be restored to the curriculum. Progress must be measured in tough standardized tests whose results are published for all to see. Classes must be small enough that kids can interact with adults who know them and push them to achieve.

“The idea behind the new design is that all students can do rigorous work, and—for their sake and ours—they have to,” says Gates.

According to Collett, kids avoid courses that are “too hard.” “At Highland, there’s no AP physics, no AP chemistry because kids don’t want to invest the time, effort and energy,” he laments. “Nobody pushes the kids past ‘too hard.’” That includes too many parents, he says, “who let kids do what they want.”

Over the course of Collett’s long career, academic standards have been eroded. It’s a sore point with him. “We don’t teach kids to speak correctly anymore; we don’t encourage writing or good grammar,” he laments. “We don’t read the novel, we watch the movie version.”

That trend must be reversed. Once rigor is restored, Gates advocates establishing tough national standards and then using tests to measure the progress of each school. He believes that by publishing the results of standardized tests, attention would be focused on improvement. Resources would be allocated accordingly. Poor-performing schools would be subject to intervention by a team of specialists.

“I’m with him!” says Collett. “I also think everybody should be learning the same thing at the same time.” He says that he favors the kind of testing Gates espouses while disparaging those who “teach to the test in order to make themselves look good.”

Gates’ foundation has committed $1 billion to redesigning 1,500 high schools around the country. That’s a good example for Utah legislators who have not yet allocated enough money to such urgently needed reforms as reduction in class size. The average student-teacher ratio here is about 23 to one, well above the national average of 16 to one. Hiring new teachers is one part of the solution. Retaining good teachers is another. Gates and Collett believe that good teachers must be rewarded. How best to do that? “Money is one way, of course,” Collett says, “but giving them more time to work with kids is another. Free them from administrative meetings and such chores as lunch duty.”

So, Dr. Byrne, you and Gates have a lot in common. You share a passionate commitment to education reform, and you deserve credit for writing a check while others bank on polemic. Gates and Collett agree on a plan to reclaim Utah’s high schools from obsolescence. They could use your help.

Mullen is on vacation.


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