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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Bill Gates' Education Nirvana
December 4, 2013 - 2:30pm

How does this school sound?

“The mission of __________School is to develop intellectually capable young people the creative minds, healthy bodies, and ethical spirits needed to contribute wisdom, compassion, and leadership to a global society. We provide a rigorous and dynamic academic program through which effective educators lead students to take responsibility for learning.

We are committed to sustaining a school in which individuals representing diverse cultures and experiences instruct one another in the meaning and value of community and in the joy and importance of lifelong learning.”

Not bad, right?

Some stats:

50% of students are girls and 50% are boys.

Average class size: 16

Students of color: 50%

41 National Merit semifinalists

Percent of graduates who go to four-year postsecondary institutions: 100

I know what you’re thinking, some kind of myth, right?

But no, it exists. That mission statement comes from the Lakeside School in Seattle which happens to be Bill Gates’ alma mater, as well as where his children go to school.

Looking through the website is to visit a kind of educational Nirvana. Check out this description of classroom observation from the Upper School Director:

“As I have sat in on classes this fall, I’ve been impressed by the multitude of tools Lakeside teachers have in their belts. Good teaching involves looking at the objective for the day and determining what strategy would best help students “get” that objective. Our teachers are masters at that, largely because their repertoire of strategies is so extensive.”

She goes on to describe the specific activities in one teacher’s English classroom:

“On the first day I visited, sophomores were re-writing pop songs to incorporate vocabulary words. There were some hilarious moments. One student: ‘What should we inure him with?’ Second student: ‘I don’t know. Hate?’ On another day, seniors viewed a Russian dash-cam video from YouTube and free wrote about the experience, exploring the use of the second person and the ‘meta’ in order to better understand the passing use of the pronoun ‘you’ in the novel ‘Underworld.’ In an American Studies course, I watched students draw symbols to represent the demise of community in ‘The Scarlet Letter.’”

I read the English curriculum and nearly wept with joy. It had me frantically searching for the “where do I apply?” link and wondering about the affordability of housing in the Seattle area.

Here’s the course description for one of the 12th grade classes, The Novel as Network: Postmodern American Culture, a class I’d be happy to take if I wasn’t allowed to teach it:

“This course delves into one major recent American novel and looks at the network of ideas and topics branching out from it. The goal is to examine a constellation of topics ranging across the political, social, and artistic spectrum of recent American culture and history. One major work thereby becomes a kind of prism that focuses our investigations and allows branching off into other works/artifacts “surrounding” this one work. This iteration of the course focuses on Don DeLillo’s masterful Underworld, which follows the interwoven lives of several characters over a span of 50 years. This will serve as a gateway to contemporary American culture, but like the novel’s nonlinear narrative itself, we will often branch off into investigations of American popular culture and history, including baseball, nuclear war, graffiti, music, film, television, and politics. Possible alternative texts include Infinite Jest, Freedom, Shadow Country, or another major contemporary American novel.”

I began to wonder how they’re able to spend their time teaching challenging novels like “Underworld” and “Infinite Jest” if they’re also preparing their students for the standardized tests which will determine the quality of their teachers and the amount of funding they receive and then I remembered we’re talking about an elite preparatory school that doesn’t have to worry about such things.

Their teachers get to spend their time “determining which strategy best helps students ‘get’ the objective.”

Bill Gates is the product of this amazing place. Naturally, he has sent his children to this amazing place.

But for some reason, to the tune of at least $150 million, he’s spent the last several years cramming the Common Core State Standards down the throats of our public schools.  

That literature course that sounds so incredible would fail according to the Common Core Standards (and even curriculum) Gates’ foundation bought and paid for.

More recently, he’s decided that MOOCs are the panacea for community college students.

He’s not thinking about decreasing costs in higher ed and improving access, but instead is busy watering down education to a level where the common folk can afford it.

For Gates, it appears that it’s human contact for me, technology for thee.

On the one hand, Gates seems to know that freedom for teachers to teach is the best route to high achievement.

On the other hand, he’s driving education towards a regime of narrower curriculum untethered to the specific needs of local communities, more testing, and more bogus accountability metrics, all of which serve to disempower and demoralize the most important gateway to student learning, the teacher.

I believe Gates to be one of the great philanthropists of all time. His choice to give away the vast majority of his wealth, rather than pass it to his heirs, is both honorable and admirable.

I believe he’s well-intentioned, even as I think his influence on education is largely destructive.

What I don’t understand is why someone who has personally experienced the best practices of education wants the opposite for the rest of us.

Some individuals appear to have stumbled across the blog post from the Upper School Director and are posting comments, asking questions like, “Do you fire your teachers if they have a poor evaluation that is based on the test scores of students they don't even teach?”

It’s a good question, even as we can be sure the answer is, “no.”

Obviously, every school can’t be Lakeside, but we can take the principles it embraces - looking at what the children need and letting a professional decide how best to meet those needs – and let them loose in our public schools.

I think Gates envisions himself as providing opportunity to people less fortunate than himself. Sadly, he’s achieving the opposite.

When you see or hear Gates interviewed about education he seems much more thoughtful than his support of Common Core indicates. I think someday, probably once billions have been spent and he sees only wreckage in its wake, he’s the sort of person who might admit that he was wrong.

I hope it happens before he does irreparable damage.

--

I bet kids at Lakeside School don't even have phones in the classroom, let alone Twitter:

 

 

 

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