Determining Failure

I’m off again on a short vacation, but I couldn’t let this paragraph escape at least a word or two.  Over the weekend, Bill Gates was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.  From the piece:

One of the foundation’s main initial interests was schools with fewer students. In 2004 it announced that it would spend $100 million to open 20 small high schools in San Diego, Denver, New York City and elsewhere. Such schools, says Mr. Gates, were designed to—and did—promote less acting up in the classroom, better attendance and closer interaction with adults.


“But the overall impact of the intervention, particularly the measure we care most about—whether you go to college—it didn’t move the needle much,” he says. “Maybe 10% more kids, but it wasn’t dramatic. . . . We didn’t see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that.” Still, he adds, “we think small schools were a better deal for the kids who went to them.”

Now, there’s lots to say about the “success” or “failure” of the small schools work done by Gates and others.  And I know that Bill Gates has said that small schools offer more than just college readiness.  But I suppose what I’d like to contribute here, or at least to push back with, is something like this:

Perhaps the metrics used to evaluate the effort were the wrong metrics.  College attendance may not be the right way to measure whether or not small schools are good places for our children.  We might want to investigate some other metrics and see how they tell us about the experience of students in smaller schools.  I’d wonder about things like safety.  Or the knowledge that students in a small school are members of a cohesive and human community.  Were these students well looked after and mentored by grown ups who genuinely cared for them?  Were they engaged in work that was meaningful and purposeful?  Did what they did each day matter?

You can say those schools failed – but let’s make sure we know what your criteria are. The more someone ((“Like Bill Gates,” I want to say, but it’s not about him.  Like anyone who wants to tell you what’s working or what’s not.  Dig deeper.  Ask more.))  is pushing to tell me what counts as a “good school,” the more I’m finding I’m willing to say –

Hang on.  Wait.  What do we want our schools to be?

And just what do you mean by failure?

I think those’re some of the kinds of questions that the folks who are organizing the Save Our Schools March are asking.

If I could be, I’d be there in Washington DC as they congregate to push for change. Perhaps you will be.  Take good notes.

7 thoughts on “Determining Failure

  1. Nancy White says:

    Great call, Bud. I have been doing a lot of thinking about whether or not a student goes straight to college from high school is a fair measure of success. In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about higher education in general – wondering how long they can be successful with their current model of preparation where students pursue one (or maybe more than one – as long as the student’s funds hold out) field of study, when everything we know about how rapidly the world is changing points to the fact today’s students will have as many as 15 different jobs in their lifetime. I would bet our students know this – and are looking for multiple pathways to success – and not all of them are going to be found with a college degree. And while that may play into their future plans, it might not be the first thing they pursue upon high school graduation.

  2. monika hardy says:

    spot on.
    we’re asking the wrong questions.
    we’re defining success and failure for other people.
    and in so doing, we’re attempting to fix the wrong problems.
    and in so doing, we’re perpetuating those very problems.
    yet again, the worst thing – those aren’t even the problems that matter.

  3. Jeremy M. says:

    Such a loaded word, “failure” is. I have a hard time agreeing with anyone that says the success of a high school or school district can be measured by the number of graduates who attend college. Are all high school graduates ready for college? I could be way off in right field, but I don’t think all of our high school graduates are ready for more “schooling”. With the model of educating/schooling that we are currently under, I feel we are not preparing our graduates to go on and continue learning as self-directed, self-motivated learners. We aren’t.

    There’s my gripe, here is my proposed solution:

    What happened to apprenticeships? We still have internships; but what about apprenticeships? What if we moved to a model that allowed students to be a little more self-directed in their learning; let them follow a passion or two during their formal education? I think that some where around 14 years old, some (not all, but some) students are ready for this. Give them an opportunity to actually work with someone during the school day, a professional, someone in the field of their passion. If I’m interested in cars and auto-mechanics, why can’t I work in a shop for two or three periods during the school day. At least for a semester. Let them decide if this is for them. If it is, do they need a college degree? Will it make them a better mechanic? An associates degree or even licensing through a trade school is often more than enough.

    I guess it might be similar to some magnet schools. In El Paso, TX, where I grew up, Bel-Air High School was a health-magnet school. Many students began as Explorers with EMT services and graduated as CNAs (and some quite close to LPNs). Out of high school. Not bad. Some of them went on to pursue medical careers; some decided medicine wasn’t for them. But they were given an opportunity to see, hands-on. They didn’t have to suffer through college, four majors and possibly 6-years of debt to figure it out.

    My point is, college isn’t always the answer after high school graduation. Some students need time to grow up, get jobs, and contribute to society in other ways. Their decisions should determine the success of a school. I say we give students vocational opportunities before college; help them see what path they see as the right one for them; THEN, and only then, determine if a 4-year college, or junior college, or community college, or even trade school is right for them.

    I apologize for the lengthy comment, but I thought I should share. Bud, again. I appreciate your thoughts and push back. I think it is needed in many cases, especially in this one. Thanks.

  4. Rex says:

    I like the idea of an apprenticeship model in high schools. The truth is, our instructional model at the elementary level is more like an apprenticeship model with reading, writing, math and science workshops. At many elementary schools, students are accustomed to a more self- (or at least co-) directed model of learning, and when they get to the middle school all that changes. When we talk to our former students as they come back to visit us, and we ask what they miss most about elementary school, invariably they say, “We miss reading and writing workshop. At the middle/high school they tell us what to read and what to write.”

    Entering college is a totally different ballgame than it used to be. It’s more like entering a highly competitive workforce requiring pedigrees and resumes. Not every high school graduate is ready for that kind of pressure. They’re still waiting for someone to answer all the questions for them–as we’ve taught them to do–rather than asking questions and finding answers themselves.

  5. I like what you bring up with regards to the metrics. I met someone who went to one of the “failing” small schools and the truth is that they did quite well in most respects. However, due to the bizarre demographics and the lower sampling size, the test scores were low. Even then, I would argue that test scores are a bad metric for defining much of anything beyond how students did on a test.

    So what metrics do we use? I realize our job is to question, but we also need to create realistic, workable solutions. How do we define success beyond the narrative realm (which is honestly the zone where I am most comfortable) so that people see success as more than simply an anomaly?

  6. Why can’t those of us who know what schools are about, what is needed, and possibly most importantly how to deliver it take charge of education reform? I’d bet we’d have better success than the legislators (look where they’ve taken the country!) and paper-pushing administrators who love numbers.

  7. Melissa Thompson says:

    Jennifer, I totally agree with your comment. Too often it seems like the people in charge of important educational policy decisions are those people who haven’t been in a classroom since their own high school days. Part of the problem, I feel, is that any person who has gone to school believes that’s the only qualification needed to make those decisions. Sadly, I think the people who would be best suited to make decisions on a lare scale are the ones who are overwhelmed working in their own classrooms, schools, and districts to focus on a bigger picture.

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