Melinda Gates’ idea of improving education


Bill and Melinda Gates, whose charitable foundation has done much good in the world, are now focusing on education with a program called Strong American Schools and a companion web site, EDin08.com. Given the Gates Foundation’s success in helping improve public health in third-world countries, one might be optimistic about what they might do with our struggling public school system.

However, my optimism suffers a big setback when I read stuff like this from Melinda Gates, in an interview with NPR:

Can we reasonably expect 100 percent of high school students to become college students?

Yes, I think we can. And, in fact, I’m here today in the Chicago school district visiting with students – huge number of Latinos and African-American populations, and guess what? I’m in schools where 95 to 98 percent of these kids are going on to college, and it’s because they started freshman year with teachers who believe in them and said, ‘These kids can do it.’ And maybe they are not coming in with the right reading or math skills, but we are going to bring them up, and we are going to have high expectations of them. And guess what? Those kids are succeeding, and those kids are getting into college.

I’m baffled as to why reasonably intelligent people like Melinda Gates continue to think that having 100% of high school students go on to college is necessarily a good thing, much less a “reasonable” thing to expect. College is not supposed to be only for the elite, but on the other hand college is supposed to be for those who are truly equipped, intellectually and psychologically, for the rigors of the system. And that’s not everybody. And the fact that it’s not everybody is not necessarily a bad thing. I have had plenty of students in my classes who just simply weren’t cut out for the college life, and they were miserable right up until the day they decided to drop out.

The only way in which 100% college attendance makes any sense at all is to lower standards and include massive amounts of high school remediation, or perhaps have some “colleges” set up to service those students who need “bringing up”, as Ms. Gates puts it, and give them a “college degree” that is really on par with a high school diploma, further devaluing the already steadily-dropping value of a college degree. Either way, you’re talking about creating a huge influx of students into a higher education system that is already suffering from the effects of grade inflation and lowered academic and intellectual standards, a group of students who otherwise would look at themselves and reasonably and correctly conclude that they’d be happier doing something else. Why this would constitute an improvement in education in this country is anybody’s guess.

Do you think that, in 20 years, the Gates Foundation will be pushing for 100% of college students to get into PhD programs? What’s the logical end of all of this? Why not instead just let students do what they want, and use the K-12 system to equip them with the basic skills to do whatever that is, and stop telling them implicitly that if they don’t go to college that they are losers doomed to a life of failure?

(And by the way, Ms. Gates, when you say that “we” are going to bring up their reading and math skills, am I to assume that you’ll be right in the trenches with the teachers? Because “believing in” students is not enough.)

[h/t Joanne Jacobs]

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5 Comments

Filed under Education, Teaching

5 responses to “Melinda Gates’ idea of improving education

  1. Jay

    I just hired a person with a degree. I had to, the University I work for requires it. We got a good person, but we also had to pass over some extremely talented people who could have done the job just as well, if not better. When we make having a degree a job requirement, we contribute to the problem.

    Just for a little context, I was blessed to be a great student, have earned an advanced degree, *and* have spent almost 20 years as an “educator” at three different major universities. In spite of this, I am coming to value a college degree less and less as the years pass by. I almost agree with you, (or is it almost disagree). You didn’t quite say college was for smarter kids, so I won’t pin that on you. But lots of people feel that college is for smarter kids. I don’t happen to agree with that. I need a smart plumber, (electrician, carpenter, mechanic, etc…) just as badly as I need a smart accountant. I think we need tbetter technical and vocational education, and let kids know it is ok (maybe even honorable) to choose vocations that we need as a society.

    College is not for everyone, nor should it be. Nor is a college education required for 1/2 of the jobs that “require” one.

  2. I think the chain of reasoning among the 100%-in-college people goes like this: (1) College is for smart kids. (2) We want all our kids to be smart. Therefore: (3) We want all our kids to go to college. There are a obviously a lot of problems with that syllogism, starting with the idea of “smartness”. I knew plenty of not-extremely-”smart” people in college who made a very good use of their education by simply having a clear and realistic idea of what they wanted to to with themselves and then having the humility and work ethic to make it happen. And I saw lots of “smart” people end up flunking out or severely underachieving because they figured success was just going to be a consequence of their smartness.

    As for vocational and technical education, I’m not sure what kinds of improvements are needed, if any. I think the free market tends to do a pretty good job of keeping standards high there — we certainly know who the good electricians are and who the bad ones are and never call on the latter if we need work done. And I have a great deal of respect, even a little envy, for people who work in the trades, and anybody who thinks you can survive in those fields without being smart hasn’t been around those people much.

  3. I agree completely.

    Actually, I go to one of the early college programs with a grant from the B&M Gates Foundation. I love that I’m getting college credits, but I think that the program is a bit poorly implemented. Instead of taking a one-year English class, for example, I’m taking a dual-credit one at a local community college that’s about five weeks long in summer school or one semester during the fall or spring. However, as a dual-credit class, this five-week course counts on my transcript as a full year of high-school level English. It’s impossible to deny that these two aren’t the same.

    There are tons of work-arounds like this in the program–I’ve done something similar for math, as well–so I’d feel more comfortable going back to a “regular high school” to get a more solid foundation. Yet, this is highly discouraged by school officials because it would mean “repeating” classes that I’ve gotten credits for and have therefore “already taken.” Credit-wise, I’m two years ahead in both math and English. Knowledge-wise, however, I feel behind.

    Honestly, by pushing all students into college earlier and earlier, it’s just creating a huge mess that’s possibly even bigger than the one we’ve started with. I feel like getting a “regular” high-school diploma is worth more to me than a two-year degree alongside it.

    So, yeah… I agree. ;)

  4. Michael

    It wouldn’t be so important for kids to go to college if we didn’t waste their K-12 years with all the worthless things and focused on Math, English, Science and Social Studies.

  5. I have helped in a (high school) class where the lessons consisted of things like “how to brush your teeth” and “how to go to the bathroom”.

    Should these (severely mentally handicapped) students go to college?

    This point isn’t just to be snarky. The quote says 100%. The next counterpoint might then be: ok, 100% except for those particular special education students. So then: *which* special education? What point do you draw the line?