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Melinda Gates' idea of improving education

June 30, 2008, 11:12 am

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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