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Originally published February 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 27, 2005 at 2:13 PM

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Gates "appalled" by high schools

Bill Gates blasted the state of U.S. high schools yesterday in a speech before the National Governors Association education summit in the nation's capital.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — Bill Gates blasted the state of U.S. high schools yesterday in a speech before the National Governors Association education summit in the nation's capital.

Using words such as "ashamed" and "appalled" to describe his reaction to the failure rates for students, Microsoft's co-founder called America's high schools broken, flawed and underfunded, and said the system itself is obsolete.

This was one of Gates' first major speeches on public schools before a national political audience. He was introduced by his old friend, Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat who is considered a possible candidate for president in 2008.

Though Gates' philanthropic funds have had an impact on education issues for several years, his personal appearance at such a venue suggests an even stronger move by Gates to fix public education by working directly with key political leaders.

"When I compare our high schools to what I see when I'm traveling abroad, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow," he said.

"The key problem is political will," he said, discussing resistance to change. He said it was "morally wrong" to offer more advanced levels of coursework to high-income students compared with that offered many minority and low-income scholars. And he trumpeted the goal of preparing every high-school student for either two- or four-year college programs.

"Only one-third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work and citizenship," he said. Gates spoke bluntly about the high dropout rates in America compared with those of other developed countries, and the differences between America's high-tech graduate degrees and those in India and China.

"In 2001, India graduated almost a million more students from college than the United States did; China graduates twice as many students with bachelor's degrees as the United States, and they have six times as many graduates majoring in engineering."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $2.3 billion to education since 1999. It has designated $733 million to a campaign for "smaller learning communities" to replace mass-enrollment high schools.

Washington state schools Superintendent Terry Bergeson applauded the tough-love talk. "He did not pull any punches," she said. She added that it was important that Bill Gates himself came to the governors' conference, saying, "He is making a statement, and his voice will be heard."

Gates grants support changes in 1,500 high schools, about 8 percent of America's secondary public schools, including several in Washington state. The program aims to reduce high-school populations to no more than about 500 students per school. Hundreds of new schools will be built, and many other large schools will divide into smaller entities within the same structure.

Gates said that he wants to emphasize the "three R's — rigor, relevance and relationships." By that, he means stronger curricula (rigor), better preparation for work and higher education (relevance), and a school structure where students have more support from teachers and counselors (relationships).

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In discussing standards and achievement measurements, Gates called on community leaders to demand openness from their school districts. Localities need to know the percentages of students dropping out, graduating, going to college, he said, "and we need this data broken down by race and income."

"He's absolutely right," said Bergeson. "You can't allow schools to hide" this information by aggregating statistics over too many schools. "We need to measure it subgroup by subgroup."

"He really addressed the big-picture problem," said Bergeson. "This wasn't 'Big Education' rhetoric. Whether I agree with all his ideas or not, I think this speech was great."

Gates is a "player now in education," said Michael Casserly, director of the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of 65 of the nation's largest urban public-school systems. "He's helped shape the conversation about many high-school reforms," he added, "though it's still too new to tell what effect they will have."

The governors, led by Virginia's Warner, welcomed Gates' candid assessment. Warner, who comes from the high-tech industry, has championed the Gates Foundation's efforts nationally, and has begun a governors' initiative to redesign high schools.

That was one reason, Gates told a small group of reporters before his speech, that he had come to address the governors directly. "That's where the resources are, and that's part of their mandate."

In that news conference, Gates said he would not give America's leaders a passing grade right now for their commitment to fixing education.

Gates acknowledged that there is some political resistance to the smaller-high-school campaign. "It's very complex," he said.

"But in many schools you need radical institutional change," he went on. "Any radical change is going to upset people. If you look, most of the pushback is not really against small," he said. He suggested it comes from those who run big sports programs, who are "asking why you're trying to change the status quo."

Asked about one Northwest school that is considering ending its $900,000 small-schools grant, the foundation's Executive Director Tom Vander Ark said school leaders "really need to go back and discuss their goals for their students." North Eugene (Ore.) High School's administrators gave mixed reviews to the smaller "learning academies" concept after visiting Mountlake Terrace High School, according to published reports.

The Oregon school's staff may vote to forgo the remainder of the three-year grant from the Gates Foundation and the Meyer Memorial Trust.

"They need to have a broader conversation with their community about the kind of education their kids deserve," said Vander Ark, noting that though he would be disappointed if the school pulled out, the grant is specific in its intent.

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com

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