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Melinda French Gates - Educating All Children Well: Do We Want to Do It Badly Enough?

July 25, 2003
Remarks by Melinda French Gates, co-chair

Good morning. It’s great to see all of you here this morning. Those children that you saw just a few moments ago make the case, far better than any of us could in this room, for why their education is so incredibly important. All the priorities that you have been discussing this week, and will continue to discuss, about the economy, about health care, about homeland security—rest on the importance of whether we educate all of our children well—whether we help them fulfill their dreams.

So I want to thank Senator Monson—and everyone at NCSL—for inviting me here to talk about the millions of children left behind by our high schools and how we can address this crisis together. It’s a bit ironic for me to stand up on this stage and talk about education. Because, as I think most of you know, I’m married to a rather famous college dropout. And he likes to tease that between us, we have two-and-a-half college degrees. But I constantly remind him that his is the half of the degree.

About a month from now, four million children in the United States will start 9th grade. They have the same big dreams as those young people on the video. But, by the time you gather four years from now, one-third of these children will have dropped out of high school. That’s incredible. As we just saw, another third of them will have graduated totally unprepared for college, for work, and for citizenship in this country. And the prognosis is even worse for African American and Hispanic students—nearly half of them will never see their graduation day.

“The question is not, ‘can we educate all children well’ but rather, ‘do we want to do it badly enough?’”

Deborah Meier poses this question in one of my favorite books about the United States education system. Her book is titled, The Power of Their Ideas and it’s about the public schools she founded in Harlem. She proves with those schools that we can educate all children well. But do we want to do it badly enough?

I know it’s not the ideal time to ask this question. In your states, plans and budgets are being slashed; priorities are being shelved.
 
But four million children simply cannot be put on hold. They are going to start high school in about a month. And these new high school students will soon take high-stakes tests, as you all know. They will soon be accountable for higher standards. But, whether they meet those standards. Whether they graduate or drop out. Whether they become society’s greatest promise, or our biggest problem, really depends on how well we educate those students. We have to create great high schools now to take care of these students. And that is the challenge that brings us together, here in this room, this morning.

A few years ago, Bill and I decided to make a major financial commitment to improve high schools in the United States—because they really are the most troubled part of our education system today. We did so, I must say, knowing that our contributions will really only put a dent in this problem. They’re no match for this challenge. Most of the leadership required to fix the problem that we face today in our education system, sits right here in this room. Just as it always has, the solution must come from you, and from your colleagues.

It was your leadership that led to rising test scores for younger students. And it is your leadership that is even more critical now to help our students meet new standards today—and lead our country tomorrow.

The fact is, every public debate we hold, every campaign we wage, everything we value in our democracy depends upon our ability to educate all children well. Public high schools must train not only consumers. Not only workers. But also educated and engaged citizens. Citizens who embrace their civic responsibilities—just like you are doing. Citizens who understand different ideas and people halfway around the globe. Those are the citizens we need tomorrow, and they’re in our schools today. Citizens who will one day determine the fate of our country, for better or for worse.
 
To truly understand the crisis in our high schools, you really have to see it. I spoke this morning with a group of education committee chairs. They are out there, visiting the high schools and the elementary schools—as many of you are. I had read compelling studies. But I didn’t really get it until I walked around some campuses and talked with the students and teachers myself.

Let me share one trip I took to the Bay Area. I visited two public high schools that were no more than 50 miles apart from one another. Both of them had dedicated teachers and administrators who wanted to do right by their students. But that is where the similarities between these two schools ended.

At one large high school, I saw three police cars before I reached the front door. The building was old and falling apart. There wasn’t enough space for the 2,000 students. Many were crammed into portable classrooms. Others wandered aimlessly through the halls and parking lots. In the classrooms the students were completely bored with what was going on. Most of them were not paying attention. Their classrooms were in disarray. Their teachers were overwhelmed. I have to say that I left that school and I felt this pit in my stomach. It was devastating—in part because it is so common across the U.S. high school system.

Not far from there, I visited a new public high school with only 200 students. Inside the classrooms I met young people who were engaged in their learning. One group was designing multi-media projects to make history come alive. Some of the seniors told me about these great classes they were taking at a local community college. I was rather stunned. I said, “How is it that you leave your high school campus and go to community college?”

They said, “What’s the big deal? The adults at this school trust that we’re going to take those classes, and that we’re going to come right back.”

They were treated like adults. They were given responsibility. And the adults in that school knew that they’d return because they were engaged and interested in furthering themselves. No one worried about whether those students would come back because they absolutely wanted to be there—day in and day out.

In cities, suburbs, and rural areas, too often we see a tale of two high schools: One system for children whose parents live near good public schools or can afford to pay for private schools. And the other for the students stuck in large struggling high schools. Their classes aren’t challenging or relevant. Their teachers are less qualified.

Their schools—which need the most, often have the very least. And the students—most of them from low-income and minority families—rarely have the opportunity to ignite, much less begin to fulfill their dreams.

Our high school system is dangerously out of step with our values and our needs as a society. Our country promises our children they can go as far as their commitment to their education takes them—regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of their family’s resources. Yet, our rhetoric doesn’t reflect reality. Instead of helping children defy the limitations they face at birth, our high schools usually perpetuate those limitations. And that’s a sad fact of the U.S. education system.

That’s in part because our large comprehensive high schools were built for the industrial age, not the information age. Fifty years ago, we mistakenly thought that only select students could do serious academic work. So young people were separated like machine parts on different tracks. Some learned to work with their heads. Others with their hands. National reports touting the benefits of these large sprawling schools led to policies mandating them. It made some sense then.

But it makes absolutely no sense now. We wouldn’t think of asking our students to go only to a paper-based encyclopedia to research a report. Where do they go? They go to the Internet. We wouldn’t ask a student today, you wouldn’t ask your son or daughter, to use a slide rule to solve their math problems instead of a computer. And I know technology can go too far. I’m sure some of you are really looking forward to the day when your constituents can Instant Message you directly at this conference.

The point is: We must give all children what they need to succeed in today’s world.

And what students need today are high schools that prepare them for college. Prepare them to work in a knowledge-based economy. And prepare them to participate in a diverse society and in our democracy.

Think, for a moment, about our educational ladder. We’ve strengthened the steps lifting students from elementary school to junior high—and those from junior high to high school. But, that critical step taking students from high school into adulthood is badly broken. And it can no longer support the weight it must bear.

We can see this gap in our test scores. Scores, as you know, are rising for elementary students, thanks to the reforms all of you in this room have championed. But these gains disappear by the time students finish high school. Our 12th graders are scoring near the bottom of the international scale in math and science. And, according to last month’s NAEP report, high school reading levels have dropped steadily over the last decade.

So what should we do? We must reinvent our high schools so that they give all students a new version of the three R’s: rigor, relationships, and relevance. And this doesn’t necessarily require new spending or new ideas. If we look around the country, we know it’s possible to start great schools and improve existing ones. It’s already being born out in many states. We know our public high schools can train the next generation of workers and citizens. We know we can educate all children well. But the question is, do we want to do it badly enough? Because if we do, let me suggest three steps that we can take immediately:

I. First, we must create at least 10,000 great high schools in the next ten years. 

There simply aren’t enough great public high schools in most communities right now. All but the most privileged families are stuck with poor choices, or no choices at all. And it will only get worse as our student population increases. These 10,000 new schools will help give all families real options for their children—whether it’s charter schools, math academies, or art schools. The idea is that they ought to have choices.

The fact is, we know what great schools look like. They are the kinds of places all parents want to send their children. It should be a place where you walk in the door and you say, “That’s where I want to put my son or daughter.” Those are the kinds of schools we need. And usually they are small. Research shows that children in schools with 400 students or less are more likely to excel. These students are more likely to avoid violence and vandalism, as you can see by the chart. More likely to engage in their studies. The fact is, they’re more likely to graduate, and their much more likely to attend college.

Recently, I saw firsthand what happens when a small school emphasizes rigor, relationships, and relevance. The Truman Center, which is south of Seattle, used to be a place for the district’s unwanted students and teachers. Now it is exactly the opposite: two smaller schools of real learning—and hope.

There are no bells. No lockers. The students work all year in big open spaces they designed themselves. Many of these young people told me how, at their old schools, they missed class all the time. And no one seemed to notice. No one even seemed to care.  

So at the Truman Center, imagine what it means for these students to attend a school where everyone in the building knows their names. They’re assigned to a teacher who has only 17 students—who he or she is with all year round. The teacher helps them find a relevant internship out in the community. And if one doesn’t exist, the teacher helps them  create one. Teachers give students their time. They give them their home phone numbers. But I’ll tell you what they give them the most:  They give them their confidence. 

Those students go out to these internships and they come back to school wanting to learn. It’s because they see what they may become—where they may go in life. They talk about how they want to become a teacher, or a biologist, or a legislator in the future. And that’s what drives them to do their coursework and to think about graduating and going on to college.

Most of us in this room can probably still point to that one teacher who changed our lives and made us think about broader opportunities. For me, it was my high school teacher, Mrs. Bauer. She encouraged me to take classes in math, science, and computer science when there were very few girls pursuing those areas. And I truly think I wouldn’t have gone into computer science at Duke if it wasn’t for that one high school teacher.

And that’s exactly what I saw at the Truman Center. And that’s what you see in your districts—teachers helping these children dream, helping them see a professional path and why it’s so important to go on to college. What can I say about places like the Truman Center besides, “they’re working”?

In just one year, dropout rates are considerably down at the Truman Center, while the percentage of students going on to college and technical schools has more than doubled. For the first time in Truman’s history, 75 percent of this year’s graduates will pursue further education this fall.

These students are not alone. This is what we’re seeing in small schools across this nation. In almost every state, there are small schools debunking the ugly myth that some children cannot learn. Some of these schools use existing buildings or share space with nonprofit organizations. Others were once very large high schools that have now broken themselves down now smaller environments of learning within one large building.

There are many different ways for you to help create great schools in your states. Let me give you a couple of examples. One is to change existing policies so they mandate smaller enrollments. Starting in Florida this month, all high school construction must be for fewer than 900 students. That’s a powerful change in a large state.

Another way is to change your bond match to reward small school construction. California, for example, is considering giving districts a higher percentage of funding when they build small schools.

States can also pass stronger charter school legislation that encourages innovation, while demanding quality. And you can champion an entire innovation fund, like the one in Texas, which is supporting many new and redesigned high schools throughout the state.

It’s important to know, especially during this time of budget crises in many states, that small schools don’t require large or sustained increases in spending.  I think that’s ironic to most people. In fact, we’re finding that small schools can even cost less to operate, than large public high schools. One school, High Tech High in San Diego, was created from an old naval warehouse. It spends $5,200 a year per student—that’s 600 dollars less than other San Diego public high schools. But High Tech High also boasts the highest test scores of all non-selective public schools in Southern California. That’s pretty impressive at $5200 a student.

I know that the issue of cost is absolutely critical right now. Which is why we are working with NCSL on a new nationwide study that will give you more information about how to create small schools in a cost-effective way. That is something we plan to get out in the next year and will send to all of you through NCSL. It’s information that you can bring back to your districts and capitals as you debate these reforms. 

But, even creating these 10,000 great new schools will not do the job. If we really want to educate all children well, they must have rigorous classes that prepare them well for going on to college. And that is our second challenge.

II. Make a college-preparatory curriculum the default curriculum in our high schools.

We see the curse of low expectations in the fates of more than a million young people who graduate each year with a diploma that means absolutely nothing. It’s an empty promise that doesn’t get them anywhere. This morning over breakfast, I was talking with many of the education committee chairs from your states. We were talking about the fact that a lot of students can’t even begin to meet college admissions requirements, much less stay in college. They can’t qualify for the best jobs in today’s economy. All because they were tracked into dead-end courses in high school.

I read a sad story recently in the L.A. Times about one student in South-Central Los Angeles. Her dream was to become a brain surgeon. She requested a tough elective like journalism that would help her get into college. But when that class was filled, her counselor enrolled her in a cosmetology class instead. This young woman told the reporter from the L.A. Times, “They think kids from South Central are not going to college. They want us to do the manicures for the kids who are going to USC.”

What an indictment of the tracking system in our schools. We must work with school districts and state boards of education to eliminate these meaningless and dead-end courses. To make college-prep the rule, not the exception. We need to better align high school exit and college entrance requirements. Those two must come together in the next few years. Many of your states and districts have already taken these critical steps. And they are confirming what researchers have long known: Far from cowering under the pressure of tougher requirements, all young people want to be challenged—and guess what? They excel when they are challenged. 

Not far from here, all students in the San Jose School District now take college-prep courses. It’s pretty amazing. The result? Reading and math scores are all up, with the largest gains among African American and Hispanic students. Test scores for African Americans in San Jose, for example, rose seven times higher than their peers statewide. More students throughout San Jose are now taking the SAT. More are graduating ready for college. And almost 90 percent expect to go to college.

So, yes, we can educate all children well. But doing so will lead to a third challenge.

III. We must increase access to higher education and double the numbers of poor and minority students who complete college degrees by the end of this decade.

There’s been a lot of debate about affirmative action lately. But the barriers keeping too many young people from earning a college degree don’t begin or end with the admissions process. Many students in this country don’t grow up with parents who graduated from college and expect their children to do the same. So it starts with awareness—giving students the inspiration and information to attend college. And we can’t begin early enough or enlist enough messengers.

Many states are adopting CollegeEd, a curriculum that introduces middle-school students to college. In communities across Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, the State Scholars Program is enlisting local leaders to help 8th graders understand that they need a good education now to earn a good paycheck later.

There is also the age-old issue of cost. Many students never prepare for college because they don’t think there is any way they or their parents can pay for it. We must find new ways—better ways—to make college affordable for all students. In Utah, for example, New Century High Schools allow young people to earn a year of college credit or even an Associate of Arts degree while still in high school. And those who get their Associate’s degree are eligible for a Utah scholarship paying 75 percent of their tuition at a state university.  

Finally, there is the question of space. If more students are eligible for college and have the resources to attend, there must be open seats for them. We need to look around at every type of campus and ask ourselves: Are there enough community colleges or branch campuses? Are there enough dual enrollment programs; online learning centers; and other innovative options? And, if not, what can we do to create them now?
 
As we leave here today, those four million students will be closer to their first day of high school, closer to the moment when they will face new tests and requirements. Will they meet these standards? And will we? Because if our children can find the courage to dream, surely we can find the commitment to make those dreams a reality.

We, too, must hold ourselves to higher standards. We, too, must dream. Just imagine what we could accomplish if we truly educated all young people well. If all students—regardless of their race or income—attended a great high school. A school that challenged them. A school that excited them. A school that made them proud.

Imagine if all students had teachers who inspired them to reach beyond their grasp. If they took rigorous classes that opened their minds and their futures. Imagine if all our young people arrived at their high school graduation ready to attend college now and to lead our country in the future.

Think about the citizens we would have. Think about the democracy we could become.

What if we educated all young people to tackle the problems that have plagued us for generations? What if our students were really equipped to improve our health care and economy, to guarantee our safety and security, to safeguard our fundamental rights and liberties?

What if they all had the chance to sit in your seats one day? 

It is possible for us to educate all our children well…if we want to do it badly enough.  

Thank you very much.

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