Okay, I know this is "old hat" news, but I wanted to address it since it came up with some teacher friends (yes, I have friends) over drinks the other night. And it bothers me. A lot.
I've given it some thought, and I think the real reason it's getting under my skin so much is because he was SO wrong about breaking schools into small academies. Yes, there were gains initially, but just like so many of the schools in NYC who went small, the gains flattened out after a few years. Also, you completely lose the chance to give students choice in electives. For instance, in my school of 280 kids, students are required to take visual arts in grades 6 and 8. They are also required to take Japanese in grades 6 and 7. The school that shares our building with us? 700 some odd students and the choice of drama, music, and visual arts. The choice at the middle school level is huge. This is when kids are opening the doors to their proclivities and shunting off the classes that bore them. NYC gives kids the ability to choose what kind of high school they go to, but they get little/no choice in middle schools. So, kids gifted in music or voice have no real outlet or place to train in my school's system. They are given visual arts - something at this point they have decided they either like or don't. One could argue that it's my job to reach out to all the intelligences and really teach each student what they want... that I should teach the music and voice and theater all in my class. You're kidding right? I teach 11 separate classes for a total of 200 students. To differentiate like that on a budget of zero would be such a Herculean effort that any teacher would burn out on the logistics, materials, and planning of it all. So, kids at my school get visual arts. And I teach it pretty well. I can get the average kid excited about the possibility of art. And given that this class is mandatory, BUT not required for promotion, I think I have a fairly high success rate. Against the odds.
Which brings me to class size. I'm not sure who gives him his data or who he talks with, but Mr. Gates needs to start looking at the in crisis schools and seeing how this would work. Mr. Gates' interviews are worrying because he carries so much clout in the reform movement now. People want his money. I can empathize with Mr. Gates on trying to find a creative solution, but to up the cap to 40-45 in a school such as mine would be suicide. I think he's driving at ways to address teacher pay and create more extrinsic motivations for teachers (which is good), but we need to look elsewhere for the creative... Until then, let's talk about class size. First, there's the logistic issue: none of the rooms can comfortably house that number of students. We would need new buildings or HUGE renovations that would cost inordinate sums of money. Second, while his data might show that there are not significant gains in testing from smaller classes, I would argue there are huge gains in the relationships built. That is something not measured, yet is something everyone talks about when they wax poetic about their favorite teacher: how they took the time and cared for the student. That's not happening with 45 kids in the classroom - it's a management issue. Small classes mean more meaningful time to check in with students. I have more space to breath in my teaching day and can follow up with students about personal and school issues when I'm not racing about the room to make sure an additional 20 students are on task. Private schools pride themselves on the small class size not because it raises test scores, but because it affords adults to give the students what they really crave: positive adult attention.
So Mr. Gates. I appreciate what you're doing, but I also think you need to be careful with your talk. There are a lot of people who jump on your bandwagon without looking and sometimes all of us don't make the best decisions (I'm thinking back to a particular Christmas cardigan circa 1986). If this is something you want to test in a lab school or two... then try it. But remember: folks are trying to impress you. You will get the best students in the optimal conditions. That's why the small academy program looked so good. But when applied to actual schools... well, it failed. And make sure you really think out the branches of the policy action at work... because not fully trouble shooting and fleshing out a program when you implement it is the kiss of death. But you should know that, you're a pretty smart guy. Maybe some of the people working for you aren't, but you? I certainly hope so.