Renovate or Tear Down?

How do we effectively fix the American high school?  We all talk about how our high schools are built on an antiquated notion of school.  We’re delivering 21st century education in a little red school house setting.  Multi-media learning in rows of one-piece desks.  Innovating in a 19th century construct.

We all know of the enormous investment the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made in trying to fix that high school model.  Small schools.  Early college high schools.  Career-based, relevant curriculum.  More rigorous classes.  Multiple pathways to postsecondary education.  A plethora of new instructional approaches to renovate a nagging problem.

And some of these approaches have had real effect.  We’ve seen the value of early college high schools.  Career academies have helped boost graduation rates in many urban districts.  We still have a while to go, though, until we see the long-term impact of these renovations.  Are any of them scalable solutions to fix our high schools, particularly those in our urban centers?  Have we found a true fix?

Believe it or not, it is a question that Eduflack has been thinking on for quite some time now.  Sure, I usually leave my musings to talking about effective communication or effective policy.  But if I’m going to preach innovation to educators, sometimes I need to practice a little myself.  And with Bill Gates taking over the management of his Foundation, I have to believe that investment in U.S. education is soon going to come with an even greater emphasis on results and return on investment.  That means scalability.

In yesterday’s USA Today, columnist Patrick Walsh details the positive impact the construction of a new building had on the motivation, behaviors, and learning at T.C. Williams High School.  (  Walsh’s observations only further encouraged my thinking.

Instead of renovating our existing high schools, what if Gates were to build an entirely new model?  Over the past five years, Gates has learned a great deal about how, and how not, to run an effective high school.  They understand the curriculum and the need for multiple academic pathways.  They understand school structure.  They are starting to get into the HR game, focusing on the teachers that are needed to lead such classrooms.  They are quickly assembling all of the pieces.  Now we move to that bold and audacious act.

What if the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were to take its money and build new high schools in our top 25 urban districts?  State-of-the-art buildings. Technology.  Rigorous and relevant curriculum.  Public-private partnerships.  Relevant professional development for the teachers.  Common educational standards measured across all Gates schools.  Open enrollment for all those seeking a better high school experience.  And the power of the Gates Foundation behind it.

And let’s get even bolder.  A system of public high schools managed by the Gates Foundation.  All in major cities across the nation.  All with high standards for its teachers.  All working from a common school design, a common curriculum, and common assessment that, over time, could be replicated in district after district across the nation.

Yes, many high schools — those recently dubbed drop-out factories — would see this as direct competition.  Others would see the possible establishment of these schools under charter school provisions as a threat to public education.  And others would wring their hands over such schools poaching the “good” teachers from our existing public schools, potentially weakening our current infrastructure.  But with up to 50 percent of students at these urban schools dropping out before earning a high school diploma, isn’t the payoff worth the risk?

Competition can be a good thing.  Gates high schools could identify a clear model for both building new schools and renovating existing ones.  It could force current schools to truly improve their practice.  And it could lead all of us to expect more from our schools, while helping us actually get there.

How do we do it?  For one, we can take a look at what Microsoft has done with the creation of its high school in Philadelphia.  Sure, Microsoft and Gates are different organizations.  But they share a common DNA and a common synergy.  Can’t we take that construction approach, coupled with the lessons learned from Gates’ high school redesign investments, to build that better mousetrap? 

Maybe I’m just a dreamer, but this may be just what we need.  Instead of trying to renovate a problematic system, making adjustments that will never make us fully happy or get us all the way to our goals, why not just build new?  Avoid the restrictions and the drawbacks of the past, and build institutions on our current needs, current understanding, and hopes for the future.

It is no easy task.  And the Gates Foundation may be the only organization out there with the resources, vision, and knowledgebase to even undertake it.  A huge risk, no doubt.  But imagine the payoff if it works.

One thought on “Renovate or Tear Down?

  1. I agree with you on this. I’ve substitute taught in schools that our state considers “exemplary schools” and really in all honesty they are only exemplary by 1960s or 1980s standards. The buildings itself are designed for an outmoded way of teaching and learning. Newer buildings I have seen include some improvements: more spacious “project/activity” rooms, modular and moveable furniture, built-in projectors, and in Westfield Indiana schools, a “presentation station” where students and teachers can use multimedia to discuss the class topics. But, on the whole, the model has not changed very much. I’d like to see what a visionary education group could offer as far as school design.

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