Bill Gates’ Guinea Pigs

The Gates Foundation wants to remake American education, and ground zero for their billion-dollar experiment is Mountlake Terrace High School. Results so far? It's been a learning experience.

Mountlake Terrace High School occupies a few dozen acres of that quasi-netherworld between Seattle and Everett. The entrance to the grounds of the school, which opened in 1991, winds through a massive parking lot, a testament to the auto-oriented nature of our late-20th-century suburbs. An architect’s rendering of the school as seen from above hangs in the administration office. It sets out in gray tones a neat and rectilinear assembly of cubes, cylinders, and cones—an antiseptic structure that looks like it could just as well have functioned as a refrigerator factory. In virtually every way, Mountlake Terrace High is an average school in a standard suburb, with a typical enrollment—about 1,800 students. Average, too, have been the high dropout rate, mediocre test scores, and continuing evidence of student apathy.

The last five years, though, have been anything but average. Mountlake Terrace and its staff and students have been guinea pigs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Small Schools project. It is the first suburban high school in the nation to go through a wrenching top-to-bottom transformation process that has been hailed as both the salvation of our failing public education system and a crucial step on the road to sustained economic success for America. Success or failure at Mountlake Terrace will play a pivotal role in the future of this high-powered and monumental effort to reimagine a major social and educational institution: the American public high school.

The Gates Foundation has made a billion-dollar bet, plunking grant money down in front of school districts from Los Angeles, Calif., to Providence, R.I. One thousand six hundred schools are receiving grant money from the foundation, half of those about the size of Mountlake Terrace. All are chanting the Gates Foundation’s mantra: Small is good. Bill Gates himself is also trying to herd the nation’s governors into his transformation effort. Last February, he gave a scorching keynote speech on the failures of the nation’s high schools at the National Governors’ Conference in Atlanta, Ga. Saying that American high schools leave him “appalled,” he pointed to a dire future. “When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow. In math and science, our fourth-graders are among the top students in the world. By eighth grade, they’re in the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations.” In essence, most of our public high schools are unmitigated disasters.

At the heart of the Gates Foundation’s plan is research showing that smaller schools generally do a better job in student retention, graduation rates, and test scores. Students and teachers report that smaller schools improve relationships between teachers and their charges. Smaller schools reduce discipline issues.

A fundamental of the Gates plan is the wholesale creation of completely new, small high schools. These smaller schools, the thinking goes, will better prepare more students, especially low-income and minority students, for the post-high-school world. But that’s the easy part. There are 20,000 large high schools in America with enrollments of more than 1,000 students. In essence, the Gates Foundation wants to stick a fork into most of them and carve each one into new bite-size schools of 400 to 600 students.

According to Tom Vander Ark, 46, head of the foundation’s Small Schools effort for the past seven years, these smaller schools will “set high expectations for all students, acknowledge students learn in different ways, and engage them and give students the personalized support they need to succeed.” Education in these schools will be revamped to focus on the new three R’s—rigor, relevance, and relationships.

The Gates Foundation has set high expectations for itself, too. Creating thousands of small schools is only a means to an end.

Can the best and brightest really come up with a workable plan that fixes American high-school education? That’s the foundation’s challenge, and Mountlake Terrace is at the leading edge of the process. There is no guarantee of success there or nationwide. Student test results in “conversion” schools (large high schools divided into smaller schools) have yet to show dramatic changes, graduation rates remain flat, teachers are split about the effectiveness of the changes, and students are generally lukewarm. In addition, the Gates Foundation money isn’t endless, and no one is sure what to do when the funds paying for school reinvention efforts run out.

And while it’s still too early to come to any final conclusions, educators and the Gates Foundation are learning some critical lessons. Indications from the Mountlake Terrace experiment indicate that conversion efforts run the risk of driving a wedge between teachers, and raise questions about the role of outside foundations in shaping public education. Hubris on the part of the Gates Foundation and inertia on the part of school boards, teachers’ unions, and administrators can compromise the effort. Indeed, a close look at the Mountlake Terrace experiment shows that dealing with reluctant taxpayers, turned-off teenagers, and testy teachers might prove to be a lot more difficult than outfoxing IBM or KO’ing Netscape.

Ripe for Conversion

Laboratory in the burbs: Mountlake Terrace High School is now five schools in one.

(Ron Wurzer)

In the fall of 1999, Mountlake Terrace was, like many large public high schools, dealing with one of the clearest indictments of modern American public education: a staggering dropout rate. “We had about 500 students entering each year,” says then–Vice Principal Steven Gering, “but we were giving out just 320 diplomas. A third of the students were gone!” The question was, says Gering, “Can we create a school that works for more than 67 percent of the students?” With a small grant from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), the administration and faculty started to look at possibilities.

At the same time, the Gates Foundation was beginning its ambitious effort to refashion large high schools, and looking for places to try out their Small Schools design. “Our goal is to help more students graduate with the skills they need for work and citizenship,” explains Vander Ark. “Instead of being automatically funneled into a single large comprehensive high school, all students should have access to a school designed to address their needs and develop their talents. If leaving no high-school student behind means creating small, diverse schools that more effectively engage young people, we must begin to picture a high-school landscape that is very different from the one we know.”

Mountlake Terrace wanted to be part of that landscape. “We approached the Gates Foundation,” says Gering, who spearheaded the effort. “We wanted to know, ‘What are the possibilities? No strings, let’s just talk.'” “We did six months of research,” recalls Andi Nofziger, a Mountlake math teacher now in her 12th year of teaching. “We looked at small learning communities, ways to create a sense of belonging.” Nofziger wasn’t thrilled with the research effort. “To be honest, it was blatant propaganda on Stephen [Gering]’s behalf. I don’t think the research we saw was real balanced. We saw a lot of pros, and no cons.” Vince DeMeiro, a Mountlake journalism teacher, disagrees. Gering and the foundation, he says, “were up-front about the fact that there was little research in terms of conversion schools—large comprehensive high schools broken into quasi-autonomous small schools. Still, we had lots of people helping us dig into research, and nearly everything we did was research-based.”

Mountlake Terrace also had $833,000 dangling in front of it. In 2000, 83 percent of the faculty voted to accept a four-year Gates Foundation grant for that amount to divide up the school into separate parts. The school spent the next two years planning for the conversion; talking to experts, designing 15 potential small schools that could be created out of a single large school. They would have different emphases, and students and parents were polled about which school ideas were best.

“At first, we formed a committee to plan the new schools,” Gering says, “but the buy-in from the rest of the staff wasn’t all that great. So we opened it up to all staff members. Those were the best of times—that’s when everyone got excited. Staff members formed their own groups. We were shocked!”

“We were the flagship school,” recalls former Mountlake teacher Heather Helman. “We were the most gung ho. We were told we wouldn’t lose any staff, we’d design it ourselves, it would decrease the workload.” Small schools would mean students and teachers got to know each other better, and would give the faculty time to discuss students individually. Staff would work more closely. Across the board, anonymity would be replaced by concerned knowledge.

The school used the grant to provide new computers, math and reading software, and support for staff planning and research. They also scheduled advisory periods, lengthened class periods, adopted new strategies for teaching reading, and integrated curricula. The foundation also appointed a “coach” to guide the school through the complications of conversion. Some staff members were pleased. “When I first starting interacting with the Gates staff, I was absolutely blown away,” DeMeiro says. “Every session, panel, workshop that I have been privileged to attend has been first-class and beneficial.”

But others saw potential signs of trouble. “The Gates people didn’t understand the politics of high schools,” says Nofziger. “They had no background in labor relations or how to read a contract. They said, ‘We thought we didn’t have to worry about the length of a contract day.'” To Helman, the problems ran deeper. “Vander Ark put in an army of staff with foregone conclusions about where things were going, rather than a process to get there,” she says. “It felt like, ‘With this money, we will hold you accountable to these conclusions.'”

By the end of the 2002–2003 school year, though, Mountlake Terrace was ready to “convert.” The next fall, students would be enrolled in one of five new Mountlake schools, all under the old roof: Achievement, Opportunity and Service (AOS), a “traditional high school experience in a small school setting”; Discovery, where students “design your own projects instead of taking tests”; Innovation, “aimed at creative thinkers: writers, artists, inventors”; Renaissance, a bridge to four-year colleges with the bulk of Mountlake’s advanced placement classes; and Terrace Arts and Academic School (TAAS), a 2-D and 3-D arts-oriented program. Each school would offer the basics—English, math, science, and history—but try to do so in different fashions. The Mountlake Terrace High School building, designed to be divided into subject areas, would now be divided into entirely different schools. Teachers’ classrooms would be moved, depending on which school they were attached to.

Schools for Stoners, Jocks, and Geeks

Students quickly stereotyped Mountlake Terrace’s new schools. Discovery quickly became tagged as the “ghetto school.”

(Ron Wurzer)

It was an enormous effort. Teachers logged extra hours designing the new schools on top of their regular classroom loads. Helman was one of the facilitators who guided the process. “There were too many meetings. We had agendas to write, meetings to direct, outcomes to create. By the time the year was over, a lot of people were exhausted. And this was before conversion!” Exhausted or not, in September 2003, the doors of the new Mountlake Terrace opened on the new experience.

As the year passed, some real benefits became obvious. The smaller schools allowed closer tracking of individual students. This is not insignificant, says DeMeiro. “My school, the Discovery School, keeps very close track of a student’s academic progress—our ‘students of concern’ committee meets once a week to ensure that nobody is falling through the cracks. Our staff has created an incredibly effective process for keeping on top of this data, while still interacting with students on a very personal basis.”

Although class sizes weren’t affected by the conversion, teachers said dealing with fewer kids on a daily basis was a big plus. “It was wonderful to know everyone, all the students,” Helman remembers. “That improved the humanity of the place.” “I like seeing kids a lot—I know most of them by name now,” adds Nofziger. “It works better with discipline.” Many students agreed. “The best thing about the change is that you actually do know your teachers and they know you,” says Jon Apel, who will be entering his junior year in the Discovery School.

There were, however, some unforeseen complications. A lot of programs had to be duplicated from school to school, and resources got overbooked. “All the math teachers used to share rooms, calculators, math tiles,” says Nofziger. “Now that we’re broken up, we’re spread throughout the building and we have to buy five sets of things.” Students say they felt hemmed in by being limited to just one small school while they could see other opportunities around them. “In smaller schools, there’s just one English teacher and one math teacher,” says Emily Smith, who just graduated from Mountlake Terrace. “You’re stuck with that teacher, even if you don’t like him.” Stephanie Bunyan, a senior this coming year, says, “Teachers ended up teaching things they don’t really know. They weren’t able to teach their own subject. TAAS (the technology and arts school) has a lot of English teachers, but the other schools lack them.”

Students also immediately typecast the small schools. “Kids have stereotypes of the schools,” Nofziger says. “Stoner, jock, geek . . . ‘I don’t want to be in the stoner school.’ That creates tensions among the teachers.” It also bothers some of the students. “I hate the small-school idea,” says senior Bunyan, “because there are so many different stereotypes about the kids in the schools. They’re trying to bring us together, but this has really divided us.” Lisa Bao, who just finished her freshman year, agrees. “Kids say AOS is the preppy, white school, Discovery is the Asian, gangsta, druggie school.” “The Discovery School is mostly about self-discovery, but kids call it the ‘ghetto school,'” says upcoming senior Morgan Redfield, who attends the Innovation School. Graduate Smith adds, “A lot of students think that because the periods are longer in the Discovery School, the kids are stupid—they can’t learn as fast.”

And there was ongoing tension between the Gates Foundation and the schools’ staff. The foundation wanted strict adherence to its plan for change. But it was too rigid to work, Gering says. “It’s clear that the Gates Foundation had a clear agenda. For instance—not allowing kids to switch from one school to another or to take electives out of their own school. They wanted pure small schools; ‘The more you share kids, the more you lose control.’ The faculty said, ‘We’re not going to vote for this unless we can share kids.’ The Gates people said, ‘No way!’ But ultimately we did.”

In addition, some teachers felt the Gates Foundation was sending a not-too-subtle message that the teachers were the real problem with high schools. “A whole lot of this is built around a point of view that they never really explained,” says Helman. “That is, ‘the problem is us.’ We’re not teaching right. If we were, things would be better. They were telling us to be more available, work more, . . . and that class size didn’t matter as much.” Gering puts it a little differently. “The foundation wanted us to go further in terms of altering instructional practices and assessment,” he says. “They wanted to change the way teachers teach. That’s been the harder practice.”

When spring rolled around and representatives from the five schools went to the district’s eighth-graders to present their programs to the soon-to-be incoming freshmen, another potentially destructive issue arose: competition for student enrollment. “We didn’t expect that,” says Nofziger. “We really have to compete for students. You start to worry about whether you’ll have enough for your school.”

Does the Gates Foundation want schools run in a more businesslike way, taking a page from Microsoft and using competition to drive higher expectations? Vander Ark, a former businessman–turned–superintendent of the Federal Way School District, before being hired by the foundation, doesn’t disown this concept. “We do think a system of managed choice is productive,” he says. “Will that create some competition? Yes, and generally we think that’s a good thing.”

Nofziger, though, disagrees. “We have five different schools. We have to compete for eighth-graders. You have to get them to sign up, to market your school, so you don’t lose staffing. We have to compete for rooms and for budget. Everyone [at Mountlake Terrace] acknowledges this is a business model, and it doesn’t fit. It has become very divisive for staff.”

Fooled by the Dream?

Mountlake Terrace Principal Greg Schwab now has to guide his “converted” school without the benefit of the Gates grant that got them started.

(Ron Wurzer)

The inaugural year was an exhausting enterprise, and by the end of it much of the faculty was utterly frazzled. “The first year was so tough,” says Gering. “So many things were problems.” Heather Helman recalls, “I was phoning parents on weekends, taking home a couple of hours of paperwork every night, meeting with teachers constantly. I saw the benefits of conversion, but that effort just wasn’t sustainable.”

Then, both the principal, Mark Baier, and vice principal, Gering, announced they were taking other jobs—Baier in Gresham, Ore., and Gering as a principal in Spokane. Gering’s departure was particularly galling, says Nofziger, since he was the main instigator behind getting the Gates grant. “We were pretty upset. ‘You committed to us, and then you bailed on us.'” Gering says the struggles with the grant had nothing to do with his departure. “It was a combination of strange things. My family is in Spokane, and when a principal there retired, the district called me to apply. It was difficult. I think there’s some misunderstanding, but I think people know I wasn’t running away from anything.”

Over the summer of 2004, almost one-quarter of the staff—23 teachers out of 100—decided not to come back to the school, well above the typical turnover rate of 5 percent to 10 percent per year. There’s disagreement about why so many faculty left, but some of those who left say the conversion experience drove them out. “A number of us bailed,” says Helman, who now teaches in Lake Stevens. “I don’t think that anyone understood how much work it would take. They brought in a fabulous administration, and I loved the staff. But it was far more pressure going through the conversion.”

Helman says the whole experience left her disillusioned. Mountlake Terrace “was a safe environment for conversion. It was a stable staff,” she reflects. “But people were really fooled on this dream—that we had the power to improve education, to improve the environment in school . . . that it was possible to stop freshmen from dead-ending. We thought the grant would allow us to be more effective. Instead, no matter how much I love teaching, I don’t want to be totally absorbed by it.”

This year was less traumatic, but there are still a lot of mixed feelings on the staff. Vince DeMeiro is generally pleased. “I do think it’s been largely successful. But that’s just a general impression, an overview. The real proof will come in three to seven years from now, when we hear from our graduates.” Nofziger is more cautious. “The work is crushing—the amount of time it takes to teach and do all the other things. . . . At this point, about one-third of the staff is very excited; one-third says some is good, some is bad; and one-third says, ‘This is crazy. Let’s get back to something more reasonable.'”

Greg Schwab is the new principal at Mountlake Terrace. “My goal is to show that this can be done,” he says. “I think we’re getting better. We are recognizing the rough spots and trying to deal with them.” Schwab explains that scheduling five schools in one building isn’t easy. “Because some of the schools have a six-period day and others have a four-period day, we have two bell schedules. Staffing is another rough spot. We end up duplicating a lot of programs, which is an ongoing issue. There’s a finite amount of staff the district can pay for. Should we get more because we’re now five schools instead of one? That wouldn’t be fair to others in the district.”

Ultimately, though, the real question is whether more students are more successful. Schwab points to improvements in what the Gates Foundation calls “soft” indices. “I think we’re doing the job with relationships. We’re trying to get our faculty to turn a critical eye on their practice, and get them to work together.” What about more quantitative evidence—better student achievement, higher graduation rates? It’s premature to speculate. The school is only two years post-conversion, and neither graduation statistics nor WASL scores are in for this year. “We’ve changed the structure.” Schwab says. “That’s first-order change. Now we’ve got to change what happens in the classroom day to day. That’s where the focus has to shift to now.”

Cracking Education’s Code

The Gates Foundation’s Small Schools head, Tom Vander Ark, admits the learning curve on transformation is steep.

(Gates Foundation)

But the Gates Foundation is generally dismayed by the early indications. “In Washington state, we’ve seen limited progress in high-school indicators, attendance, grade promotion rate, achievement levels,” says Vander Ark. “It has been very slow, very different from what we expected.” Those problems are mirrored across the country. “We can conclude,” he concedes, “that for large, struggling high schools, conversion is a very difficult entry point.”

Pedro Noguera, an expert on urban schools and a professor in the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University, says the foundation’s emphasis has been wrong—going small is not necessarily the answer. “This is a structural change. But our expectations and norms don’t change. It’s a cultural change that’s most important. Besides, there are some benefits to being large—more honors courses, electives, ESL courses.” The real issue, Noguera says, is not size. “Teaching is the biggest issue. A lot of people are struggling with that—how do you improve teaching. Does the Gates Foundation have a plan for that? It’s about good leadership and sustaining good teaching.”

Vander Ark readily admits the foundation is on a steep learning curve. “Many of the schools are spending two years figuring out what to do, and another two years making structural changes. They never get to the heart of the matter, which is improving teaching and learning.” The experiences at Mountlake Terrace and other struggling large schools are changing the foundation’s approach. “It is harder and more expensive than our first grants provided. In our early grant making, small became the goal. To the extent it became the main focus, that wasn’t productive. It’s probably more important to improve the curriculum, the school culture, the relationships in the school. That’s my mistake. I should have formed programs with the initial focus on teaching and learning, and ended with structure.”

Michael Klonsky, director of the University of South Florida’s Small Schools Workshop, agrees. “You have to create strong relationships between students and teachers, and change the relationship between the adults. As teachers engage kids, and teachers begin to work together, research shows that drives improvement.”

But change is notoriously slow, says David Ferrero, head of the Gates Foundation’s Education Research department. “Models that work in school reform generally take five to seven years to get things changed.” The foundation isn’t happy with the slow pace. “We’re trying to crack the code to get the pace faster,” Ferrero says. “We’ve learned that the tighter the specificity of the model, the faster we could get change.” In other words, the fastest route is one where converting schools have less choice, or, in short, a formula.

For instance, the founders of Providence, R.I.’s highly successful MetSchool are being funded by Gates to try to “franchise” their model to 50 other small schools. Klonsky, however, warns not to draw too many conclusions from that. “The MetSchool is tiny, with no classes—just internships. It’s very, very successful, but it is very hard to duplicate. It was set up by special state legislation. They [the Gates Foundation] are trying to drive change from the top, and there’s not a lot of support for that critique. They are lumping all schools together. Typical top-down approach, you try to fit one model over everything. The Gates grants are very proscriptive—either do it our way or there’s no money.”

As a result, some school districts are backing away from the foundation. Maureen Ramos, teachers’ union president in Spokane, explains that the issue came up last year. “The Gates people approached the district last year, and because of our previous experiences with the Gates ‘hoops’ you have to jump through, there was a lot of resistance. Our experience was that they’d tell us we had to do such and such, and people were dying—there was so much to do. Then they’d back out of it. It was a very frustrating experience.”

“I know of no Spokane school now that is looking for a Gates grant,” Spokane’s assistant superintendent of schools, Timothy Riordan, adds. “That’s not a district goal. We all want to decrease the achievement gap [between upper-income and minority students], but we are divergent with Gates in our methodology. The public and the staff are just not on board with Gates’ vision.”

But across the country, other districts are rushing to join the parade. New York City is in the midst of a major reconfiguration, attempting to wrestle some of its large and dysfunctional high schools into smaller, more workable pieces. Los Angeles has a manic, three-year timetable to begin to move all of its secondary schools toward small learning environments. L.A. Superintendent Roy Romer has been cautioned about rushing the process, but he says, “I can’t wait that long. If you take what’s happening in this city . . . I’ve got to risk the change being very, very rapid.” Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco have also accepted millions of dollars in Gates funding.

What Happens When the Money Runs Out?

Although a lot of school districts seem to be feeling the heat, Vander Ark says the temperature isn’t hot enough yet. If major high-school reform is going to be successful, he says, institutions well beyond the foundation are going to have to step up. School boards, for instance. “The role of the school district is really critical,” argues Vander Ark. “There are a few districts that are very supportive and many others that are not.” What can school boards do? “School boards can set graduation requirements that exceed the state’s. For example, Washington state has set really pathetic graduation requirements—it just requires two years of math. You really need school districts to set higher standards.”

NYU’s Noguera says that real reform has to come from a change in how we look at schools and public education. “I’m convinced that the proper analogy for schools isn’t business. It’s health care. Like schools, hospitals can’t send patients home at the end of the day. They have to keep them till they’re better—not like businesses and customers. And, like hospitals, schools have to deal with a lot of issues beyond their walls that affect kids. But policymakers don’t seem to get that, and neither does the public.”

Next September, again ahead of the pack, Mountlake Terrace enters another crucial period in its transformation. The school’s Gates grant ended this June, and one enormous unknown looms over everything.

“What do we do when the money runs out? That’s a good question,” says Principal Schwab. “We’re wondering about that right now. There’s going to be a lot more work, and teachers have to buy into the extra work load.”

DeMeiro is worried, too. “Right now each school has a teacher-leader. We’re funding those positions with grant dollars. Next year, without funds from DOE or Gates, it’s going to be very, very difficult to sustain this level of support. That’s a shame, because we’re just finding our way as instructional leaders rather than conversion leaders.”

“We thought $1 million was a lot of money,” says Nofziger, “but it’s totally insignificant. We’re running out of money, and we’re going to have to dismantle a bunch of programs.” For now, at least, Schwab says no specific programs are in line to be cut. “Not at this point . . . but,” he cautions, “at some point we’re going to have to say, ‘We can’t do everything we were going to do.'”

The biggest issue, though, is sustaining momentum for change. It’s obvious that the Gates’ billions, as generous as they are, will vanish well before any large-scale or long-term systemic changes occur. The fear at the Gates Foundation is that the political will on the state and local level is going to shrivel when the foundation’s money runs out. It is most likely this concern that prompted Bill Gates’ blast at the governors’ conference. Vander Ark soberly states, “Bill and Melinda have already committed $1 billion. They are likely to commit another billion. But that’s just 5 to 10 percent of what it’ll take just to address the high-school challenge. When you add in all the other schools, it’s going to take a lot more than the Gates Foundation to solve this problem.”