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Bill Gates gives educators a clue

February 27, 2005

“America’s high schools are obsolete.  By ‘obsolete,’ I don’t just mean that they’re broken, flawed, or underfunded, though a case could be made for every one of those points.  By obsolete, I mean our high schools – even when they’re working as designed – cannot teach all our students what they need to know today.”
- Bill Gates at the National Education Summit in Washington D.C. Feb ‘05

I wish the newspaper would have included the complete text of Gates’ comments, which I could not find.  What is it kids need to know?  Quadratic equations?  The capital city of Pakistan?  What?

I’m convinced kids need to know how to fail…

… and what it takes to succeed.  Check this from UTI:

We already have some pretty sad stats in science and math in this country. Students from India, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, are coming here in droves and kicking American student’s asses in math and science. I know, I used to teach calculus. The foreign students from those nations just walk all over our students. (Those foriegn devils employ a dastardly and unfair set of tactics to blow the grading curve for American students using any or all of “Going to class regularly, taking good notes, doing all homework, availing themselves of instructor office hours and asking for help when they’re stuck, and studying”. American students have been unable to crack this code in large numbers)
- DarkSyd

What do kids in high school need to know?  Charles J. Sykes, author of Dumbing Down Our Kids has a good list, often erroneously attributed to Bill Gates himself:

Rules for Life

Rule 1: Life is not fair. Get used to it.

Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3: You will NOT make $40,000 a year right out of high school. You won’t be a vice-president with a car phone, until you earn both.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss. He doesn’t have tenure.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping; they called it opportunity.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it’s not your parents’ fault. Don’t whine about your mistakes—learn from them.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how “cool” you are. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parents’ generation, try “delousing” the closet in your own room.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades; they’ll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.

Here’s a couple more:
(I’ve linked to both of these before but bring them up again because they’re so good)

Paul Graham’s essay, Things I wish I had known

Steven Yates’ essay, How I Survived Government Schools

So what will come out of that conference in Washington?  I have a sick feeling it will be some 800-page document for everyone to ignore, and maybe eventually an “Office of” something-or-other.

Categories: Education
  1. February 28, 2005 at 13:52 | #1

    Charles J. Sykes hit it right on the head.  Ask anyone teaching today and they will tell you the problems with getting through to the “ME” generation. Thinking back the last generation lacked the qualities of loyality and pride in ones work so I can’t say it just started to cave in now.  Somewhere along the line we are going to have to pick up our marbles and start a new game before the circle is erased!

  2. VernR
    February 28, 2005 at 19:00 | #2

    I found the Gate’s speech here

    This is based on a very quick read. He was only specific at a high level and said that good jobs don’t come to high school graduates, that college prep is necessary for the economic survival of the graduates, and that this result will occur only through political will.

  3. February 28, 2005 at 20:23 | #3

    Thanks for the link, VernR!  I just read the speech and Gates isn’t blowing any smoke.  He says that kids need more rigorous classes (that is, more challenging,) that the classes need to be more relevant (that current curriculae are not connected to the requirements of either college or industry) and that every kid needs adults watching out for him or her to keep them on track.  This has the sound of a tripod – any missing leg, and…

    My son (majoring in math at U of I) says that high school classes are basically make-work and not challenging enough.  And I have seen in professors’ threads about college essays that high school writing classes are wide of the mark.  As for adults watching out for kids, that’s hard to do when kids are unruly and there are so few adults.  The simple reality seems to be that adults are badly outnumbered at school.  What are we spending our tax dollars on that we can’t afford to fix that?

  4. Lucas
    March 11, 2005 at 03:03 | #4

    I don’t honestly know how change highschool to help most people.  I only know what my own experiences were like in highschool.  The classes were too easy, which is in some ways worse than making them too hard.  This doesn’t teach students to go to class, work hard, or study hard.  It teaches them that laziness will get a passing grade, and that school isn’t worthwhile because there’s nothing interesting there anyway.  I think that for me, and presumably a lot of people, it would have been valuable to be exposed to material that was so challenging that I couldn’t possibly understand without a lot of work.  I’m not talking about number of hours spent memorizing something (as is common in modern schools), but *time spent thinking*.  With this experience under your belt, you learn good study skills, the ability ask intelligent questions, think for yourself, and self-confidence.  There’s something enormously satisfying about succeeding at something which at first seemed impossibly hard.

    But of course, many students would just collapse under the pressure of such a system.  These students are not stupid or emotionally fragile, but they need a different kind of teaching.  Even in private schools, though, there is a huge amount of uniformity in teaching styles.  I think what we need is lots of experimentation at the fringes, which can help produce better mainstream education.  Fat chance.

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