Diane Ravitch: Memo to Bill Gates

Roundup: Talking About History

Bill, I heard you speak a few weeks ago at Davos, when you told a large audience that education is the biggest challenge for the future. You are right about that. You pointed to the 1,500 or so small high schools that the Gates Foundation has funded as evidence of your commitment to make a difference. If you are worried about our nation's future competitiveness, I am not so sure you made the right investment.

Small schools are not always the best answer to low achievement. Sometimes they are, sometimes not. Poor academic results can be found in large schools and in small schools. Great academic results can be found in schools of any size. Success is the result of a solid curriculum, dedicated teachers, a strong principal and students who arrive in high school with the skills and motivation to succeed.

There is another investment that you could make that would be far more effective in raising student achievement than churning out another thousand or so small high schools. As the chief executive officer of the largest software company in the world, you have a certain competitive advantage. Your company really knows how to use advanced technology to teach people almost anything.

If you took what you do best and turned it into curriculum and instruction for our schools, it would have a revolutionary effect. You could take your knowledge of software and develop amazing programs to teach mathematics, science, languages, history, literature, and the arts.

American students are accustomed to using computers and getting instant answers. Yet, when they open their textbooks, they find wooden prose. Instead of inspiring them to dig deeper into their studies, the textbooks more often than not simply turn them off. The medium itself is a problem, especially when compared with what they are used to doing for themselves on a computer. Textbooks have never been known for their sparkling prose, but today more than ever their obsolescence is apparent when they compete with new technologies.

The textbooks in most schools today are the result of political negotiations. [Read all about it here.] The textbook publishers must bring their products to certain states--especially California and Texas--and ask the state Education Department to approve their contents. If the publishers don't get that approval, the districts in the state can't use public funds to buy their books. The department holds public hearings, and all sorts of pressure groups step forward to demand changes. The publishers of science textbooks tread warily around the issue of evolution, and the publishers of history textbooks avoid details that might offend various religious, ethnic, and cultural groups, regardless of factual accuracy. Even mathematics texts must go through the political gantlet....

I can foresee a history curriculum that introduces students to the great events, ideas and people of history, as well as the debates about what really happened and what it really meant. All this can be done so much better with the wise use of film, as Ken Burns has demonstrated time and again, especially in his unforgettable television series about the Civil War.

One of my grandchildren recently told me that he was doing his history homework, and it was "really boring." His assignment was to read about immigration, a potentially fascinating subject, but the textbook had made it as dull as reading the telephone book.

If you take my advice, you have the chance to transform the education of 50 million students by doing what you do best. You have the power to create the most valuable learning tools ever known in American schools. These tools would work in large schools and in small schools.
They would work in rural districts, in inner-city districts, and in suburban districts. They would dramatically level the playing field for children of every background, in every neighborhood and region.

This is a contribution to American education that would be worthy of the largesse of the Gates Foundation.

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Alonzo Hamby - 3/24/2006

Dianne Ravitch is my favorite writer on elementary and secondary education and has been for a long time. Every point she makes here is valid. . . . Yet something is missing. We can stimulate young people with history-as-computer game and with well-written texts that dare to have opinions. Sure enough.
But the home environment is critical. A child needs TWO literate parents who are concerned with school achievement, engaged with public affairs, and who are readers of books and newspapers. An environment that promotes literacy and learning is far more likely to produce a good outcome than one that cares little for such things--or may positively discourage them.
There are limits to what the schools can do--an unhappy fact that both liberals and conservatives are reluctant to acknowledge.