The news media is clearly anticipating the announcement of an education secretary pick soon, because the k-12 issue hasn't gotten this much attention since George Bush and Ted Kennedy teamed up to pass the No Child Left Behind Act. First David Brooks and the Washington Post editorial board made the Democratic Party's education schism official, and then The New Republic turned up the temperature on Linda Darling-Hammond. And now Newsweek's Jonathan Alter is telling us to buckle our seatbelts because Bill Gates is becoming an education reformer full time. All in the span of a few days!
There's plenty to like about Alter's piece; I love the quote by House education committee chairman George Miller that "the debate is between incrementalists and disrupters, and I'm with the disrupters." (Alter must have sat in on an editorial board meeting with his Post colleagues because they used that terminology too.)
But Mr. Alter, you ought to be ashamed about this line: "We know by now what works for at-risk kids. The challenge is trying to replicate it." Sure, this is true in the simplest sense. KIPP works. Achievement First works. Cristo Rey works. (Read all about it in David Whitman's recent Fordham book on "paternalistic" schools.)
But replicating these schools 1,000 or 10,000-fold is more than just a challenge. It might be impossible. Writing in the Gadfly a few weeks ago, Steven Wilson made the very good point that these "no excuses" schools tend to hire graduates from America's top universities and work them to death. Neither part of that equation is "scalable." What we need is a school model that gets great results with mere mortals. No one has cracked that nut yet. (Doing R&D on that problem would be an excellent mission for Mr. Gates.)
At least Bill Gates seems to be realistic about Washington's role in k-12 schools, or at least the political "appetite" for federal involvement. "He says Washington's job is to spread best practices and help implement accountability standards," writes Alter, who is clearly disappointed at such reserve. But you know, Gates just might be onto something. What does it say when those of us in education have to learn humility from the world's richest man?