More to the point, others wonder: Is the Gates Foundation making the right calls? The early results of its high school reinvention efforts–with many foundation-backed schools now in their fourth year of existence–are mixed at best. Outside researchers hired by Gates have found “positive cultures” at the new and redesigned schools but raise serious questions about such issues as the teacher burnout, attendance, and the quality of math instruction.
Particularly troublesome has been the effort to transform existing high schools rather than start from scratch. “Improving struggling schools remains a challenge,” admits Vander Ark. Indeed, the foundation’s own studies show that these restructured schools are often bogged down in their early years with questions about facilities, schedules, and staff. In some cases, says Vander Ark, instead of beginning with structural change, “it may be better to start with curriculum–getting rid of dead-end classes and encouraging students to take more challenging courses–and improving the quality of instruction.”