Real school reform can't be rushed

Bill Gates and Eli Broad, two philanthropists who have pumped more than $2 billion into school reform projects, are unhappy with the pace of change. Together they plan to spend $60 million to force the issue of school reform onto the agenda of the 2008 presidential election.

"I have reached the conclusion as has the Gates foundation, which has done good things also, that all we're doing is incremental," said Broad, who founded SunAmerica and KB Home.

Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, responding to questions by e-mail from a reporter for The New York Times, said, "The lack of political and public will is a significant barrier to making dramatic improvements in school and student performance." Their project — which will not endorse candidates — will try to create a debate over stronger, more consistent national curriculum standards, lengthening the school day and the school year and improving teacher quality through merit pay and other measures.

Gates and Broad should save their money for more worthy causes. Their $60 million will merely enrich advertising agencies and the media. It has no chance to improve the quality of education in America.


There is no way to create a "stronger, more consistent" national curriculum when three allegedly mainstream candidates for the Republican nomination for president stand up before a national television audience and acknowledge they do not believe in evolution. What society in its right mind would leave its children's scientific education to cabinet officials chosen by such a president? Who wants to even open the door to the possibility?

Republicans won office for years promising "they would not become the nation's school superintendent." When the Republicans won both houses of Congress and the White House, they passed the No Child Left Behind law and promptly became the nation's school superintendent. The law has not been successful in the eyes of many voters and that's one of the reasons the Republicans are no longer the majority party.

When school reformers compare us with countries that have national curricula, it is usually homogenous societies, deferential to authority, such as Japan or China or European societies where the dominant culture is permitted to impose its values in the classroom, such as England or France.

The United States has never been a homogenous culture and our culture is not deferential toward national authority. No uniform national education policy is possible because no one policy can recognize the large cultural differences that make regionalism in America so distinct. If a national education policy recognizes the cultural values of a region — such as the Pacific Northwest — that policy will not be acceptable in other regions — the American South, for example.

Even statewide educational standards have not proven effective. Oregon's 17-year experiment with state control of local education has been a rocky road. The passage of Don McIntire's Measure 5 in 1990, billed as a property tax limitation, shifted funding and control of education to the state income tax, the Legislature and the state Department of Education. After Measure 5, the Legislature equalized spending among school districts by reducing appropriations to districts such as Lake Oswego, Eugene, Helix and Ashland that had approved higher property tax levies to provide for their students, and shifted income tax dollars to school districts such as Parkrose, Coos Bay and Grants Pass that couldn't pass adequate property tax levies.

The result has been constant cutting — especially in art, music and vocational education — and larger class sizes and shorter school years to make up the difference. The emphasis on mindless testing is causing school districts to drop any classes that don't teach what is on the tests, displeasing many parents who expected a more rounded education for their children.

Broad and Gates complain that school reform has been too incremental. School reform will always be incremental. Parents will reject any reform that makes them unable to help their children with their homework. No parent is willing to appear stupid in front of their children.

Gates and Broad will be doing the nation a service by downsizing their ambitions. Pick half a dozen states in various parts of the country and finance a campaign in governor's races to heighten awareness of education reform. Concentrate on the local school district level. Create successful models other states can emulate. The Gates-financed "small school" program has already made a positive impact nearly everywhere it has been tried because smaller schools and smaller classes give teachers more classroom time with their students — and that is probably the most immediate and effective way to improve student learning without alienating parents. I wonder if any politicians are listening.

Russell Sadler has commented on Oregon politics for more than 30 years. E-mail him at

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