Bill Gates on American Schools

Bill Gates is one of the founders of the software corporation Microsoft and, for a while was the world’s richest man. There is a widespread sense that schools are not keep up with social change and staying relevant. Bill Gates is by no means a radical, but this is what he thinks.

America’s high schools are obsolete. By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded—though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean that our high schools—even when they’re working exactly as designed—cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.

Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It’s the wrong tool for the times. Our high schools were designed fifty years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting—even ruining—the lives of millions of Americans every year.

Today, only one-third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work, and citizenship. The other two-thirds, most of them low-income and minority students, are tracked into courses that won’t ever get them ready for college or prepare them for a family-wage job—no matter how well the students learn or the teachers teach. This isn’t an accident or a flaw in the system; it is the system.

In district after district, wealthy white kids are taught Algebra while low-income minority kids are taught to balance a check book! The first group goes on to college and careers; the second group will struggle to make a living wage. Let’s be clear. Thanks to dedicated teachers and principals around the country, the best-educated kids in the United States are the best-educated kids in the world. We should be proud of that. But only a fraction of our kids are getting the best education.

Once we realize that we are keeping low-income and minority kids out of rigorous courses, there can be only two arguments for keeping it that way—either we think they can’t learn, or we think they’re not worth teaching. The first argument is factually wrong; the second is morally wrong.

Everyone who understands the importance of education; everyone who believes in equal opportunity; everyone who has been elected to uphold the obligations of public office should be ashamed that we are breaking our promise of a free education for millions of students. For the sake of our young people and everyone who will depend on them—we must stop rationing education in America …

But first we have to understand that today’s high schools are not the cause of the problem; they are the result. The key problem is political will. Elected officials have not yet done away with the idea underlying the old design. The idea behind the old design was that you could train an adequate workforce by sending only a third of your kids to college—and that the other kids either couldn’t do college work or didn’t need to. The idea behind the new design is that all students can do rigorous work, and—for their sake and ours—they have to …

[These are] the basic building blocks of better high schools:

  • The first R is Rigor—making sure all students are given a challenging curriculum that prepares them for college or work;
  • The second R is Relevance—making sure kids have courses and projects that clearly relate to their lives and their goals;
  • The third R is Relationships—making sure kids have a number of adults who know them, look out for them, and push them to achieve.

Gates, Bill. 2005. ‘Remarks on Education.’ in National Education Summit on High Schools. Washington DC.


A Microsoft-funded project at a Philadelphia high school sees technology as a revolutionizing force:

A much anticipated high-tech high school opened its doors last month in one of Philadelphia’s poorer neighborhoods. Known as the School of the Future, the project was designed with help from technology giant Microsoft.

Microsoft Project Manager Mary Cullinane says the goal was to answer the question, “what if?”

“‘What if a company like Microsoft and an organization like the School District of Philadelphia came together to build a school of the future? What would it look like?’” Cullinane says.

According to freshman Littleton Hurst, it looks “like Bill Gates’ house,” with a cafeteria like a restaurant and a gym “like an NBA-size basketball court.”

The classrooms have the appearance of corporate meeting rooms — complete with video projectors. Hurst laughs as he describes the coolest thing: “No pencils, no papers, no books. None.”

Just laptops, which are standard issue at the school. …

The School of the Future teaches reading, writing and arithmetic, like any other school. The difference is how it’s taught. Principal Shirley Grover says the focus is on “real-life problems.”

“Adolescents want to be not in their seats, not listening to me or to you,” Grover says. “They want to be active, taking life on.”

Grover says assignments such as blogging aren’t about bells and whistles. They’re about finding new ways to teach fundamentals. One question that comes up often: How does she know students in class aren’t on their laptops goofing around?

Grover is ready for that one. She says, “My question to you is, how did your teachers make sure that, when you were sitting in the classroom, you weren’t goofing around, even though you didn’t have a laptop? I think the issues remain the same. In this case, the laptop, sure, it’s an invitation to do other things. It’s up to us to make sure that the work is meaningful, and that it’ll challenge them.”

The Philadelphia school district built the school on the same budget it uses for other high schools. Microsoft donated time and expertise to plan the project.

Fletcher, Phyllis. 2006. “At Philly ‘Future’ School, Books Are So 20th Century.” National Public Radio. || Link