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Thursday, March 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Guest columnist

How Bill Gates could really boost competitiveness

Special to The Times

Memo to Bill Gates:

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. 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.

How can our students be well-prepared for college or for life in the 21st century when their basic learning materials in school have been revised and in some cases censored to pacify pressure groups?

Most teachers will tell you that the textbook is the curriculum, so the quality of the textbooks matters a great deal. Many states have been reluctant to specify their K-12 curriculum on a grade-by-grade basis and have left the all-important matter of what students learn to be decided by the textbook publishers.

Thousands of schools would jump at the opportunity to use your technology to teach their students mathematics or science. I can envision children in the first grade, the second grade and every subsequent grade learning far more than they do today if they were to have access to an exhilarating technology-based program that makes the relationships and ideas in mathematics and science real to them.

If students started in elementary school and learned from the best technological applications year after year, our high-school students would have the motivation, skills and knowledge that so many are now lacking, and many more of them would be prepared for science, mathematics and engineering in college.

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.

Diane Ravitch is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, historian of education at New York University, and author of "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn."

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