CHICAGO — In the world of urban school reform, these are exciting times. Chicago recently announced a plan to shut dozens of failing schools and open 100 smaller new ones. New York has also signed on to the small-schools approach, and is rapidly starting new schools.
Other big urban districts are enacting sweeping reforms that, in many cases, toss out familiar approaches that have been around for decades, and both the federal government and the National Governors Association are turning the spotlight on overhauling high schools.
There's a good chance that little of this would be happening - at least on this scale, or in this particular way - if it weren't for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For those Americans who don't follow education news regularly, it may come as a surprise that one of the biggest school-reform forces in the country is a foundation started by the man behind Microsoft - and that, in the education world at least, the Gates name has very little to do with computers.
Since 1999, the foundation has spent more than $2.3 billion on education, about half of it aimed at changing one of the most change-resistant institutions in America: the public high school.
It's poured millions into creating and redesigning high schools in troubled districts like Boston, New York, Chicago, and Oakland, Calif. More recently, the foundation has been active at a broader policy level. Because its funding strategy has been so focused, it has had an effect on the direction of school reform even greater than the billions spent.
While there's no single "Gates model," the foundation leans toward scrapping traditional high school behemoths for small schools with focused missions, frequent interaction between students and faculty, and designs that can be reproduced in other places - the same elements districts like Chicago, New York, and Sacramento, Calif., are now embracing.
"Because of the scale of the operation, this is a new phenomenon," says Robert Schwartz, an education professor at Harvard. "They've made the problem [of high schools] visible with the magnitude and breadth of their investments, and they've crisscrossed the country both looking for promising school examples and trying to make the case to urban superintendents and policymakers as to why they needed a radical reform strategy. The fact that the guy doing the talking had a very large wallet has helped get people's attention."
Wielding that kind of private influence over a public arena is a tricky business, and some people question whether it's a good idea. Chicago and New York may have initiated their reforms even without Gates - the foundation is certainly just one of many factors, including the accountability movement, pushing change, and both cities had done some experimenting with small schools on their own. But in an age of diminishing resources, it can be hard for a district to say no to extra money. The Gates checks have arguably pushed a specific reform strategy - small schools - front and center, even though there's still little data on their success.
On the other hand, Gates's work earns high praise from almost everyone familiar with it. Its grants are not only strategic, but the foundation seems unusually egoless and knowledgeable, and is rarely highhanded. Even as the older, more traditional foundations like Ford and the Pew Charitable Trusts were backing away from the intractability of the nation's education challenges, says Professor Schwartz, "Gates has kind of waded in and shown a new way of attacking that problem."
The 1,500 or so schools Gates has helped create or redesign are a diverse bunch. There are creative schools - whose entire curricula are centered on out-of-school internships. There are Gates schools that emphasize one academic area, like arts, and others, like the KIPP charter schools, that simply focus on getting kids into college. A recent push has been for the creation of "early college" high schools that allow students to graduate with an associate degree.
"We want to see more kids graduate from high school and go on to college, and we're willing to support any efforts that promote those kind of outcomes," says Tom Vander Ark, the foundation's education director.
Even the smallness of schools - which the foundation is most often associated with - is less a goal in itself than a means to an end. It's not so much that he thinks small schools are the answer, Mr. Vander Ark explains, as that he believes large high schools have been proven ineffective.
"They're starting to realize that size isn't the only factor," says Paul Hill, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington. "They started on an important problem and are learning on their feet.... I'm not sure if theirs is the only model of philanthropy, but it's a good one."
At Northtown Academy, a charter school that set up shop last year in a closing Catholic girls' school here in Chicago, there's little that's flashy. No outside internships or experiential education - just rigorous academics (students have both longer days and longer school years) and a structured environment.
Other elements, though, make it a classic Gates school: Teachers are committed to the school's approach, which includes making the curriculum interdisciplinary and relevant to current events; the staff know nearly every one of the 550 or so students; and the school's model has succeeded in improving achievement for low-income and minority students.
While an English class reads "The Color of Water," for instance, students learn about political identity in their social science class and about genetics in biology.
"You see how it works in the world today," says Ashley Dinzey, an articulate sophomore who writes for the school newspaper and is trying to get an after-school French club started. "Last year we got to create our own civilization in advisory, and in the classes, we learned how other cultures had done it. It's harder work [than my old school], but the teachers are really encouraging."
A $4 million grant from Gates helped start Northtown - and will be used to open three similar schools in coming years. These days, in fact, a lot of Vander Ark's time is spent on replication. "One of the most important things we're trying to understand in our work is how to scale up success," he says.
The leadership hurdle is a particularly tough one. It's one thing to create one or two successful schools, but efforts to replicate them on a large scale frequently fail.
"I'm not naive enough to believe you could put this curriculum into every school across the country and have it work," says Megan Quaile, CEO of Civitas Schools, which manages Northtown. "You have to have both pieces" - the curriculum and the leadership. Ms. Quaile has been stymied in her efforts to copy Northtown - finding facilities has been tough.
Gates, of course, isn't the first foundation to give heavily to education. Most notably, the Annenberg Foundation gave half a billion dollars in 1993, but with a more scattered approach. The Carnegie Foundation supports projects that often overlap with Gates's. Many experts agree the outside money can help districts take risks, but wonder if there's ever a point where philanthropy becomes too influential.
"The real trick has to be this: The funding needs to be mediated by some kind of democratic process. It can't just be something that comes in, and because it's large and substantial it completely changes the direction [of reforms]," says Henry Levin, a professor of education and economics at Columbia University's Teachers College.
Others say private funding is not only positive, but essential. "That's the glory of our system, really - that it's possible to have a significant political effect without being part of a political entity," says Theodore Sizer, the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools.
Some of the most conservative associations of educators in the country are now spotlighting small schools, and holding up successful Gates schools as examples.
"None of this would have happened without the adroit investment over the last quarter century of places like the Carnegie Foundation, that allowed people to try something different," says Mr. Sizer. "And Gates has been able to really build on that."