At Summit Sierra, a personalized learning charter school in Seattle’s International District, students use software to chase their dreams. They set goals for themselves, create week-by-week plans, and track their progress using digital tools.
It’s not hard to see why Microsoft co-founder and education activist Bill Gates finds this inspiring.
Education reform is a core mission of the Gates Foundation, the enormous philanthropic organization Gates and his wife Melinda founded. They published a series of essays on the Gates Notes blog today, including Bill Gates’ post on Summit Sierra, to celebrate students and teachers heading back to school.
Here’s how he describes the program in a blog post:
“You might set a goal like ‘I want to get into the University of Washington.’ Working with their teachers, the students develop a personalized learning plan in the software. They can see all the courses they need to meet their goal, how they’re doing in each class, and what it will take to get a given grade. They set weekly objectives and note their progress in the software.
Summit, the charter school network that Summit Sierra is part of, worked with Facebook to develop that software. When Gates saw how effective it was, he emailed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg commending the company for developing the software for free. Gates says Summit plans to share the platform with other schools.
In 2005, Gates told the audience at a National Education Summit that he thinks America’s high schools are obsolete. But the modern teaching styles, like the one Summit Sierra is experimenting with, give him hope.
However, not everyone thinks highly of charter schools — on his most recent show, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver criticized how the organizations operate.
Gates also talked about how excellent teachers, like Washington State Teacher of the Year Nate Bowling, make him optimistic about the future of education. The two sat down to discuss Bowling’s teaching style and the state of high schools in America.
“It is a matter of life and death,” Bowling told Gates. “If my students are not successful in school, they end up in the prison-industrial complex.”
Seventy percent of Bowling’s students at Lincoln High School, in Tacoma, Wash., are eligible for free or reduced price lunches. Gates describes these student populations as the New Majority, “reflecting the fact that more than half the students in American public schools today live in poverty.”
Despite the obstacles they face, Bowling and his colleagues help graduate 80 percent of their students. Bowling told Gates that all of the students he advised last year were accepted to college or a trade school.
Gates experienced, first-hand, the difference a great teacher can make. In another blog post, he credits much of his success to his fourth-grade teacher who found new challenges for him and “helped make it okay…to be a messy, nerdy boy who was reading lots of books.” The essay is the first time Gates has written publicly about that teacher’s influence on him.
“Even if the country improves integration and makes funding more equitable — which are important goals — we will still need to make sure every student has an effective teacher, and every teacher gets the tools and support to be phenomenal,” he says.