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Bill and Melinda Gates, page 2

By Claudia Wallis, Spencer Fellow in education journalism
November 26, 2008: 5:59 AM ET

Performance-based scholarships. They would reward completion of a degree or certificate rather than mere enrollment. Pennington cites a pilot program in New Orleans that gave low-income students a $250 reward for registering for a minimum number of courses at a community college, another $250 when they got their midcourse grades, and $500 for finishing the semester. Students in the program earned significantly more college credits and were more apt to stay enrolled than nonparticipants even after the scholarship ended.

Business-college partnerships. These would create programs tailored to local employers. The foundation admires ArcelorMittal (MT)'s "Steelworker for the Future" initiative with community colleges in Chicago. Students in that program complete two years of course work and 24 weeks of onsite job training that culminate in an associate's degree in applied science and the prospect of a steelworker's job that pays more than $17 an hour.

Rapid remediation. The foundation wants to examine how online courses and tutoring can help poorly prepared students catch up on essential skills and avoid getting bogged down in demoralizing remedial work. It sees a possible model in Rio Salado College in Tempe, Ariz., which offers extensive online courses and tutoring and boasts a 66% graduation rate for full-time students, a substantially higher rate than average for community colleges.

Gates, who loves the idea of offering great college lectures on DVD and online, raves about a "phenomenal" geology course from Teach12.com (taught by John Renton of West Virginia University).

One moral issue that the Gates plan is likely to encounter: the prospect of segregation by social class, in which vocation-oriented training at community colleges could become a poor person's substitute for a university education.

"Our two-year colleges are becoming ever more where we send poor and minority kids, and our four-year schools are becoming where we send white and affluent ones," warns Katy Haycock, who heads the Education Trust, a group focused on closing the achievement gap.

Reaching the foundation's 2025 goal will ultimately depend upon improving the track record in high schools. Both Bill and Melinda Gates relish talking about their visits to schools that beat the odds and boosted achievement for low-income students. Many of them are charter schools - public schools that operate more independently than most schools in a district.

Among their favorite examples are high schools run by nonprofit charter organizations like KIPP Academy, which operates 66 schools around the U.S.; Green Dot schools in Los Angeles; and Houston's YES Prep, which has managed to have 100% of graduates at its five urban high schools gain admission to four-year colleges. Another success story came out of New York City, where 47 Gates-funded high schools achieved stellar improvement in at least one key measure: graduating more than 70% of their students in 2007, double the rate of the bigger schools they had replaced.

Vicki Phillips, who now heads the Gates education program, says the foundation had originally hoped that funding successful models like these - say, 7% or 8% of schools in a district - would cause innovative ideas to "spread like a virus." But that's not what happened. Replicating success has proved to be difficult. And so the new strategy for high schools is pushier and more systematic.

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