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C'est la Z

That Time Bill Gates Visited AFSE

AFSE stands for the Academy for Software Engineering. It's a public school in New York City with a stated focus on, well, software engineering. I have some history with the school and its creation but that's not what this post is about. In fact, this post isn't really about AFSE at all. I plan to neither praise or critique the school. This is about what Bill Gates wrote about his recent visit.

I don't know the circumstances of the visit but I'm guessing it wasn't a surprise. More likely it was a scheduled visit and the school, at least to some extent put on the usual dog and pony show. Teachers know all about this – the superintendent's coming - make sure your bulletin boards are all set. Let's nudge the guest to the right classes, let's make sure to show our best side. I could be wrong, this could have been a surprise visit or Bill could have gone into random classes talking to random students but that's unlikely.

Bill says that "Unlike some specialized schools there are no criteria for admission." First, it's not a specialized school, it's a themed school just as all NYs small schools are. That's just another way of saying "small school that can't support a robust elective program." Bill sounds to be still enamored with small schools. In the video accompanying his post, Bill describes the school by saying "The idea is it's a small high school with teachers that want to engage students on a very personal level and come up with a personalized learning plan…" I guess teachers at larger schools don't want to engage their students at a personal level? Personal learning plan? That inherently has nothing to do with small schools but it does sound like it has something to do with software he can sell to other peoples kids.

Bill talks about it being a diverse school while noting that it's very male heavy (80% in 2016) but I wonder what the culture of the school is like compared to the greater tech community. Does it exhibit the best of inclusive diversity or the worst or somewhere in between.

Bill also talks about the unique curriculum noting how a history teacher might allow a student to make a web page instead of preparing an oral presentation. This isn't unique at all. I know many teachers across the city that do this. It also isn't necessarily a good or bad thing without context.

The title of the piece is "How 3D printers are preparing students for life after high school" and Bill gushes about a design class he observed. A design class can be amazing and I'm guessing the one he saw was, but the 3D printers are incidental. In fact, many educators don't think they're particularly useful or valuable. They're expensive, they break, they use consumables which cost money and printing time make instant gratification impossible. Sure, they're nice toys but when you're stretching your budget to its breaking point are they really worth it?

As I read this I kept wondering if Bill had really learned anything from his past failures in coercing public education to his whims. Then I got to this: "The school enrolls fewer than 500 kids, so class sizes are small, " That's not how it works and if Bill was actually paying attention or cared he'd know this. Small schools in NYC have around 544 kids. That's four grades of 136 student each. Each grade is made up of four classes of 34 students each which is the NYC class size. It doesn't matter if you have 500 in your school or 5000. The class size will still be around 34 unless extra funds are available to lower it. Bill further talks about teachers using a shared data portal and advisors connecting with families and attributes all this to AFSE being a small school when it really has to do with having more funds per student and not the school size at all. He also doesn't seem to notice how his small schools can't offer great art and music unless they're art and music themed.

Why am I writing this? Because people like Bill Gates wield great wealth and great power and Bill's past efforts in education have hurt schools much more than they've helped them.

Has he learned anything? As far as I can tell, not a thing.

I said this post wasn't about AFSE and it isn't but I will share a few thoughts here at the end. As with all public schools with open admission in NYC they face some pretty big challenges. They have some great champions like founder and NYC mensch, Fred Wilson along with other players in the tech industry. AFSE was also a special project of the Bloomberg administration under which it was created. I think this has meant that they've had resources that might not be available as readily to other schools. Resources like the ones mentioned here. It's great that the kids at AFSE have these resources but sad that so many other kids don't.

As CS becomes a subject in all schools what will happen with AFSE? Will they continue to be able to raise the necessary funds for the extras? Will it affect the kids who apply? Will it make them less desirable to "techy" kids since CS will be available at many schools or will it make it easier to get non tech types. Time will tell.

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