Nan Austin

Reinventing high school takes making it all about the teens

Panelists at an Education Writers Association conference in Boston, Mass., discuss re-inventing high schools on May 3, 2016. From left, Shawn Rubin of the Highlander Institute; Joel Rose of New Classrooms; Diane Tavenner of Summit Public Schools; and Andrew Frishman of Big Picture Learning.
Panelists at an Education Writers Association conference in Boston, Mass., discuss re-inventing high schools on May 3, 2016. From left, Shawn Rubin of the Highlander Institute; Joel Rose of New Classrooms; Diane Tavenner of Summit Public Schools; and Andrew Frishman of Big Picture Learning.

Crowded halls. Bells to cheer the end of a droning lecture. Friday night football games. Add a mushed sandwich and a shoulder ache from an overstuffed backpack and we will all be back at My Town High.

A lot has changed in the world, in business, even in politics. But high schools soldier on, marching to the same high-stepping drummer they always have. Research-driven reforms, however, could have them singing an entirely new tune.

Research and development – long a staple in science and business – has fixed an unblinking eye on education in recent years. And what reformers propose for high schools is a revolution not many districts stand ready to risk. No boredom. More outside work. Every lesson tailored to every student.

As Nicholas Donohue of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation put it, “It’s past time when we can put on a new coat of paint; it’s time to get down to the load-bearing walls.”

Donohue spoke at a panel discussion on re-imagining high schools at the 2016 Education Writers Association national conference in Boston on May 3.

The session revolved around re-imagining “student-centered learning,” a dusty catchphrase that undersells the changes envisioned.

“Think about our society over last 150 years. We’ve gone from the stagecoach to the jet airplane, from the telegraph to the smartphone,” said Joel Rose of New Classrooms. “But the fundamental way we do school hasn’t changed much at all.”

Strapping core lessons into the passenger seat, with kids as the drivers, takes making the work practical (something somebody might actually use) and flexing to adapt to interests and ability levels unique to each student. Out-of-class time taps social outlets, internships and field trips.

Here’s the bigger picture: A special-education student and a gifted student can work side by side and each be challenged.

The key shift is in how the classes are structured, explained Rebecca Wolfe of Jobs for the Future.

“The role of educators is about supporting the learner, not displaying the expertise of the teacher,” Wolfe said.

Read: No lectures.

Instead, teachers in this new style of secondary education would become more like a hybrid of coach, adviser and tutor as kids tackle customized lessons they are responsible to master.

“My job is to get out of the way,” said Monica Martinez of ConsultEd Strategists, “To be the gateway, not the gatekeeper.”

That sounds deceptively simple. Setting up 39 customized lessons each class period is not something a traditional class setup allows educators time to do.

Enter a re-imagining of technology as multiplier, and of study groups as in-class teaching extenders. Working in study groups gives teens practice in presenting, while using a same-age take on the lesson to help classmates understand.

“We want them to be articulate, solve problems, work in teams with people who are not like them,” Martinez said. Ideally, kids learn to think on their feet and give constructive feedback to others. Learning with peers, done well, involves a lot of give and take where a flop or a failure is something kids come back from, not a disgrace the whole class watched.

Re-imagined high schools are happening at elite schools, where parents want it, Donahue said, and in failing schools, where desperation and extra funding drive change.

“It’s not in the middle,” he said.

It is happening more quickly at charter schools, which have greater flexibility to re-imagine a teacher’s workday. Summit Public Schools, working with Facebook, is making its personalized learning plan platform available to schools across the country for free. And yes, there will be an app for that.

Student-centered for Summit means, “putting (students) in the center, but not sticking them there without support, tons of practice, and lots of feedback,” said CEO Diane Tavenner.

Where traditional online learning has meant sitting alone staring into a screen, the next iteration is a social experience where basic background is delivered, but with students able to interact with the program and each other as part of the plan. Project time has expanded from term papers to hands-on tasks, research-based analysis and community learning, where kids connect what they learn to what needs doing in real life.

“Content knowledge is still very important. But how we treat it is very different in a personalized learning environment,” Tavenner said.

Making that happen at traditional district schools is still a challenge, but Rhode Island has set re-imagining schools as a priority, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner said in his 2016 state of education speech. Experts at the conference said it will likely take states leading the way, letting their students’ successes push the idea of reform forward.

The New Classrooms version of reinventing high school and junior highs leverages technology to target lessons to every student every day, explained New Classrooms’ Rose.

Watching screens with lists like an airport departure schedule, kids find the stations they go to each day. It will be a mix of time at a computer table, time with a study group, project time and tutoring time with a teacher when needed. Each day the staff meets after school and, using online coursework and teacher reads, lays out the next day’s lineups.

It sounds a little manic, but here are the results: Overall their students learned a year and a half’s worth of material in one year. English learners, probably coming from behind, averaged 1.7 years’ growth in one year.

And here’s the wild one: Special-education students, rarely expected to even make one year’s growth, averaged 1.4 years in New Classrooms.

The presentation did not measure the growth of gifted students, but using this system, they could finally be free to sprint ahead.

It is the spread of student abilities and backgrounds and prior-year gaps that create such headaches for teachers in today’s very diverse classrooms. If reformers have finally cracked the code to make individual education goals – a staple in special education – possible for everyone, their ideas are worth a long listen.