May 23, 2013
TECHNOS QUARTERLY Spring 2002 Vol. 11 No. 1
Designing, and Making, the New American High School
By Bob Pearlman
Newspapers across the country are filled with stories of high school failure. More than Half of California 9th Graders Flunk Exit Exam, a recent headline in Education Week (June 20, 2001), typifies this trend. In the next 10 years we can be sure that there will be high school failure everywhere unless states artificially lower the standards, a real possibility, or schools change the high school experience to engage and motivate students to learn. This author presents the case for the latter event.
The push to reinvent the now 100-year old institution of the American high school has just gotten a big boost. The Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced in October 2001 a $60 million Schools for the New Society investment in seven urban districts to reinvent the high school experience for more than 140,000 students in more than 100 schools.
What changes in the high school program and in its supporting facilities and technology will be needed to reinvent the high school experience? And even if you get the design right, what are the challenges in starting up schools like these and establishing a new culture of teaching and learning?
The Design Challenge
Would you want to be a student in high school today? Listen to Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls, one of this past summer's best reads. Russo, in his acknowledgments, thanks his daughter Kate for reminding me by means of concrete detail just how horrible high school can be, and how lucky we all are to escape more or less intact.
Haven't we all had a nightmare where it's discovered that somehow we didn't get all our high school credits and had to go back to high school, like Kathleen Turner in her 1986 movie, Peggy Sue Got Married?
If you had it to do all over again, what would you change in the high school experience? The starting point in redesigning the high schools, and the high school experience, is specifying what you want to change. Ask any group of adults what high school was like, especially educators, and they will come up with a similar list. Here's what the 200 educators from the United States and Europe said at Alan November's 2001 summer institute, Aligning Technology Resources: Empowering Teaching and Learning:
And what would the kids say? Shouldn't we ask them? That's what England's Guardian newspaper did in June 2001 when it reprised a public competition first conducted in 1967, in which kids across England wrote essays about The school that I'd like (edited by Edward Blishen, Penguin Education Special, England, 1969). One 15-year-old girl summed up school at that time as institutions of today run on the principles of yesterday. Has anything changed?
In the summer of 2001, here's what the kids wrote (see http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/story/0,5500,501374,00.html ).
The school we'd like is:
If you had it to do all over again, what would you change in the high school experience?
The English kids are not alone in their thinking. The International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE) also asked the kids at a special Student Technology Leadership Symposium, June 23-24, 2001, held in conjunction with NECC. As reported by student Pooja Agarwal in If I Could Make a School (Learning and Leading with Technology, November 2001), the U.S. student leaders want schools that
The criteria articulated by the English and American kids and by the international educators at the 2001 Summer Institute constitute appropriate design criteria for the new high school: Safe, Respect, Personal, Interests, Experience, Real World, Workspace, Tools.
Note how the kids emphasize relevant, real-world, hands-on experience. Are they wrong in this supposed era of standardized tests that often demand standardized learning? Not according to Robert Reich, economist and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, now running for governor of Massachusetts. Many jobs depend on creativity, says Reich in Standards for What (Education Week Commentary, June 30, 2001). Standardized tests can't measure these sorts of things.
Over the past decade many educators have been at work to redesign the American high school. They have captured these design criteria in what are called Design Principles. In the New Urban High School Practitioner's Guide (1998), the New Urban High School project articulated these key principles as Personalization, Intellectual Mission, Adult World Immersion, and Performance-Based Student Work & Assessment (see http://www.bigpicture.org/NUHSPractitionersGuide.htm ).
Whether you start with design criteria or design principles, designing the new American high school means specifying the Design Elements what you actually do to put the principles to work: Program, Facility, Transitions, Exhibitions, Advisories, Technology, Projects, Portfolios, Internships, Organization, Size, and Team.
New Small High Schools
Three new small high schools demonstrate these design principles and criteria in action, while exhibiting distinct design elements: the Met High School in Providence, Rhode Island; Napa New Technology High School in Napa, California; and High Tech High School in San Diego. In turn, these design elements require innovative facilities and technology to support their programmatic designs. These are lab schools that one can learn a tremendous amount from. While each design is highly replicable, it takes real educational entrepreneurs and leaders to put them in place.
Sidebars for this article:
San Diego's High Tech High (HTH) is a microcosm that demonstrates how facilities and technology support the design principles and student learning. It opened in 2000 and is now in its second year. The school was conceived by and launched by a coalition of more than 40 public and corporate partners led by Qualcomm that were part of a San Diego Chamber of Commerce task force. The task force met over two years and focused on developing a new high school education commensurate with San Diego's transformation from a military-dominated economy to an emerging high-tech regional economy, led by telecommunications and biotechnology.
The task force hired Larry Rosenstock as the founding CEO/principal. Rosenstock was formerly the director of the New Urban High School Project and principal at the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Rindge School of Technical Arts.
High Tech High is a public charter high school with a diverse student population that mirrors the San Diego Unified School District. The school opened in September 2000 with 200 students in 9th and 10th grades, now has 300 students, and will reach 400 students in grades 9-12 at full enrollment next year.
HTH brings to life its design principles of Personalization, Intellectual Mission, Adult World Immersion, and Performance-Based Student Work & Assessment through its size and school organization, its facilities, its program, and its technology.
When you walk into High Tech High, you feel like you're in a workplace. The main section of the school, the Great Room, houses the student workstation suites where upper -school grades 11 and 12 students work on self-directed projects one-half of every day. Artwork and glass walls are everywhere. So is wiring, neatly routed in visible overhead cable trays and conduits. Classrooms, which HTH calls seminar rooms, feature flexible furniture and Smart Boards. Not a lot of teachers are presenting in this environment. Mostly it's the students who present their work and ideas.
Four structures provide a sense of place and identity to HTH students:
The facility supports a unique school organization, which is designed to build personal relationships, particularly for students with their teacher/advisors, teachers, and workplace mentors. Both Upper (grades 11-12) and Lower (grades 9-10) Schools are broken down into teams of 70 to 100 students, each with five teachers or support people. Each teacher has 20 kids in an Advisory Group that they stay with the entire time they are at HTH. The advisors meet as a group, in the seminar rooms, almost every day. Teacher/Advisors meet with students, parents, and their workplace mentors to plan a student's program. Teachers have both their own office cubicles in a shared office suite and several small conference rooms to use for small meetings.
Curriculum is project-based, but HTH teachers still find that they need to do some direct instruction. In math, HTH utilizes a tutorial, self-paced approach. Starting with a more structured Lower School, kids work toward a more unstructured, self-motivated learning and work environment in grades 11-12.
HTH is a learning environment peopled by scores of adults. For instance, speakers and outside experts are constantly brought in as student resources, and brown-bag lunches with visiting speakers take place all the time. Students experience adult immersion in both their internships and in their school.
Key elements of the HTH Program include:
Replacing the Factory Model with the Student Workplace
In the new economy, all work is project work. And you are your projects! says management guru Tom Peters (The Wow Project, by Tom Peters, in Fast Company magazine, May 1999, http://www.fastcompany.com/online/24/wowproj.html). To many educators teamwork, problem solving, project management, and communication skills are just verbiage from the now ten-year-old SCANS report, or from the latest variation of that report (What Work Requires of Schools, The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills [SCANS], 1991, http://wdr.doleta.gov/SCANS/. Also see NCREL's 21st Century Skills at http://www.ncrel.org/engauge/skills/skills.htm). But the workplaces of the New Economy are real and exist everywhere, not just in the Silicon Valley and its many regional imitators. In these workplaces people do projects, individually and in teams. They write memos and business plans, and communicate their ideas to their co-workers, managers, and clients through PowerPoint presentations and Web sites.
High Tech High, the Met, and Napa New Tech High have replaced the factory model school with the student workplace. Students are empowered at these small high schools through their relationships, their physical environment and their technology tools, to learn, produce, and present. Kids at these schools are kids who know and do ( Kids Who Know and Do is the name of the annual project-based learning conference held in San Francisco founded by the Autodesk Foundation and now sponsored by Co-nect [see http://www.kwkd.net]). They have the spaces to work in and learn: individual workstations/cubicles, project rooms, presentation rooms, advisory rooms, and real-world workplaces - and the technology tools to do their work, to learn through projects, to turn projects into products that they can exhibit and share with others.
Others will design their own version of the New American Small High School in the coming years. But unlike today's comprehensive high schools (those institutions of today run on the principles of yesterday), these new small high schools provide the learning environment, the work environment, and the tools kids need to do their work.
Making the New American High School The Implementation Challenge
In real life, the design challenge is dwarfed by the implementation challenge. To bring schools like these to life, education leaders and entrepreneurs need to raise the funds, hire and develop the key staff, and work with the staff to acculturate students to the new environments and new approaches to learning.
High Tech High, the Met, and Napa New Tech High are cases in point, each arising in special circumstances. Each of these schools has a beautiful, innovative facility. High Tech High is a public charter school founded by a business coalition that raised over $6 million for start-up. The Met's Co-Directors, Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, worked with their board leaders to petition the state of Rhode Island for a $28 million bond to create a state-sponsored school. Napa New Tech's founders included key local business leaders who marshaled local district and outside resources and business support to launch the school.
It takes entrepreneurs to launch innovative schools, particularly when there are no visible national exemplars. Ultimately public school districts across the country will finance and build schools like these. But in this early period, leaders need to know a lot more than curriculum and program. They need the same 21st-century skill set that their future students will require, including the ability the write a business plan, communicate it, and demonstrate capacity to carry it out.
Schools like these can be launched as either public charter schools or as district-sponsored. For charter schools, considerable funds will have to be raised, since few state charter laws provide capital support for facilities. Complicating matters is the fact that raising funds for school construction from private sources became much more difficult as the ten-year expansion of the American economy came to a halt last year.
For in-district schools, the challenge is different. There, where teacher unions often have contracts, the new school's leaders will have to get special agreements with both the district and the union to provide them with autonomy from district rules and union contract provisions, particularly for staff selection and de-selection. It's hard enough to get teachers who know how to work effectively in a project-based learning environment. Having to staff a new kind of school with teachers who don't share the vision, and the practice, is crippling. Such enabling processes in districts with unions can only come about through a serious collaborative bargaining process, and partnership, with the teachers and administrators unions. Nationally, only Boston has a negotiated process for new school start-up through its pilot (in-district charter) schools.
Some help, fortunately, is on the way. High Tech High, the Met, and Napa New Tech High have each received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support groups to replicate their designs in ten or more sites across the country. This enables the new replication organizations to provide support and services, and some cash, to replication sites, and to develop organizations that in the future can provide such services on a fee-for-service basis. This won't eliminate the implementation challenge, but it will help.
A final implementation challenge is much more serious. No one will have an easy time, in the beginning, acculturating their first groups of students to the new learning environments. Students have already spent eight years or more in factory-model schools. It will take them some practice, some experience, and some mentoring and coaching from older students and teachers, to thrive as self-directed students. But the evidence is in at the Met and Napa, both schools in their sixth year, and the two-year-old High Tech High, that the new culture takes hold progressively over the first two years. Visitors to these schools may find them a little more noisy than traditional high schools, but it's the sound of students at work that they are hearing. And it's worth the time and effort to achieve it.
Bob Pearlman is a strategy consultant for education reform. He is the former president of the Autodesk Foundation and former executive director of the 21st Century Education Initiative at Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network. He may be reached at: email@example.com and < http://www.bobpearlman.org >.