Reimagining the Public High School, 2015-2020 (Part 2)

The system of public high schools in America really hasn’t undergone any kind of serious transformation in 100 years,” [ Super School Project CEO, Russlyn H.] Ali said. “It was built for an economy and a system that is no more.”

What if you’re the one who helps America rethink high school?”

“This is a challenge to empower all of America to change high school. Together, we can transform communities and build schools that inspire new possibilities.”

From these quotes taken from the website for Super School Project, philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs and chief executive Russlyn Ali are interested in transforming the existing high school.

After the initial announcement in 2015, the Super School Project accepted proposals from 700 teams across the nation in a competition to design and execute a new kind of high school that would make this hardy–seemingly unchanged–institution relevant to their daily lives . A year later, XQ announced that $10 million would be awarded to 10 teams to put their ideas into practice within five years. Since 2016, nearly $140 million has gone to 19 teams to re-imagine the American high school.

Matt Barnum wrote about the project a year ago and said:

Most of the XQ winners are now up and running. There’s a Washington, D.C. school that prioritizes computer science and getting real-world internships for all of its students. Another is a racially integrated school in Memphis focused on project-based learning, whose founder applied after driving by an XQ billboard; a third is a school-within-a-school meant to mirror a high-tech office in Florida. A school in Los Angeles focuses on helping homeless students, while another in Grand Rapids is based in an old museum.

None of these grants went to schools that proposed tinkering with the century-old comprehensive high school. They proposed many changes. Yet change is an ambiguous word that needs to be parsed. The Super School Project is not in the market for “incremental changes” to the high school of 2015. They want “transformational,” “revolutionary,” or fundamental change. What’s the difference?

Incremental changes aim to end the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of existing structures and cultures of schooling including classroom teaching. By structures, I mean the goals, funding, facilities, and the age-graded school that are (and have been) basic building blocks of the system of tax-supported schooling in the U.S. By cultures, I mean the norms, expectations, and beliefs in the classroom, school, and district that color daily activities.

Promoters of incremental change view the basic structures and cultures of schooling as largely sound but in need of improvements. There are inefficiencies and ineffective practices that undermine the productivity of the system. The old car, to use a familiar metaphor, is sputtering and rusting but solid. It needs a paint job, tires, brakes, a new battery, and a tune-up—incremental changes. Once improved, the system will work as intended.

Examples of incremental changes in schools would include adding new courses to high school curriculum; introducing new tests; adopting pay-for-performance for teachers and principals; decreasing class size from 30 to 25; Each of these changes, of course, seeks increased efficiency and effectiveness of the system.

In the classroom, incremental changes would include the teacher introducing a new unit in her math course that she had never taught before. Perhaps a teacher who designs a behavioral modification plan with rewards and penalties for good and bad classroom behavior. Or a teacher who decides to use the mobile cart with 30 laptops for one of her classes.

None of this for the Super School Project. The founder and CEO reject any change smelling of incrementalism. The project seeks “fundamental changes,” designs that will go far beyond tinkering.

Fundamental changes aim to transform—alter permanently—those very same structures and cultures. The idea behind fundamental change is that the basic school structures and cultures are irretrievably flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul or replacement, not incremental improvements. That old car is a jalopy far beyond repair. We need to get a new car or consider other forms of transportation.

If new courses, more staff, extended day and school year, and higher salaries for teachers are examples of incremental changes in the structures and cultures of schooling, then the late-19th century innovation of the kindergarten is an instance of fundamental change. Other examples would be broadening the school’s social role in the early 20th century to intervene in the lives of children and their families by offering school-based social and medical services and for advocates of public schooling to see the institution as an agent of social reform in the larger society (e.g., ending alcohol and drug abuse, desegregation). Advocates of charter schools want more parental choice and competition through altering the fundamental structure of funding. Other reformers wish to replace the age-graded school with ungraded schools that eliminate promotion and retention, the sliced-up curriculum, and self-contained classrooms. Again, designs for fundamental changes are proposed solutions to deep-seated problems or intractable dilemmas. That is what the Super School Project seeks for tax-supported public schools now anchored in an information-driven economy.

Applied to the classroom, advocates of fundamental change would transform the teacher’s role from transmitter of information to one who guides students to their own decisions, who helps children find meaning in their experiences, and urges them to learn from one another. These reformers seek to upend traditional teaching where the teacher talks, students mostly listen, use a textbook for the main source of knowledge, and pass tests that determine how much has been remembered. They want classrooms where teachers organize activities that help students learn from subject matter, one another, and the community. Assessment is less taking multiple-choice tests and more working on real world tasks.

Efforts to transform high schools have a long, tortured history (see here and here). Even when fundamental changes do occur at a moment in time such as the creation of tax-supported academic high schools in the late 19th century, the innovative comprehensive high school of the 1920s or the “open classroom,” those deep and powerful changes seldom last as past efforts have shown for the following reasons:

Many changes intended to be fundamental become incrementalized. Often the rhetoric of a planned change clearly intend to make profound shifts in the current school. Recall the words surrounding charter schools, 1:1 laptops, and small high schools in past decades. Promoted by corporate leaders and public officials these innovations sought fundamental changes. Yet once they left the designers’ hands and entered schools and classrooms theses changes were either piecemeal ones where certain portions of the design were implemented and other parts were not.

Because so much work is involved in mobilizing support and resources for fundamental changes there is far more success in talking about major reforms than in adopting the planned changes. And there is even more of a gap between officials’ actions and what principals and teachers actually put into practice. Because of these gaps between talk, action, and implementation, intended fundamental changes get incrementalized and become just another spoke in the organizational wheel.

Far more incremental than fundamental changes get institutionalized in schools. It is simply easier organizationally and psychologically to add to a system than go in a different direction. Increasing requirements for high school graduation is easier than dropping the Carnegie unit which is the very basis for counting credits toward graduation and school accreditation. Shipping computers to schools and buying software is far easier than altering dominant teaching practices. Creating charter schools is actually easier than charters seeking non-graded organizations and introducing project-based learning.

Given these reform-driven efforts over the past century to re-think the American high school, one inescapable question is: why the comprehensive high school has been a tough nut to crack for fundamental reforms? The answer to the question will draw attention to the age-graded and departmental organization, the prior training of specialized teachers and college admission requirements. All of these features for decades have constituted the “grammar of schooling” in secondary education. Few of the innovations that I have seen or read about question any of these rock-hard features in rethinking high school. Why is that?

Perhaps one answer (but surely not the only one) is that there are strengths of the comprehensive high school that parents, taxpayers, policymakers, and practitioners think is worthwhile and want to keep.

The Super School Project should mind seriously the strong popular support for the existing organization and practice of high schools as their staff and consultants watch these 19 schools become high schools of the future.


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

2 responses to “Reimagining the Public High School, 2015-2020 (Part 2)

  1. Grace M. Hoagland

    Larry this is fascinating to read for someone who has been actively involved in open, Coalition, small, project based, . playlist, “self-renewing” and charter schools, each of which hoped to significantly change at least the fundamental experience of students and their relation to learning.
    You’ve smmarized the history and challenge so well – as you are wont to do. What you might have added as another force in play is the turbulent context of conflicting goals and conflicting constituencies – political, social and pedagogical – which you have also summarized (brilliantly) time after time.
    It may be that tecbnology, the pace of change and the pressure of rising inequity will force new assumptions and strategies more compelling than the inertia of the current grammar..

    I do miss you. Glad i can assume you are safe and well wherever you are.
    I’ve not yet moved into the Vi, and am deeply enjoying rich conversations with the 8 strong POLS students who make up the cohort this surreal year.

    Thanks for your blog. Stay well!

    Get Outlook for Android


    • larrycuban

      As always, Gay, thanks for your reminding me about the important political context of reforms aimed at any level of schooling. Stay well.

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