For the past two years I have been researching and writing about definitions of “success” and “failure” in U.S. education. As I have done with all of my book projects, I draft posts for this blog to clarify my thinking and learn from reader comments. Then I revise what I have written and those revisions become part of the book I am writing.
A year and a half ago, I posted a series on “success” and “failure” in schools (see here, here, and here). Since then I have written a few chapters for this forthcoming book that answer questions driving this study.
- How have “success” and “failure” been defined and applied to reforming schools and judging programs past and present?
- From where do these ideas of “success” and “failure” come?
- How were these ideas transmitted to Americans then and now?
- Who decides (and how) whether schools “succeed” and “fail?”
- What does “success”and “failure” look like in contemporary classrooms, schools and districts?
- So what?
Now I have four chapters that tentatively answer the first four questions. Last month I began research on the fifth question by looking at two schools deemed “successful” by current metrics but have gone beyond traditional definitions of “success” to carve out a larger, expansive view of what student, teacher, and school “success” look like.
Both California schools are non-special, that is, neither a charter nor magnet in their districts. MetWest High School* with about 160 students is in the Oakland Unified School District. It is a Big Picture school launched in 2002 that combines academics and community internships for its largely poor and Latino students (see here and here).
The other school is Social Justice Humanitas Academy with just over 500 high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. A school founded and governed by teachers as a school-within-a-school at a nearby large high school in the early 2000s and eventually becoming an autonomous school in a new facility in 2011.
I visited these two small high schools between February and March 2019. I read documents, observed teachers, listened to students, and interviewed key staff members. For MetWest, I have published descriptions of the school and observations of four teacher lessons (see here, here, here, and here). I will have more posts about classrooms and internships there in the next few weeks.
And shortly, I will begin publishing posts about SJHA and lessons I have observed.
These visits to two different schools in California aim at describing two small non-charter, non-magnet schools that have an expanded and expansive view of what constitutes student, teacher, and school “success” and, more important, what that expansive view looks like up close. I do this not to suggest that all public high schools, big and small, should copy these two schools. While there are similar high schools like MetWest and SJHA elsewhere in the nation, albeit in small numbers, there are two other reasons I concentrate on these schools.
First, most Americans overlook a basic fact: there is no one national system of American schooling. There is great variety among U.S. public schools (e.g., 50 state systems, over 13,000 school districts, and over 100,000 urban, suburban, and rural schools). Yet there is one definition of “success” and “failure” that dominates policy talk and action, the rewards and penalties, the metrics used in judging all U.S. schools: A “successful” school has higher than average test scores, graduation rates, college admissions, etc
I describe and analyze MetWest and SJHA to demonstrate that broader definitions of “success” not only exist amid the prevailing narrow view of “success” but also that these expanded definitions have been put into school and classroom practice.
In describing these two schools I want to show that variation among U.S. schools also shows up in how schools define “success” for their students, teachers, and sites, revealing that there are notable exceptions to the prevailing monolithic view of “success” across U.S. schools. And just because I identify only two schools does not make exceptions insignificant.
In short, these two schools are an “existence proof.” They demonstrate what has been done by public school administrators and teachers who define “success” in far broader terms than conventional ones. How these two urban school staffs bent bureaucratic rules in large districts in joining traditional “success” metrics with other criteria that capture a far more expansive view of what constitutes student, teacher, and school “success” shows that mixes of the conventional and unconventional can be brewed into a do-able hybrid public school serving youth of color. Such hybrid definitions of “success” exist in the very neighborhoods that are too often judged as inhospitable to experimentation and excellence.**
Second, both of these high schools are at the margins of both systems, not a part of a growing core of schools in each district. Both have achieved a “protected niche” within each district and they have survived and thrived. Moreover, their approach to teaching and learning are instances of what some observers have called “deeper learning” (see here and here). To achieve such “deeper learning,” these schools have to overturn the historical “grammar of learning” (e.g., age-graded school organization, rows of desks, whole group instruction, homework, frontal teaching, tests) that continues to dominate public and private education in the nation. A most difficult task. I am not sure these two schools do but they surely grasp for that evanescent deeper learning and teaching.
So MetWest High School and SJHA become part of my book as proof that an expansive definition of “success” exists in public schools and aspire to forms of “deeper learning.” Both schools deserve our full attention in a society unthinking in its acceptance of economic and social inequalities and one driven by individualism rather than community and by attaining fortune rather than friends and family.
*As of this date, MetWest High School has no website.