World Studies: Technology Integration at Mountain View High School

Three years ago on the recommendation of district coordinators of technology, I observed classrooms of teachers in Silicon Valley districts. I described what I saw without making any evaluative comments on the teachers or lessons they taught. Here is one example of a social studies teacher who had integrated the classroom use of technology so that it was in the background, not the foreground.

Carson Rietveld has been teaching for four years at Mountain View High School.*  The class is furnished with four rows of desks facing the front whiteboard; the teacher’s desk is in the far corner. Music is playing as students enter the room.  Student work, historical posters, and sayings dot the walls above the white boards (e.g., “I want to live in a society where people are judged by what they do for others).



Rietveld, wearing a long flowered dress that reaches her ankles, welcomes the 14- and 15 year old students by name as they come in. Students put their backpacks on the floor near a side whiteboard and bring their tablet or laptop to their desk. The high school policy is Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD).**  I ask a student why do all backpacks go on the floor and he tells me that students rooting through their backpacks during a lesson distracts both the student and teacher from what is being taught. Thus, the rule.

The 27 students sit at their desks, take out their devices, surf the Internet, and talk to one another. Bell rings to begin class. Music stops. School announcements come on the public address box in the room. Many students listen and some whisper to one another or continue looking at their device. After announcements end, Rietveld directs students’ attention to front whiteboard with a slide showing the agenda for “Happy Friday Fresh Friends.”

*Mindfulness exercise
*Partner presentation practice
*Roman Republic presentation
*Whole class discussion
EQ: what makes a good presentation?
EQ: how much influence did the average citizen

(EQ refers to Essential Question. See here)

Teacher goes over the agenda and asks students to close lids of  their computers.  They do. The first agenda item is a mindfulness exercise. A video comes on with a soft, soothing voice asking everyone to “ground themselves in the now.”  The voice asks viewers to close their eyes—I look around the room and all students’ eyes are closed—and the soothing voice asks viewers to concentrate on relaxing their toes, ankles, legs then “shifting awareness” up through the entire torso to their head. Teacher participates with students.  Rietveld tells me that she now has her students doing up to three minutes of the daily exercise.

Rietveld segues to next activity, listed as “Partner Presentation Practice” which will give students a chance to practice getting at the substance of the lesson, the relationship between the Roman Republic and democracy. Students will be making presentations and the teacher wants students to practice getting at the essential point they wish to make in their presentation and the argument (including evidence) that will support that essential point.

To get students to practice this task, Rietveld asks them to take two minutes to find a photo of the cutest cat or dog they can find on the Internet. Then write a paragraph why their photo is the cutest and afterwards turn to their partner and explain why—what features of the pet make it the cutest, etc.

After a few moments, she says ,“20 seconds left to finish.” Teacher has a stopwatch in her hand and uses it to announce time. Then she says press “submit” wherever you are in the paragraph so I can see what you have written (Rietveld uses Pear Deck and has access to each student’s work).

“Now present the animal to your partner, “ Rietveld says. “Wha t kind of animal did you pick? Why did you pick this animal? Explain why you think it is the cutest.”

After two minutes, teacher asks the listening partner to present their “cutest” pet photo.

I look across the classroom and all pairs and trios appear involved in task.

After time is up, teacher asks each partner to write down “ a thoughtful idea they did well.”

“OK,” Rietveld says, “let’s go over your awesome thoughts—I see partners making eye contact and directing the other person back to photo. Give multiple reasons and focus on different features. Talk slowly.”
She then asks students to open up their computers and write down they could have done better. What mistake did partner make. I see nearly all students clicking away on their devices. But some are talking and seemingly off-task. Teacher says: “OK, guys, self-regulate, self-regulate. Don’t have photo of pet on screen; it will be distracting. Get rid of it,” she says.

After waiting a few minutes, Rietveld segues to next activity of small group work to give practice to students in presenting their answers to the “essential question”: Based on what you have read, “How democratic do you think was the Roman Republic.”

Students have been thinking about this question and have made posters with illustrations and text to state their answer to the question when they present to the entire class.

Rietveld directs students to get into small groups after designating the different roles that students will perform in the group they are in. Teacher points to one side of room and says that these students are “time-keepers”; another side are “facilitators”, in the middle are “resource managers”, and in the rear are “harmonizers”—specific roles that apparently students are familiar with. Then she directs that each member of a group will present their answer to the “essential question: “How democratic do you think was the Roman Republic.”

After presenting in their small group, each student will resume their role as the next student presents answer to question. Students rearrange themselves, move desks and chairs as they settle into their groups to present to one another their answer to the question:

Using the stopwatch, Rietveld announces how much time is left.  After ending  the task, she then asks students to critique presenter, that is, what one thing the presenter did well; what one thing that can be improved. Then she announces that the next student is to present. Students circulate their posters and present for another two minutes.

Looking around the class, I see all small groups engaged in listening to presenter and showing their posters. Teacher walks around listening to each group. One group looked off-task to her so Rietveld goes over and asks presenter—“What is one piece of evidence in your poster about Roman Republic being democratic?”

For the next six minutes presenters in the small groups shift from one student to another with the teacher announcing when the two minutes are up. In each instance, Rietveld asks group to go around their circle and tell the presenter one thing they did well and one thing they can improve upon.

After stop-watch alarm rings, the teacher brings the activity to a close. She asks students to close their computers and segues to the final task of the period, The Four Corners Discussion of a slide flashed onto the whiteboard: “The Roman Republic a True Democracy.”

She tells class that each student should consider whether they strongly agree, somewhat agree, strongly disagree or somewhat disagree with the statement and then “vote with your feet.” After waiting a few moments, Rietveld directs students to go to a corner of the room for strongly agree, another corner for those who strongly disagree, etc.

Teacher looks where students are. Most are either in one of two corners expressing  disagreement or agreement with statement. Rietveld asks entire class, “why there is disagreement among you about statement. Some students in one corner call out and say that not everyone could vote—women and slaves; teacher pushes back and asks for evidence; student give example and teacher probes again. Then another student in an opposite corner gives evidence of democratic practices. Students around her nod their heads.

“Why don’t we totally agree,” teacher asks? A few students say there is evidence on both sides. Another student says that there is a lot of “subjectivity on what is a true democracy,” a peer adds that the conflict is over differing values that students have about democracy and which ones are most important.

Then the bell rings ending the period. Rietveld asks students to return desks to their original position.  They do. She wishes them “a safe weekend.” Students go to pick up their backpacks lying on the floor near the wall and leave the room. World Studies is over for this class.


* Part of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, Mountain View High School has  just over 1800 students (2015) and its demography is mostly students of color (in percentages, Asian 26, Latino 21,  African American 2, multiracial 2, and 47 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 18 percent. Eleven percent of students are learning disabled and just over 10 percent of students are English language learners.

Academically, 94 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 35 Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses across the curriculum. Of those students taking AP courses, 84 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. The school earned the distinction of California Distinguished High School in 1994 and 2003. In 200 and 2013, MVHS received a full 6-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Newsweek ranks MVHS among the top 1% of high schools nationwide. The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). Statistics come from here and mvhs_sarc_15_16

**BYOD began two years ago in the District.




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Technology in the Classroom Is Great — When It Works (Benjamin Keep)


Keep is a “researcher, learning scientist, and writes about science, learning, and technology at”

This appeared July 10, 2019 on T74


When it comes to learning technologies, educators and administrators often focus on what technology to use instead of how the technology facilitates learning. This leads to serious costs.

U.S. fourth-graders who report using tablets in all or nearly all of their classes are a full year behind in reading ability compared with peers who report never using tablets in their classes. Internationally, students who report greater use of technology in their classrooms score worse on the PISA exam, the major international student assessment, even when accounting for differences in wealth and prior performance. This is all according to a recent report by the Reboot Foundation.

These findings align with prior research that found essentially the same thing three years ago: High levels of technology use in the classroom tend to correlate with lower student performance.

The question in both of these reports is not whether technology can improve learning outcomes; lots of well-designed experimental research establishes that it can. The question, rather, is whether it is improving learning outcomes. And the answer seems to be: Not really.

Every year, administrators and teachers make major decisions about which new technologies, software platforms and assessment systems should be added to their ed tech arsenal. Companies pitch their products to school representatives at huge conferences. But technology often is misused, underused or even completely unused. One recent study found that over a third of all technology purchases made by middle schools simply weren’t used. And only 5 percent of purchases met their purchaser’s usage goals.

These findings have a common cause. Teachers and administrators don’t use learning technologies (or even think about using learning technologies) in the right way. A lot of conversations focus on what the technology can do or how students could use it, rather than how students typically use the technology or the contexts in which it would be most and least effective. Consider a typical pitch: “With this new virtual reality system, students can inhabit a fully immersive 3D haptic environment.” Nifty. But how does an immersive environment improve learning outcomes?

The answer to this question is telling. If the company’s answer is something like, “Well, students put on the headset like this, and then the teacher pulls up a scenario — we have lots of different ones, then the student has these options…” it’s a bad sign. This kind of answer just describes what the student does with the technology. It doesn’t tell a thing about how a student’s interaction with the technology will improve learning.

So, how should we be evaluating learning technologies? I suggest answering three questions first:

  • Is the technology linked to a specific learning goal?
  • Does the technology follow research-supported understandings of how we learn?
  • When might the technology fail to facilitate learning?

Consider the humble flashcard. Used wisely, decks of flashcards can take advantage of spaced retrieval practice, a remarkably effective way to study. But used poorly — as a way to cram information before a test or to “learn” a set of vocabulary words over the course of a week and never return to them again — flashcards will make students feel as if they’ve learned far more than they have. The result? Little learning and damaged student perceptions about what they know.

Flashcards also have limits: It’s hard to convey complex information with them, for example. In this way, flashcards are like any other technology — there are good ways to use them, bad ways to use them and limits to how they can be used.

Let’s apply these questions to more modern technologies — take, for example, automated essay feedback tools like Revision Assistant. The learning goal seems clear: to help students learn to write better essays. How does it improve learning outcomes? Revision Assistant’s marketing copy says, “Motivate students to improve their writing with instant, differentiated feedback aligned to genre-specific rubrics.” This seems plausible, given the research on skill development: rounds of practice, feedback and self-evaluation are the cornerstone of deliberate practice, a well-established effective way to improve skills. When might it fail? The feedback itself might be bad. Students may over-rely on it. Or teachers might use it as a replacement for, instead of a complement to, their own feedback.

Or take the virtual reality example. Several companies are working on physics simulations in virtual reality. How might this technology help students learn fundamental physics concepts? One reasonable idea would be to let them experience the behavior of objects in different physical environments. Research suggests that contrasting examples can help make later instruction more effective. When might it fail? Lots of scenarios, but here are two: when the VR experience merely replicates an experience the students could have had otherwise, or when the experience comes after a lecture on the material.

Both of these examples reference well-established learning mechanisms and link them to specific learning goals. Of course, it’s still possible that the technology won’t work — bugs in the system, bad user interfaces, lack of integration with existing teaching systems or just plain bad implementation of the underlying idea. But at least there is an underlying idea that makes sense based on what we know about how students learn.

When we prioritize the how over the what, we think about technology more critically. Given that schools under-use their technology purchases and that buying new technology can be costly, why not delay new purchases for a year or two and explore whether existing technology can be put to good use?

Use technology to pursue specific learning goals. Use only technology that is supported by existing learning research. And stop using technology in contexts where it’s not particularly effective. If we do all that, the next report will show high correlations between technology use and student achievement, instead of the opposite.




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The MetWest High School Story (Part 6)

I now sum up what I have learned about this small Oakland high school and render a judgment about its “success.” As I have stated “success” is not an either/or verdict. It has as many facets as does the crown of a cut diamond. Depending upon the available light, these facets shine brilliantly. MetWest’s ”success” is multi-faceted, highly political, yet marked by flaws.

Surely, the media accounts of MetWest have been positive, suggesting “success” in the number of high school graduates entering college and students learning through internships. That the small high school has been around for nearly two decades and now has a waiting list of 150 students eager to attend the school is further evidence that effectiveness in reaching particular goals, longevity and popularity, mainstream markers of “success,” seemingly apply to MetWest. [i]

Here I apply a two-part effectiveness criterion of  whether the school has achieved its goals with minimum political conflict. On the latter point, the answer is yes. Although there was initial political skirmishing and opposition, the finesse that the teacher founders displayed in getting this small high school adopted by the school board and its continuity for nearly two decades even with much principal turnover has generated little pushback from the community.[ii] Where there is an emerging conflict, it comes not from the community but from within the district.

There have been internal political battles over expanding the school to 320 students split between two sites. District officials have pressed the current principal and staff to establish another MetWest school to double its enrollment in order to reduce the current high per-student cost of maintaining the small high school. Such an expansion may well result in a split MetWest campus but at a political cost in staff disaffection and dilution of the BPL design. As I write in the summer of 2019, the principal informed me that MetWest will operate another campus that welcomes 42 ninth graders in the Fall of 2019 growing each subsequent year. Overall, then, there has been very little external opposition to MetWest from parents and mentors at community and business agencies housing school interns. [iii]

Beyond this political marker of “success,” the other half of the effectiveness judgment depends upon MetWest achieving BPL and OUSD academic goals including the dominant measures of “success,” that is, test scores, high school graduation, preparation for college yields. In this respect, a mixed record emerges.

Consider OUSD metrics on academic outcomes. MetWest’s graduation rate (93 percent) has improved in past five years and is higher than the district’s and the dropout rate (7 percent) has been going down in past five years and is lower than OUSD’s. MetWest seniors prepared for college and university admission over past five years has gone from 69 percent to 83 percent while OUSD average was 51 percent (2016).[iv]

But reading and math test scores for 2017 show that MetWest students still have a long climb ahead. In reading, 23 percent were above grade level and 29 percent were at grade level— but 47 percent were “multiple years below grade level.” In math, high percentages of students did not take the test (35 to 47 percent in 2016 and 2017). Those that did, scored poorly, that is, 51 percent were two or more years below grade level in 2016 and 2017.[v]

In its 2018 report to WASC, the staff’s conclusion on reading and math results was: “While MetWest outperformed the district, we still have a long way to go.” The staff looked ahead to creating reading and math literacy plans that were vertically and horizontally aligned by grade level and subject, helping struggling students, and collecting data in specific areas that students were having the most difficulty.[vi]

With Michelle Deiro named principal in 2018, a number of changes proposed in that WASC report have occurred. As the Report said:

[W]e needed to focus on gaining clarity in what we are teaching and why so that we could better assess student outcomes. Our [professional development] goals for the year are: 1) Articulate and document what all students will be expected to learn in each class and internship (create class and LTI learning targets that are aligned with MetWest Vision) and 2) Create and utilize assessments which accurately measure student growth through collaborative work.

Changes did occur. For example, all Advisor/Teachers now have a common period for preparation to make more collaboration possible. Grade and department level teams have been formed to further both intra-staff communication and joint work. All of this is aimed at increasing test scores and other metrics that OUSD, parents, and community activists use to judge school “success”[vii]

There is more to judging MetWest’s effectiveness, however. Considering the high school’s vision and BPL’s design, documenting what happens to individual graduates after leaving SJHA, the intersection of academics and internships, and community activism, all of which are at the core of MetWest’s mission, become the grist for judging “success.”

MetWest prepares young adults to recognize and take advantage of all resources to further their well-being and the well-being of their communities. Our graduates will have the skills, habits, knowledge, and networks to overcome obstacles to their success, access four-year colleges, engage in fulfilling work, and contribute positively to our world

Collecting such data to see if these ambitious (and multiple) goals have been met is an enormous job requiring follow-up surveys and interviews to capture over time what occurs to students who attended MetWest, graduated, went to college, entered careers, started families, and engaged in their communities. Gathering such longitudinal data is uncommon among U.S. schools in general and rare for particular high schools.

Thus, there is strong evidence that MetWest was “successful” politically in getting adopted, established, and sustained over time without creating any significant conflict within the community since its founding. No small achievement. It casts the glow of “success” around the small high school. It is far harder, however, to ascertain whether MetWest has achieved its vision, mission, and goals during the four years at the high school. Lack of data and tidying up amorphous goals into specific terms is tough to do when it comes to educational policies anywhere. At a complex place as a small urban high school, it is especially difficult. For what is missing are data on what occurs after students have graduated, finished college, and entered careers that are telling insofar as MetWest reaching its desired outcomes.

MetWest graduates. Apart from media accounts and individual stories told by students, Advisors/Teachers, administrators, and work-site mentors, I could find no follow-up reports tracking what has occurred to those MetWest graduates who attended college and what they are doing currently. After all, the BPL design and MetWest mission is to have students, most of whom are the first in their families to attend college and then go on to complete the college or university they enrolled in. MetWest graduates since the early aughts are now in their 20s and early thirties launched in careers and families. I could not find such follow-up studies.

Internships. To what degree have the internship experiences been a factor in academic classes, assessing student performance, choosing a college major and getting a job after completing high school and later earning a degree? It is a reasonable question to ask, given MetWest’s mission, the goals of the LTI and the BPL design.

That internships played a role within classes I observed in lesson discussions, listening to students, and interviewing teachers. Among many students, internships became the basis for the Senior Thesis Project and final public Exhibition of their work. These performance assessments are part of the MetWest experience. Apart from stories I have heard and situations I have observed, there are connections but, again, I have not seen any reports that document these important linkages.

Community activism. Displayed continually in the atrium and classrooms are posters, paintings, and printed exhortations to take action in the community. I heard from students (and Advisor/Teachers) who have been active in political protests and campaigns in the Fall of 2018. Both MetWest teachers and students, I was told, worked hard in the run-up to the February 2019 teacher strike. The evidence is surely there but uncollected. Scattered among media accounts and anecdotes recounted by students and teachers is much involvement with the community beyond internships. A systematic collection of these data would help in determining in what ways and to what degree the BPL design and MetWest internships account for such community engagement.[viii]

With this mixed picture of “success” at MetWest in applying the two-fold effectiveness criterion (goal achievement with little political conflict), has this small high school approaching two decades of existence in OUSD expanded the mainstream definition of school “success.” Yes it has. Although I have supplied asterisks to the achievement of some of MetWest’s mission and goals, the BPL design is intact. And MetWest’s enactment of that design tailored to the demands of OUSD and the community it serves has broadened the meaning of “success.”

But MetWest after nearly two decades is not yet a resilient “success.” At best it is a robust “success” on the cusp of resiliency but with dark clouds forming in the district office mandate for the school to double in size and have two locations within the next few years. Should that expansion occur, conflicts within the staff, among parents, and community activists could rise to a screech making any future “success” precarious.

With one eye cocked on the traditional measures of “success” such as test scores, graduation rates, and college attendance and the other eye cocked on personalizing learning and community activism through a blend of academics and work experiences, MetWest has stretched the customary definition of school “success” in U.S schools to include personal well-being and community well-being. While all of the data may not be collected yet, it is clear to me that MetWest’s definition of “success” has expanded the common (and narrow) definition of the purpose of tax-supported public schooling to include other ways of judging, untidy as it may be, what a “successful” high school should be in a capitalist democratic society.[ix]


[i] Interview with Michelle Deiro, April 4, 2019; see above citations of media accounts on MetWest.

[ii]Allan McConnell, “Policy Success, Policy Failure, and Grey Areas in-Between,” Journal of Public Policy, 2010, 30(3), pp.345-362.

[iii] Interview with Michelle Deiro, April 4, 2019; email from Michelle Deiro, July 3, 2019.

[iv] Oakland Unified School District, “MetWest High School Progress Report,” for April 17, 2018 visit from Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western ssociation of Schools and Colleges, pp. 5-6.

[v] Ibid., pp. 7-9.

[vi] Ibid., p. 10.

[vii] Ibid., p. 13


[ix] I sent a draft of this chapter to Michelle Deiro, principal of MetWest. She read it and corrected a few errors I had made in describing the school and its program. For that I am most grateful.

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The MetWest High School Story (Part 5)


Forty percent of the school week is devoted to Learning Through Internships (LTI). Every teacher/advisor meets with their students in and out of school to discuss the work done at the intern site, the on-site mentor, and any issues that have arisen.

As in all Big Picture schools, MetWest has structured the academic year to have students search for and enter into two-day a week unpaid internships during school hours. Called Learning Through Internship (LTI), there is a coordinator that oversees the entire program. A former Advisor/Teacher Michael Cellemme heads this part of MetWest’s program. He is the only staff member who has also worked as a Teacher/Advisor at the first Big Picture school (The Met) in Providence (RI). He is responsible for finding sites for internships, interviewing potential work-site mentors, making matches between individual students and mentors, and monitoring what goes on in the internship.

Local mentors take on the responsibility of helping a student acquire the work and social skills necessary to succeed in a business, government agency, educational and health organization, and similar Oakland groups. Since 2002 when MetWest opened, the school had placed students with more than 400 organizations (2010), including local hospitals, radio stations and restaurants to provide learning opportunities.[i]

Advisor/Teacher Shannon Carey sees how the internship experience has made a huge difference for one of her 20 students, Kris McCoy. McCoy had struggled in school and had been in Oakland’s juvenile hall for being involved in an armed robbery while in the eighth grade. When he arrived at MetWest, he got into several fights in the ninth grade.

Carey said that “he came with an ankle bracelet, and with visits from his parole officer.” She continued: “And needing to be the alpha male and needing to show MetWest who he was and that he shouldn’t be messed with. He was way more concerned with that than he was with his academics or his future career.”

As Advisor/Teacher, Carey teaches English and social studies to that group and does circles in her daily lessons. In the middle of her room, Carey keeps a plant for circle discussions. In those circles, students would talk about personal experiences and how to cope with school incidents. Carey pointed out that “he would have been kicked out of another high school if he had been fighting the way he had been when he first arrived here.”

What happened was that McCoy began to trust Carey. He looked for an internship himself and found one at an auto repair shop. Edward Lam, his boss and mentor, gave him a chance and treated him like an employee, while teaching him many auto shop skills. Carey talked with McCoy’s family about staying longer at this internship than usually occurred. They agreed and McCoy allowed him to stay there for a few years, an unusual decision but one that helped the young man.

“For students, like Kris, who really struggle with positive adult relationships, I see no reason to interrupt that relationship,” she said. “He can go deep in the content and he can go really deep in the really caring, trusting, loving relationship with adult men in his life.”[ii]

The theory of action behind Big Picture schools such as MetWest using two-day a week internships is straightforward. By interning with mentors at a work site, teenagers enter the world of adults beyond family and school. Working with adults and picking up different technical and social skills broadens and deepens learning by engaging their hands, hearts, and minds. That engagement is deepened when MetWest Advisor/Teachers and LTI coordinator meet with work-site mentors and students. Such personal connections bridge the workplace and academic classes as teachers make curricular choices during the rest of the week in their daily lessons.  Connected learning occur also with Senior Thesis Projects (see above) and end-of-the-year Exhibitions most often growing out of internships. Or as MetWest staff puts it: “College Prep through Real-World Learning.”

Internships, then, lead to learning about how adults work in organizations and the repertoire of skills needed to succeed at a job while applying that learning to academics (and the reverse as well). Thus, through personal engagement between teachers, on-site mentors and students the two worlds of work and classroom come together to create deeper, more meaningful, and connected learning. That’s the theory.

Internships, however, do not always work out for students.  A few are fired for not showing up or being late. Some have to be re-trained. Most students and mentors, however, do fit together.

MetWest students go to their internships on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Each Advisor/Teacher keeps abreast of their students in their internships as well as in classrooms.

Like any high school program with many moving parts involving 160 students, a dozen or so teachers, and over a hundred mentors in their workplace, some things go smoothly, some less so.


[i] Rachel Gross, “A California High School That Values College and the Real World,” The New York Times, June 23, 2010.

[ii] Katrina Schwartz, “Interests-to-Internships: When Students Take the Lead in Learning,” Mind-Shift, June 16, 2016 at:


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MetWest High School Story (Part 4)

Big Picture Learning schools have as part of their design “Authentic Assessment.” It means that “[s]tudents are assessed not by tests, but by public displays of learning that track growth and progress in the student’s area of interest. Assessment criteria are individualized to the student and the real world standards of a project. Students present multiple exhibitions each year and discuss their learning growth with staff, parents, peers, and mentors.”

At MetWest, “authentic assessment” is the Senior Thesis Project and the end-of-the-year Exhibition. I sat in one student-driven Senior Thesis Project Defense. Here I what I observed in March 2019.

As in other Big Picture schools, all MetWest 12th graders must do a Senior Thesis Project (STP). [i]

Seniors present their projects to a group of teacher/advisors, administrators, and staff who judge the worth of the presentation and determine whether student has passed or not. Each Defense has to include an action project linked to their research and anchored in social justice. Each student gets three chances to pass. Most often the STP is anchored in the student’s Learning Through Internship (LTI). Passing the STP prepares seniors for their final Exhibition, usually on the same subject, before an audience of students, teachers, family, and invited guests.

Each STP has a format in which the student prepares his or her slides to the jury of teachers. Each project has to have a question, a way of answering the question, the theory behind an answer, gathering evidence, analysis of data presented, and a conclusion. It is a format familiar in college and graduate work. MetWest teachers have created and revised the criteria laced with specific examples to judge each student’s presentation. A panel of MetWest teachers and administrators judge presentation whether it is “emerging,” “developing,” “proficient,” or “advanced” on its “relevance,” feasibility,” and “rigor.”

On March 11, 2019, I observed Brenda and Hugo make their first presentation to a panel of three teachers and the principal. Two ninth graders were there also to become familiar with the process.

Brenda was first. Interning at Oakland’s Heritage Psychiatric Clinic, the question she asked was: “Mass Shootings: Why White Males?” In a series of slides she describes the history and context of various shootings by white males such as Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower shooter (1966), Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School killer (2012), and Dylan Roof who murdered nine people in a Charleston, S.C. church ( 2015).

In a quiet voice, Brenda links the question to the psychiatric clinic in which she was interning. She reads through a series of slides about the question such as the “Big Idea, ” her “Theory of Change” driving her action project (that professional development of certain staff would reduce patients’ emotional volatility and improve their behavior) and her proposal. She elaborates her action project including the impact of the ideas she has on her design of the professional development workshop. She goes over rubric categories such as relevance, feasibility, and rigor of her proposal. She swiftly goes through the slides. They were in small font and hard for observers to read. Brenda ends up with a timeline of activities to execute the project. Group applauds at the end of her presentation. Staff exits to discuss her presentation.

After staff returned, Hugo presents his slides. Hugo interns at a nearby elementary school’s 4th grade class. His action project drew from the work of the Robert Moses Young People’s Project and sought to improve these children’s math skills and their mindset. His research question is: Why are low-income students of color not succeeding at  math?[ii]

In a series of slides, the senior lays out his theory of change:

If I target elementary students at La Escuelita in East Oakland with educational workshops and inspirational quotes, then I can help them improve their math skills and help them increase their confidence.

His tactics were to use workshops on math skills that included a multiplication game and 4th graders  parsing inspirational quotes. He wants to change the “mindset” of these 10 year-olds about math. He then describes No Child Left Behind and the Young People’s Project to get at the history and context of low performance of minority and poor children in math.

To illustrate relevance of the action project, Hugo shows a photo of himself at age 10 and tells of his own struggle with math in elementary school. Other slides get at rigor through a pre- and post-survey of these 4th graders’ responses to workshops. He ends with interview of mentor teacher with whom he worked.

Group applauds. Teachers and principal leave the room. I stay and listen to Brenda and Hugo express their nervousness over whether they passed or will have to present again later in the term. And they are anxious. The two other students there cheer them up and compliment their presentations. Staff returns.

One Advisor/Teacher gives the group’s evaluation of Brenda. He says that the staff judged her project presentation to be below expectations and she will have to do better next time in order to pass. He lists some strong points in Brenda’s presentation but overall there were a number of specifics such as little evidence that was collected and linking her question to the professional development workshop she designed. These need attention, he says, including the timeline. Brenda responds to the points and clarifies others. She is obviously disappointed. Another teacher says that what the judges reported on her presentation would be included in an email to Brenda.

For Hugo, another teacher presents the group’s conclusion. Hugo approached expectations and had much that the staff felt was worthwhile but improvements had to be made in providing evidence that 4th graders’ did improve in math skills and showing how exactly inspirational quotes would alter the mindset of these 10 year-olds. He would have to return with an improved presentation. Again, the teacher says that all of what the judges reported would be emailed. Hugo asks a few questions and staff members respond.

Group applauds Brenda and Hugo just as chimes sound ending the period.

[i] In 2005, Oakland Unified School District required a capstone project for all seniors. Some schools implemented it; others did not. Not until 2014, according to Young Whan Choi, did a teacher-designed rubric to assess quality of senior projects become generally used across the district. See Young Whan Choi, “Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project: It’s about Equity,” Learning Policy Institute Blog, October 26, 2017 at:


[ii] Former Civil Rights worker Robert Moses who was also a math teacher founded The Young People’s Project initially in Mississippi. The project aims at increasing math literacy for educationally disadvantaged children and youth. See:

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The MetWest High School Story (Part 3)

Here is a class I observed at the school.

From Design to Classroom:

A 27 year veteran of teaching in OUSD, Shannon Carey greets me at the door when I arrive at 8:30. She is wearing a UC Berkeley shirt (teachers that day wore clothes that advertised where they attended college) over jeans and dark ankle boots. The classroom furniture is arranged in a horseshoe with tables seating two tenth graders each facing one another across the open space in the middle of the horseshoe. There are two large couches in rear of room. The walls of the large classroom hold whiteboards in the front of the room with nearby easels showing assignments and homework.  Posters adorn other walls.

The schedule for this period is listed on the front white board:

Friday, February 1, 2019

I can reflect deeply on my strengths and weaknesses [Shannon mentions later in the lesson that this is the objective of the lesson]

8:30 Independent Reading

8:50-9:40 Non-Cognitive Variables: Self-Assessment and Interviews

Circles Today

HW [homework]

Gateway Project

–self assessment

–interview w/adult

–interview w/peer

Due Friday

As I scan the room at 8:45, everyone is reading a book or article—no devices or online reading that I see. Three students are sitting on the well-cushioned couches in the rear of the room. A sampling of what students are reading around me:

*Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

*Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay

*Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods

In the open space within the horseshoe sits Shannon with her laptop. Sixteen students are there that morning. They walk in toss their cell phones in a box that Shannon holds [other teachers do the same at the beginning of class] and go immediately to their tables and take a book out of their backpack. The first half-hour is Independent Reading.

As students are reading, Shannon who is responsible for teaching English and Social Studies and managing her students’ internships while integrating both into her Advisory role in helping students become college-ready, scans classroom, walks around and checks students’ notebooks and assignments lying on table [students know this morning routine and have papers lying on tables]. She picks up and date stamps the students’ “work samples” such as “Semester Reflections” and papers from other classes at MetWest. Shannon submits these to the OUSD department of Alternative Education for certification that students are part of Independent Study schools. [i]

After a half-hour, Shannon segues to next part of lesson. She asks students to put away their readings and says: “I need everyone’s eyes on me.” She then begins a whole group discussion of handout on “Non-Cognitive Variables.” She cautions Juan to stop playing with stapler and Hunter to put away his book–he is sitting across from me and continues to read Food of the Gods.

Teacher asks: “Does anyone know a relative, adult, or friend who has gone to college?” Half of the students raise their hands. Shannon calls on students by name to tell about who they know and what they were told about college. A back-and-forth ensues between students and teacher on what they learned from those who have attended college.

Shannon then turns to “Noncognitive Variables” handout. “Does anyone know,” she asks, what “cognitive” means? A few students offer answers and teachers builds on their responses. She summarizes a definition–“mental processes”–writes it on whiteboard and asks class to write it down. Then asks a choral question: “How many of you knows someone who is school smart?’ Students call out and raise their hands. “What else do you think you need besides school smarts?” Student says: “high test scores.” Shannon replies that high scores does not mean you succeed in college.”

What unfolds is a whole-group discussion of non-cognitive variables–what teacher calls “people skills,” “soft skills,” and “social skills.” Asks class to take notes. As the teacher-led discussion proceeds with questions from the teacher and responses from different students, Shannon’s energy is obvious.

Calling it a mini-lecture, Shannon displays slides on front whiteboard of noncognitive variables listed on handout. She and class enumerate each one with teacher coaching individual students to define each one:

*Positive Self-Concept or Confidence

*Realistic Self-Appraisal

*Understands and Deals with Oppression

*Prefers Long-Range Goals To Short-Term Or Immediate Needs

*Availability of Strong Support Person

*Successful Leadership Experience

*Demonstrated Community Service

*Knowledge Acquired in A Field

Shannon asks different students to read each variable, group defines it–teacher asks students to put the variable in everyday language (“dumb it down,” she says), and then directs class to rate themselves on each variable on a four-point scale (e.g., 4= “This really, totally, positively describes me” to 1=”I do not think this describes me at all”). As the whole group discussion unfolds, the teacher constantly scans the class for students who are not attending, cautions them, and returns to Q & A of discussion.

For variable on “Oppression”, a student wearing a head scarf talks about sexism she recognizes in and out of school. Other students chime in. Shannon uses example of family discussions about immigration and fears about deportation. Teacher makes point that it is less a personal problem and more of a systemic, social problem.

Class’s progress through variables on handout halt as three students enter classroom and, with the teacher’s permission, announce a new tardy and absence policy. Also they say that they are selling cookies and candies for Valentine Day. They exit.

Shannon resumes lesson and asks individual students to read variables. For some, she offers personal examples from her life and occasional student chimes in with his or her experience. She asks Mohammed to read last variable and asks him for his “Knowledge of A Field.” She reminds him and others about internships they are involved in and their passions about cosmetic make-up, video gaming, and working with animals at a veterinarian’s office.

Now, for final part of lesson, Shannon turns to questions listed in handout such as “Which two variables do you feel you most demonstrate/ Give TWO reasons why you think this.” And “Which noncognitive variables did you score the lowest in?” As she eyes the class, she calls on Kevin to stop bothering student at his table. She asks students to read these questions and assigns class to answer them and turn in handout on Friday.

As time for session comes to a close, Shannon passes out green detention slips for being tardy and walks around checking on students’ completion of their assignments. Students begin packing up, picking up their cell phones, and wait for the buzzer to sound. Session ends at 9:40.

Descriptions of Nick’s and Shannon’s classes are ones where social studies and English—called Humanities at the school—are integrated into the counseling, mentoring, and coaching roles that teachers have at MetWest. In most high schools, teachers are subject-specialists who do perform these other roles in varying degrees before and after school (and during lunch and preparation periods).

At MetWest (as well as Social Justice Humanitas Academy), teachers are expected to perform multiple and expanded roles that wrap into one bundle of academic, emotional, psychological, and social connections with students in class, outside school, and in internships. Close relationships between teachers and students evolve and become close since Advisor/Teachers stay with the same group of students for four years. Of course, individual teachers vary in how they manage the social-emotional connections with students. Whatever the variation, at MetWest, BPL and site staff expect Advisor/Teachers to display and enact a much larger emotional and social skill repertoire than teachers in regular high schools.[ii]

Every MetWest teacher, however, is not an Advisor. There are math and science teachers who teach and do not have formal advisory duties with a group of students. At MetWest, these teachers are crucial to insuring that all students meet university and college requirements in these subject areas and perform reasonably well on state tests, their Senior Thesis Project and final Exhibition.

[i] For description of Alternative Education in OUSD and where MetWest fits, see:


[ii] Teachers managing additional roles beyond subject matter expertise is a feature of many small high schools since the mid-1990s. Higher and expanded expectations of student-teacher relationships is baked into Social Justice Humanitas Academy and MetWest as my observations and interviews documents. Also see Kate Phillippo, Advisory in Urban High Schools: A Study of Expanded Teacher Roles (New York: Palgrave, 2013).

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The MetWest High School Story (Part 1)

Readers who have followed this blog know that I am writing a book about success and failure in American schools. Over the past year I have posted sections including descriptions of teachers I observed in two California high schools: Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles Unified School District and MetWest High School in Oakland Unified School District. I have already posted the history and operation of SJHA and in a multi-part series, I now describe MetWest High School.

Oakland Unified School District: MetWest High School

MetWest High School is neither a magnet nor charter. Founded in 2002 as a Big Picture Learning school (more below), it is part of OUSD’s decades-long effort to create small innovative, academically strong, and caring schools for children of color in a district that is largely minority and poor, and low-performing on state metrics of “success.” That small schools strategy begun in the early 1990s yielded many new schools yet strained a district budget subject to school board overspending, accounting errors and poor projections. Oakland Unified’s history of financial crises was well known in the Bay area including a state takeover for fiscal mismanagement. [i]

OUSD has an average daily attendance of over 34,000 students distributed across 121 elementary, middle, and high schools (2018). Of the 121 schools, nearly one out of four is a charter (2018). In addition to charter schools, OUSD has alternative schools, magnets, and thematic schools. The district has 87 of those schools with an average size of 412 students (2018), prompting repeated public calls amid annual budget deficits to close the smallest of these schools.[ii]

In 2019, it faced a fiscal deficit requiring substantial budget cuts, identifying schools to be closed, and a week-long teacher strike that netted OUSD teachers significant salary increases, further adding to the deficit. Within a week, the Oakland school board made $20 million in cuts to programs and individual school budgets and laid off 100 employees (mostly district office and clerical staff) in order to give teachers the raises they won in the strike settlement and balance the budget. [iii]

Consider further that top district leadership has been a revolving door. Many observers have pointed out that reforming urban schools requires continuity in top leadership. Turnover among the nation’s urban superintendents since the 1960s was frequent; district leaders averaged over five years in office. Yet scholars of school reform estimate that it takes anywhere from 5-10 years for school board and superintendent policies and programs aimed at improving district, school, and student performance to show positive outcomes.[iv]

And the record of superintendent continuity in OUSD? Since 2000, the district has had seven superintendents, the most recent sworn in 2017.

Not a picture of a school district displaying organizational stability, fiscal health, or on the road to higher academic performance. All of this with a half-billion dollar budget to spend effectively and efficiently. [v]

MetWest High School: A Big Picture Learning School

Within OUSD sits MetWest High School with 160 students. Of these students, 76 percent meet the measure of family poverty. Twenty-two percent are English Language Learners. On ethnicity and race, 61 percent are Latino, 19 percent African American, seven percent Asian and seven percent white (less than 100 percent due to no reports and multi-racial students).[vi]

This small Oakland high school is nearly 20 years old. David Bromley and Matt Spengler, two former social studies teachers from Los Angeles Unified District, founded MetWest in 2002, one of a national network of Big Picture Learning schools. There are now 65 such schools in the U.S. with others in Australia, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in the world. [vii]

It is, of course, so easy to say that two teachers founded the school and leave it at that. What is missing is the grinding essential political work in the community that these teachers had to do with students and their parents, OUSD administrators, community activists, and the school board to simply get the mission of this small high school accepted and then get it up and running. The political spadework was constant and unrelenting in meeting people, locating resources, sharing the Big Picture Learning school design, and showing how MetWest would fit into the district plan for small, innovative schools.

And even after the school board formally adopted MetWest, the gritty work of finding a location for the school, acquiring staff, orienting parents, students, and faculty to its mission and design—all of these tasks were “musts” that involved serious negotiating and political tap-dancing. But each step of the way was completed and the small high school opened in 2002. Achieving the political basics of adopting and opening a new school was a “success.”[viii]

Mission and Learner Outcomes

Reflecting the mission and design of Big Picture Learning schools, MetWest has revised its mission statement and goals for students a few times. The most recent statement I could find was it “Progress Report” prior to a visit from a committee from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) in 2018.

MetWest prepares young adults to recognize and take advantage of all resources to further their well-being and the well-being of their communities. Our graduates will have the skills, habits, knowledge, and networks to overcome obstacles to their success, access four-year colleges, engage in fulfilling work, and contribute positively to our world.[ix]

The generic-sounding mission gets more specific with its statement of Expected Schoolwide Learning Results (ESLRs) which came about from preparation for a WASC visit in 2014. Prior to that, there were few specific curricular goals and objectives that the entire staff had agreed upon and enacted in their classrooms in a consistent way.

As one would expect in small schools such as MetWest with its largely low-income enrollment and being part of the Big Picture Learning network, different literacies (e.g., reading, writing, math, and science) and “critical thinking” were expected as student outcomes. In addition, there were ESLRs that reflected BPL such as “Real World Learning” (“Students will have the communication, independence, and self-advocacy skills … to follow their passions and successfully navigate professional and higher education environments”).   Social and emotional intelligence was another ESLR. Finally, there was an ESLR for “Social Change Agents/Promoters of Social Change” where students were to “understand the historical roots and current effects of oppression in society and affect social change in their communities and in themselves through conscious and liberatory actions.”[x]

This combination of a range of student academic, personal, and activist outcomes echoes the Social Justice Humanitas Academy’s mission and expected student outcomes as well (see previous chapter). While SJHA had continuity in leadership and a coherence in linking its mission to daily school activities with two of the founding teachers who had been colleagues for years at a previous high school serving as principals since 2011, that has not been the case at MetWest.


[i] EdData, Alameda County, Oakland Unified School District at:

Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, ”Oakland Unified School District: Assessment and Recovery Plan Update, September 30, 2003 at:

Katy Murphy, “Oakland’s Small School Movement, 10 Years Later,” Scope Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, May 6, 2009 at:

[ii] Ali Tadayon, “Grand Jury Report: Oakland Unified Operating Too Many Schools,” East Bay Times, June 28, 2018; Ali Tadayon, “ Oakland Unified Scrambles To Identify as Many as 24 schools That Could Be Closed in Five Years,” East Bay Times, January 8, 2019.

[iii] Theresa Harrington, “Oakland School Board Cuts $20.2 Million from Budget, Including 100 jobs,” EdSource, March 4, 2019.

[iv] Gary Yee and Larry Cuban, “When Is Tenure Long Enough,” Educational Administration Quarterly, 1996, 32(1), pp. 615-641; In Michael Fullan, “Whole School Reform: Problems and Promises,” Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, June 2001, he estimates eight years for a district “turnaround,” meaning improved student achievement. In my experience as a superintendent and research I have done on sitting superintendents, it takes five-plus years at the minimum and up to a decade to show positive results. See As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Larry Cuban, “The Turnstile Superintendency?” Education Week, August 22, 2008.

[v] Joel Shannon, “ ‘When We Strike, We Win;’ Tentaive Agreement Reached In Oakland Teacher Strike,” USA Today, March 1, 2019; Thomas Ultican, “Oakland Is California’s Destroy Public Education Petri Dish,” San Diego Free Press, April 4, 2018. In addition, I have tracked the arrival and departure of Oakland superintendents since the 1960s.

[vi] EdData, Alameda County, Oakland Unified School District at:

[vii] Information on founders comes from documents and interview with Michelle Deiro, current principal, February 1, 2019 and Young Whan Choi, April 4, 2019. Because the first Big Picture Learning high school, located in Providence (RI) was called the “Met,” the Oakland unified high school was named MetWest. Brief history of the network is at the BPL website at:

[viii] Joseph McDonald, “Scaling Up the Big Picture,” 2005, “Unpublished study funded by an anonymous foundation, 2002-2005” in author’s possession.

[ix] Oakland Unified School District, “MetWest High School Progress Report,” for April 17, 2018 visit from Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western ssociation of Schools and Colleges, p. 2.

[x] Ibid., pp. 2-3.


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