Administration & Leadership

The Problems and Promise of Educational Change

Two films and a book about educational change illustrate the pitfalls of top-down initiatives and the magic of everyday stakeholders getting a chance to make a difference.

December 17, 2015
Photo credit: Most Likely to Succeed

From President Obama on down, I’ve given up on educational policymakers having more than a glimmer of a clue when it comes to educational reform. It should be clear that there is a huge schism between their top-down approaches and the growing number of schools creating effective educational reform models that oppose and/or ignore these approaches.

This has never been more evident to me than when I recently viewed two films and read one high-profile book that provided an almost perfect microcosm of the promise and problems of American education today.

In my post last month, I described Vicki Abeles' powerful film Beyond Measure. It provides a perceptive, revealing look at exceptional grassroots approaches and relates closely to the film and book that are the focus of this post.

The second film is Most Likely to Succeed, an in-depth look at High Tech High, one of the most noted of the schools bringing about change. It has become a valuable resource for schools that want to dramatically improve their programs. The book is The Prize by Dale Russakoff, which brilliantly details the devastating failure of an educational reform initiative in Newark, New Jersey. The book was recently named by the New York Times as one of the 100 most notable books of 2015.

The two films in many ways stand as antidotes for what happened in Newark and, perhaps more importantly, as antidotes for the main approach to educational change promulgated by our educational policymakers.

Best Intentions

Let's look at The Prize first. The Newark public schools were in such a disastrous state, in terms of both achievement levels and dropout rates, that the state took over. Cory Booker, the charismatic mayor, and Governor Chris Christie enlisted Mark Zuckerberg to pledge $100 million, which would be matched by another $100 million that the city would raise from foundations and wealthy individuals. The grandiose goal was not only to save education in Newark but "to save it in all of urban America." Not only didn’t they save Newark, they compounded its problems.

Russakoff, a gifted reporter and researcher, documents the almost tragic story of what happened, illustrating the inherent bankruptcy of the dominant top-down approach to educational reform in this country.

Among the many colossal mistakes, they brought in Cam Anderson as superintendent, whose heavy-handed management style alienated both parents and teachers. As I read the book, I thought about how governance takes place in High Tech High as shown in Most Likely to Succeed, and remembered Travis Hamby, the superintendent in an impoverished area of Kentucky featured in Beyond Measure, whose visit to High Tech inspires him to work from the ground up with teachers, parents, and students to change the local high school.

While Newark's multimillion-dollar reform effort was a disaster, Russakoff includes a few successes that were the result of individual efforts. These included heroic principals like Chaleeta Barnes, and teachers who did extraordinary things with the little money that they received. So the book has a few inspiring moments, despite its broader lesson in how not to change a school system!

When I asked Dale Russakoff what lessons she wanted educators and parents to take away from reading her book, her primary response was:

She notes that principals are one of the keys to change, citing all that Barnes did in turning a school around, in spite of all the obstacles, through leadership that engaged teachers and parents. But they need autonomy to realize this role.

Russakoff's message is almost exactly the same as that in Beyond Measure.

Best Practices

The similarly excellent film Most Likely to Succeed looks in great depth at a charter school that becomes a laboratory and model for other districts looking to institute change. High Tech High, which grew out of the combined efforts of Larry Rosenstock and Irwin Jacob, is one of the most visited schools in the country, a go-to place for superintendents, principals, and teachers seeking ideas on changes that they can integrate into their schools. And while it didn't begin from a groundswell of teachers and parents, the school uses a bottom-up collaboration process that emphasizes teacher and student decision-making.

The school is a wonderland of project-based learning, student creativity, close teacher-student communication and collaboration, peer teaching, and student exhibitions, which replace tests as the primary measure of learning.

There are no bells, class periods, or single subjects. Subjects are integrated. Teachers are hired on one-year contracts, with the payoff of being able to teach whatever they want to teach. And over and over again, we see and hear that one of the great things about this place is how teachers teach to their passions and, with their students, are the designers. Think about how that would feel day after day.

A scene early in the film depicts a good microcosm of the High Tech environment. Teacher Mark Aguirre is working with a group of new students and says:

He tells us, "We try to help them figure out ways they can do it on their own." And we watch him train them to create interactive peer learning.

Coming to High Tech High as an educator feels like landing on a wonderful new planet. I think about the days that I spent supervising student teachers in schools that felt little different than those of the mid-20th century, and how I often dreaded being there. This is a place that has reimagined schooling, and the film perfectly captures the excitement in the air.

While the focus is on preparing kids for 21st-century technology, it's not just a tech-focused school. Indeed, one of the best stories in the film is about a student who comes alive through drama. Samantha, a shy freshman, begins the year lacking confidence. She gets involved in directing her class' final project, a theatrical update of Euripides' Trojan Women set in modern-day Pakistan. We see her transformation and watch her evolution into a leader.

It’s also important to note that 50 percent of the kids at this school are low income. Students are selected through a lottery according to zip code. And the film openly shows the challenge of convincing parents that these new approaches won't endanger their kids' futures. Samantha's mom is one of those interviewed. She's concerned about the absence of subjects and the usual basics, but also senses that something is wrong with traditional schools and how students struggle in college. So she takes the risk. But the answer to her concern is that the school scores 10 percent above the state average on tests and has a 98 percent college entrance rate.

Many of those interviewed in Most Likely to Succeed are the same as those in Beyond Measure, but there are also excellent interviews with teachers. And one of the experts interviewed, Tony Wagner, has co-written a book with Ted Dintersmith, Most Likely to Succeed, which I highly recommend as a supplement to the film. But see the film first if you can.

I hope that you watch both of these outstanding films and read Russakoff's beautifully written and highly instructive book. And for our children's sake, I hope that our policymakers will as well.

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