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Transforming High Schools: It Takes More Than a TV Show

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On September 8, 2017, high school reform hit prime time. That night, all four major television networks--ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC--simultaneously broadcast a special highlighting "super schools" that have received grants to create new designs for schooling. The program features celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Common, and U2.

The event is a follow-up to a competition to "rethink high school." Two years ago, the Emerson Collective, an organization led by Laurene Powell Jobs, announced the competition, known as the XQ Super School Prize, and received more than 700 proposals. In September 2016, Emerson awarded grants of $10 million each to 10 schools. (Originally, the Collective intended to award $50 million to five schools, but officials said they found more worthy applicants.)

The designs are indeed innovative, and promising. For example, Crosstown High in Memphis will be located in a complex that includes businesses, arts and health care organizations, a branch of a local college, and other institutions. In that way, students can seamlessly integrate schooling and real-world experiences. Vista High School in Vista, California, meanwhile, will organize students in "houses" with interdisciplinary teams of teachers who will develop plans weekly based on students' needs and progress. Washington Leadership Academy, in Washington, DC, will integrate leading-edge technology throughout the curriculum and use technology to personalize learning for each student.

But while I am excited about these schools and pleased to see the star-studded spotlight on them, I am skeptical that this project will lead to the transformation of the 26,000 high schools in the United States. Maybe I'm just getting old and cynical, but I think more is needed.

One reason for my skepticism is I think I've seen this movie before. In 1991, the New American Schools Development Corporation, an organization formed by business leaders as part of President George H.W. Bush's "America 2000" plan, also launched a competition for new school designs, and also awarded tens of millions of dollars in grants to promising applicants. Some of the designs proved quite successful (for example, Expeditionary Learning, now EL Education, one of the contributors to this blog, is now in 150 schools in 33 states, serving 53,000 students). But others faded away when the grants ran out and the program as a whole failed to transform the system.

A decade later, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded $2 million in grants to school districts and education organizations to break up large, comprehensive high schools and replace them with new, smaller high schools. The program resulted in the creation of about 2,600 high schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia, and helped spur the creation of successful school networks like EdVisions, based in Minnesota, and Envision Education, based in California. And while an evaluation of the program in New York City showed that student outcomes in the new schools were significantly higher than those in the schools they replaced, the Gates effort, too, failed to have much of an impact on the vast majority of high schools in the United States. They remained much as they had been for decades, the situation the XQ prize was designed to address.

The problem, it seems to me, isn't a lack of ideas or a shortage of models. Nor do I think there is a lack of understanding that high schools need to change. Reformers have been pointing out problems with high schools for decades--A Nation at Risk, after all, was essentially a call for high school reform. Rather, the challenge for educators and policymakers in the United States--and for their philanthropic partners--is to create a system that enables educators to learn from these ideas and build their knowledge and skills so that they can apply them.

Now, these designs remain isolated examples because teachers and schools remain isolated. Teachers close their doors and teach their classes, seldom, if ever, seeing the colleagues within their building practice, let alone teachers in other schools. This isolation is reinforced by evaluation systems that hold individual teachers accountable for their teaching, not the faculty as a whole. And individual schools are expected to come up with their own practices and improve their own performance, and if they fail to do so, some other entity will take them over and try again.

What if teachers and school leaders had the opportunity--and the incentives--to learn from others and to work collectively to implement and refine new practices? That way, educators can see these new models for themselves and work directly with those who are leading them to see exactly what they need to do to adapt them to their classrooms and schools.

I saw one version of this approach in Shanghai last year. There, low-performing schools are paired with high-performing schools in the province. Teachers and school leaders spend a few days a week in each other's schools, observing classrooms and meeting to discuss instruction and school organization. On one occasion, all the teachers from Xiao Tang Primary School, a low-performing school, got up at 5 am on a winter morning to travel to the high-performing school, Wunang Road Primary, to observe an English class. "Teachers here didn't have opportunities to observe good classes," the principal of Xiao Tang Primary told me.

To be sure, the kind of transformation the XQ initiative envisions is an enormous undertaking, and it will take changes in policies and practices to overhaul century-old school traditions. Building public will, through efforts such as television specials, is particularly important.

But if hundreds of thousands of educators can be able to work together to improve their teaching and leadership, that can move the needle significantly. And that would be something for U2 to sing about.

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