Services for Schools, Educators, and Families

My Challenge to Schools


Stories of schools transformed and students’ lives transformed are always inspiring and always thought-provoking. Fare on transformational teachers has infused my life from The Blackboard Jungle to Conrack to Les Choristes, but transformational schools are another matter. From Ted Sizer’s Horace books to watching a video about Central Park East Secondary School that pointed me toward Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas, I have read, as a part of my own transformation as an educator, a succession of books that have made me ever more committed to some of the ideas and ideals they espouse. Just this summer I have read Dennis Littky’s The Big Picture and Transforming Schools by Bob Lenz, Justin Wells, and Sally Kingston.

Because I can be a little slow to see the obvious, it has taken me until about now to realize something that should have been as plain as the nose on my face: All these tales of transformation are about schools whose student communities are on the south side of the American socioeconomic curve. These stories matter so vitally to us because they offer the promise of reducing achievement gaps and redeeming lives failed in multiple ways by systems that have turned their back on America’s poor and underserved, their families and their children.

The inspiring narrative has common characteristics—kids at risk and often woefully below grade-level in essential skills and knowledge, families disengaged, frightened even, with expectations as low as the American Dream is stratospheric. New management, or perhaps a new school, with new ideas and new beliefs, new practices and a new culture of learning. Outcomes: graduation rates rise, proud first-in-family stories.

And this is great. It’s outstanding, and it’s wonderful for those kids and families, and it truly is inspirational.

Now, I don’t believe that my readers here represent a big swath of the demographic that these stories are about. Whether you’re a casual reader, a friend, or someone from an Independent Curriculum Group Partner trying to figure out what I’m all about, chances are pretty good you’re at an independent school that serves a population more likely to reflect The Emperor’s Club than To Sir, With Love. But these stories inspire us still—maybe they play on a certain guilt even as they give us good ideas.

And they are very good ideas. Take Transforming Schools, for example, which details the process by which Envision Schools make project-based learning the basis of a rigorous, engaging curriculum and teaching culture that seems to being out the best in kids even as it prepares them for college—and the California higher education system in particular—at rates that confound all previous expectations.

Independent schools tend to prepare kids for college at rates that absolutely conform to expectations. Whether the school is straight out of Dickens or innovative as the dickens, independent schools exist to prepare generally affluent and ambitious students from affluent and ambitious families for selective college admission, with the presumption that once admitted they have the skills—if not always the will—to succeed. The happy ending is foreordained; the eye-catching stories the media and entertainment industries tell about our schools are about our supposedly anomalous failures.

But what if—and many readers may be about to jump up and say, But we are! We are!—an independent school, a St. Basalt’s or Jolly Valley Country Day, were to wholly, fully embrace the ideas and practices, from start to finish, of one of these transformational, inspirational schools?

What if we were to admit the possibility that our own students, however accomplished and able they might be, however many generations of college attainment underlie their current success, might still have room for even greater, grander transformations? What if we gave our own students the opportunity to live, say, the culture and program that changes lives at the Envision Schools? What if our teachers, rather than happily assuming that all will be well, push all their students as hard as the Envision Schools push theirs—through real failure and authentic success?

I’d sure like to see that happen. I’d go so far as to challenge the independent school community, the ICG and beyond, to embrace and live the philosophies and practices that seem to have worked so well in schools with less privileged student bodies. What more could our best students do? How might the students on the wrong side of our own achievement gaps be inspired really to take the leaps we dream of for them?

So, is your school ready to take the challenge? To have the faculty and board read Transforming Teaching (for example) and then do it, soup to nuts?

Because here’s another thing that occurred to me, late as usual, but powerfully: The argument for these transformational practices is compelling and backed by experience, but in a small sample. But if these ideas were put into practice in other kinds of schools, if evidence could be produced that these practices will work not just for “at risk” kids but for every kid, then we would have a case for giving up this testing and accountability 2.0 madness. Along with CPESS, the Met, the Envision Schools, and all their cousins, St. Basalt’s and Jolly Valley Country Day could be a part of legitimatizing manifestly effective practice and showing the nation and the world that engaging, complex, problem- and project-based learning is not just what “poor kids” need but what every kid needs.

How about it? Are you ready to even consider this?

1 Comment
  1. Peter,
    As usual, you clearly articulate what we need to be thinking about in our schools. This article summarizes perfectly some points I wanted to make in my class on independent schools at Johns Hopkins and I am sharing with colleagues at Bryn Mawr as we enter a period of both Upper School program review and a larger strategic plan. Thanks for provoking us to think at a higher level.
    Jason George,
    Academic Dean and Assistant Upper School Director,
    The Bryn Mawr School