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May 2006 | Volume 63 | Number 8
Challenging the Status Quo
David J. Ferrero
Two Chicago-area high schools demonstrate that educators don't have to choose between innovation and traditionalism.
The house lights dim in John Hersey High School's black-box theater. One hundred twenty sophomores sit in the dark, fidgety with anticipation. After several seconds, a teacher-made video starts playing—a disturbing, in-your-face multimedia distillation of the ethical debate around genetic experimentation, set to the music of Peter Gabriel's “Shock the Monkey.” The lights go up again. For several minutes, the students write about their reactions to the video. Two teachers then step forward to debate: Should governments regulate genetic research in the name of human and animal dignity, or would such regulation impose undue restrictions on the pursuit of scientific knowledge? Pro. Con. Rebuttal. Students pose their own questions, issue their own challenges, and debate one another and their teachers.
The entire sophomore class will spend the next three weeks in English, social studies, and science classes unpacking ethical issues in science and exploring their origins in the 19th century Romantic reaction against Enlightenment rationalism and the Industrial Revolution. Mary Shelley's 1818 novel
Frankenstein, about a man cobbled together out of spare parts and brought to life by an overzealous scientist, will anchor this unit examining both the historical era that the novel represents and the contemporary issues that it foreshadows.
Meanwhile, these same students will spend time in ability-grouped classes, where they will learn the core content through materials adapted to their ability levels and specially designed to help them master basic and advanced literacy skills aligned with the decidedly unromantic ACT College Readiness Standards and standardized diagnostic assessments. These standards anchor skills instruction across the curriculum, and the assessments pave the way toward the ACT college entrance exam itself, which forms a part of Illinois' mandated state assessment. Students' skill deficiencies will be exposed and addressed.
Here's the surprise: Hersey's teachers and administrators do not regard this grouping and skills drilling as a distraction from the higher-order, integrative pyrotechnics of the
Frankenstein unit, but as the unit's foundation. Educators in this middle-income suburban school, located 20 miles outside Chicago, are committed to ensuring that all students master the basic skills that give them access to higher-order content and controversy. Conversely, these educators believe that exposure to interesting content and controversy will motivate students to master basic skills.
According to students, the combination works. “I feel like I'm getting a life skill, something I can use outside of any test,” says senior Scott Black. When Black entered Hersey as a freshman in 2002, he scored in the 51st percentile on the reading sections of ACT's EXPLORE test. Three years later, his ACT scores placed him in the top 5 percent nationwide, and as a senior he is enrolled in college-level courses. “I feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more prepared. The curriculum's effects were really powerful,” he notes.
The data confirm Black's testimony. Since 2000, when Hersey began to implement the hybrid model, student achievement has soared:
Hersey's early success caught the attention of the Chicago Charter School Foundation (CCSF), which was looking for a high school model that would effectively serve low-income and minority urban students. With a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chicago Charter School Foundation established Civitas Schools. It recruited Charles Venegoni, Hersey's English/Fine Arts division head and the Hersey model's chief architect, to lead the organization. In fall 2002, Civitas opened its first school, Chicago International Charter School Northtown Academy Campus, in a shuttered Catholic school building on Chicago's north side.
Although operating Northtown on less than half of the per-pupil expenditure that Hersey enjoys, Civitas had the advantage of creating the school from scratch. Venegoni screened prospective teachers for a commitment to the model's dual emphasis on standards and student engagement and adopted a lottery-based admission system in compliance with Illinois' charter law to ensure a diverse student body. Northtown Academy students are about 50 percent Hispanic, with white, black, and Asian students making up roughly equal shares of the remaining half. Approximately 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and most students enter 9th grade reading two to three years below grade level.
In 2004, Northtown's juniors scored an average of 19.4 on the ACT component of the Illinois state assessment, ranking the school at the top among nonselective schools in Chicago, even though that cohort of students had not had the benefit of the freshman-year foundational work. As at Hersey, gains have been most dramatic for lower-income students and students who enter lagging the farthest behind academically.
The success of this approach at Hersey and Northtown has encouraged the Chicago Charter School Foundation, with Civitas Schools, to expand the model to other schools under its Gates Foundation grant. Next year, it will open a campus in an all-black neighborhood on Chicago's south side. And Township High School District 214, where Hersey is located, is poised to implement the model in four of its other five high schools.
Two schools: one suburban, middle-class, and mostly white; one urban, low-income, and racially diverse. Both have deployed a student-centered instructional model to move the needle decisively on those measures that have proven most difficult to improve: standardized achievement test scores. Both have accomplished this through a combination of test prep, classical content, and collaboratively developed thematic projects grounded in controversy and designed to cultivate student voice and civic engagement.
Any educator knows that those things aren't supposed to go together. So what gives?
It may seem paradoxical at first to use the term “student-centered” to describe a model that focuses on building students' skills in alignment with standardized assessments. In conventional professional usage, the term usually refers to curricular practices that start with individual student interests and aim to cultivate diverse individual talents. In contrast, schools in which teachers determine the content and pacing of the curriculum tend to be derogated as “teacher-centered.”
But at Hersey and Northtown, these terms have a different resonance. There, “teacher-centered” refers to school policies that permit individual teachers to teach idiosyncratically without a collective plan for ensuring that all students succeed according to measurable criteria. “Student-centered” means that teachers coordinate and align their efforts to ensure that students master essential skills and knowledge. Understand that shift, and you're well on your way to comprehending the genius of the Hersey/Northtown model.
That genius begins with a willingness to disregard the ideological divisions that educators have erected between themselves and to reconcile competing principles into an integrated whole. The accepted division between traditional and innovative principles and practices (see “Education's Ideological Divide”) virtually defines the professional identities of working educators. Each of us knows which side we're on. Even when our practices prove less pure than our principles, as so often happens in workaday instruction, the identities and ideals remain entrenched and divisive both within individual schools and throughout the profession.
Cultivation of individual talents
Educators at Hersey and Northtown have found a way to channel their pedagogical and ideological differences into a coherent curricular structure. The approach is carefully planned and calibrated, however, and teachers must accept certain ground rules—beginning with an agreement to embrace standardized testing.
Illinois' high school testing policy requires every 11th grader to take the ACT college entrance examination. ACT provides clearly articulated skill guidelines called College Readiness Standards and offers 8th and 10th grade tests that teachers can use to gauge students' progress toward mastery of the skills. Teachers at Hersey and Northtown recognize both the importance of the test in terms of college admissions and the foundational importance of the skills tested. So rather than resist or ignore this feature of the state's accountability system out of hostility to “teaching to the test,” they start with the College Readiness Standards in mapping what they need to teach students. They use both ACT-produced and teacher-created diagnostic assessments to place students, tailor instruction, and target remediation. Charles Venegoni is quick to emphasize, however, that the model does not have to rely on ACT:
The method for seamlessly integrating assessment-referenced skills does not require ACT to be the testing mechanism. Any valid assessment that is referenced to specific skills that can be delineated in a sequenced matrix would work as well or better.
This careful mapping of skills instruction to an external assessment is what produces the schools' extraordinary success with students who enter with serious skills deficiencies.
The way Hersey and Northtown target remediation is the model's most controversial feature: They group students by skill level. This enables teachers to address students' needs with greater concentration and precision than they could in heterogeneously grouped classrooms. However, all students study the same content and participate collectively four times a year in the cohortwide integrated units. Requiring all students to follow a common core curriculum mitigates the stigma associated with remediation and ensures that all students grapple with the same content and issues. Hersey's 50–75 percent reduction in remediation rates between 9th and 11th grade demonstrates that this combination works. But its success depends on teachers' willingness and ability to do the thankless, mundane work of skills diagnosis and instruction alongside more intrinsically rewarding tasks, such as crafting debates over genetic research.
In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.
The skills foundation enables vertical alignment of curriculum from grade to grade, and it also provides a basis for coordinating instruction across subject-matter disciplines. But the alignment does not stop with teaching carefully sequenced skills.
A walk through Northtown illustrates how the model integrates skills and content across subject matter. Whether the particular lesson in a given classroom is focused on a reading strategy, a sentence-combining exercise, or techniques for evaluating evidence, the examples relate to a common theme that all students in that grade level are exploring during that quarter.
For example, the 9th grade curriculum is organized around four quarterly themes: Current Social Issues and the Political Spectrum; Identity (Race, Class, Gender); Belief, Values, Morality, and the Separation of Church and State; and Current Global Issues. The anchor for instruction is usually a common text, such as Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, or Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's
Inherit the Wind. Science is integrated through aligned explorations of public health, genetics, evolution, and ecology. Each unit is anchored by a forum similar to Hersey's genetic research forum, which engages students, teachers, and invited guest speakers in the exploration of some thorny question of ethics and policy. For example, Northtown's 9th graders have engaged in debates over social welfare policy and the merits of “intelligent design” as science.
The thematic organization of the 9th grade year gives way to two years of historically organized coursework that focuses on European and world history and culture in the 10th grade and American history and culture in the 11th. The historical framework is given narrative shape—and a critical edge—with the help of overarching questions. Tenth grade emphasizes “the humanities and the inhumanities” throughout history, and 11th grade is organized around “conflicting interpretations of American culture.” The disciplinary components of these studies are aligned further through four three-week integrated units each year.
This curriculum focuses on what might be termed traditional content—canonical cultural artifacts, the historical development of North Atlantic societies and their Mediterranean and North African antecedents, discipline-based science and mathematics—but with reference to other cultures and with an unflinching examination of atrocities alongside achievements. Hence, the canonical curriculum becomes a vehicle for knowledge and appreciation of the past, as well as an object of critique and a means for students to hone their analytical and critical thinking skills.
In 12th grade, the core sequence gives way to a college or career focus in which students exercise more autonomy in selecting among curricular options. Senior year is conceived not as a capstone, but as a transitional year to help students prepare for what's next. Yet the skills and content from the first three years provide rich content for the last, and themes from the core sequence inform elective choices. AP courses are a popular option because students' three years in the core have prepared many of them for college-level work.
To make the program work, teachers must collaborate within and across departments, forgoing a lot of individual freedom to shape their courses. Unlike other efforts to centralize management of curriculum and instruction, however, the Hersey/Northtown model depends on teachers' leadership and willingness to participate in creating lessons, units, and projects that remain within the parameters of the system.
The Frankenstein unit provides a case in point. The curricular framework requires teachers to introduce 10th grade students to the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the Industrial Revolution, and to help students see the connections between those historical developments and the contemporary world. Within those limits, Hersey teachers chose which texts, themes, and questions to emphasize; teachers also designed the genetic research forum and student projects related to the unit. Because the curriculum is so multifaceted and collaboratively developed, teachers can play to their own strengths and interests. Those who prefer classical content can research and deliver the lessons; those who like to debate can organize the forums; those who favor student-centered instruction in the more traditional sense can design the project assignments; and so on.
Students also have a strong participatory role to play. It's true that the model eschews those philosophies of schooling predicated on strong principles of student ownership: Students have no formal role in shaping the basic structure of the curriculum, and as a result of the consolidation of course offerings, they have fewer curricular choices. But the interdisciplinary projects that cap each integrated unit provide one opportunity for students to take ownership of the content and to practice self-directed learning. The public forums provide another. These are organized like town halls, and adults and students alike prepare for and participate in them, forming a community of learners pursuing focused inquiry. Here, students get the opportunity to practice the crucial citizenship skills of reasoned public argumentation and shared deliberation. Students participate in 12 such forums between 9th and 11th grade. Once they get the hang of it, most students thrive.
Says Hersey 11th grader Karla Cervantes,
At first I was intimidated. All these big words and complicated ideas—as a freshman it was all kind of bewildering. But the reading instruction really helped me out, and I got used to the forums. I could say whatever I wanted as long as I gave good reasons for what I felt.
In her freshman year, Cervantes was placed in remediation. This year, she is taking all college preparatory courses, and next year she plans to graduate early so that she can study art at a nearby college.
Middle-class, suburban Hersey High School and diverse, urban Northtown Academy break the molds of both traditional and innovative theories of schooling and reintegrate these theories to powerful effect. Teaching and learning in these schools are standards-based and
student-centered, broad and deep, subject-focused and integrative, canonical and critical, academic
and civic in orientation. Both schools enhance teacher and student freedoms by judiciously constraining them and cultivate students' critical reasoning by providing them with consequential material to reason about. And students have responded, through both spirited engagement in their learning and high performance on standardized achievement measures.
Hersey and Northtown offer inspiration to schools wracked by faculty factionalism or struggling to meet NCLB's adequate yearly progress requirements without slashing art classes or selling their professional souls to test prep. Success hasn't come easy, however. Hostility to tests, ability grouping, and a subject-matter focus runs high among those whose professional identities lie in “innovative” practices. Those who identify themselves strongly as “traditionalists” often regard interdisciplinary learning as a loss of integrity and thematic curriculum as “squishy.” The masses in the middle are often simply too wedded to what they've always done and resist giving it up.
Change at Hersey took several years of persistent effort from school leaders and unflagging support from the district board of education. Even today, some in the surrounding district and inside the school deny the merits of the approach—despite the overwhelming performance data testifying to the school's success, palpable improvements in school climate, and consistent testimonials from parents and students. One faculty member at Hersey, for example, remarked that the program was damaging kids by “making them think they're smarter than they really are.” Even Northtown, which screens teachers for willingness and ability to work within the model, has found it necessary to release teachers whose professional sensibilities are offended by its taut structure and rigorous instructional practices.
There's a leadership lesson in this: It takes guts and persistence, even when all the data are on your side, to move a school in the right direction and keep it focused and disciplined over time. But there's a broader lesson for the profession as well: When rightly calibrated, standardized performance accountability can enhance rather than inhibit rich professional practice and enable teachers to help more students succeed. The innovative practices to which many educators aspire can accommodate and build on more traditional mandates that public officials and citizens continue to value and expect. In short, Hersey High School and Northtown Academy demonstrate that teachers and students can have it all.
David J. Ferrero is Director of Education Research and Evaluation at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, P.O. Box 23350, Seattle, WA 98115; 206-709-3100;
Copyright © 2006 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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