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September 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 1

On Building Learning Communities: A Conversation with Hank Levin

    Schools once considered dumping grounds for at-risk students can transform themselves into vital places where kids and teachers want to be.

      The New York Times recently named nine educators “The Standard Bearers,” leaders nationally known for educational innovation. Henry M. Levin, Stanford professor of education and of economics, was one of them. Levin's educational vision is to accelerate the learning of disadvantaged children—to bring at-risk students into the academic mainstream by the end of their elementary school years. Today 300 schools in 25 states are pursuing the cost-effective Accelerated Schools model he has developed.
      What makes The Accelerated Schools model different from some other programs for at-risk students?
      What may be most unusual is that we believe the teaching-learning approach that works best for at-risk kids is a “gifted and talented” strategy rather than a remedial approach.
      That's a very unusual idea.
      Yes, here's how it came about. In the early '80s I was asked by a Philadelphia group called Public/Private Ventures—they work with training of disadvantaged youth—to try to understand what was happening with at-risk students. At that time we were starting to see all these reports: A Nation at Risk and so on. The reports talked mostly about secondary school students; about their not doing high-quality academic work and of the need for higher standards. Most of them never talked about elementary schools or at-risk kids.
      So we started to go around to find out what was happening. We did demographic research and so on. For me the most important thing was simply going to schools—not to look at reports, not to look at data—but simply to look with fresh eyes directly at the schools. The point was not to be critical, but just to try to understand.
      Well, we found that most principals were spending 80 percent of their time doing two things: discipline and compliance. Their mental energy was sapped, and they didn't have time for instructional leadership. When we looked at classrooms, we saw that kids were mainly doing worksheets. They were bored, and the teachers were bored too. If you asked them about the kids, all you would hear was what was wrong with them. They didn't use the word “defective,” but basically that's how they viewed these kids. I'd ask teachers, “Give me three words that describe your at-risk students,” and all the words would be negative: the kids act out, they're not well-prepared, and so on. The idea was they needed lots of remedial work.
      Now, some of these schools had gifted and talented programs, and if I asked those teachers to describe their students, they'd use glowing terms. And if I asked what kind of curriculum those kids needed, the answer was always hands-on programs, enrichment, acceleration, things like that.
      What I started to see was that the way you define children has an awful lot to do with the way you work with them. So as we started to work with these so-called at-risk kids, we asked, “Do these kids have any talents or gifts? Do they have any strengths?” And we found that if we just asked the right questions, these kids would get excited, their eyes would twinkle. We'd put a piece of paper in front of 2nd or 3rd graders and say, “Write a paragraph that's so interesting I'll have to show it to other people”—and they would write. They'd use inventive spelling, but they were writing, even though the curriculum they were being taught didn't expect them to do much writing.
      Well, I started to do a lot of reading in the research literature, and in the literature on gifted and talented programs, and I was convinced that if we exposed all children to the richest experiences—but also connected schools, Dewey-style, with the children's experiences, their culture, and their community—we could bring kids into the mainstream. And we'd find that a lot of these kids were gifted and talented, even in the traditional sense.
      So what did you do?
      I went to three schools that were considered the worst schools in their districts—everyone said so; they'd use words like “dumping grounds.” But in each of those schools I saw some things that I wouldn't have expected to see, given the school's reputation. I saw teachers who, although they were struggling to keep up with the formal curriculum and the stuff that the publishers put out, had good ideas and were doing some very interesting things on their own. So I said, “Wait a minute. Let's not talk only about building on the strengths of students. We'd better start talking about strengths of teachers and other staff.” You know, it troubled me to hear all the talk about finding better people to be teachers when I saw teachers with a lot of talent. The problem was it was being underutilized.
      And the third group we found consistently underrated were parents. Quite frankly, the schools we went to looked at parents as a negative influence—“they don't participate; they don't care about the kid's education”—and yet, again, we saw some exceptional things being done by people with a 5th-grade education. So basically we put it all together to create the kind of school that builds on everyone's strengths. Another way to say it is that schools have far more resources than they may think they have.
      A lot of people might say that's unrealistic.
      It's true that you can't expect to see what I'm talking about in most existing schools. First you have to transform the school so that everyone is in a position to make informed decisions.
      How do you do that? How do you transform a school?
      Well, here's an example. An experienced ethnographer studied one of our middle schools last year. She was skeptical because she knew the research on school culture, which says you don't change culture easily. After eight months of intensive observation and interviewing she came away convinced that these schools transform culture from the inside. She calls it “the internal transformation of culture.” What we do is plant the seed and offer the philosophy that people in the school decide to try, and as they succeed with the philosophy, it turns things around.
      This school had been the bottom middle school in San Jose, California —not just in terms of test scores, either. They have a magnet schools program for desegregation, and this school just couldn't attract students. It was considered too dangerous: kids fight there, no one gets an education, and so on. This year prior to becoming an Accelerated School, it had 540 students. This year (1992–93), the school's third year in the program, they are above capacity with 770.
      That's amazing to make such a dramatic change so fast—and it's a very interesting measure of success.
      The students in the school, who are mostly poor minority kids, go through a special 6th grade enriched mathematics course. In 7th grade every student must take pre-algebra, and in the 8th grade every student must take algebra. That's a big change because just a year ago, at the beginning of the process, only about 20 percent of the students were taking algebra. Teachers were sure that the other kids couldn't do algebra; they needed remedial work. Now the teachers are saying, “My gosh, these kids can learn algebra!” That doesn't mean every student is doing well at this point, but about 75 percent of all the kids are succeeding in algebra. The school will continue to work on it, until they get 100 percent of the kids to succeed.
      And this change took place in just two years?
      Yes. And it's not only good for students. It makes a much better professional life for the teachers. Our view is, by the way, that if you can't make a school a great professional place for its staff, it's never going to be a great place for kids. So the teachers are finding all kinds of wonderful new ways to teach algebra, ways you don't find in books. And the kids are turned on. One little problem they have is that the kids don't want to put covers on their algebra books; they want people to see they're taking algebra!
      It sounds as if you can tell how well these schools are doing by what you see going on.
      Absolutely. The first thing you see is that it's just a nice place to be—for kids and for adults. People are smiling; they're talking. There's a “can do” attitude.
      You see a lot of parents in the school. Many of our schools—and these are in the inner city—will have 20 volunteers at any particular time of the day. You see a tremendous increase in other kinds of parent involvement. Typically, we'll start with 20–30 percent of parents coming to parent-teacher conferences. Two or three years later, it's rare to have any classroom with fewer than 95 percent parents showing up. I say “parents,” but some of them are not actually parents; they're family representatives. We've had similar gains in participation at major school events such as back-to-school night.
      As for teachers, you see them talking all the time about professional matters: how to deal with problems or professional things they want to share—not only at formal meetings, but in lunchroom conversations and so on.
      And the students?
      Well, these are noisy schools; there's a lot of oral language taking place. Even if these kids have not been read to, or don't know the alphabet, they can communicate. So there's word-building going on. The kids love big vocabularies. You don't like the way a kid says something? No problem, because kids love new words. And these words become the building blocks for the transition to writing in the early grades.
      That's what you mean by building on strengths.
      Right. When you start looking at what these kids can do, you see that they are very vocal, they talk a lot. True, they use a lot of slang, and they don't speak correctly in some middle-class sense. But they're also very curious. They want to learn things. And they want to own things; they want to own books they've written, things they've made.
      The inevitable question is—yes, but what about test scores?
      By the time our schools hit the fourth year or so, we see very dramatic improvement in the test scores. But test scores are a byproduct, not the goal.
      You're saying you see indicators of success both in the conventional measures and in other ways, too.
      Right. We recognize the reality that if you do well on the test scores, your school district gets off your back with a lot of the compliance stuff. And that's valuable, because it reaffirms that you're a professional community that cares and can make decisions.
      Is your program expensive?
      No. Most of our schools have done it on their existing budgets, because most of it is inservice, which just involves reallocating the staff development days and budget. The most any school has spent that I know of is about $30 per student in the first year, less the second year, and almost nothing additional after that. We've never had a school that said, after they found out about the program, “We can't do it because we can't come up with the money.”
      Now, I want to be very careful here. I am a very strong advocate for more funding for schools; there are tremendous unmet needs in these schools.
      You're not saying they don't need more money.
      I'm just saying that it shouldn't be an excuse not to get started.
      Say a little more about how this can take place in such a short time.
      Well, we have a very definite process. Here's where we differ substantially from some other movements. Ted Sizer, for example, believes that an outsider shouldn't prescribe a particular process; that every school must generate its own.
      So you don't have a program, but you do have a process.
      Yes. Let's say a superintendent contacts us and says, “Hank, we'd like three schools to be Accelerated Schools.”
      Yes, I wanted to ask about that. What would happen?
      We have some very strict rules, including no telling people what to do. All of our staff members are trained to ask questions. So I would say, “That's great; do those three schools know about it?” And the typical answer might be, “Oh yeah, I called Bill and Ted and Patty and told them, 'You're going to be an Accelerated School next year—here's an article to read.'”
      Well, I would explain that we really don't work that way. We believe it takes five or six years to transform a school fully (although good things will begin to happen right away), and that's asking an awful lot of people's lives.
      So I explain that we'll send a 25-minute video, and we ask each of the schools to have the full staff watch it—along with parent representatives, and student representatives if it's a middle school. We ask them to look at it and discuss, “What does this mean to us? How would that work here? What do we like about it? What don't we like about it?”—to decide what the school wants to do.
      Then, only after an informed debate, we ask them to take a vote. And for the school to be accepted we require an affirmative vote from 80 percent or more of the entire school community, including the custodians, cafeteria workers, secretaries, student representatives, and parent representatives.
      Some people who work with schools might doubt that you'd ever get 80 percent to vote for anything.
      We have a very friendly philosophy. But it's very powerful, too. One thing we say is that a school—the one we are working in—isn't good enough until it's good enough for our own children. In fact it's not only that it must be good enough for our child but that it's the dream school we want for our children.
      When we work on a vision for the school, the staff members constantly ask themselves, “Is this the kind of math work we'd like our own kids to be doing? Is this the kind of music program, art program we'd want? Are we doing enough challenging work, with kids doing research, doing hands-on work?” Most of us wouldn't be satisfied if our kids were in the 95th percentile but coming home from school bored, not being challenged. It's the most powerful professional criterion you can use: “Is this what we'd want for our own children?”
      You said there was showing of a video and then a vote and so on. Can you say a little more about the rest of the process?
      Well, after the vote, we ask for a letter with the signatures of all the people who voted to move ahead. We want them to take this quite seriously. And then we schedule training. Now, we used to train only a school team of 7 to 10 people, but it was hard for those teams to convince their colleagues. So now we've gone to “full school training”: the entire staff gets five full inservice days and about five half days of the first year and training as needed after that. The facilitator visits the school weekly or biweekly to listen to the quality of the decision making and to intervene if necessary; to do trouble-shooting and coaching.
      I'd call the process “problem-based learning”; we get the staff immediately involved in dealing with the challenges they face in their school. We train them in an inquiry and problem-solving approach that we've been working on for the last five years. It's a lot of fun, but it requires some deep thinking.
      They start by taking stock of their school in small committees. They decide what dimensions of the school they want to look at—but they have to look for strengths; that's very important. The process is quite different from a needs assessment, by the way; everyone is involved, including classified staff. It ends with a big “taking stock” report and a celebration.
      We move from taking stock to developing a deep vision of the future. This is not just a one-day inservice; it typically takes weeks or months and involves reflection, deep thinking. We work around two key questions, one of which I've already mentioned: “Design as fully as possible the dream school you would want for your own child or your grandchild, a child very dear to you.” We ask them to portray it in artistic ways; they get very excited about that. And they write a vision statement—but that's really the least important part. Because in the research some of us did in the early '80s, we saw hundreds of schools with mission statements but no mission, and vision statements with no vision. So our concern is whether they have a vision in their hearts and a set of beliefs that drive their daily behavior.
      At that point, they have what we call “here.” And they have “there”—where they're going to be. We're realistic, by the way. We tell them it's going to take five or six years to get there. The question is, where do they start? Now in most schools, they'll say, “We've got to work on everything at once.” We tell them, “No, let's list everything that has to be accomplished—but no school is going to make significant progress in more than three or four things while still serving students, so you have to set priorities.”
      So, people make pleas for different things and offer their rationales, trying to persuade their colleagues. They take straw polls and finally choose three or four goals. Around each priority we ask people to select working cadres, typically no more than eight or nine people. And the real work goes on when these small groups start to do research, start to do problem solving, using an inquiry process specifically designed for Accelerated Schools. There's a steering committee for coordination—and, of course, there's the “school as a whole.”
      What's that?
      It's everyone who has a legitimate interest in the school community. The cadres meet once a week because they're working groups; the steering committee once every two weeks or so, because they're there for coordination, acting on recommendations, and so on; and the school as a whole might meet once a quarter for a review of what's been accomplished, support for some big recommendations that are going to affect the whole school, and for a big celebration.
      Oh—and when they eventually come out with solutions, you know who's responsible for implementation and assessment? They are. They don't just go to the central office and say, “Here's what we want.” They don't turn to Sacramento or Albany or Washington. They are responsible.
      Okay, but some people interpret site-based decision making as schools doing everything on their own. You don't mean that, do you?
      No. For example, Accelerated Schools need specific types of support from the central office—I might say a restructured central office. They need technical assistance, help with staff development, assessment, and so on. Still, the school is responsible—and not just for making decisions.
      What you've said is impressive and challenging. But many at-risk children do have limited backgrounds. It must be difficult for teachers and other staff members to change expectations that come from years of experience.
      That's true—and it applies just as much to expectations for parents. Whenever we begin working with a new school, there is always skepticism. Many of these schools have only 2–3 percent of parents showing up for back-to-school night; 20 percent for parent-teacher conferences. Understandably, the teachers are disheartened. So we say, “Can you think of any strengths on which to build?” Typically, they can't. We say, “Well, do you think these parents want these kids to succeed in life?” That's kind of a dumb question. Of course they do. “Do you think they love their kids?” Of course they do. “Can you think of any ways that you could take those two strengths and do something as a test?”
      The first school I worked in—this is a school with 600 kids, 90 percent minority, very poor—they had 17 parents come to back-to-school night—and 7 of them left after they ate. If you ever saw teachers who had no faith in parents, there they were. The next year, as they were planning another back-to-school night, they said, “We don't agree with you—we don't believe we can get parents interested—but we'll test it by adding to our notice for back-to-school night that there will be a short presentation on 'How to Help Your Child Succeed with Homework.'” Well, 175 parents showed up. We had to run out for more coffee and doughnuts.
      The point is that, as you reinforce positive expectations, people start to believe them. We don't start by changing attitudes; we start by changing behavior: asking the staff to try things. And they've got to work them out. We don't tell them precisely what to do; we just outline general principles. But then—as the school begins to succeed—it takes on a life of its own.

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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