XQ's education

XQ is taking over TV to make the case that high school hasn’t changed in 100 years. But is that true?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The XQ bus in Memphis, Tennessee.

Education policy rarely makes national television. But on Friday night, a special focused on redesigning America’s high schools — and featuring Tom Hanks, Jennifer Hudson, and Common — will be taking over the airwaves of ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX.

The broadcast, “XQ Super School Live,” is an extension of XQ, a project of the Emerson Collective, the organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs. (The Emerson Collective is a funder of Chalkbeat through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.) In the last year, XQ has awarded $100 million to innovative schools across the country, including some with a heavy emphasis on technology.

The goal: to call attention to how high school “has remained frozen in time” and to support promising alternatives.

“For the past 100 years America’s high schools have remained virtually unchanged, yet the world around us has transformed dramatically,” intones the familiar voice of Samuel L. Jackson in a video promoting the TV event.

It’s a view U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shares. “Far too many schools have been stuck in a mode that is basically approaching things that have been done very similarly to 100 years ago, and the world today is much different,” DeVos recently said while visiting a Florida charter school.

But is it true? Is it really the case that high schools haven’t seen major change over the last century?

Chalkbeat asked several education historians for their take. They said no, schools have changed — in some respects significantly — over the last several decades.

However, XQ has a point in saying that the basic setup of schooling has remained largely intact, they said.

“The ‘grammar’ of high schooling has stayed fairly static,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “Kids take seven or eight subjects, the major subjects have stayed fairly static, [students] move from room to room, school begins around 7 or 8 and ends around 3.”

I can understand why in a lot of ways, in terms of structure, it feels like high schools haven’t changed,” said Ansley Erickson, an assistant professor of history and education at Columbia University Teachers College. But, she said, there has been a massive transformation of high school from an institution for a chosen few into a mass institution for virtually all teenagers in the country.

“To say that high school hasn’t changed might potentially miss that major transformation,” Erickson said.

Zimmerman largely agreed.

“If by this claim [XQ] is asserting that high schools today share some fundamental elements with high schools 100 years ago, I’m with them,” he said. “But that’s very different from saying nothing has changed.”

Like Erickson, he pointed to the “birth of mass high school” as a major change. “It’s not until the 1930 that the majority of adolescents attended high schools, and it’s not until the 1950s that the majority graduate from one,” Zimmerman said.

He also pointed to several ways the content and structure of American high school has changed, and sometimes changed back: the development and decline of vocational tracks; an increased emphasis on “life skills” followed by a greater focus on academics post-Sputnik; the diversification of high school offerings (into what some have called the ”shopping mall” high school) followed by the rise of small high schools.

Jack Schneider, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross, was more scathing in his assessment of XQ’s assertion.

“Ahistorical claims about outmoded schools are designed to persuade us that public education is run by incompetents,” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “If that’s the case, maybe disruption is the cost we need to bear in pursuit of progress. But the truth is that the schools have been constantly evolving over time, in ways large and small.”

In an op-ed for the Boston Globe, Schneider elaborated on what has changed:

“A century ago, teachers were largely untrained and oversaw very large classes in which rote memorization was the rule. Students brought their own books from home and the curriculum varied from school to school. Courses like zoology and technical drawing were common and classical languages still maintained a strong foothold. Students of color, when educated, were largely denied equal access, and special education did not exist. It was a different world.”

In recent years, America’s graduation rates have been rising and dropout rates have been falling. National test scores have generally been flat, overall, for high schoolers. (There remains significant debate about the causes of those trends, including the impact of changing student demographics and graduation standards.)

History aside, the key policy question today is whether high schools would benefit from the kind of dramatic rethinking XQ is encouraging.

The underlying assumption of XQ is that the relatively static nature of some aspects of high school suggests the answer is yes. But the fact that these methods have been persistent could also mean just the opposite.

“There are other moments when people have said we need to reconceptualize high school,” said Erickson. “This is not the first one of these.”

This story has been updated to clarify the name of the College of the Holy Cross. 

external control

State Board of Education pushes Adams 14 to give up authority over its schools

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

With the Adams 14 district failing to meet state academic expectations for eight years, Colorado education officials plan to send in an outside manager — but they don’t trust the district to agreeably cede its authority.

So before it steps in, the board late Wednesday, moved to specify what powers it can force the district to give up.

State Board of Education members asked for an opinion from the Attorney General’s office.

The State Board met Wednesday to consider ordering drastic actions for the lowest performing school district in the state, in order to improve education of the approximately 7,500 Adams 14 students. The state board was expected to vote Thursday, but may now delay its final order until getting legal advice on what it can request from the district.

State board member Joyce Rankin said the board must provide a clear and explicit explanation of its expectations, “because I thought we had this a year ago and apparently we did not.”

Leaders of Adams 14, based in Commerce City, presented their proposal to cede some of their authority, by hiring two outside groups — one to manage the district and one to manage the high school — but maintaining the local school board.

A state review panel that visited Adams 14 cited ineffective district leadership and recommended turning it over to an external manager.

Members of the State Board of Education had several critical questions for district leaders, especially around how much authority the district is willing to give up.

Superintendent Javier Abrego told the state board members that the external manager would not have control over hiring or firing staff.

Board member Steve Durham said that he sensed that both the Adams 14 school board and administration were unwilling to give up significant authority.

Durham earlier had pushed district leaders, including board President Connie Quintana, about whether they would voluntarily give up the right to approve every change an external manager might want to make.

Quintana said she would consider every one of the manager’s recommendation.

“They’re going to tell me what to do so I’m going to adhere to their directives,” Abrego tried to reassure Durham.

“Unless the board tells you to do something else,” Durham said. “It’s difficult to serve more than one master.”

When asked specifically about staffing, Quintana said she was not willing to give up that authority, and then when pushed further, said she would have to discuss it with the rest of the board and the district’s attorney.

State board members also said they had concerns that the district’s proposal sounds similar to its proposal last year, which hasn’t resulted in much progress.

Colorado law dictates that when a school or district has received one of the state’s two lowest ratings for more than five years in a row, the state must step in. Under the law passed earlier this decade, last year was the first year schools or districts could reach that five-year mark.

Those that did, including Adams 14, crafted plans with state officials to make changes and set goals for improvement.

Some low-performers have since improved, and a few others have more time to show progress. But state officials set a deadline of this fall for Adams 14 to earn higher ratings. The district failed to meet that goal.

Many of the changes the state board can order, such as merging districts, have never been tried in Colorado. But even so, Durham proposed that the state spell out what will happen if Adams 14 fails to give up full management authority. In that case, he proposed, the state’s order should state, that the district could lose accreditation and the district would have to start procedures to dissolve.

State board President Angelika Schroeder agreed Wednesday that that may be appropriate language.

The hearing was packed, with several people set up to watch the meeting from the building’s lobby. Among those who traveled to Denver for the hearing were teachers, parents, advocates, and the district’s entire five-member school board.

A couple of community members were disappointed they were not allowed to give public comment Wednesday. A nearly monthlong process for written community input closed on Monday.

State board members rejected the criticism that they had not sought out community input, referencing multiple times the “mountains” of written comments that have been submitted for them to review. Much of the public comment submitted to the state board came from teachers union leaders from across the state asking for the state board to avoid turning any of their schools to charter control.

new schools

Charter-school backers pack little-advertised Chicago hearing about new charters

PHOTO: Intrinsic Schools
Eighth-grade promotion at Intrinsic Schools in Chicago.

Charter-school supporters packed a little-publicized hearing called Wednesday evening to gather input on proposals to open three specialized charter schools in the Chicago Public Schools system.

More than 50 people gathered before Margaret Fitzpatrick, an independent hearing officer hired by the district, to lobby her on proposals for three new schools. Intrinsic Charter School seeks approval for a citywide high school. Project Simeon 2000 proposes a middle school serving at-risk youth in Englewood. And Chicago Education Partnership wants to open a traditional K-8 school in Austin.

If approved, the schools would open for next school year.

As part of the first group of parents who sent their children to Intrinsic when it opened its first school, Lucy Weatherly said she unequivocally supported opening a second school under the network.  “We wanted something different for our son,” Weatherly said. “I owe them for a lifetime.”

“Intrinsic is a place that fully supports the holistic growth of students, who get a chance to really discover themselves,” said Ashley Ocanta Matthews, a teacher at Intrinsic.

While most speakers championed the charters proposals, teachers union representatives spoke forcefully against them.

“You deserve a raise, you deserve better healthcare, you deserve the ability to speak collectively with your boss, you deserve not to be terminated without cause,” said Martin Ritter, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, directing his comments to teachers working at non-union charter schools.  “If you’re interested in joining a union, I’ll meet you in the hallway.”

Tension has been brewing at unionized charter schools. Teachers at the Acera charter network announced earlier Wednesday that they would strike on Dec. 4 if contract talks remain stalled.

The Chicago district already oversees 142 non-traditional campuses, either charter, contract or option schools, according to Hal Woods, director of school development with Chicago Public Schools. Contract schools are operated by private companies on contract and often offer a curriculum that differs from that in traditional schools. Option schools are privately run and serve students who have been expelled or previously incarcerated.

After a team including district employees from a variety of education fields and an out-of-state-analyst review each proposal, administrators will forward a recommendation to the board of education for a vote Dec. 5.

Intrinsic Charter School

Supporters, many from a current of Intrinsic Charter School, urged the district approve a second campus. The school, opened in 2013, has won a 1-plus rating, serving a student body that’s 90 percent Hispanic and 82 percent low-income.

The school touted its “personalized learning” model, in which a class of more than 60 students learn in “pods,” as the network calls classrooms, and move between projects and independent work. It is considering locating a new school at either 79 W. Monroe or 1357 N. Elston.

“I’m lucky we found Intrinsic,” said parent Angela Ibarra, one of many parents wearing Intrinsic T-shirts Wednesday. The school, she said, “fits my boy and is not one he had to find a way to fit into.”

Ibarra, mother of a 13-year-old, said she appreciates the individualized learning.

If approved the Intrinsic 2 high school would eventually serve 1,080 students.

Several teachers and parents spoke in support of Intrinsic, many wearing Intrinsic T-shirts. They focused on the varied paths that students could take after high school, either college or part-time work.

Kemet Leadership Academy Charter

The non-profit group Project Simeon 2000 has proposed  an alternative middle school focusing on black male students. It would feature project-based learning, comprehensive support services, and skills needed by local employers. Its supporters said the Chicago district is failing boys of color.

“I know from personal experience that it takes a black male with discipline to give black boys what they need,” said Francis Newman, mother of five African-American sons and a supporter of the proposed Kemet Academy Charter.  “No other community looks for someone outside the community to raise their children.”

The school would target students who have single parents, are more than one grade level behind academically, or have been involved in the juvenile justice system. It would serve 500 students in Greater Englewood, at a campus possibly at 6201 S. Stewart  or 6520 S. Wood.

Moving Everest 2

The Moving Everest 2 school, backed by people with roots in Christian education, promises both a “joyful and character-building school environment” for 810 students by offering academic and after-school services in the Austin area.

Michael Rogers, the founder and executive director, promised a full-time social worker, dental care, and a third meal of the day to students.

Ortabia Townsend, a mother of seven, said that she knows Austin families who have strong connections to the first Moving Everest school.

“There is a lot of love at that school,” she said.

The school, run by the Chicago Education Partnership, is rated a 2-plus. The partnership seeks to open a second school even though its current campus, projected to serve 810 K-8 students, has enrolled only 444 students this year. The new school is proposed for 1830 N Leclaire Ave.

While the proposal does not mention Christian education values, several members of the school’s board of directors have their roots in Christian education. The after-school program that partners with the school, By the Hand, is a “Christ-centered” program.

After district leadership make recommendations on the schools, the school board will vote on the charter proposals Dec. 5.