My high school’s surprise transformation, and what it says about education reform

Among the cliques in our national education debate, I am considered part of the no-excuses crowd. We are defined by our fondness for charter schools and the Teach for America organization, our belief that poor kids can learn as much as rich ones and our support for Obama administration policies that encourage rating teachers, at least in part, on student test scores.

On the other side, as we see it, are the besieged leaders of the establishment: education schools, teachers unions, superintendents and school boards who think Obama has forgotten the need to educate the whole child and is going with anything that might raise proficiency rates.

Our arguments about this issue often disintegrate into the online equivalent of a schoolyard brawl. So who are the people we no-excuse types hate? Among the top five on our enemies list has to be Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles Ducommun professor of education at the Stanford University School of Education. She is the best-known critic of Teach for America’s recruiting bright 20-somethings to be classroom teachers with only a summer of training. She is always a leading establishment candidate for U.S. education secretary.

So why am I so in love with what she has done to inspire the unique transformation of an ordinary San Francisco Bay Area public high school? Why is it such a big deal to me that the talented faculty of Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, Calif., adopted Darling-Hammond as their fairy godmother and consulted her during every crisis?

What happened there was a victory for deep learning and unlike anything I have seen in a suburban school with a mostly middle-class student body. No Teach For America recruiting or charter schools were involved. Must I turn in my no-excuses credentials and hand my blog over to my colleague Valerie Strauss (who readers think is at odds with me on everything)?

At the very least, I have to rethink my views of Darling-Hammond and the ill-considered labels thrown around in school policy battles, because I know the Hillsdale story is real. I attended Hillsdale and have visited often since graduating. Former Hillsdale principal Don Leydig, one of the most influential participants in its changes, has been my friend since third grade.

Here is how I summarized the changes for a returning-home piece I did on the California-based Web site Zocalo Public Square:

[S]tudents are organized into small advisory groups that meet daily with a staff member trained to help them with any problems — a system pioneered by private schools. The ninth and tenth grades are divided into three houses that focus on interdisciplinary lessons and ambitious projects such as a recreation of a World War I battle and a trial of “Lord of the Flies” author William Golding. Students of all achievement levels are mixed in the same classes, sharing in discussions but doing different homework based on their needs and wishes. All seniors must define an essential question, write a thesis of at least eight pages, and defend it before a panel of graders including outside experts. More changes are planned. The idea is to do much more than prepare students for the annual state tests, but the changes have helped raise the school’s Academic Performance Index on California’s 1000-point scale from 662 in 2002 to 797 this year.

Notice how I slipped in those test score gains? That was a desperate attempt to save my no-excuses street cred.

Explaining how this happened will take time. I plan a series of stories on my blog, based on a remarkable manuscript prepared by innovative Hillsdale educators. They defied expectations. One of their leaders was the teachers union representative. The reforms require more spending, but they found ways to do it even as the budget was cut. There was little yelling.

As usual, those of us who talk and write about schools will learn much from people who spend most of their time teaching in them.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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