Postcard from San Diego

Today is my final day visiting the High Tech High schools, in San Diego county. Maybe it’s because the weather has become so, well, British (hearing San Diegans call a wet  and windy day a ‘storm’ is what passes for spring showers in England) , or maybe it’s simply because I’ll be back in the UK in a few hours – either way I’ve been thinking about how what I’ve seen in a British context.

Yesterday, I spent a lot of time with Ian Eggleston, an expat who now directs High Tech High International.What makes it distinctive from the other schools? Not much, actually. They started off targeting a more cosmopolitan student intake, put all the schools have a pretty diverse student body now. They featured regular student study visits abroad but they pretty much all do that now, too . It’s one of the (many) endearing things about this place: they’re perfectly comfortable with ambiguity. Anyway, Ian’s understandably a little out of touch with the school system in the UK, and he couldn’t teach there anyway, since he didn’t have a teaching certificate when he first came to High Tech High. But he got hired here during one of HTH’s ‘hiring bonanzas’. These events are just one example of how they do things differently here. First, they are looking for skilled generalists – staff have to teach more than one subject and work in cross-disciplinary teams. Second, prospective staff are invited to spend time here and then, if they’re still interested (and who wouldn’t be?) they teach a demo lesson. It’s extraordinary that most positions in the UK get filled without seeing someone do what they’re being paid to do: teach. Not here. Students play a key role in interviewing and observing, and selecting.

But once they’re here, they’re on rolling one-year contracts, and it’s not uncommon for teachers to be ‘let go’ if it’s not working out. Again, why wouldn’t the kind of dedicated people we need into teaching not want to be judged on the basis of their ability to retain their passion and rapport with students, instead of the false security of tenure? So, there are already some fundamental differences here, which would be hard (but not impossible) to implement elsewhere.

But the biggest difference is a simple, yet stark, one: when Larry Rosenstock and Rob Riordan set HTH up, they built a school to fit around the needs of the students – most everywhere else, if we’re being honest, it’s the opposite. We house thousands of students in what Charles Handy calls ‘kennels for kids’, because it saves on administration costs, and allows us to build subject empires which, let’s face it, most staff feel more comfortable with, and it’s easier to manage. Here they cap each school at less than 400, and assign teachers to a single grade/year group, so that no student gets lost in the system. it’s why their advisory/tutorial system includes homevisits to meet the parents. It’s also why internship (work placement) hosts are required to provide degree level tasks (or better yet, assigned projects) to HTH students, while so many other schools seem content to have students making tea for a fortnight – when you have to place several hundred at a time, you can’t be too demanding.

Not everything is done differently here.There is still fairly conventional, didactic teaching when the need arises, and perhaps one of the challenges HTH still face is bringing the kind of innovation and integration to this aspect of learning that they bring to project-based learning. But, through their internal Graduate School of Education (initially set up to fast-track accredit their teachers who had no teaching qualification but now a hot-house of ideas and international outreach) they have the mechanism to re-fashion this. The GSE has also honed the intellectual property needed to ensure that rigour is preserved, and curriculum content covered, in project-based learning. They do it through a process of  reverse engineering – start with what students need and want to know and do, and build the project backwards from there.

They freely admit here that transferability and scalability, especially within mainstream constraints, isn’t easy. Larry and Rob tried to transform an existing school and failed. They’ve also seen what happens when other schools attempt to become High Tech Highs, without the clean sheet that Larry and Rob had here, and have had to disassociate themselves from them.

Ken Robinson describes most countries approaches to school reform as  like ‘trying to build a better steam engine’. Perhaps that’s why there’s a big push for charter schools now in the US, and why existing schools are being offered strong incentives to fire, hire and radically shake things up – it’s as close as you can get to ripping it up and starting again, without incurring the wrath of parents. But it’s a very expensive, and scatter-gun method to bringing innovation into the system. And there’s no indication that the ‘turnaround’ policies will lead to long term improvement, especially if the underlying structures of large, factory-based, output-driven models of schooling remain.

Most OECD countries are now considering drastic reform of their school systems. For want of a better vision, and a clarity about what schools are actually for, they’re using the blunt, and wholly inappropriate weapon, of  high stakes accountability. High Tech High schools offer an inspiring alternative vision, and another way to construct schooling: re-build everything to create an environment which puts students’ personal, emotional, social, and intellectual  needs as the single, determinant priority, and seek deep engagement as your prime output, and quality of student-produced work as your yardstick for judging teaching. All the other stuff – discipline, attendance, retention, achievement – will take care of itself.

It can be done.

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