Back to the Future at the White House Summit on Redesigning High Schools

In 1999, I was honored to go to the White House to receive an award as a New American High School on behalf of Sir Francis Drake High School, where I was a teacher in San Anselmo, CA. Drake received the designation by meeting the following criteria:

  • High Standards. They have established clear standards and high expectations for all students.
  • Small and Safe Environments. They are creating small, safe learning environments where students feel connected to the school and are known well and supported by caring adults.
  • Teachers Working Together. They have well-prepared teachers and provide time for teachers to plan and work together.
  • Strong Principal Leadership. They have principals who provide strong, effective leadership, and who work collaboratively with teachers on school improvement.
  • A Focus on Student Learning. They focus on learning rather than accumulating credits, offer internships and community service learning opportunities, and provide extra help to students to help them meet high standards.
  • Technology to Enhance Achievement. They use technology to expand access to information, enhance instruction, manage schedules and analyze student progress.
  • Results Oriented. They use a wide variety of student assessment and data evaluation to ensure that students have mastered their subjects.
  • Strong Partnerships. They cultivate strong partnerships with parents, middle schools, postsecondary institutions, community leaders, and employers.

Almost 17 years later, I was honored again with an invitation to the White House to participate in the Next Generation High School Redesign Summit on November 11, 2015. While it is exciting to be invited to the White House, in many ways I felt like I was in the film Back to the Future. It seemed like I had been transported back to the 1990’s when we were discussing how high schools were designed for an era and outcomes long past. The above list is remarkably similiar to what educators say is needed today, but unfortunately in 17 years we have made very little progress on redesigning high schools.

The White House Summit convened an amazing group of students, teachers, education leaders, support organizations, education funders, policy makers, and staff from the U.S. Department of Education. Once again, it felt like we have a growing momentum to redesign high schools in this country. I hope we can gather this energy towards real and lasting change so I don’t have the same experience in another 15 years. In general, high schools remain the same as they were 100 years ago and our world is radically different. The time is now to redesign high schools for deeper learning outcomes using high-quality PBL.

The Summit dialogue was both troubling and inspiring. I was troubled by the rhetoric about expanding math courses like calculus to more students without any discussion about changing instruction, curriculum and assessment in those courses. Students need access to challenging science and math learning AND they need it to be redesigned for the “next generation” of learners.

I left inspired as well. If someone had told me ten years ago that I would attend a summit at the White House on High School Redesign where the term “Project Based Learning” would be mentioned at least 100 times – even by the designated Secretary of Education – I would have laughed in disbelief. On November 11th it happened. Project Based Learning is considered central to the design of the Next Generation High School.

While almost everyone listed Project Based Learning as essential to personalized learning, redesigned high schools, after school programs, online learning and more, I worry that we all don’t have a common standard for effective Project Based Learning. I worry that many so-called projects will be fancy activities that might be fun, but not rigorous – and that instruction will not fundamentally change.

In response to this concern, BIE has developed a model for Gold Standard PBL, with a set of Essential Project Design Elements and Project Based Teaching Practices. We call on our school redesign colleagues to explore our Gold Standard and join us in expanding its application and definition. Otherwise, we might end up with the same meeting at the White House in another 15 years.