Lessons from New York schools

From 11-13 March 2020, I was lucky enough to be invited to go to New York to look at innovative schools as part of a funded study trip with Big Education and the Big Leadership Programme.  The programme looks at how as leaders, we might rethink education so that it take a more expansive view of learning, continuing to ensure academic achievement, whilst also developing the whole person, and teaching creativity and problem solving.  This series of blogs is about the practices I saw and how they might inspire education in UK schools.

Read the first blog in this series.

Lesson 2: A curriculum for social justice, student and teacher autonomy

What kind of curriculum can prepare students for the real life challenges they will face as adults? And what kind of leadership can best enable teachers to shape and successfully implement such a curriculum?

Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School (MELS) was set up to tackle this conundrum. A brand new state school, it sought to focus not on the test outcomes which are used to judge NY schools, but on what learning really should be about. MELS is a middle school in Queens, which operates a very unusual lottery-based admissions policy, meaning they are one of the only schools in the city to have a truly diverse intake in terms of ethnicity, deprivation and achievement. 

One of 13 Expeditionary Schools, all schools focus on three dimensions of student achievement:

  1. Mastery of knowledge and skills (academic achievement);
  2. Character: perseverance, initiative, responsibility, compassion, empathy, community;
  3. High quality work: generating work that demonstrates complexity of thought and craftsmanship.

Students are split into ‘crews’ of between 9 and 14 students of different ages.  For two years, the crew stays the same, with the same teacher, and spends 35-45 minutes together each morning exploring social and emotional aspects of learning, scenarios? The crews also go on two outward bound expeditions throughout their school careers, in which they learn to be resilient, to collaborate and to persevere. Students talk about how the crew becomes your family – it’s sad when you split up after two years, but that gives you the opportunity to meet new family, and over time, the whole school becomes like family.

Learning across the school us built around themes? each of which tackles a timely problem of ethical importance and global or local significance. These included projects on environmental issues, local urban planning, immigration, and so forth. Subject teachers either plan around subject-specific enquiry questions in subject teams, or work across subjects on projects that last several weeks. Each project ends with the presentation of a product, a piece of art, a speech, a text, a video, and these products are shared with peers and evaluated.  In this way, learning forms a coherent whole for students, who are able to make connections across subjects, and from school to real life and the issues that matter for them.

And the two co-principals are also part of that family. Softly spoken and mild-mannered, they move around the corridors and classrooms as one of the team, with no sense of anxiousness on the part of teachers or students when they enter the classroom. When asked about their school, they are modest, and rather than explain their own role in this remarkable school, they would rather defer to teachers to explain the work. The school operates a distributed leadership model in which teachers step up to lead teams, either because they want to, or because they are nudged to volunteer. Teams meet regularly, with protected time, to discuss how to get the most out of crew time, to design and review units of work and their impact on learning, and character development?  Teachers feel they have great autonomy to shape what happens in classrooms to better meet the needs of students in their care. It’s not for the fainthearted, not all teachers stay the course, but those who do, feel they are making a real difference to the lives of students. In order to enable this to work, these leaders have had to stop controlling what teachers do, and start trusting them to do the right thing. That doesn’t mean there is no quality control, but that this is done mutually amongst teachers, rather than in a top-down judgemental way – this takes courage.

And the one thing they have had to be most courageous about is ignoring the state wide tests against which the school is judged. When the school first started, its first set of middle school results were poor. But the principals didn’t give up on their beliefs – they persevered.  Middle school results have remained low over time, but the high school now has a 97% graduation rate, with 99% college entry rates and 40% more students than the city average who stay at college and complete their course. The inclusive approach has also had a significant impact on the results of SEND students. The school now gets over 1000 applications for 150 middle school places on entry and at high school, is only able to release around 20 to 30 places each year, for which there are over 2000 applications.

Trust is at the heart of MELS: trusting teachers to do the right thing and want the best for their students; trusting in a vision of learning that is bigger than just test results; and trusting in students to develop as mature and caring human beings who really will change the world.

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