28 May 2009

Great Schools: 1. Changing Everything

People ask this all the time, “What would a great school look like?” They do exist you know. All over the place there are isolated schools doing fabulous things. This is why listening to fake reformers like Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and the KIPP/TFA folks is so maddening. We actually do know what works, we just have to be brave enough to embrace real, systemic, change.

This is a story about one great school, one I was lucky enough to attend.

“The Program for Inquiry, In
volvement, and Independent Study,” the “3Is” sprung from the minds of three brilliant educators: Neil Postman, Charlie Weingartner, and Alan Shapiro. Postman and Weingartner were the authors of the book on radical educational reconceptualization, Teaching As a Subversive Activity. Shapiro was a frustrated junior high school English teacher and leader of the local American Federation of Teachers. They came together in a struggling old “inner suburb” of New York City called New Rochelle.

New Rochelle, about 75,000 people in 10 square miles, might be best known as Rob Petrie’s home on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but it was (and is) a complex old east coast city, with vast wealth disparities, a troubled core, and an extremely diverse population. It had, in the mid-1960s, been the first northern US city to experience court ordered school desegregation.

It did have some unique advantages at the time. It did not, for example, have an elected school board and it did not have public votes on taxation. Schools were a part of the city government, the board was appointed
by the mayor (the state legislature later changed this). It also fed all students, rich, poor, black, white, etc., into one enormous public high school, meaning the school had much of the full diversity of the city, despite the existence of four Catholic High Schools and two private high schools within the city’s borders. And it had a brilliantly enlightened union.

So, when the schools seemed in crisis, the union fought for educational change – briefly went on strike for educational change – and the board, not having to face voters, decided to go along with teacher demands. This meant a vast increase in open classroom and multi-age efforts in elementary schools. In the high school it meant the creation of separate schools-of-choice (or, yes, perhaps recommended choice would be a better description, this was somewhat European in strategy) within the building – including nursing, cosmetology, construction trades, performing arts, and, the “3Is.”

The 3Is was designed as the alternative school, the place for the kids who were not functioning within the standard school environment. But the first brilliance lay in the idea that "not fitting in" could be described as almost anything. There were geniuses. There were crazy dyslexics. There were those with "behavioral issues." There were those who'd been suspended, etc. There were those who had simply been bored. this was true inclusion. There was no special ed at all, or rather, it was special ed for everyone.

The second brilliance was in the overall rejection of standard educational assumptions:

"Most school curricula are based on a set of assumptions which the experimental program rejects. For example, most school programs assume (1) that knowledge is best presented and comprehended when organized into "subjects," (2) that there are "major" subjects and "minor" ones, (3) that subjects are things you "take," and that once you have "had" them, you need not take them again, (4) that most subjects have a specific "content," (5) that the content of these subjects is more or less stable, (6) that a major function of the teacher is to "transmit" this content (7), that the practical place to do this is in a room within a centrally located building, (8) that students learn best in 45-minute periods which are held five times a week, (9) that students are functioning well (i.e., learning) when they are listening to their teacher, reading their texts, doing their assignments, and otherwise "paying attention" to the content being transmi
tted, and (10) that all of this must go on as a preparation for life. "This memorandum is not the forum for a serious and thorough critique of these assumptions. Hopefully, it is sufficient to say that contemporary educational philosophy disputes most of them, in part or whole, and that few teachers would deny the merit of experimenting with programs based on an entirely different set of beliefs."

A quote from Thoreau and the authors are off...

"we are assuming (1) that learning takes places best not when conceived as a preparation for life but when it occurs in the context of actually living, (2) that each learner ultimately must organize his own learning in his own way, (3) that "problems" and personal interests rather than "subjects" are a more realistic structure by which to organize learning experiences, (4) that students are capable of directly and authentically participating in the intellectual and social life of their community, (5) that they should do so, and (6) that the community badly needs them."

Let me describe the school they created. Most students were rarely there. If you were studying science you were probably at the City's greenhouses or the local hospital or at the heritage farm we created in a City Park. If you were studying journalism you were creating the school's weekly newspaper or maybe, spending nights chasing news with a local radio station's overnight news guy. If you were studying urban design you might be in the planning department at City Hall. Psychology? How about interviewing Grand Central's homeless population after midnight. Great literature? Sitting around a teacher's living room one night a week sharing tea and ideas. There were, of course, classes - but they were different kinds of classes.

UP THE HIGH SCHOOL AND DOWN THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL An analysis of current responses to recent problems in education.
ENCOUNTER Survey of group technique with particular reference to methods of small-group ther
SCAPEGOAT: STUDY OF THE NATURE OF PREDJUDICE Psychological study of causes and impact of racial prejudice.

LANGUAGE AND REALITY To study how language influences our perception of the world and to determine the language "environments" of politics, black-white relationship, science, (etc.)
MATH SEMINAR Advanced math curriculum, including theory of functions, logic, calculus, non-Euclidean geometry, set theory, probability.

There was no required schedule, no required classes, no sense that you were in one "grade" or another. There were no grades, and there were no "failures." The grading system was "pass/no-record." You either got credit or the "course" or project did no exist anymore. At the end of each course or project the student wrote an evaluation of their own work, then a teacher wrote their comments.

There were no real administrators. Decisions were made in "Big Meetings" or by a student steering committee. Students interviewed potential teachers and voted on hiring. Students called teachers by their first names, argued with them, ate with them, played with them, helped them.

Yes, this was New York State, so your credits had to somehow (often quite creatively) match up with the required high school curriculum. You had to take the Regents Exams. Which we did, and which we passed, if not always with flying colors.

But the key thing was, students were known, in every way, by what they were good at. There was no deficit model at work. Not that most of us didn't really struggle with some things, but in this environment you led from your strengths. Everyone pretty much helped everyone in one direction or another.

Despite that we didn't just focus on our own stuff. You couldn't. You were around other influences. Did I, for example, read a book in high school? Well, part of Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's, for a history seminar remembered mostly for our field trip to see The Last Picture Show- which had something to do with a conversation about the 1950s.

Despite that, I played basketball with guys in Great Books and listened to conversations about Siddharthaand other masterpieces. I hung out at breakfast with musicians and learned both music and math. I got lectures about history and art in evening "social situations." We were told to engage in the world, and we did, and thus the world came at us at full speed.

The school changed "everything," and in doing so liberated us to learn. Stripped away our excuses. And turned us loose to make the world our classroom.

How did this school do by traditional measures? Very, very well. A 99% graduation rate with a wildly diverse population. Most went to four year colleges, including every SUNY campus, but also places like MIT, Brown, University of Michigan, Kenyon, Hampshire (of course). Years later we are lawyers and teachers, museum administrators and scientists, diplomats and artists. All from a group which might have seen a stunning drop out rate without this program.

It lasted over 15 years, and fell to conservative trends in education and budget cutting. Where once schools like this filled cities from Philadelphia to, at least, Ann Arbor, few now exist. Of our "Alternative School Basketball League" only one survives, the Village School in Great Neck, NY.

What made it work? First, choice. New Rochelle High School offered students real choices at the time. Vocational programs, traditional academic programs, arts programs, and this. Sure, paths were strongly suggested, but ultimately there were options. Students began each day knowing they had some level of control, they had put themselves into their situation. Second, a real belief in students. No 3I teacher ever looked at a student and saw "failure." They might have seen problems, but they also saw opportunities. Third, a belief in the power of adolescence. These adults knew kids would screw up, but they also knew that failure is how people learn - and that teenagers want to learn. So they dropped the cost of failure to almost zero. And people tried just about everything. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But things were always learned along the way. Fourth, they embraced universal design before the idea had been described. "Do it the way that works for you," was the idea. If I sat in a chair and talked while my friend John typed newspaper articles for me, that was fine. If I didn't function well in the morning, I didn't do much until after lunch.

So, did I actually "cut" school every morning from ten to noon to have breakfast with my friend Bob? No, because no one cared that I wasn't "there," so we weren't really cutting. Did Glenn and I really design a massive idea for downtown reconstruction? Yes, we did, and now he's one of the world's leading experts in architectural restoration. Did we really spend all night in Grand Central interviewing the homeless? Yes, and while I became a cop others became psychologists. Did I really take a course called "Monday Morning Quarterback" and bet on football games? I did. I think I called it "Math." Debbie though, took it and became a sportswriter.

- Ira Socol


pops said...

But the key thing was, students were known, in every way, by what they were good at. There was no deficit model at work. Not that most of us didn't really struggle with some things, but in this environment you led from your strengths.

this is the part i like. i remember being in teacher's college and i was told to choose an area of interest within education and research it. it was such a weird feeling: i could acutally do something i was interested in? those are the papers i remember the content of, where what i learned had an impact on my thinking. in the short term, i can't restructure the school, so i want to know how the more traditional classes were run. granted you chose to be in those classes so you were motivated to pay attention, but were they just straight lecture format? how was parental involvement/support? in the 3i group were parents just happy that their kids were learning so they didn't care how it took place or were most parents not even involved with their kids' education? lastly, it sounds from the course offerings like the teachers were smart, intellectually curious, etc. you aren't going to get that level of intelligence at the average public school i'm afraid. at least that has been my experience at 3 different school districts.

irasocol said...


First thing about the classes is that many were flexible credit-wise. Taking 20th C American History to read Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Kerouac? It was "English," taking it to consider what America looked like on film? "Art" Taking it to track part of the history? "Social Studies." Students could often choose. That's not something you can do in the traditional school either.

But the organization - giving students choices, building the course around flexible assignments and student-generated content and context, could be done. The main issue wasn't the informality, though I am very sure that comfortable learners are effective learners, but the student-directedness, which created not just peer teaching but peer pressure to keep contributing.

Shapiro always said that "regular" schools didn't allow students to fail - that they always had someone else to blame - bad teachers, bad schedule, bad books, bad assignments, boring classes, etc. He said that thus they never owned their failures and thus didn't own their successes either. When all those typical student issues have become student choices - failure is the student's. There might have been no "external" cost, but there was a peer cost ("You're doing nothing man!") and a true internal cost. And when you succeeded, it was all yours.

I think some of the teachers were brilliant (no, I know that), but not all. It didn't matter so much. When you allow student-generated content and context to control, the great ideas will rise to the top. Plus, this was a cooperative place. Teachers were not locked alone in their rooms. That creates an imaginative environment which lifted teachers, not just students.

As for parents. Yes, they were, for the most part, content that we were not drop outs. That eases pressure. Still, there was a lot of initial mistrust. Slowly that was alleviated through a college acceptance record as good as the "college prep" component of the high school - or better.

- Ira Socol

Tomaz Lasic said...

Here it is, written in a post my own 'dream' school and approach to education I have been thinking about and developing for so many years.

I work in a 'hard to staff' school (gotta love bureaucratic euphemisms...) and reading this is simply enlightening.

I won't gush further - thank you. Thank you.

bart said...

you said a lot of times kids weren't even in the school- they were actively involved with the community. but when they were in the classroom sitting altogether with a teacher. what did that look like? did the teacher say, 'ok, now we are going to discuss the 10 pages from portrait of the artist as a young man that i assigned for homework'? how did peer pressure work? were kids required to present their work to the group for comment and discussion? i can't picture what you are talking about.

irasocol said...

I love that people are asking questions:


Let me describe a scene or two.

(A) That history class. Day one, teacher: "What do you want to know about the 20th Century in the US?" Long discussion follows. Followed by teacher encouraging us to team up based on periods, not interests, so interests would intersect. Then, in those pre-internet days, "Where would you go to find things?" Then, "go."

Later classes would be mostly argument and informal presentation. Steered at times by the teacher? Sure. He might say, "you're talking about the 1930s, anything those of you who know the 1920s might add, considering that one period led to another?"

(B) Chemistry. Teacher: "What do we need to know before we can get things planted at the farm?" Soil analysis? Is the ground polluted? How do we find that out? How does that work? Who wants to work on what part of this? Where do we go to find these things out?

Or, what exactly is going into Long Island Sound when the sewer system overflows in a storm? How do we know?

This takes work on the part of teachers. You have to keep up and you can only prepare so much. Obviously, having laptops in the classroom makes this now so much easier. Still, we did it this way and still managed to pass the standardized tests.

- Ira Socol

and Tomaz - thanks for being here

Debbie said...

"Shapiro always said that "regular" schools didn't allow students to fail - that they always had someone else to blame - bad teachers, bad schedule, bad books, bad assignments, boring classes, etc. He said that thus they never owned their failures and thus didn't own their successes either. When all those typical student issues have become student choices - failure is the student's."

Shapiro had used this in his regular english class before the 3Is. In our 9th grade class, we voted on a grade for the report card, but he supplemented that grade with an individual evaluation. I'll always remember the final he gave us. True/False; multiple choice; short essay and the part where he gave us the 'answer' and we had to come up with the question: Answer:'I didn't do it" question: 'Where's your Romeo and Juliet paper? Shapiro's comment was, "Feeling guilty?" That made an impact on me years later. I got a "w" on the test.

Megan said...

Honestly, I would've loved this school! I think the shift in education has actually hurt students over the years. It seems that schools today are not for learning, they are for meeting "academic standards" and competing. Students really seem to have lost their desire to learn new things, as well as their curiosity.

I love that this school helped students in all areas of development, even though the students may not have realized it.

Very nice post! =)

Bill Genereux said...


I don't think that students have lost their desire to learn new things; the desire is pounded out of them. Every human being is born a naturally curious creature. Then we put them into a formal academic setting to begin the process. In the end, only certain temperaments can flourish in the traditional academic environment. These become the next generation of teachers, and the process begins anew.

Eric Siegel said...

I hung around the 3i's and 3i students a fair amount (as a matter of fact, I think I am the museum administrator that ira mentions, so I guess I am an honorary 3i-er). The place was perfect for Ira and some of the other folks I know who were there. They really blossomed. Others, of course, didn't. But as Ira points out, most people did OK even in the conventional context of going to 4 year colleges and getting good jobs.

There are a couple of context points that Ira makes that are important. New Rochelle High School was diverse in every way, and a large group of students were encouraged to take vocational track courses, while others pursued more academic high school paths, and yet others found their way into 3i's. So the strength of a school like that is the diversity of approaches that can be encouraged and supported. I think it would be a mistake to try to make a 3i program for *all* students because of the individuality of learning styles. A responsive high school that encourages and respects this diversity is a more general goal.

The second part is that you kind of need a crisis for stuff like this to work. The late 60's were generally changeful, but in new rochelle in particular, there was a major fire in the high school that helped to shape the identity of 3i's because they were in temporary trailers out in back of the school. Change is both bred and made possible by this kind of "turning point" set of circumstances.

Anyway, the 3i ethos affected me, and continues to affect me, even though I never went to school there.


irasocol said...


You got a "W"? I think I got an "11." I've tried to recreate this at times, once giving students New York City Subway routes - "Sure she got an A, but you got a 6!"

Yes, the ways he pushed you were quite unique, and quite amazing.


Absolutely true. We take kids who love to learn and in just a year or two in school we turn education into a horror. What this school did was put kids back into a childhood learning mode.


OK, I added you in to make us look good, but you did spend far more time with us than in your own school. But you make a great point.

NRHS then - and to some lesser extent now - offered students all sorts of paths to stay in school and do something meaningful with those years. No, neither the 3Is nor any other part produced perfect results, but by offering actual choices the odds of some level of success were raised dramatically.

This is, of course, the opposite of NCLB and Arne Duncan educational thought, which seeks to apply a uniform standard across all students. That ensures that only those most pre-determined for success will succeed.

The 3Is kept lots of potential drop outs in school. But so did a fabulous vocational program. So did a great performing and visual arts program. And so did a great traditional College Prep program liberated from all the students who had no interest in being there.

- Ira Socol

jsb16 said...

If the Regents measured some standardized level of achievement and the 3is generally passed the Regents, surely that counts as meeting standards? If you took 20th C USA as Social Studies (and passed the relevant Social Studies Regents) and someone else took it as English (and passed the relevant English Regents), wouldn't you both be meeting uniform standards applied across all students?

I would love to teach in a school lie what you've described. I find it incredible that one existed in New Rochelle and another exists in Great Neck. I went to high school in Floral Park, and it was just about the opposite in everything.