Publication Type: Web Article
Year of Publication: 2008
Building from the statistics and anecdotal evidence of disengaged students, authors Joseph DiMartino, President of the Center for Secondary School Redesign, and John Clarke, a creator of professional development schools with 42 years of practical experience in classrooms, have assembled a guide to creating student-centered high schools. “It all sounds great,” says reviewer Mary Tedrow. “But coming from a teacher’s perspective, I cannot imagine this book being useful until it is in the hands of open-minded, inspired leadership. I’m not convinced that we have enough of those yet in place to make a nationwide difference.”
Personalizing the High School Experience for Each Student
By Joseph DiMartino and John H. Clarke
2008 (200 pp./paperback)
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
$27.95 ($21.95 for members)
Reviewed by Mary Tedrow, NBCT
High School English
Co-Director, Northern Virginia Writing Project
Across this nation, 30 percent of ninth graders do not graduate with their class. If nothing else proves that the current configuration of high schools is failing students, that one statistic should. Not convincing enough for you? Here’s another: the United States ranks 16th in the world for high school completion rates.
For those who labor within these high school buildings, these are not surprising numbers. For the general public, they might come as a shock. Formerly a teacher of ninth graders, I saw first-hand evidence that we lose our high school freshmen at a steady pace – one that is not reflected in our graduation rates, generally published at above the 90% level. Some inventive statistics regularly put a happier face on student attrition.
Building from the statistics and anecdotal evidence of disengaged students, authors Joseph DiMartino, President of the Center for Secondary School Redesign, and John Clarke, a creator of professional development schools with 42 years of practical experience in classrooms, have assembled a guide to creating student-centered high schools.
Their thin book of only seven chapters provides an outline for building a school responsive to student needs in the context of a particular community. The authors are right in offering just an outline, since these schools are envisioned as a vital part of the community they dwell within. Students are encouraged to interact with -- rather than be sequestered from -- the surrounding world in order to achieve self-identified goals.
Each chapter of Personalizing the High School Experience for Each Student covers one of the hallmarks of already successful student-centered schools and provides the sample rubrics, evaluation sheets, and reflective questioning necessary in the project-driven work that the students are engaged in when a school shifts to a student-centered philosophy.
The authors also have suggestions for re-managing time, currently dominated by a now-defunct (according to the authors) Carnegie unit system that limits high school flexibility. The samples and suggestions come from high schools that have already made a difference in the success rates of their students – proof that starting with children and engaging them in a vision for their own life is the key to saving our public high schools.
At the end of each chapter, the authors outline the stumbling blocks that any school should anticipate as they implement this new configuration. It all sounds great. But coming from a teacher’s perspective, I cannot imagine this book being useful until it is in the hands of open-minded, inspired leadership. I’m not convinced that we have enough of those yet in place to make a nationwide difference.
Why we don’t have this now
There are a few places where I think the authors glossed over the true stumbling block to student-centered high school education: the need to re-define a teacher’s role. If that shifting role isn’t supported by continual professional development and a reconsideration of how a teacher’s time is to be used, this plan will just go on the already overflowing rubbish bin of initiatives tried and failed.
Don’t get me wrong. DiMartino and Clarke were singing to the choir when this book landed in my lap. Student-centered instruction works. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. And, even better, igniting students through inquiry-based instruction is fun for both the teacher and the student. (And for that reason alone, some educators dismiss it. School, apparently, shouldn’t be fun.)
Re-centering high schools on student work, student questions, and student-generated goals should happen tomorrow, or better still today, as far as I am concerned. What I don’t trust are school administrators who have historically taken a new idea and ruined it by making it just another add-on to an already overwhelming workload on the part of teachers.
Re-thinking high schools is a philosophic sea-change in the way some educators view school. If time is not taken to help the school’s leadership and its teachers digest, internalize, and personalize the idea for themselves, it is doomed to failure.
In addition, creating student-centered schools is an idea that must be extended into pre-service teacher preparation. Student-centered classrooms and schools move teachers into the role of coach or adviser to students, a role not uniformly accepted by all teachers or administrators nor promoted in all teacher education institutions. There are many who came to teach in high school because of their love for their subject but not for their students. They covet the role of the sage on the stage. And there are many administrators who see that role as appropriate – who do not recognize the role of teacher-as-coach as a valid one.
Nor do nearly enough administrators see teaching as a collaborative act. The authors mention this several times but not nearly in strong enough terms. In fact, I had to read over one passage three times before I could make solid sense of one of their points. Their message was this: In industrialized countries where student success is high, teachers spend considerably more time outside of the classroom planning with peers than American teachers do. This is an important message about teacher time that was buried in a complicated passage.
Currently, my impression is that administrators do not feel teachers are working unless they are standing in front of students. The important work of planning strong, engaging lessons is considered fluff, if you gauge its value by how teacher time is now used at the building level.
I’ve lived through the switch to block scheduling and seen how this great idea has been misinterpreted. The original move to the block was intended so that 90 minutes would ensure time for adults to mentor students and to offer more engaging hands-on lessons. These lessons could be carefully planned in the additional planning time the new schedule would make possible.
Once administrators saw that teachers would have more time away from students they immediately began using the time to address administrative duties. In my building teachers are required to monitor hallways and bathrooms during planning. No time is scheduled during the day for teams to work together designing the innovative lessons they should be able to present in the longer teaching time. No professional development was offered to help veterans reconfigure their lessons for student engagement beyond the traditional lecture. What we got in the end was the bare minimum: a longer class period.
The ideas and action steps offered in Personalizing the High School Experience depend upon collaborative planning and intensive time working with students in advisories. Those initiatives will have to be seen as part of a teacher’s workday by all concerned parties, including, and most importantly, those who control that workday.
Though the authors offer the tools for rebuilding high schools, this is not the book to inspire the leadership to change philosophy and do what is right for students and teachers. That book may have already been written by George Wood in Time to Learn where he expresses the goals and successes of Federal Hocking High School in Ohio.
This book is for those school leaders who have already been converted, who see that teacher time can we well used for mentoring and coaching students during the school day, who believe we must enable students to be masters of their own learning rather than prisoners in a closed system.
Those leaders (may they flourish) will find this book to be a helpful guide for planning and structuring a high school where every student feels known, welcome, and successful.