Profile: The Met

Wednesday, August, 1, 12 § Leave a comment

The flagship school of a model that dismisses class, bells and grades to teach “one student at a time.”

Place: Providence, RI. Pop 1.6 million. Highly diverse urban center. Brown University and hospitals are major employers; old factories are slowly being converted into offices.

History: Opened 1996. Flagship school of the national Big Picture Organization, which serves as a umbrella organization for over 30 schools in 14 states, D.C., Israel, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands.

The Skinny: “One student at a time” is the motto here. Students are placed in groups of 10-15 with an advisor, ideally for all four years of high school, to develop an individual learning plan that will allow them to show growth in five  main learning areas. Nearly all work is project-based, using portfolios, narratives and exhibitions to assess. There are no formal classes. Tuesdays and Thursdays students are off campus “learning through interests” in  the “real world.”

What Matters: The student’s interests and passions come first.

More info: |

I first heard about the grade-less, test-less, class-less Met high school in 1998, when I was living in Providence, RI. I was working as research intern at a “Regional Educational Laboratory,” an acronym-loving place funded by the US Department of Education to supposedly help schools improve. I spent most my time in a cubicle, counting colored dots slapped on flipcharts by tired teachers and writing a little brochure about charter schools, until one of the REL’s more progressive researchers invited me to check out the new Met.

At that time it was a single public high school, supported by Rhode Island’s innovative Education Commissioner to reach some 100 teens who’d dropped out or were on the verge. It was housed in empty offices in the state’s Department of Education. I still remember walking in to find small groups of teenagers in baggie clothes, chatting with adults or working slowly on nebulous projects, while education administrators tried to ignore them. The school had no classes, no rows of chairs, no bells and no lectures. It also seemed to have no apathy or boredom. The students I talked to were respectful, curious, and engaging, and each could tell me about his or her interests and goals. Dennis Littky—one of the school’s visionary founders—invited me to sit in on a “public exhibition, ” where a frumpy 10th grader tried to defend, in front of me, his teachers and a few classmates, his plan to walk across the United States.

One on one meetings with advisors in an informal gathering area are at the heart of the Met’s pedagogy.

Here was something different—unlike the timid recommendations coming out of the REL. Inspired, I kept my eye on the Met after I escaped the internship and moved into teaching at a small charter school in New Mexico. With some other teachers, I tried to convince our little school to adapt a design similar to the Met’s, and was surprised when the idea was shot down by wary parents. So when I had a chance to return to the Met this spring, with some real experience under my belt, I was anxious to see if the school had managed to stick to its guns.

Much has changed: Today the Met is home to six spanking new campuses serving nearly 700 high school students. It is the flagship school of a massive organization called the Big Picture, which is run by Littky and the other original founder, Eliot Washor, and serves as a resource center for dozens of Met-style schools in the US, Australia, the Netherlands, Israel and elsewhere. They’ve been funded by Gates and lauded by Obama for their innovative design and graduation rates, which are over 90%.

Even more remarkably, though, much has stayed the same. Despite our nation’s mad drive towards testing and standardization, when I walked into Liberty, one of the four smaller high schools on the main campus, I felt the same thing I’d felt in 1998 at the RI Dept of Education. Still no bells, classes, rows of desks or lectures. And as before, the students were engaged, respectful, curious and passionate.

I spent the next two days exploring what may be one of the most important innovations in education reform in the United States in the last fifty years. Just as Maria Montessori revolutionized early childhood education by considering the world from a child’s perspective (lower shelves, for example), Littky and Washor have created a school design that is in tune with the unique rhythms and worldview of adolescents. Understanding the importance of relationship to teenagers, they have replaced classes with a single close-knit advisory group, of 10 to 15 students and one adult, who stick together for all four years. Instead of trying to drive learning with stressful testing situations and humiliating grades, which unfairly harm or falsely inflate young people’s self-esteem, they give the kids structures and time to discover and explore their own passions, and share what they’ve learned through meaningful portfolios and exhibitions. And what I like most of all, they invite the kids—actually mandate them—to get out of the building and learn in the real world.

Class in an unlikely place: Meeting a mentor at a coffeeshop.In fact, I had only been there through morning announcements and some advisory writing work in the morning when principal Arthur Baraf whisked me and a tenth grader off campus to meet a potential mentor for the girl. Over coffee and scones at a coffee shop, we met a professional musician who had a ton of knowledge about the girl’s passion for music recording. Within minutes, the two were engaged in a technical conversation about microphone brands and soundboards, complete with napkin-drawn illustrations of studio set ups and thumbnail budgets. Arthur, as the educator, did little but take notes – he had done his job by setting this student up with the right person to teach her.

I later tagged along to the mentorship of a kid who showed little promise in the classroom but was flourishing as an assistant to the activity coordinator at a nursing home; and then to a hip downtown youth arts center where a senior girl, on her way to Manhattanville College, showed me some of her latest recordings. In both cases, the advisors asked questions, took notes, and did more listening than talking – a reversal of your typical high school dynamic.

I also sat in on a staff meeting, where a newer teacher, brought in to help students perform better on high stakes math testing, asked how she was supposed to “grade” what her students did. She was thinking about schools the way that 99% of us think about schools, that there is a set body of knowledge that all children must learn at set times. All eigth graders in the US should know the Pythagorean theorem, right?

No. The motto of this school design is “One Student at a Time.” During four years at the Met, students will not necessarily learn Algebra, will likely not read Romeo and Juliet, and may not study state capitals. Instead, working closely with their advisors, and with input from their families, each student develops a personalized curriculum, with a realistic learning plan, that sets out how he or she will show growth in five basic areas: empirical reasoning, quantitative reasoning, communication, social reasoning, and personal qualities. Most importantly, the young people will learn how to pursue their own interests. They will learn how to learn.

A 12th grader explains to her advisor how she “laid tracks” for a song at a local arts center.

The idea that a child could graduate from high school not knowing Algebra is an idea hard to swallow for many. A recent New York Times article that proposed schools replace Algebra with more relevant mathematical studies was overwhelmed by hundreds of dissenting comments from shocked readers. But as we who’ve taught in high schools know, and as Howard Gardner astutely points out in The UnSchooled Mind, the fact that a student earns a C, or even an A, in Algebra, or any other class, does not necessarily mean that he or she really understands the subject, or can apply the knowledge beyond the classroom walls. The Met makes a strong case for the idea that the real purpose of school should not be to transmit a canon of facts, but to give young people the skills and tools to actualize themselves as human beings.

For a few years, the Big Picture Organization was in favor with the Gates Foundation, among others, and had a sizeable grant to actively open new schools based on their design. The funding’s since fallen away, and when I spoke to Eliot Washor by phone, he explained that they’re now focusing on seeing how—and if—they can infuse some of their design elements, like “real world learning,” into public schools on a large scale. Dennis Littky’s also started a “real world learning” university, hosted by Roger Williams College in Providence, where he’s awarding college credit to nontraditional students for learning by doing, out in their communities.

The Met is not perfect. There are questions about how well the students are prepared for traditional college studies without having

Zach showed little initiative at school, but was commended for his outgoing manner at his mentorship in a nursing home.

been at least exposed to the traditional canon of information in typical high school curricula (the Big Picture is conducting longitudinal studies on the success of their graduates in college). And like all public schools, it’s having to make some serious decisions at the moment to deal with budget cuts.

But as in 1998, the Met is one of the most inspiring schools that I have seen. It is a school in which I would be honored to teach, where real, human learning is valued above all else.

Seth Biderman | Based on visit on April  25 and 26, 2012


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