On September 8th Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell-Jobs, purchased a prime time commercial free hour on the four major TV networks to broadcast something called XQ Super School Live. Reformers were celebrating and tweeting about viewing parties and things like that. Though about half the broadcast was musical numbers, there was some content, though it is a bit difficult to know exactly what this program was supposed to accomplish.
Now it’s been about two weeks and this thing really has come and gone with little traction. In some ways it had a little of something for everyone and it also had things that disappointed reformers and other things that disappointed reform critics.
The first two minutes of the program had a typical ‘Waiting For Superman’ message that our schools are failing since on the international test scores we ranked 31st in math and 20th in language skills. Numbers like this always imply to the audience that there was once a time where we were 1st in these tests even though we have actually moved up in these rankings from last place to somewhere in the middle since these kinds of tests were first given.
After a few songs, Viola Davis, who you may remember from the anti-teacher union bomb, “Won’t Back Down” even more directly says (at 7:19) “Tonight we hope to inspire you to join this movement and make sure that our high schools become the best in the world again.”
Then the show introduces an analogy to argue that high schools have not changed in the past 100 years so we are not preparing students for today’s world. This is something I have heard a lot of reformers saying recently. Betsy DeVos is fond of this analogy. Though Teach For America pretends to distance themselves from DeVos, TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard recently used the ‘schools haven’t changed in 100 years’ mantra too. While it is true that some aspects of school haven’t changed so much in 100 years, other aspects have changed. And the ones that haven’t changed are things that have proven to be efficient ways for students to learn. I have two children in elementary school and I’d be pretty nervous if their schools looked nothing like schools looked 100 years ago.
Because of these outdated schools, and here comes an important motif, the narrator of the video says it is time to “rethink” high school and they introduce the #rethinkhighschool hash tag.
It is doubtful that it is a coincidence that three days later Betsy DeVos announced a tour of the country that was called the ‘Rethink Schools’ tour. I suppose that it is possible that Powell-Jobs and DeVos independently came up with this phrase. Also it is possible that DeVos watched this program and copied the phrase. But I think it is most likely that they worked together to come up with a catchy phrase and one of the purposes of this hour infomercial was to get that phrase into people’s minds so that three days later when DeVos announced her thing with the same phrase, people would already have a good feeling about it.
Later in the program, around the 20 minute mark, Maria Bellos answers the question “Why High Schools?” It is a great question since the trend nowadays is to fix early education and get kids into PreK programs and things like that which will lead to improved high schools. But she says, without further explanation, that “If we change high schools so they truly guide and support students, the rest of the education system will follow.” I don’t think anyone who knows anything about education believes this is true. That’s not to say that it is a bad thing to want to improve the high school experience, but it shows how little the people behind this program understand the issues.
At the 10 minute mark there is a speech / dance routine by Jordan Fisher where it is explained that the problem with high schools is that there is too much sitting at desks and memorizing. Students need to be up and moving around more and doing more ‘personalized’ learning where they are following their interests. At the 11:30 mark we get a nod to reformers where we imagine that everyone will get a quality education regardless of ‘zip code,’ but after that there aren’t many more reformer talking points.
The ‘problem’ with high schools, apparently, is that they haven’t evolved quickly enough into something better. So Powell-Jobs and her foundation gave millions of dollars to different schools, the “Super Schools”, to show what a more innovative model of education would look like. And based on what they showed, the new thing is that high schools need less sitting at desks and listening to teachers and more hands-on experiences.
At this point, reformers must be pretty frustrated. There is not direct talk about ineffective teachers who can’t get fired because of union job protections. There is also not direct talk about charter schools. There also isn’t direct talk about DeVos’ favorite thing, vouchers. But I suppose these things are implied in some way and this program is a good complement to what DeVos will be saying about how school choice including charters and vouchers will help these innovations flourish. Charter school cheerleaders were not so much celebrating this program after it ended since they know that Charter schools have a lot of test prep and ‘rigor’ and they are not so big on hands on projects and authentic learning experiences.
There is an odd contradiction about the message of this program so far. They started by bemoaning the low standardized test scores on international tests and then offered a solution that is unlikely to bring up those test scores. I’m no fan of test prep and I do like when students get the opportunity to learn in a more authentic way than sitting at a desk in a classroom. The reason that schools look a lot like they looked 100 years ago, and this include ‘high performing’ charters, is that learning in a classroom environment is an efficient way to learn. Of course teachers should mix it up and have group discussions and group learning and field trips and other out of classroom experiences. But I think that there is some ideal amount of experiential learning that should happen in a school. I don’t want to commit to an exact percentage, but I’d say that anything more than 25% of school time done in this ‘non-traditional’ way might be too much of a good thing.
At the 13:26 mark, Justin Timberlake introduces the first Super School. No show like this would be complete without some school that proves that implementing these reforms can transform it from a dropout factory into a miracle school. So as he prepares to say the name of the school, my eyes widen. I’ve made a name for myself as the ‘debunker of miracle schools.’ If a school is held up as a model of how some half-baked reform caused a school to get so much better in such a short period of time, it is my job to show that either there were other factors involved in the transformation that need to be considered or that the data shows that the school didn’t really make much of a transformation after all. Watching a show like this with my notebook in hand, I can tell when they are about to show a supposed miracle school and, like some kind of hitman receiving the envelope of my next target, I open it and read the name. And my jaw drops. Like a hitman getting an envelope and seeing the name of his mother on the directive, the first Super School is none other than Furr High School in Houston, Texas. Furr High School where I taught in my Teach For America days from 1992 to 1995. Furr High School where I was voted the teacher of the year in 1995. Furr High School where about 30 out of my 200 friends on Facebook are my former students, now all in their 40s. Furr High School where I still know some of the teachers and where the children of some of my former students are now students there.
Back when I taught at Furr from 1992 to 1995, I thought it was a great school. There were a lot of very good teachers there and the vast majority of the students there worked hard and were a pleasure to teach. But one issue with the school was that there was a large gang population. I remember having a 21 year old student appear in one of my 9th grade classes once with a note that said that he had to attend high school as part of his parole agreement.
The gang members would often fail their classes and they would have to repeat 9th grade over and over. As a result of this, there were about 400 9th graders, 250 10th graders, 200 11th graders, and only 150 12th graders. So in a sense it was a school that reformers would describe as a ‘dropout factory.’ But the thing was that while the gang population would repeat 9th grade over and over until they got old enough to drop out, they were mostly ignored by the other students. So the gang members were a bit like ghosts in the school. They were there and they would be in the 9th grade classes, but the vast majority of students did not let it distract them. So 9th grade could be annoying in that way for students, but once you were out of 9th grade you were very likely to graduate in three more (or maybe four for some) years.
Test scores at Furr were not high. At the time the standardized test was called the TAAS and I remember teaching a test prep class for 12th graders so they could pass the test and receive an actual diploma instead of a ‘certificate of attendance.’ The school, though, was not a test prep school. At that time, there wasn’t this big focus on the tests and how that would affect the school rating. So we had freedom to do things other than prepare for the tests and it was a very pleasant environment.
There wasn’t a lot of violence in the hallways, though there would be a fight from time to time. There was a time I got punched in the head while trying to break up a fight — lesson learned, but generally I found the school to be pretty tame. I left the school in 1995 and four years later in 1999 the principal at Furr was replaced by the current principal, Bertie Simmons. Though she was nearly 70 at the time, she is the principal to this day, 17 years later.
I guess that violence at Furr increased sometime between 1995 and 2013 since the last time I saw Furr featured in the news was this article from 2013 in The New York Times about how the school had reduced the violence in their hallways by responding to violence with counseling rather than arresting students.
In this program Simmons is presented as one of those movie principals who tamed a school, like Joe Clarke in ‘Lean On Me.’ My friends who taught under her said that she was not much of a leader. But one thing she apparently was able to do was to win a $10 million XQ grant from Powell-Jobs.
Now I am all for a school like Furr getting a $10 million grant. It seems like they used it to increase out of the classroom learning opportunities. For instance, there is now a garden students maintain there, which is something that I think is great. For some students, something like a garden could be the thing that gets them excited about school and motivates them to even perform better in their other classes. But surely a garden isn’t the sort of thing that would have motivated the 21 year old parolee I once had there in my 9th grade class, so I got very interested when I saw in the XQ program some of the text they put on the screen about Furr.
For example, at the 15:09 mark a graphic flashes on the screen that says “Furr students meet all their academic standards both inside and outside the classroom.”
To the regular viewer watching this program on a Friday night, it seems like they are saying that 100% of the students passed their standardized tests. Since test scores and growth numbers are a big part of the Houston Independent School District school ratings, this would show up in their score. But it seems that Furr got a F on the 2015-2016 HISD report card and a D- on the 2016-2017 report card. As recently as 2013, the principal was almost fired for not getting high enough standardized test scores compared to her peer schools.
The next graphic touted the change in graduation rates at Furr since Simmons took over as principal. It said “Since 2000, graduation rates at Furr have increased from 50% to 95%.” Pretty impressive if it is true.
Now in many districts including HISD ‘Graduation Rate’ doesn’t mean exactly what you would expect it to. Even back when I taught at Furr though there were 400 9th graders and just 150 seniors the ‘dropout’ rate was still something like 10%. The reason for this was that if a student left school and even signed up for a GED course, which most kids would, they would not officially count as a ‘dropout’ even if they never actually attended the course and never took the test. Now if by ‘Graduation Rate’ they mean ‘Completion Rate’ I was able to find data going back to 2004. According to that data, the completion rate for Furr in 2004 was 87.7% which suggests it is highly unlikely that they only had a 50% completion rate in 2000 as the graphic says. Even if by some chance the graduation rate back in 2000, however they calculated it, was 50%, it would be more meaningful to compare the current graduation rate to the current graduation rates of other schools now. The 95% rate seems to have come from the 2014-2015 school report card under the category ‘4 year longitudinal rate (Grades 9 to 12)’. Looking at the current graduation for all the high schools in Houston, I notice that even some of the most chronically low schools in the city, like Yates High School, now have graduation rates around 80%. If by some definition Furr had a 50% graduation rate in 2000, then a school like Yates would have had a rate of 30% back then. All the schools in Houston have improved their graduation rates significantly in the past 17 years.
So there may or may not have been a big improvement in graduation rates under the new leadership, but it is possible that there has been a change in the school climate at Furr which has made it a better school. But if there were improvements, should we assume that they were due to the modernization of the school and the introduction of the garden and other out of classroom learning experiences? Based on my research which includes people very familiar with Furr as it was and as it now is, there are two reasons to believe that whatever improvements are not due to things like the garden and the radio station. The first is that, according to a current Furr student, the school is still one in which most of the instruction is done in classrooms with students at desks much like they did it 100 years ago. Some students, depending on what program they are in, get more of an opportunity than others to use the garden or work at the radio station, but most instruction is still done in the classroom. For the small percent of time that students get to do the things featured on the video, it would not be enough to transform the school. So what then did improve the school? Well the answer to that question has nothing to do with the Powell-Jobs money, but with something called Reach Charter School.
“What the Hell is Reach Charter School?” You ask.
Well that’s a charter school located at 528 Mercury Drive in Houston.
“528 Mercury Drive? But isn’t that the same address as — I mean, isn’t that where — I mean –”
Yes, you are right, 528 Mercury Drive is the address of Furr High School. And Reach Charter School is a a school for at-risk students that was started by the principal of Furr, Bertie Simmons, around 2007. Furr High School had a 95% graduation rate in 1995 with 208 students while Reach Charter School had just a 32% graduation rate for their 161 students.
So according to my sources, Simmons transfers a significant number of the most at-risk Furr students into this Reach Charter School located at the same campus. The former HISD superintendent, Terry Grier, felt that the numbers for Furr and Reach should be combined, but Simmons said that this would not be fair since not every Reach student came from Furr. And while it may be true that not every student who goes to Reach transferred from Furr, enough of them did to significantly influence Furr’s numbers. Furr graduated 197 out of 208 students to get that 95% graduation rate. Increasing that 208 by even twenty students who got transferred to Reach would lower Furr’s rate to levels on par with peer schools like Milby.
Now I’m not saying that is a bad thing to have a school within a school for serving the most at-risk students. If done well, it can help those students and also benefit the students who remain at Furr. But I wonder if Powell-Jobs is aware that the bump in graduation rate from 88% to 95% (I found no evidence that the graduation rate was ever 50% in any official way) has nothing to do with Furr’s futuristic schooling model and more to do with this school within a school changing who gets counted in Furr’s graduation rate.
OK, that’s all I think I want to say about Furr High School right now. I loved working at Furr, the kids were great and the teachers were great and the school had a lot of heart. I never thought it deserved to be thought of as a dropout factory back then. I felt it was a super school back then and it still is, but now it is also an “XQ Super School” and with that it needs to be scrutinized since I wouldn’t want every school in the country forced to spend $10 million on gardens and out-of-classroom learning opportunities in order to get our international test scores up. Still I love gardens and I love $10 million even more, it just concerns me when I see someone like Powell-Jobs taking over four networks to claim that she has found the fix for schools.
There really weren’t any other examples of schools that made dramatic turnarounds. They featured the Hunter school that Lin-Manuel Miranda went to and had his love of drama nurtured in. This wasn’t an XQ Super School, but the most sought after and exclusive public school in Manhattan. To get in you have to have your 4 year old take a $300 IQ test. Then if they are one of the 300 top scorers, they get to go to round 2 where there is a ‘playdate’ and the children are prodded and asked questions and followed around with clipboards to see who the lucky 50 students who will be and who will get to go to the school from kindergarten to 12th grade.
There was also a school in Los Angeles which TFA was very happy about since it was started by a TFA alum. The school for at-risk students had just 30 students and I’m sure it is a great place, but this is a special situation and not one that can be scaled up very much.
There were some other strange things about this program. Like the part where two YouTube celebrities who have a viral science channel got up and said that since they are doing something that didn’t exist 50 years ago, schools need to prepare kids for the jobs of the future, not the jobs of the present. But this doesn’t really make sense. These two guys are essentially teachers, which is a job that has existed for a while and if it is really a new kind of job, weren’t they prepared for this by their teachers in the old fashioned way of teaching them science? I really don’t get this whole “prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist yet.” How does that work? I’m expecting one day there will be teleportation and surely after someone is teleported there will likely be some residue left in the origin chamber and maybe even some in the destination chamber. One job in the future will be to collect this residue and feed it into the supercomputer for analysis. Should we start offering a course on this to high schoolers?
One thing that this program definitely accomplished is product placement. It seems that one feature of innovative high schools is that students use a lot of laptops and it seems like most of those laptops are Apple products. While iPads were once considered to be something that was going to be a big part of education, the thing most schools are actually using are a type of laptop called a Chromebook, which is an inexpensive Google product. Since the kids in these schools are using Apple laptops, maybe one purpose of this show was to help with Apple’s competition with Google for the education market. Perhaps this is also why the focus of this program was on high schools. Steve Jobs felt electronic devices were a distraction for young children, so he would not have approved of rethinking elementary schools with so many laptops and iPads.
One thing we did not see a lot of in this was overt teacher bashing. I suppose this is why Randi Weingarten attended and tweeted about how wonderful a program this is.
Now even though there wasn’t overt teacher bashing, there was some less direct bashing like the part where celebrities were asked what they wish they learned in high school. Based on their answers, the only conclusion is that their teachers must not have taught those things to them very well.
This program didn’t really seem to resonate with anybody and most people on both sides of the education reform wars have pretty much forgotten about it already. It was a colossal waste of money and shows that being rich doesn’t mean that you necessarily have the right to dictate education policy.
I think that it is not an accident that there was no mention of evil unions or miracle charter schools or school choice in this program. My sense is that reformers realize that most of the talking points from Waiting For Superman don’t work anymore. The public has wised up. They don’t believe as much that teacher’s unions are the problem or that charter schools are the solution. So this program is an attempt to get a new rationale that the public can believe and get behind whatever reforms the reformers want to try, which of course will be more union busting and charters and vouchers. So the new thing is that schools haven’t evolved much in the past 100 years and that’s a problem. All that matters is that the public believes there is some problem, whatever it is. It doesn’t need to be the unions, but it must be something so the 100 year thing will likely be repeated a lot of over the next decade as the new villain for them to save us from.