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Straight Up Conversation: First American to Win WISE Prize for Education Innovation

By Rick Hess — December 12, 2019 7 min read
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My old friend Larry Rosenstock, madman, education icon, and the founder and CEO of High Tech High, was awarded the prestigious international WISE Prize for Education last month. This seemed a useful excuse to chat with Larry and pick his brain on all manner of things. For those who don’t know him, Larry started his career in the 1970s, teaching carpentry in Boston high schools before going on to work as staff attorney at the Harvard Center for Law and Education, to teach at Harvard and UC Berkeley, and to eventually found one of the nation’s most influential charter schools (and become a matinee idol as the hero of Most Likely to Succeed). I sat down with Larry to chat about what he’s learned from his half century in education. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick: First off, big congrats on your recent award! But, for those of us who don’t routinely attend award jet-set ceremonies in Qatar, just what is the WISE Prize for Education?

Larry: The prize was created by the Qatar Foundation about 10 years ago in an effort to elevate the work of educators around the world. The goal is to do for education what prestigious international prizes in science, economics, and literature have done for those fields. I was very honored and surprised to win and also very proud to be the first person from the U.S. to be awarded this prize.

Rick:This award is presented at the World Innovation Summit for Education. As one of the nation’s more accomplished education innovators, what do you make of the whole notion of “education innovation” anyway?

Larry: Much of what we call innovation—learning in interdisciplinary ways, learning through creating real things of value and new knowledge, working in teams, using technology in the ways it is used in the world of work, and learning outside of schools—has been practiced by progressive educators for many years, so perhaps it is not an accurate description. However, if you take a wider view, you will see that the majority of students in the world, and indeed in the U.S., are learning in ways that have not changed much for over a century. So in that sense, “innovation” is apt. John Dewey captured my view of education innovation over 100 years ago when he said, “There is no such thing as genuine knowledge and fruitful understanding except as the offspring of doing. People have to do something to the things they wish to find out about; they have to alter conditions. This is the lesson of the laboratory method, and this is the lesson which all education has to learn.”

Rick: OK, we won’t go back to Dewey, but let’s take it back a bit. How did you wind up doing this work in the first place?

Larry: I actually went to law school to work on prisoners’ rights. I was a single father and was working on carpentry jobs to support us while I was in school. In one of my carpentry jobs at a community center, teenagers started coming around, and they were interested in what I was doing and wanted to learn how to use the tools. The director of the program suggested I think about teaching, so I did. Teaching vocational education in Boston and Cambridge in the ‘70s and ‘80s was a wake-up call about segregation. So I spent a lot of time and energy with colleagues there trying to bring together academic and technical education and also to bring together the kids who were so separated into those tracks.

Rick: About two decades ago, you launched High Tech High School. What led you to launch it, and where did the idea even come from?

Larry: After working at the Center for Law and Education and Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, I had the opportunity, with some amazing colleagues—including Rob Riordan, Debbie Meier, Ted Sizer, Dennis Litky, and Howard Fuller—to work on a project called the New Urban High School. We traveled around the country looking for the best examples of innovative urban high schools and tried to understand what made them successful. That, by the way, was how we came up with the design principles that are at the bedrock of HTH. One of those schools was in San Diego, and that ultimately led to me moving out here. In San Diego, I met a group of high-tech industry leaders who wanted to do something to improve science and engineering education—I don’t think the term “STEM” had even been invented then—for low-income students in San Diego. Our collaboration led to the founding of HTH. It was meant to be just one school, but over the years has grown to be 16 schools and a graduate school of education and teacher-credentialing program.

Rick: High Tech High is recognized as a model of project-based learning. But this is one of those terms that gets thrown about pretty casually. I’m curious about how you think about project-based education?

Larry: Project-based learning is essential. That term can mean different things to different people. At High Tech High, we call it “authentic work"—the idea that learning takes place through creating real things of value, whether it be a product, a performance, or a new method of doing something. Authentic work is one of four bedrock principles that HTH is founded on. Alongside authentic work is equity, the idea that all students, from all backgrounds and perceived abilities, are learning together; personalization, the assurance that students are respected, listened to, and known well; and collaborative design, which refers to teachers’ autonomy to work together and with students to create their own curriculum.

Rick: You’ve been involved in charter schooling almost since its inception. What do you make of the state of charter schooling today?

Larry: Being a charter school made it possible for High Tech High to have the freedom to create the kind of school we envisioned. But I’ve always been someone who says what goes on inside the school is a whole lot more important than the governance mechanism. You’ve got plenty of charters that are not taking advantage of their freedom to do things differently, just as you have district, pilot, or magnet schools that are creating amazing learning environments.

Rick: On that note, what would you say is the biggest missed opportunity in the education sphere over the past 25 or 30 years?

Larry: This might sound weird for a high school guy, but we have had data for years that shows that high-quality preschool education has huge impacts on later learning, graduation rates, and job outcomes. Our policymakers have just not had the will to put the resources where they are most needed and would have the greatest impact.

Rick: There’s a lot of discussion regarding the state of “school reform.” What’s your take?

Larry: “School reform” is like the weather. It contains extreme opposites within it. What do I think of it? I don’t like ice storms, nor do I like top-down reforms that emphasize testing and drive curriculum toward test prep. But when school reform gives teachers and school leaders more autonomy to create curriculum and schools that meet students’ and communities’ needs, it’s great.

Rick: You’ve often been labeled as a “school reformer.” How do you feel about that label?

Larry: I can’t resist quoting John Dewey again, who said, “I’d rather have one school former than a hundred school reformers.”

Rick: Is there any moment in your career that you look back on and think, “Man, I wish I could have done that differently?”

Larry: Actually, I’m going to answer that question in a slightly different way. There were two times that I really wanted something—big jobs in each case, and failed to get what I wanted. The first was when I was a candidate for director at Rindge and Latin in Cambridge. Not getting the job led to me to working at the Harvard Center for Law and Education, and that experience made me a much better school director when I finally became one. Later on, I was up for a big job in Washington with the Clinton administration. I didn’t get that one either, but instead ended up doing the New Urban High School project, which ultimately led me to founding High Tech High. So failure can often turn into something better.

Rick: Looking back over all you’ve done in education, what makes you the proudest?

Larry: I think it would have to be walking through the halls at High Tech High schools at exhibition time, talking to students about their projects, and talking to graduates when they come back to visit. Knowing that these schools have educated thousands of young people in the past 20 years and hopefully will be here to educate many thousands more in the future.

Rick: OK, last question. Looking forward, what’s got you pumped in education and learning?

Larry: I’m excited about elevating and showcasing student work. Students are capable of far more sophisticated work than they are often given the opportunity to do in schools.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.