In the fall of 1989, after five years of thought and planning, a group of my colleagues and I took a major risk: We implemented a restructuring project in our high school. We called it the Renaissance Program, or RenPro for short.
Our study convinced us that school people need to take major risks if we expect to see the kind of sweeping changes that educators, business leaders, and politicians suggest are necessary to improve our schools. The days when it was sufficient to make small adjustments in the educational system are long gone.
RenPro reallocated time and staff across the school day and year. Instead of taking five or six courses at once, the 80 plus students who volunteered for the program took two 100-minute, 60-day courses at a time. Over the course of the 180-day school year, a student covered six subjects. For example, a 9th grader might have studied math in the morning and science in the afternoon every day from September to November, history and a foreign language every day from December to February, and literature and fine arts from March to May. During each cycle, teachers taught only two classes a day with about 15 students in each.
This is what happened. First, we discovered that 9th graders have no difficulty with the extended periods. Second, we found that working with only 30 students for a substantial length of time personalizes a teacher’s relationships with those students in powerful and positive ways. With reduced caseloads and longer classes, teachers stopped standing and lecturing and students said more and gained confidence. They also seemed more willing to do their homework.
By the end of our second year, major attitudinal differences surfaced between the RenPro students and their traditionalprogram counterparts. RenPro kids came to school with the idea that learning was important. The kids in TradPro continued to act as if school were a mysterious series of empty ritualized tasks that adults made them perform to earn a diploma, freedom, and the chance to start their real lives.
What’s more, many RenPro teachers felt for the first time in their careers that they had a chance to be truly effective. Suddenly, we regarded our intractable students as interesting challenges rather than troublemakers. We sounded in our regular team meetings like a group of professionals.
Of course, we had our share of headaches and failures, too. A planned seminar program on such current issues as abortion and the collapse of the Soviet empire never really flew. We never managed to try interdisciplinary study. And our student assessments weren’t very interesting.
We wanted and intended to work on these and other problems and to strengthen what was clearly a promising program. But we never got the chance. An independent evaluation team from the Harvard Graduate School of Education came in and found only small differences in performance between RenPro and TradPro students as measured by standardized tests. And those small differences favored the kids in TradPro.
This evaluation data, along with budget constraints and resistance from a vocal and powerful group of parents whose children were not in RenPro, swayed our School Committee to discontinue the program after its second year. So this past fall, those of us who pioneered RenPro returned to a school day divided into seven short periods. The clock, once again, has assumed inordinate importance in the room. And I see 125 kids a day.
Some of the students I teach this year were in RenPro last year. They tell me I’ve changed, and they’re right. A year ago, I encouraged questioning. But now, I get annoyed when students ask questions because it interrupts the flow of the lesson. Each day, I talk in class a little more than I did the day before. Each day, consequently, the kids talk less.
I am buried in students, their papers, phone calls, forms, and clutter. I don’t have time for the “troublemaker’’ who tells me he can’t read. I don’t have time for the girl who thinks better, but more slowly, than her peers. I have one student who is perhaps the most talented fiction writer I have ever taught. But the fractured day doesn’t allow much time for such writing. She is already slipping away. She loved her two years in RenPro, but she doesn’t much like school anymore.
Then there are the students who populate the back row. I know they’re not dumb, but they’re failing. I check in with them and ask the usual questions, but there’s no way I can gather them in, get them focused, get them to try.
Now and then, I do connect deeply and powerfully with a class or an individual student, and I have the wonderful sense that maybe, even in this overwhelming situation, I can do my job. But then the bell rings, and the kids pass through the door and continue with their astounding round of classes and activities. When we reconvene the next day, the electricity is gone.
Educational theorist Theodore Sizer says that we need to teach one student at a time. I know he’s right; we can organize our high schools so that each student is treated as a special individual. I did not know this before we tried RenPro, but I know it now.
I also know why my school fails to reach some students. It’s not because the kids are dumb or bad or because the teachers are lazy. It’s not because of too much television or drugs. My school fails because it is rooted in a bankrupt approach to learning. It misuses time and teachers.
Knowing this, and knowing that there are viable alternatives, makes me angrier than I’ve ever been and nearly wild with frustration.
The quick death of RenPro and many other local efforts at school improvement is testament to the potency of the status quo. Most people say that schools have to change and that this change must come from within. But there is only a finite number of courageous teachers, administrators, parents, and students willing to take the high risks associated with pushing for change in their schools. These people will abandon this immensely difficult task if it becomes clear from the start that their efforts are doomed.
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as The End Of The Renaissance