School & District Management Opinion

The Case for ‘New Village’ Schools

By Tony Wagner — December 05, 2001 7 min read
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New small schools foster a different kind of accountability.

Public education accountability is an abiding preoccupation of policymakers and business leaders today, and for good reason. We need to ensure that schools are truly educating all students for a future that is very different from the one their parents were prepared for. But growing numbers of people inside and outside of schools are concerned about the educational consequences of the increasing use of “high stakes” standardized tests as the primary driver of accountability.

Machine-scored tests do not measure the sophisticated skills of critical thinking, problem-solving, and so on that are essential for work and citizenship. The tests are also one-time events that do not give an accurate picture of an individual student’s strengths and weaknesses, and the results usually cannot be used to diagnose students’ educational needs. Nor do they provide educators with the knowledge needed to improve teaching. Finally, the greatly increased emphasis on high-stakes testing threatens to drive curiosity and love of learning as motivations for mastery out of the classroom. There’s no time and too much fear for such “leisure” pursuits.

But what is the alternative? Thus far, many critics of standardized testing have been more concerned with seeking waivers than with describing an alternative system that would hold schools accountable for significant improvements in all students’ learning.

I’ve had the opportunity in my work to spend time in a number of new small public middle and high schools around the country that are developing a very different accountability system—one that I propose to call “relational accountability.” There are now more than 100 new small schools in New York City alone, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York are supporting the creation of perhaps 1,000 additional new small high schools or conversions to schools-within-schools in the coming years.

Creating a new school or school-within-a-school from scratch is an opportunity for a small group to rethink what it means to be an educated adult in the 21st century and to develop a clear mission. Often, small groups of teachers, parents, and community members spend endless hours discussing and finally coming to agreement on the goals of the new school. The collaborative creation of a focused, clearly articulated, shared sense of purpose is the first requirement of a relational accountability system and is the heart of what I call a “new village” school. The discussions that lead up to the creation of the vision are a form of professional development and adult learning that generates a sense of “ownership” of new ideas and practices, rather than mere program “buy-in"—a favorite word of the education compliance cops these days.

Knowing students deeply, teachers are far more able to coach, nurture, and demand excellence from each one.

Secondly, by the schools’ small size, the organization of faculty into teams that often work with the same group of students over several years, and the creation of advisory systems, these new village schools foster the development of teacher-student relationships that are very different from those that characterize most middle and high schools today. Teachers come to know their students well—their interests, strengths, and weaknesses as learners. Knowing students deeply, teachers are far more able to coach, nurture, and demand excellence from each one. No student remains anonymous or falls through the cracks. Equally significant, the entire school, as well as individual classrooms and advisory groups, is characterized by a strong sense of community, where learning and helping one another have become shared responsibilities. Strikingly, one finds no graffiti or bathroom smoking in these schools. They belong to the students, as much as to the adults.

Educators in new village schools welcome parents’ questions and concerns, in contrast to the fortress mentality of more bureaucratic leaders in conventional schools. They understand that the success of all students is totally dependent on close collaboration between educators and parents. Three-way parent-teacher-student conferences to discuss student work are the norm and are well-attended. Parents are a part of the school community.

But it is in the way in which teachers work together that we find the real strengths of the relational accountability system in new village schools. In the overwhelming majority of schools in America, teachers work in isolation. They are largely insulated from the radical changes in the world of work, as well as from the demands of parents and the community, as they work alone in their classrooms all day long. Faculty meetings are usually little more than brief monthly occasions for announcements and other forms of administrivia. It might even be said that a majority of older teachers see education as one of the last places in our society where one can be “self-employed.” Once you close the classroom door, you are king or queen for the day.

Not so in new village schools. Here, teachers spend long hours discussing the curriculum and student work together. They are constantly in and out of one another’s classrooms. Many classes are team-taught. Large- and small-group meetings of faculty members are a time for true collaborative inquiry and problem-solving. Their relentless focus on improving teaching often leads teachers at these schools to reach out to educators from other schools, inviting them in to help assess the quality of student work, teaching, and curriculum. Some also invite business and community leaders in to randomly audit student work and to discuss the skills needed for work and citizenship.

This highly collaborative approach to improving teaching and learning is a close cousin of the Japanese secret ingredient for improving schools. In their book The Teaching Gap, James W. Stigler and James Hiebert describe the way in which teams of Japanese teachers study a common learning problem shared by many of their students and collaboratively devise, test, and refine a series of lessons aimed at helping students learn more effectively. In Japan, ongoing team-based inquiry has led to significant improvements in teaching and learning.

This highly collaborative educational approach is a close cousin of the Japanese secret ingredient for improving schools.

The track record of the small New York public high schools is even more impressive. In a system that graduates barely 50 percent of the students who enter the 9th grade, the average graduation rate of these schools in New York City is over 90 percent. Even more impressive, despite having a majority of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, many of these schools achieve better than a 95 percent college-attendance rate. And they are not significantly more expensive to run. Judged on a cost-per-graduate basis, new village schools actually represent a cost savings when compared with large comprehensive high schools serving the same population.

Can the relational-accountability concept be taken to scale? An example of a voluntary effort that points the way to what states might do is the New York Performance Standards Consortium. It is a collaboration among 40 small high schools to define a common set of standards for high school graduates’ work. Peer reviews of both student work and classroom teaching serve as the foundation for ongoing professional development within and among the schools.

And in Rhode Island, state-sponsored teams of educators, parents, and community leaders visit schools in other districts to conduct what are called “school quality reviews.” According to Peter McWaters, Rhode Island’s chief state school officer, these reviews sometimes reveal that so-called “good” schools with high test scores aren’t really challenging students or adding value, while many low-scoring schools in poor communities are making a significant difference in students’ lives.

Commitment and collaboration, rather than individual compliance, are the engines of improvement in schools.

More high-stakes testing will not significantly improve teaching and learning. Nor can teachers, working alone, solve the twin challenges of educating in the 21st century: how to teach new skills and how motivate all students to achieve higher standards. Is relational accountability the new silver bullet in education? Obviously not, any more than new village schools are. I am increasingly convinced that we need to reinvent public education accountability at every level. We need better performance-assessment systems, online diagnostic tests, state-organized school quality reviews, choice of both different systems of academic standards as well as schools, a process for licensing school operators, as Paul T. Hill and his colleagues propose in their book Reinventing Public Education, and elimination of redundant, poor-quality state tests in favor of one high-quality national test of literacy and numeracy.

Whatever system we create, however, must be rooted in an understanding that commitment and collaboration, rather than individual compliance, are the engines of improvement in schools. At their core, new village schools encourage the creation of accountable relationships—between educators, parents, and the community; between teachers and students; and among teachers—where mutual respect and a shared sense of purpose, rather than fear, are what motivates both student and adult excellence.

Tony Wagner, a former teacher and school principal, is the co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard University’s graduate school of education in Cambridge, Mass., and a consultant to schools, districts, and foundations. His most recent book is Making the Grade: Reinventing America’s Schools, published last month by Routledge/Falmer.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as The Case for ‘New Village’ Schools


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