School Choice & Charters Opinion

There Are Good Schools Out There

By Deborah Meier — June 18, 2013 6 min read
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Today, Todd Sutler of the Odyssey Initiative joins Deborah Meier for a two-week blogging engagement.

Dear Debbie,

It is an honor to be invited to correspond with you here. I have enjoyed reading your blog for years, and I am lucky to now have you as a friend and adviser to The Odyssey Initiative, an organization I founded with Michelle Healy and Brooke Peters last year. When we set off to research some of America’s best schools, it never crossed our minds that we would get a chance to sit down and talk to you. When we met, I was pleased to find that your outspokenness in person was just as engaging and inspiring as it is in your writing. I am disappointed, however, that your readers did not benefit from more of that frankness during your conversation with Mike Petrilli. More on that disappointment in a moment.

Matt Candler, of 4.0 Schools, recently introduced me to Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen’s theory, I believe, happens to describe the education reform movement of the last 20 years. The “dilemma,” he argues, is the choice companies face when deciding whether to allocate time and resources to address their customers’ current needs or to anticipate their future needs. Some companies are reticent to invest in research and design for the future because it requires too much time and money without a guaranteed payout. Other companies take the risk and end up profiting from a substantial increase in revenues. One of Mike’s comments made me think that the ed-reform movement is facing its own “innovator’s dilemma":

The choice today is not between 100,000 Central Park Easts or Mission Hills and 100,000 test-prep factories. If it were, I'd pick the Deborah Meier schools in a heartbeat. But let's face it: There aren't more than a handful of Deborah Meier schools out there."

Mike implies that producing more schools like CPE and Mission Hill would use up too much human and financial capital. Even though he must know that future jobs will require workers who are flexible and critical thinkers, he believes there is too much risk involved in trying to create the schools that develop such graduates. “Test prep factories,” in his eyes, are the safer bet.

Had we not spent this year visiting schools across the country, perhaps we would agree with Mike’s premise that there “aren’t more than a handful of Deborah Meier schools out there.” However, when Michelle, Brooke, and I launched The Odyssey Initiative, we argued, “the only innovative thing left to do in education reform is to stop innovating and find the experienced educators already succeeding, identify what practices were leading to their success and replicate them.” Twenty-three states and more than 60 schools later, we are even more confident that the talent and the answers already exist.

During our Odyssey, we met with many educators who are achieving quantifiable and qualitative success without pushing test-prep, including Oakland’s Lighthouse Community Charter School. Lighthouse was founded by a group of parents and teachers, some of whom previously taught at Ted Sizer’s public school, Francis Parker. They have spent 10 years improving their program. Students maintain a portfolio of their work and regularly reflect on their strengths and weaknesses. They lead family conferences from kindergarten through 12th grade and give presentations on personal academic progress each year. Practices such as after-school office hours and two-year class cycles (“looping”) enable teachers to build relationships and support students with personalized instruction. Additionally, Lighthouse gives students a week off every quarter in order for teachers to look at assessments and modify curriculum in response to that data. When we interviewed a group of 6th graders at the school, they took pride and ownership of their education, reflecting: “At my old school, they would teach to the middle of the group, here they teach to me,” and, “I had to repeat 6th grade, but I am a better math student because of it.” Lighthouse’s test scores and college placement results also demonstrate why it has been celebrated as one of the best public schools in the country.

As our research continued, we found programs across the country with different practices that, like Lighthouse, demonstrated a dedication to rigor, structure, and student engagement, as well as attending to the developmental needs of their children. The schools we visited this year demonstrated that it is possible to create schools in diverse communities that are successful by a variety of metrics. Perhaps Mike and others would risk allocating money and time toward replicating schools that both meet state standards and build crucial “soft” skills if they knew more about what these schools were doing. Perhaps if he were more familiar with these schools’ commitment to presenting content in a contextual setting he would know that progressive schools do, in fact, build vocabulary and content knowledge.

So where do you fit in? On this blog, you often celebrate Sizer’s work and the success of the Coalition of Essential Schools as well as that of the Consortium in New York City. Yet I have not seen many citations of the specific practices being implemented at these schools. Your EdWeek readers want to know them. More importantly, America needs to know.

Teacher-leaders are taking action across the country by creating businesses and learning communities and sharing their experiences on blogs, videos, and at conferences. We need national platforms and megaphones (and legends like you) to amplify their voices and broadcast their practices to the rest of the country. Voters, parents, and legislators must better understand the components and merits of student-centered education because they are the stakeholders who effect change in the system. How many people know about Teach For America, KIPP, and Harlem Children’s Zone? What if the same number of people were familiar with the Coalition? Can you imagine the influence it would have?

After all, Pasi Salhberg, the mastermind behind the internationally renowned Finish school system, freely admits that cooperative learning, problem-based teaching, and portfolio assessment (practices the Coalition, the Consortium, and other colleagues of yours have championed) are examples of practices that Finland co-opted from America in the 1980s and have continued to improve upon. We should not have to read his blog to find out what America has been doing well.

The Odyssey Initiative team set out to show educators, parents, reformers, and legislators that successful, student-centered classrooms are a reality in schools across the country. We want to see more of these classrooms for more American children, and we believe that goal can only be achieved with a more informed citizenry. We need to get these messages out in the public; we need more people to know what is happening and what is possible. I am asking you and your peers, our heroes, to raise your voices for this cause.


Todd Sutler is the executive director of the Odyssey Initiative. He and two other teachers are traveling the country to identify, document, and share successful practices in some of America’s best schools. Todd traded bonds for an investment bank in New York City, Toronto, and Tokyo before running an afterschool program at the Boys Club of New York. He has attended Bank Street Graduate School of Education and taught 3rd and 5th grade in Brooklyn, N.Y. He hopes to co-found the Compass Charter School in 2014.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.