Authors: 2 Portland schools exemplify progressive education

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PORTLAND — A new book on progressive public education in the U.S. holds up two city schools as shining examples of how learning can be improved.

Casco Bay High School and King Middle School are among the schools featured in “Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century” (The New Press). In the book, published in June, education strategist Monica Martinez and sociology professor Dennis McGrath examine a variety of schools in different settings that all share one thing in common: an active, dynamic, student-driven experience.

Martinez describes deeper learning, a term coined by the Hewlett Foundation, as a collaborative, communicative process that emphasizes problem solving over rote memorization. Schools that employ deeper learning techniques encourage students to apply the material they learn to real-world issues.

“It represents all of the best of what everyone’s trying to do in education right now – to transform our system to the 21st century and make sure all our students are college, career and civic ready,” Martinez said.

“It’s about developing deep understanding of content knowledge, but also enabling them to become critical thinkers who have a strong ethos for their own learning.”

Martinez and McGrath spent 2011 and 2012 doing research, looking for schools that shared the common denominators of deeper learning, but also represented geographic and student diversity and a commitment to technology. In addition to King and Casco Bay, they settled on schools in San Diego; Hayward, California; St. Paul, Minnesota; Rochester, Indiana; Cleveland, and Philadelphia.

Throughout “Deeper Learning,” the authors detail the clever ways in which these schools generate positive learning outcomes for students.

At Casco Bay, they spotlight the freshman “quest” program, an outdoor education experience in which students and teachers camp and study ecosystems. Freshman are paired with senior mentors who offer advice and support. Later in their high school careers, they take a course called Sustainability and Resource Degradation that covers atypical subjects ranging from fossil fuel dependency to rural poverty.

King’s programs are entirely different but no less creative. The book describes a cross-disciplinary exercise from fall 2012 in which each core subject drew connections to the presidential election. Later, it explores the school’s student-led conferences – in which kids showcase to parents their academic strengths and struggles – as alternatives to traditional parent-teacher conferences.

All of the schools profiled in “Deeper Learning” benefit from visionary leadership, Martinez said, as well as flat, non-hierarchical structures.

“Imagine walking into a school and not feeling like you’re in a bureaucratic environment where students are walking in lockstep, following rules, going by the bell schedule, sitting politely in their desks, listening to a teacher who’s standing in the front of the classroom and lecturing to them while they take notes,” she said.

“Instead, you walk in and the principal’s office is in a central location and his door is open. Students and teachers can go in and talk to him. There’s common space set up throughout the school so teachers and students can sit down and have a spontaneous conversation about an assignment or a personal problem a student is encountering. Right away the dynamics and flow and environment are very different.”

The problem with the former model, Martinez said, is that it’s not suited to the 21st century. Students are graduating from high school unprepared for college and careers. American employers express dissatisfaction with the workforce, and about one-third of college students require remediation, she said. 

“We need people who will be entrepreneurs, innovators and creators to drive our economy,” Martinez said. “So we need to make sure we’re developing that mindset in our students.”

The question, then, is how to get more schools on board. The first step, she said, is educating parents so they can advocate for their children and demand deeper learning experiences. The second is investing in teachers and administrators and updating educator preparation programs.

It may be some time before the schools depicted in “Deeper Learning” represent the new normal. Until then, it’s up to the students enrolled in them, and their parents, to take advantage of a special educational opportunity. 

“You guys are really fortunate in Portland to have Casco Bay and King Middle School,” Martinez said. “They’re both amazing schools that are doing great things with their students and serve as an inspiration for the rest of us.”

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.