Dennis Littky may be America's most important educator. After three decades of leading major school innovation in New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, Littky, along with co-founder and co-director Elliot Washor, seems to have found the holy grail of school reform in Providence, R.I. Not only have they created a radical school design--Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a network of six small schools across three campuses that personalizes each student's education and prepares all 700 students for collegiate and professional success--that has enough success to prove that it works, but they are successfully "scaling up" this model in communities across the United States. As of last school year, there were 26 MET schools in operation and Thayer High School in New Hampshire was the first school in the Coalition of Essential Schools while Littky was its principal.
If all of this were not enough, Littky recently wrote a book, The Big Picture: Education is Everyone's Business, (ASCD 2004). In the book, Littky, 60, reveals the MET model through the profound learning stories of the students it serves. The book is a passionate testament to learners, learning and human potential. The author's breezy style makes the powerful ideas he shares easily accessible to education stakeholders.
Fast Company magazine recently named Littky its No. 4 Entrepreneur of the Year and the Gates Foundation has provided a nearly $10 million grant to help create 38 small, urban high schools in the next five years based on the Big Picture principles and pedagogy. Business leaders embrace Littky's educational vision without requiring him to pander to their notions of schooling.
Editor-At-Large Gary Stager spoke with Littky recently, covering his philosophy, his future plans, how he operates in this day of NCLB and liability concerns, and whether his schools offer extra-curricular activities. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
How would you describe the MET in 30 seconds?
Littky: The MET is the school that truly takes one student at a time. An incredibly respectful place, meaning not just being nice to kids but [also] in the way it respects whatever they're interested in.
The family is part of making decisions, whatever the kid is interested in, it starts from that kid. So in that sense I think it's different than any other school and we do not believe that there is one curriculum that everyone has to know. A lot of people argue about that.
And then the structures are set up with a teacher following a kid in a small group for four years so you really get to know [the student] well. And we push that all the work be real, so it's not [pretending] you're interested in writing a paper on horses. It's working with somebody around horses and finding something real that can be done. So I think it's the deep respect allowing the kid in the family to build their own curriculum, follow their own interest and passions and to do it all in a real way so it's not fake.
So how do you know they're done--prepared for college, life or jobs?
Littky: That's a great question because they're never done, done with a project or done with school, ready to move on. You know in few of the ways we are pretty traditional, I mean there are kids who come to us that are very skilled, kids who come to us that could spend eight years with us. ... Some kids do something very different their last year. ... I was just with a kid yesterday who is doing a documentary as a senior project. I almost don't consider our stuff school.
So it partly is the longer we can stay with kids, helping to support their learning and letting them grow is good. Kids ready to move on whenever they want to move on, they move on.
We don't leave our kids after they graduate. One of the main things we do that we don't even talk about that much is that I have a transition counselor. I involve the advisors after [graduation].
Last week we had an empty nest meeting with the parents of the kids who left because many of them are single parents, their best friend just left for school [college. They've] never had anybody in school. So your kid messes up. What do they say? "Come home honey."
We're with them forever, I have 10 kids now working back in our school in some capacity who graduated over the last four or five years.
So how do you convince colleges or employers that they're ready?
Littky: Well, ready, of course, is relative, but because our kids are dealing with the adult world from freshman [year] on--having lots of adult mentors, making their phone calls, talking to customers, making presentations, they're way more ready for the work world and getting stuff done.
The only way they're ready for college is that the hope that most of them have this love for learning and want to continue. People ask me how do our kids function once they get in regular classes? The kids take college classes all through, they know some are [lousy], they know some are good. They're pretty independent in their thinking and working so they don't need to be guided. So, the good part and the bad part is there's less tolerance of [lousy classes].
You know, we grew up to accept bad teachers. On one end you hope they put up with it and don't drop out of school, on the other hand you want them to acknowledge that they're being mistreated and disrespected.
You make the point in the book that the MET is not vocational. So with all the emphasis on internship and real-world things how does it remain non-vocational? How do you resist that temptation?
Littky: I believe that everything is hands and eyes, I'm not sure there is anything vocational anymore, things are changing too fast. And the reason we use the internship is not to prepare the kids to be an architect or a car mechanic. It is to find something they love that can engage them and get them to think and to explore new bigger things.
I have a quote in [the book] saying--and I love the quote--"The way to really teach people to be good thinkers is to let them learn anything in an in-depth kind of way. And if they do that then you change," so that's why it's not vocational.
I don't care what the kid's going to do, but whatever they love, now that's what I care about.
So what does a day or week look like at the MET?
Littky: Tuesday and Thursday the kids don't come to school, they go right to their internship and for the advisors it's not a time where they are in meetings or doing other things. The teachers are on the road during that time also. They're visiting that kid at the architect's office. They're visiting that kid at the zoo. They're trying to find the work that's real work. They're trying to make sure that every kid has their own learning plan. They're trying to make sure that the goals they set are being met by the environment.
So in those days if you came to school and we took you to the hospital you would see kids doing blood tests, or see kids following around a doctor. At a computer place, they're developing some programs for one of their customers. So really in the best-case scenario, they're real workers in places where they're not just filing.
How do you convince the partners, the mentors of that?
Littky: It's been way, way, way easier than people expect! One, adults love to have some teenager that loves what they love and they don't they have to take home at night. And their own kids don't give a [darn] about what they do, so they become very attached to our kids. Mentors who have been there for four years are given an honorary teaching degree at graduation. They've really been there [for the students] so that has not been the problem really.
Then Monday, Wednesday and Friday kids come to school in the morning and we all start the day with what we call a "pick-me-up." Our schools are only 120 kids each and the whole school is together and you may have someone reading poetry, you may have a kid talking about their trip, you may have someone showing a video they made. There's something to broaden the kids and start the day in an up way. Then they go to an advisory, every kid belongs to one to 15 in our case, one to 17 in California, a group that meets every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for four years.
And that advisor/teacher is really in charge of their whole program. So on that day they could be reading a paper about what does it mean that Arafat died, what does that mean for us? They'll be talking about the election ... The main textbook is each kid has a calendar book, they'll be walking around, "What's your schedule for the week? Who are you meeting with? When are you working?' So that advisory period goes on about a half hour. Then the kids are kind of on their own, small groups, individuals having their meetings, teachers moving around helping them saying, "C'mon I want to edit that paper with you. Jimmy go work with Sam on this."
And the paper is related to the internship?
Littky: That's right, the projects are all related to a Hispanic kid, his writing, doing a brochure in Spanish for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. There are a lot of Spanish people in Providence. Somebody else is doing a presentation at CVS Drug Stores, they're doing PowerPoint. Somebody else is researching a project for an architect. So, in the best-case scenario, I describe it like looking like a newsroom. People moving around and working.
To me that's what's so exciting. When I bring people to school I say, "Look, you don't see teacher out here," the kids are on the computer, they're moving around, kids are asking for help because they have something real that's got to get done. Then they have lunch together in a regular way and then again they're out doing their individual small group work with a teacher moving around and then they come back together at the end of the day for a half hour, kind of summing up what they're doing, making sure they know what they're thinking about doing at night.
The teacher doesn't assign homework, it's on the individual, "Hey I got to present this manual to the guy at the hospital tomorrow, how do I do this?" So that's kind of the week and the exciting part, which keeps our attendance the highest in the state in all our schools is it's different every day. You know there's something new all the time.
And the kids collaborate?
Littky: The kids collaborate so they have other teachers work with them, like they say, "I don't know much about this area." "Go see Rachel over there so."
The expertise is distributed.
Littky: It truly is a learning community. It's about using lots of adults. We have six schools there. Yesterday I was at the Oakland school and there's this group pushing kids to get a voice through reading and they were all running book groups, so the teachers didn't have to do that. They were working on something else.
So it's looking at what a kid needs, looking around and saying, "How do we get them there?" A lot of our kids take college courses; you find an interest.
So how do you deal with the more mundane things like liability, ADA, certifying that they're ready to graduate; all the sort of legal stuff that everyone gets hysterical about?
Littky: Well the world has become a tougher place to do our work since No Child Left Behind. You do whatever you need to do. We don't have grades. Students do an hour-long exhibition every quarter, ninth grade on. Teachers write a page or two narrative on it, kids write notes and self-evaluations. But then when it's time to go to college we translate that into a transcript. So we're not stupid, we know colleges aren't going to look at 16 narratives.
And our transcript has our four English classes. They're just done in a different way, so as long as you can translate it. ... You force your state to be a little more performance-based within as much structure as you need. If you've got to call the morning advisory something else, you call it something else. You're covered by child labor laws and our kids are working regular internships in places It's not so difficult.
So do you think there are lessons in MET for elementary schools?
Littky: Yeah, absolutely.
The thinking is always that the high school has so much to learn from the elementary schools.
Littky: Yeah. The best kindergarten class is built around kids' needs. Find out what that kid needs, getting along with others, learning how to do blocks, learning how to read and then we seem to forget and everybody is the same in third grade. I think elementary schools need to look at [what they do] too.
But again, how do you make it real? We have a few elementary schools and we started a charter school in Providence. How do you make it real for a third grader? It's like a visit to a fish place, it's like going to a museum, how real is your community? But again, you know those young kids have creative, great ideas for inventions that do stuff; they just get it knocked down. And if you do it right, I mean and in the younger grades this is even more important. Kids got to learn to read and so you've gotta just keep pushing that, but if you find stuff kids are interested in then that's how you teach them to read. I think our ideas are applicable all over the place.
Where do you get teachers from?
Littky: Well, that's a hard one because our teacher training institutions are obviously not training teachers to work in Big Picture schools.
What are they training for?
Littky: They are training them to stand up in front of a room and lecture for high schools. And they're spending time on how do you discipline kids? How do you control the class? Making sure you know all this content. ... So most of our people who've gone through teacher training programs are not very well trained for, "Stop a second. Listen to the kid. Look at the kid. What connects? What kind of project?" So one, we do a tremendous amount of training ourselves. Every summer we have something we call working camp where we bring the freshman in.
You're working them two, three hours and then you're understanding what does it really mean to follow your passion, what does it really mean to get an internship? When we bring the whole staff together for another two weeks, we have every month a day where we step back and really look with a couple meetings during the week. So it just becomes this ongoing teacher-training piece and sometimes some of your good people didn't even come from teaching. They come from other places that think about kids and have that respect for kids.
Our teachers need to be people who have a lifelong learning within themselves, an excitement about learning because they've got to be excited about helping you go further. They've got to be smart enough in the broadest way. So it's mostly trying to find the kind of people that feel this in their heart and then we have to train them through the years.
So how many MET Schools are there now?
How do they get started?
Littky: One starts one by finding somebody with the power who says, "I want one of these." We start them all different ways. So it could start from the superintendent in Oakland saying, "I want one of these," or it could be somebody saying, "I'd like to start a charter school like this."
Somebody said they want to do a charter and use our materials. If they get that charter and have a building, they can come to us. We've been going to a lot of districts that say they want us. And then we together select a principal. We feel that's the key and then we train that person. We have what we call "TYBO," The Year Before Opening, and we train those people on and off for a year. So it's not like, "Okay, August, congratulations you're on, let's go." A year beforehand we're visiting the school, I'm working with some people.
Go observe a learning plan, then go out and do your own. Get ready to teach your own staff. How do you recruit back in your area? How do you get a building so we [can] work with people for a year getting them ready to go. Then we send coaches out, we've got materials online, we're now starting video conferencing. But it can also start with women in Santa Monica just started following Elliot and I around. You know we kept putting them off, putting them off and then we're talking about starting a school there.
So what is your goal?
Littky: Our goal is to have no more than 50 schools and to try to build a network so they can support each other and be here in 20 years and be a model for others. Not that someone has got to do the exact thing, but if you were designing a school you may say go there and look at how they do internships. We can't do this, but let's make our senior year [different]. So we're looking to change the world in the way of having a model design that can help people as you say go further and further in their work.
What's the involvement of the Gates Foundation?
Littky: Well, Gates has given out money to start schools so we've been very fortunate to use their money to hire coaches to develop our Big Picture Online and to train principals. They've made it possible to do it.
I am very grateful to Gates, I think we should all be very grateful to Gates because in these tough times they have been one of the lone few that have supported something very different than the mainstream in this country. So the f
act that they've given out $600 million, or however much it is, to people to do small, personalized schools is real positive. My worry is always about quality and sustainability.
You know we're in our ninth year at the MET and just getting to our full capacity, we just got our buildings a year and a half ago, so this stuff takes time. When people used to look at me and say, "Oh you've got such small schools, how are you going to attack the districts?" I felt like saying, "It's taken a hundred years to screw up our education system, it's not going to be cured overnight." Now I can do this 100-year plan that says, "Of course none of us are that patient, but it's not going to happen overnight."
Funding the Big Picture is at odds with current educational practice.
So is that an accident or does the Gates Foundation have an actual dog in the fight?
Littky: No, I think two things that are rather interesting; I think Tom Vander Ark who was given the right even more so at the beginning to go find the movers and shakers to do this, had the right philosophy and found the right people regardless where the world was going.
He sought out people who were doing this kind of stuff, pressures of the world might be starting to change that, but I think it's no accident that there are a lot of good groups that a lot of my friends, colleagues, got funded during this time. I don't think it was an accident.
So how does your school deal with things like extracurricular activities and the other stuff that becomes synonymous with secondary education?
Littky: The baseball team is 0 and 30. No we don't have it, and I get asked for one every day. And we do have proms, I guess everyone's got their line you know. There are things that kids really connect to a high school in a way and really want and if you feel it will not take away from the main reason you're there, then we go with it. The yearbook is something that's very important to us. A prom was something very important to us.
Those are both things you see at the school all kind of run by the kids. Big-time sports, which were important to me personally, are hard to do when kids are working late, with internships etc. So we have managed to do intramurals. We have managed to have kids that want to play in a city league come at 6: 00 in the morning and practice. And if a kid wants to play big-time sports because that's their passion, and we usually have one a year, they're allowed to play at another school.
You know we talk about school going on all the time, so everything a kid does counts in a way. So we're doing a thing this year, I'm struggling with it, but I'm keeping ninth graders till 5 p.m. So rather than going after school I just extended the day so there's more of an option and time to do stuff.
Why are you doing it?
Littky: Well, 3 to 5 is the most dangerous time of the day. Ninth graders are usually pretty bored. So it's just extended time to be able to either play with tutoring, to be able to give them a support environment, to do dance, to do those kinds of things. But I kind of look if they're playing on a church team, that's part of it. If they're taking dance lessons someplace, go for it. We're trying to get our kids to be active learners and engaged as much as possible.
You told a story in the book that resonated with me. I've seen variations on it a hundred times. You became nationally famous because you and your teachers greeted kids in the morning. Can you share some of your feelings about the reaction to such a gesture?
Littky: Well, I always say it's pathetic--the standards we have out there. There was somebody, I think it was one of the Disney Teachers of the Year on one of the talk shows ...
The 75 rules?
Littky: No, no, this one was somebody said, "I know every teacher's name in high school." "Oh my gosh that's fantastic!" or "I know all my kid's names!" "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, it should be the other. "Oh my gosh we've been talking about it." And so it's just I think a comment on the world we're in that simply by being kind and knowing the kids and greeting them is something that stands out. You know it's like school has gotten to be such an impersonal place, the people have no idea how learning is connected to understanding who the kid is. So it's laughable actually.
How did we get to this place?
Littky: I'm not that old but I think, I don't know. The first page of my book I define what is learning. And I was thinking about it in terms of that's the difference? We don't have a definition in this country on what is learning. There is the famous quote that Bush's grammar was a little incorrect when he said, "He wished--no he used instead of he and she he used he and her, but it says he wants kids to learn to read so they can pass the literacy tests.
So that has become our goal, not to read well, not to use what you read, but to pass the literacy test. So, I think until the country either gets a little more together on what they think is important for human beings, how to help people be mindful, or to have enough choices so people can decide this is who I want my child to be so I want to send her there, we're in trouble.
Gary Stager, email@example.com, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.