Reinventing High Schools

Illustration by Scott Laumann

High school today is startlingly like it was in the days of “Grease.” Kids may be wearing low-rise jeans and nose rings instead of poodle skirts and letterman sweaters, but their path to a diploma looks and feels much like their parents’ — or their grandparents’.

For many students, the old ways aren’t working. Low achievement scores and high dropout rates are epidemic, especially among disadvantaged groups. To help schools reinvent themselves, OSU is collaborating with the Portland-based nonprofit Employers for Education Excellence (E3) to study schools that have broken the mold. Founded by the Oregon Business Council, E3 is funding the research with a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

To find out how some schools create novel approaches despite cumbersome policies and long-cherished practices, researchers Michael Dalton and Molly Knott in the College of Education have interviewed nearly 60 educators in more than 20 innovative schools statewide — from rural to urban, suburban to “micropolitan.” Innovation, they have discovered, doesn’t hinge on big budgets or affluent parents or even school size. Rather, it springs from a mindset.

“Innovative schools have changed the way they think about the here and now,” says Dalton, a professor and assistant to the dean for program and research development. “They think bigger.”

He and Knott call this mindset the “Big Here” and the “Long Now.” Resources expand dramatically when “here” doesn’t mean only what’s inside the schoolhouse walls, but embraces the entire community. Kids are better served when “now” doesn’t mean the current school year, but stretches across the entire learning continuum.

“High school shouldn’t be just a box on an org chart,” says Knott. “A bigger here involves softening the edges of the box and creating partnerships. A longer now means expanding the present tense, both forward and backward.”

Bigger thinking lets schools move from a “scarcity” perspective to an “abundance” perspective. Within the overlapping edges of systems (ranging from classrooms to subject areas to whole institutions), schools have access to a wealth of new resources. Borrowing the lingo of ecology, Dalton and Knott call these fertile overlaps “transition zones” — rich, diverse, teeming with possibility.

E3 is offering professional development for Oregon schools based on the findings. But as the researchers caution, true innovation doesn’t follow a recipe. It bubbles up from the unique needs and particular goals of each school. “Invention doesn’t come from a handbook — do X,Y and Z,” says Knott. “It comes from a new way of thinking.”

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