It was 1996, and some education school professors were given the opportunity to put their ideas into practice–to start their own magnet school within Chicago public schools– which they gave the clunky name of Best Practice High School.

This is their story– Rethinking High School: Best Practices in Teaching, Learning and Leadership. The value of the book is limited– it is not at all an original work, and the authors themselves are quick to acknowledge their deep indebtedness to Sizer and Meier: their school is essentially an Essential school, and they write about all they borrowed from Central Park West, (and Meier herself wrote the foreword). Nor is their discussion here of what best practices are especially sophisticated or research supported, but that is not their intent.

The value comes from offering another, good, primer on and outline of best practices– and more importantly, a travelogue of the experience of implementing them– in practice. I know some teachers will prefer to approach it this way, warts and all, with full acknowledgement of the headaches of practicing what we preach. One of the best examples is of their school schedule– which they decided needing changing at the end of day 1, and which they report changing over thirty times before Thanksgiving, before they got it, not right, but best compromised. The discussion of assessment is refreshingly honest and humane too– simply put, despite knowing that their are best practices for assessment, they simply paid no attention to them for the first three years, not able to get to them.

The book is organized into their prescriptions, with a research summary and an implementation report for each. Here’s the list– a good list, one most of us could have written:

1. Size: the school is small, or feels small.

2. Climate: every student is known, appreciated, and included in a diverse, collaborative community.

3. Voice and leadership: both students and teachers exercise choice and make decisions in all elements of student life.

4. Teaching: Teachers collaborate with students to explore and employ a growing repertoire of instructional strategies. (A little bland, a little brief, for such a central issue).

5. Curriculum: With their teachers, young people are engaged in challenging inquiry into topics that matter.

6. Community Experiences: Young people are engaged in the life of the community and the world of work.

7. Scheduling: The school day and calendar provide flexible and variable blocks of learning time.

8. Technology and materials. Contemporary technology and rich materials support students as thinkers, researchers and authors.

9. Assessment: Teachers help students to monitor, evaluate, and guide their own thinking.

10. Professional development: Teachers are students of instruction, with many opportunities to learn and grow.

11. Relationships: The school works closely with parents, community organizations, and educational institutions.

A school could profit from using the list for a self-audit– I think it’d be fun almost to ask a faculty working group to write our own book: what is the key list we have of best practices, what are they rooted in (research evidence, school history), what are exemplary stories of them in action, and what are the ongoing issues or challenges of them in practice?

A few notes:

Size, climate, and relationships have always been central to my vision of good schooling. The book recommends capping a high school at 100 per grade, 400 in total, and then has to compromise by letting it grow to 140 per grade, 560 in total. Pat Bassett often uses that 400 number too– keep schools, or divisions, to 400, and you will maintain that healthy size. Myself, I don’t want to work at, or lead a school where I don’t, or cannot soon, know every child by name (and most parents too)– and the numbers are critical.

I appreciate their emphasis on purpose: it is implicit in many, explicit in their embrace of community experiences and in curriculum, “topics that matter.” The chapter is well done: “High schools need to find ways now to engage kids in work that is important and meaningful to them now, at the time of learning.” This work, they say, should be challenging (construction and communicating knowledge), authentic (relevant), and collaborative.

The teaching discussion is better in the chapter than the the summary, and refers to a previous, full length book on the topic. It includes a long list of things we should seek more and less of– familiar Sizer like essential teaching– centering on depth over breadth, and students as do-ers. The building blocks of best practice teaching are the following: Integrative units (even in secondary, with curricula “built around themes”), small group activities, workshops (or the studio method, where students do and teachers “demonstrate, mentor, and give feedback”), representing to learn (what Marzano calls “non-linguistic representation” and says is the least frequently employed research based best practice), authentic experiences (say no more), and reflective assessment.

The discussion of voice at times seems to verge toward ideology and away from research; this is not to say I don’t support it, but that it is that much more a controversial subject. Their discussion of the research evidence is far less compelling. Marzano doesn’t find teacher or student empowerment as related to student achievement in his School Leadership that works research, (though he does find evidence for communication, situational awareness, and culture). But even if the research isn’t rock-solid, it is an ideal that bears considering. It is not the norm; to quote: “if teacher voice is faint in the governance of high schools, student voice reaches barely a whimper.” Teacher leadership or voice here is pretty diffuse: “there is no one formula.. it comes from the input and initiative of participants.” It can look like teacher initiated professional development, teacher led staff meetings, teacher leadership on school problemsolving, and time provided for teacher meetings and work. The authors are working on reconciling opposites– they also call for a strong principal– a strong principal who supports empowered teachers. As for students, they have good suggestions but little thorough examination of the practice: students choose assignments and assess their own work, students teach other students, student help plan units, students discuss issues in advisories, students form committees for school issues, students interview teacher candidates, students sit on boards.

Finally, on staff development, never an easy topic. They did well, it seems, to infuse the school culture from the outset with a commitment to being a model school– it was named Best Practice after all– and still, they find it hard. They have great funding for retreats– and still it is hard. Most helpful for me is the suggestion that schools and faculties declare for themselves, after research, staff development guidelines (i.e. fewer whole-faculty workshops, less lecture, more visits to other schools), and that you form book groups with interested, like minded teachers. They suggest an approach that allows for volunteerism– “begin with the willing and work patiently through a faculty, drawing in the more reluctant teachers as they see the successes.”