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"Something Great is Coming:" Why John Merrow Thinks Brighter Days are Ahead in American Education

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Learn why John Merrow thinks EL Education is at the forefront of a great 'awakening' in American education. This piece was originally published here on The Merrow Report. 

“The air is humming, and something great is coming”

By John Merrow

April 16, 2018

Walking home by myself a few nights ago, I felt like singing.  Because it was late and the sidewalks were deserted, I wasn’t risking embarrassment. So, what the heck, I broke into song.  The song pretty much chose me.

“Could be
Who knows
There’s something due any day
I will know right away, soon as it shows”

My exuberance was triggered by the eloquent high school students I had met at the 25th Anniversary celebration of EL Education, which you may know as Expeditionary Learning. More than 150 schools have embraced EL, and its open source curriculum is being used in thousands more schools. Detroit, arguably the nation’s worst school system, has just embraced EL, and that could be its first step upward.  But, for me, that evening was representative of something that is happening in schools and statehouses and public squares across America.

“Could it be? Yes it could, something’ s coming, something good”

Something is definitely coming. It feels like a great awakening of what it means to be an American, the recognition of what it will take for our country to live up to its promises, and a surprising determination to take control, to act.  I believe this started with Black Lives Matter, and was followed by the Women’s March one day after the inauguration of Donald Trump. Then came #MeToo, followed by #Never Again, led by students from Parkland High School.  Recently, we have seen teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Minnesota, and elsewhere say, in effect, “NO MAS!”  And, finally, the latest NAEP results, showing more flat-lining and a widening achievement gap, seem to be convincing more people that ‘test-and-punish’ was stupid and dangerous policy.

“I got a feeling there’s a miracle due, gonna come true coming to me”

I felt it when I visited several Urban Assembly High Schools.  This network of 21 schools in New York City (and now in LA) is another occasion for hope.

“There’s something due any day, I will know right away, soon as it shows”

Good things are happening in other places too, like Barnett Berry’s network of teacher-run schools and the work being done by Ted Kolderie, Curtis Johnson, and Joe Graba and their Education/Evolving project.

“It may come cannonballing down from the sky, gleaming its eye bright as a rose, Who knows, it’s only just out of reach, down the block on a beach under a tree”

Of course there’s plenty of depressing stuff going in on public education: A US Secretary of Education who is hostile to public education, the proliferation of profiteers in the ‘Charter World’ and on-line education, the resegregation of public education, and the intentional underfunding of schools in dozens of states.  But if we continue to work together, those obstacles can be thrown aside.  

“The air is humming and something great is coming, who knows, it’s only just out of reach, down the block on a beach, maybe tonight”

The song is, of course, Something’s Coming, from West Side Story.  

That’s really all I have to say.  Whether you agree or disagree, please post your thoughts below.

And if you would like to know more about EL Education and Urban Assemblies, please keep reading:

This passage about EL Education is taken from my new book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education:

Paul Tough, the author of How Children Succeed, is a fan of Expeditionary Learning.  “The central premise of EL Schools is that character is built not through lectures or direct instruction from teachers but through the experience of persevering as students confront challenging academic work.”  In his article in The Atlantic, he described the inner workings:

Classrooms at EL schools are by design much more engaging and interactive than classrooms in most other American public schools. They are full of student discussions and group activities large and small; teachers guide the conversation, but they spend considerably less time lecturing than most other public-school teachers do.

EL students complete a lot of rigorous and demanding long-term projects, often going through extensive and repeated revisions based on critiques from teachers and peers. They frequently work on these projects in collaborative groups, and many projects conclude with students giving a presentation in front of the class, the school, or even a community group. In addition, students are responsible, whenever possible, for assessing themselves; two or three times a year, at report-card time, parents or other family members come to the school for meetings known as student-led conferences, in which students as young as 5 narrate for their parents and teachers their achievements and struggles over the past semester.

However, the best way to fully grasp what Expeditionary Learning entails is to go on an expedition, which is what my former colleague at the PBS NewsHour, John Tulenko, did. John followed a group of 8th graders in Portland, Maine, over four months as they worked to invent a labor-saving device for the home. It remains one of my favorite NewsHour pieces, and I urge you to click and watch. It may be the best 8 minutes and 51 seconds you’ll ever spend.

Now, about my second reason for singing:  Richard Kahan, the founder of Urban Assemblies, spent 35 years in public service and private real estate; then in 1990 he decided that he hadn’t made enough of a difference, and so he turned to education.  Most people who take this road do what is logical and easy: they start with kindergarten and first grade!  Not Richard! He started HIGH SCHOOLS, meaning that he would be working with kids who had already experienced 8-10 years of traditional public schools.  

Urban Assembly High Schools focus on professions, are open enrollment with no admissions criteria, are traditional public schools (not charter schools), and embrace Social and Emotional Learning.  A few examples: The School for Law, Government, and Justice, The Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, The Bronx Academy of Letters, the Gateway School for Technology, The Maker Academy, the Media High School, and the Harbor School.  I have recently visited three of them and have been impressed by the students and the teachers.  

“Could it be? Yes it could, something’ s coming something good, if I can wait, something’s coming I don’t know what it is but it is gonna be great”