JENNIFER GHIDIU, REGIONAL DIRECTOR OF NETWORK SUPPORT & RESEARCH
When Big Picture Learning’s regional directors recently gathered, we worked with Michael Soguero and Sarah Bertucci, from Eagle Rock’s Professional Development Center. To aid us in our work, Sarah and Michael took us through a process of developing our “hedgehogs.” The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Though we often need to be nimble, responsive and knowledgeable about a large number of topics and developments in education (foxes), we also need to be crystal-clear about what we’re doing, as individuals (hedgehogs). Our hedgehog is our main focus.
My hedgehog is ‘Research to Practice.’ As Big Picture Learning’s Regional Director of Network Support & Research, it’s my job to connect the often disparate worlds of research and practice. So many of the researchers I’ve connected with express frustration that there is this seeming divide between the world of schools and the world of research. The ivory tower of academic research, so to speak, is so separate from the work of practitioners in the field.
But it’s not just academics; I think that with the rise of accountability, of big data and the ramp-up of testing, practitioners are finding themselves in a bind around measures. It’s challenging to approach research, evaluation or measures as a practitioner, when you’re already subject to the measures of accountability systems. Sometimes it feels like evaluation fatigue.
But this past week, I was able to participate in a summit around practical measurement, offered by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Improvement science is what the Carnegie Foundation offers as a solution to bridging the divide between research and practice. Schools focusing on creating their own approaches to improvement, and developing their own drivers for change, and their own measures along the way—practitioners becoming researchers of their own work. It’s an elegant solution. It’s empowering. It’s my hedgehog.
This fall, I’ll be bringing together some of our Big Picture Learning schools to create a Networked Improvement Community. We’ll tackle one aspect of practice and dig in deeply to create drivers for change and improvement around that practice. The work combines the art of practice with the science of improvement. A Networked Improvement Community gives practitioners a chance to build their own systems for improvement, to design solutions to the challenges they choose, and to build measures along the way. It gives us a chance to work together around shared values and to learn from each other.
I’ll be running a workshop at Big Bang this August about taking back research and measures called “Every Datum Tells a Story, Don’t it.” In the workshop, I’ll be presenting findings from Big Picture Learning’s Longitudinal Study, and also talking about how, as experts in practice, we can make our work, our learning, and our fantastic schools part of the education research dialogue. Come join me in celebrating my hedgehog– Research to Practice—as we continue to tell the story of our work to the world.
Accreditations are a form of quality assurance — an endorsement of sorts that confirm, in our case, that the learning institution in question has met the standards necessary to be considered at or above industry agreed upon standards.
And here at Eagle Rock School, we have acquired three such educational accreditations, all of which combine to serve as a testament to our approach, add credence to our curriculum, and provide recognized approval to our approach to reengaging youth in their own education.
We’re pleased to present Eagle Rock’s chapter in the National Society for the Study of Education 2014 Yearbook entitled Engaging Youth in Schools: Evidence-Based Models to Guide Future Innovations.
Engagement can prevent struggling students from dropping out, and re-engagement in learning can help struggling students who have dropped out return to school and graduate. This chapter presents a case study about a struggling student who dropped out and then came to Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center, became engaged in her learning, and graduated. The authors provide policy and practice recommendations as well as a discussion of factors that affect engagement.
Sylvie Rose Ortiz1 is a 16-year-old adolescent from California. A child of a Hispanic father and an African-American mother, Sylvie lived in middle- class comfort until her parents divorced when she was 13. At that time, she and her mother and two younger siblings moved into an apartment with her maternal grandmother in the Compton area of South Central Los Angeles. Both her mother and grandmother worked full time; her father had abandoned the family. Sylvie’s responsibilities for her younger brother and sister multiplied, and she frequently had to miss school to take care of them when they were sick.
It was hard to stay involved in her new school and much easier to be at home with her family. Sylvie began to cut her last two classes of the day so that she could be home when her younger siblings came home. She began to cut other classes as well, using her time out of class to connect with the only new friends she could find, students who were also cutting classes and hanging around nearby convenience stores.
“I didn’t matter,” Sylvie said, recalling eighth grade. “The teachers didn’t recognize me when I was there, and they didn’t notice when I was gone.” Sylvie intercepted most school communications sent to her mother, who, like her grandmother, had begun working two jobs just to make ends meet because the family was in crisis financially.
Somehow, Sylvie passed eighth grade and was promoted to ninth grade at a nearby high school. “I’m not sure I learned anything in them, but my core classes were in the morning and usually I could get to them. I didn’t do homework, but I was a good test-taker. So I passed.”
As a freshman, Sylvie attended classes for the first month and then dropped out. “I didn’t see the point [of going to school],” she said. “My home-life sucked. My brother kept running away, and I couldn’t do any- thing for him. School was so boring.” Her friends had dropped out, and they provided her only escape from the depressing responsibilities she had at home. Eventually, she moved in with two of these friends and began to work at a convenience store. She also began to drink and do drugs with her friends. In mid-October Sylvie passed out at a party, and her friends took her to the emergency room.
Frightened by her visit to the emergency room, Sylvie moved back in with her mother, grandmother, brother, and sister. She tried to go to school again but eventually dropped out, despairing because she felt she was far behind other freshmen, still had not made friends, and had re- newed responsibilities at home. A social worker who had contacted her at the hospital remained in contact with her and suggested that Sylvie think about going to Eagle Rock, which the social worker described as an inde- pendent school in Colorado designed for drop outs.
This story has a happy ending. Sylvie Rose Ortiz became fiercely en- gaged in her own learning at Eagle Rock School and Professional Devel- opment Center. She grew to be a leader, mentoring other students, for ex- ample. She graduated from Eagle Rock in April, 2010, served a six-month fellowship with a youth services organization, and chose among three col- leges that had accepted her with a full scholarship. She selected a college known for service learning, Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, has been a leader in terms of service to others there, and expects to graduate in 2014 with a degree in sociology.
Much happened, of course, between her admission to Eagle Rock in 2006 and her graduation in 2010, as this chapter reveals. Sylvie’s path to graduation was neither smooth nor steady, but she managed to do some- thing she thought impossible in 2006—she graduated from high school, looking forward to college, believing she could succeed, and living a healthy, productive life.
What had happened during the time in between? Can the conditions that made it possible for Sylvie to succeed be established at other schools, res- cuing students who have either dropped out or are likely to do so? The authors of this chapter believe that they can. The key to Sylvie’s success was engagement, and, although public, private, parochial, charter, and inde- pendent schools cannot be expected to replicate Eagle Rock, they can adapt their environments to engage young people who are struggling to learn. The factors leading to engagement are replicable in other environments.
In the first section of this chapter, the authors describe Sylvie’s journey through Eagle Rock, highlighting school conditions that led to her en- gagement in learning. Then they discuss engagement in general and what it means at Eagle Rock. Finally, they offer policy and practice recommen- dations related to enhancing engagement in all schools.
Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center (ERS) is an ini- tiative of the American Honda Education Corporation, a nonprofit sub- sidiary of the American Honda Motor Company.2 It is a full-scholarship (free tuition, room, and board) school for high-school age students from around the country and a low-cost professional development center for adults. Eagle Rock is located in the mountain resort community of Estes Park, Colorado, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Eagle Rock opened in the fall of 1993 and, since then, has admitted and graduated students three times per year. A year-round residential school, Eagle Rock is purposefully small with a capacity of 96 students.
Its students are admitted between the ages of 15 and 17 and can stay until they graduate; the oldest graduating student was 21. About half are of color and half are male. Typically, they have not experienced success in “regular” (mostly public) schools, and most have dropped out with no expectation of graduating from high school.
The school year is comprised of three 13-week trimesters and 3–5 week breaks in between each trimester (see a typical year’s schedule in Figure 1). Most students take between eight and 14 trimesters to graduate (two and two thirds to four and one third years).
Many, but not all, students stay to graduate from Eagle Rock. Some leave on their own volition or are asked to leave because they break a nonnegotiable (no violence, sex, tobacco, drugs, or alcohol). Some of those who leave recommit to their education at Eagle Rock, apply to re- turn through a process called Second Chance, and graduate. Most who leave but do not come back are able to graduate from their home or other schools or get their General Equivalency Diplomas (GEDs). Approximate- ly 90% of all students who entered Eagle Rock not expecting to graduate from high school are able to obtain diplomas.
In a culture that does not prize testing, especially large-scale testing us- ing standardized multiple-choice formats, Eagle Rock students do well, with the differences between pre- and post-test scores at a significant, highly significant, or very highly significant level (Easton, 2008a, p. 2). Their performance on SATs and ACTs matches the profile of high school students anywhere.
Many graduates go on to college or university but not all. A few have gone on to obtain graduate degrees. As in public high school popula- tions, not all ERS students stay in college; some leave and some return at some later date. In addition, some serve in the military, get jobs, and/ or start families.
MORE ABOUT SYLVIE: HER FIRST TRIMESTER (ER 37)
Sylvie entered with 12 other students as part of the class of ER 37 (the 37th trimester of the school since its beginning). She settled into a “house” (a dormitory with two wings, one for up to eight females, one for up to eight males, and a houseparent who is also a member of the faculty or staff) with 10 continuing and two new students, like Sylvie. In her first two weeks as a student, she attended courses required of all new students to prepare them for Eagle Rock and their 25-day wilderness trip. These included physical conditioning, learning the basics of thriving in the wil- derness, and ERS 101, taught by the head of school to orient new students to the culture. In ERS 101, she and her cohort were required to recite by memory the founding code of Eagle Rock, summarized as “8 + 5 = 10” (Figure 2), and she had to demonstrate that she understood deeply what the code means, which she chose to do through artwork and stories. Un- derstanding school culture at Eagle Rock is not left to chance; students study it in ERS 101 and it is embedded in everything they do from their first trimester through graduation.
After two weeks of orientation, ER 37 went on a three-week wilderness trip. At Eagle Rock, the wilderness trip is seen as a way to introduce stu- dents to challenges they’ll face personally, socially, and academically. It is a metaphor for what they think they can and cannot do. As it was January, she went to the Superstition Mountains in Arizona with her cohort. After a week of hiking with a 50-lb pack, making camp and learning to trust and be trustworthy (and fighting her own demons through “strong circles,” during which the whole group stood in a circle until reaching resolution of a personal or interpersonal issue), she and ER 37 engaged in a service project for a week, and in the third week reached a level of collaboration and shared leadership that allowed them to exit the wilderness. After the long drive from Arizona, the students shrugged off their packs, ran to- gether the last few miles onto the Eagle Rock campus, and were welcomed as new students (no longer provisional) by the Eagle Rock community.
As part of their wilderness debriefing, students prepared the first of the many Presentations of Learning (POLs) they would give; they each had 5 minutes to demonstrate their personal and social growth to the ERS community. Sylvie’s 5-minute presentation of learning about her wilder- ness trip was agonizing and she cried as she gave it, but other members of ER 37 and the entire ERS community supported her both physically and psychologically. She reasoned that she had managed to climb Weaver’s Needle in the Superstitions, and so she could just as easily make a 5-min presentation. She also understood that she would do regular presenta- tions and demonstrations in classes, as well as a formal one at the end of each trimester, and that she would get better at them.
During the last three weeks of the trimester, ER 37 students developed a variety of skills through learning experiences that prepare them to enter the “real” world of Eagle Rock: kitchen skills (students work in KP—Kitchen Patrol—teams to prepare, serve, and clean up meals); library, research, and computer skills; and time management and study skills. They contin- ued to work on personal and social growth as well. Eagle Rock does not assume that students know how to succeed. All first trimester experiences, including the wilderness trip, are orchestrated to help students learn to succeed rather than succumb to failure. Success is not left to chance.
Sylvie continued to do service projects with her cohort, learning the value of service as well as learning through service. For example, ER 37 built a play shelter at a preschool for low-income families. After initially reacting to service in a typical way (“What! They’re not paying me for all this work! Why should I do it?”), Sylvie began to take on leadership roles in service projects. Service helped her overcome feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness. She discovered that she liked being of use and, with other students, engaged in over 500 hours of service per year. She also liked learning mathematics and other subjects through service because service gave learning these subjects greater purpose.
Sylvie also learned how to prepare a Presentation of Learning (POL) packet to introduce herself to panel members (such as policymakers, teachers from other schools, university professors, or simply friends of Eagle Rock) who would witness her end-of-trimester exhibition of learn- ing, required of every student. The packets include a cover letter to panel members; an autobiography that is updated each trimester and presents information on both academic and personal growth; a description of class- es taken and learning achieved; a list of service projects; a list of books read; the beginnings of a moral and ethical code; and a set of growth state- ments that fit this sentence frame: “I used to ___ and/but now I ____.” Students know that panel members can ask questions about the contents of these packets as well as about the POLs themselves.
Over three days and in concurrent sessions, each student delivers a 15-minute presentation which is followed by 15 minutes of questions, first from panel members who come from outside Eagle Rock, and then from the audience comprised of peers, faculty, and staff who are likely to ask different questions from those asked by panel members. In addition to witnessing her peers’ Presentations of Learning, Sylvie also watched five graduate POLs, each 1 hour (or more) attended by the whole community. Not only did she learn from her peers through observing their POLs, she also raised her own expectations. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps I will get to do a graduate POL.
Like all ER students in their first trimester, Sylvie could not go home. In subsequent trimesters, they and she (if she could arrange it) could go home occasionally on weekends, but going home also meant miss- ing out on important community endeavors and activities. Community is important at Eagle Rock. Small as it is, the whole Eagle Rock community can fit into one large room: students, faculty, staff, fellows, administra- tors, parents, family members, and visitors on campus. For example, the whole community participates in 30-min Gatherings each weekday, except Wednesdays, when they participate in a 1-hour Community Meeting. Gath- erings and Community Meetings feature face-to-face information sharing; dialogue and discussion on issues and problems; rituals and story-telling; humor, fun and games; rewards, recognition, and celebration; a focus on what 8 + 5 = 10 looks like in daily ERS life; the reading of letters from grad- uates, former staff members, and friends of Eagle Rock; presentations on personal growth from near graduates; focus on leadership and learning; and singing and silence. Students often organize and run these meetings or parts of them.
In addition to congregating as a whole community, faculty and staff connect with a house and participate in house meetings, and they play intramurals with students in their houses against those in other houses. Advisories are smaller groups within houses that unite students, facul- ty, and staff to focus on individual progress. Gender meetings twice a month allow students to focus on personal issues such as sexuality. Also, students serve with adults on a variety of committees, including those charged with hiring new faculty or staff or improving some aspect of Ea- gle Rock. Most important to Sylvie was the community available through just hanging out with fellow students and faculty and staff in the Lodge and taking meals together.
Her first break, between Trimesters 37 and 38, was a real challenge for Sylvie, who could hardly wait to get back to her friends. Naturally, she indulged in all the behaviors that had sent her to Eagle Rock, forgetting the admonishment before she left to “wear one hat”—the Eagle Rock hat—and practice 8 + 5 = 10, even while home.
Sheepishly and a little hung over, Sylvie returned to the campus for ER 38. She participated in a two-day service project with the entire Ea- gle Rock community. She also engaged in community-building activities with her housemates during a three-day house retreat. During the ensu- ing two-day all-school retreat, she and students and staff focused on the meaning of a book they had been given to read during break, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Along with others, she welcomed ER 38 students when they arrived, and served as a mentor to one of them, just as she had had a mentor in ER 37.
SYLVIE’S SECOND TRIMESTER (ER 38)
In an advisory meeting at the beginning of ER 38, her peers and staff advi- sor helped Sylvie understand that graduation from ERS is different from graduation from traditional schools. For example, Sylvie had no credits from her previous high school as she had attended it for the first few weeks only, so she expected to be admitted as a freshman, something that would have embarrassed her because of her age. However, she soon learned that ERS does not divide students into grade levels, such as freshman, sopho- more, junior, or senior, and it does not expect students to advance from one grade to another in a year’s time or graduate in four years’ time.
Like most new students, Sylvie also understood high school according to a “regular” school model of seat time. She thought all she had to do was show up for minimum number class periods, do some assignments, take tests at a passing level to get credit, and thereby gain enough credits in the required classes to graduate. She learned that there are a variety of learning experiences at ER, of which classes are only one. Others include service activities, internships, committee responsibilities, and self-initiated and independent study. She learned that classes are vehicles for learn- ing, not units of credit, and that she needed to document what she had learned—through any learning experience—in order to get credit.
Best of all, Sylvie discovered that ERS provides a map to graduation, the Individualized Learning Plan (ILP). The ILP is simultaneously a descrip- tion of graduation requirements, a way of noting progress towards gradu- ation, and a transcript. Sylvie’s advisor shared the ILP from one of the advisory’s graduates with the entire advisory (Figure 3).
On the first page, left column, they found the 5 Expectations Power Standards, which describe the final demonstrations, performances, or documentations students must provide in order to graduate. These are based on the five expectations from the Eagle Rock code 8 + 5 = 10. The power standard for each expectation establishes the importance of the expectation in terms of life at and after Eagle Rock. The assessment gives students some guidelines for the demonstration, performance, or docu- mentation they must produce to prove proficiency in the standard.
When students have achieved a level of proficiency or better on an as- sessment, according to a rubric specific to it, the registrar checks the box in front of that expectation and puts the demonstration, performance, or documentation (or an artifact of it) into the student’s portfolio.
Sylvie’s advisory examined the middle column on the first page, Distribution Requirements. Students are required to earn a minimum of 24 credits in this column, at least two in each of the five expectations. Once students have met the required two credits per expectation (a total of 10), they can pursue the remaining credits in a manner that matches their strengths, struggles, and goals. Thus, they can concentrate on expecta- tions that are the most important to them—what might be called a ma- jor—after they have engaged minimally in all five expectations.
The credits in this column reflect the accomplishment of classwork, such as a science portfolio, to a level of proficiency or better. The instruc- tional specialist determines how much credit can be awarded, based on the demands of the work (usually one or two credits). The titles after the number of credits in this column are the titles of the learning experi- ences, often courses, followed by the dates and trimester the credits were recorded.
Within a single learning experience, students might earn credits for more than one expectation (or more than one credit for the same expec- tation). For example, in one learning experience, a student may have de- signed and carried out to a level of proficiency or better a service project (recorded as a credit under Expanding Knowledge Base) and written an essay about an issue raised in class (recorded as a credit under Effective Communication). Or, in a single class, a student might complete to pro- ficiency or better two mathematics portfolios (recorded as credits under Expanding Knowledge Base).
Sylvie and her advisory talked about the Required Experiences on page one in the far right-hand column of the ILP. These describe specific docu- mentations a student must produce in terms of the expectations. They do not necessarily produce these in a class. For example, students create their personal growth portfolios, their Portfolio of Possibilities (planning for their future) and Life Skills Portfolio (personal budgeting, for example) on their own or with the individual help of a staff member. They do Pre- sentations of Learning outside classes (although classes involve them in making plenty of presentations of learning). They may enroll in a class to help them with the food service credits or do these through KP. They may create their service learning portfolio through classes or by working on their own as they engage in any of a number of ERS service learning opportunities. Peer mentoring occurs outside of class.
When they flipped to page two, Sylvie’s advisory noticed that this page provides a place for details and explanations of what is on the first page of the ILP. It also includes Non-Credit Awards, Experiences, & Recogni- tions, one of which is “3Ps.” Sylvie already knew about the 3Ps; in fact, she had received a 3P Superstar Award twice in ER 38, which meant that she had no marks against her for a week in terms of Preparation, Participa- tion, and Punctuality. She didn’t see any reason she couldn’t get zero 3Ps, thus getting a Superstar Award and having Zero 3Ps marked on her ILP for each week of each trimester. She didn’t yet know about Excellence
Awards, which are given at the end of each trimester to 5–10 students, staff, and others who have gone “above and beyond” in some way. And she found herself excited by the unusual Explore Week class, the Green River trip, which was also recorded on this page.
She was impressed that leadership counts so much at Eagle Rock that instances of it are recorded on the ILP. A wing leader is someone who has served as the leader in either the boys’ or girls’ wing of a house or dormi- tory. Students do chores once a week, and each crew has a leader; the stu- dent whose ILP Sylvie’s advisory was viewing was the leader of the Library Research Center (LRC) clean-up crew during one trimester. A KP leader is someone who leads a Kitchen Patrol team in terms of food preparation, service, or clean-up. A Mag 7 leader is among the Magnificent 7, a group of veteran students who have responsibilities in the evenings and on week- ends in terms of monitoring the behavior of others, providing assistance to students who need help, and assisting the staff on duty.
Although Sylvie did not know it, this ILP was the latest generation of ILPs created by the faculty based on standards current at the time. Initial- ly, ILPs referenced standards published by professional groups such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. When Colorado developed the Colorado State Model Content Standards (with the ERS Director of Curriculum chairing the English/Language Arts Committee to develop standards in that discipline), the Model Content Standards were the basis for the ILP. Currently, the ILP reflects the philosophy and standards ex- pressed as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), in accord especially with the CCSS’s emphasis on higher level thinking and literacy.
As Sylvie studied her own ILP, she appreciated that the expectations were so clear and seemed worthwhile. Who could argue with a require- ment to create healthy life choices or communicate well? She also appreci- ated the transparency of the ILP; she understood exactly what to do. Still, she was a bit dismayed about all she had to do. Only after she had com- pleted ER 38 would it be clear to her that she could work on more than one expectation and document several of the distribution requirements from a single learning experience.
She was also a little daunted by the rigor of the requirements. How in the world, she wondered, would she be able to do the major research project, which required her to “Explore a topic you are passionate about, you know little about and communicate your new knowledge to a prede- termined audience”? Like many students, before coming to Eagle Rock she had written nothing longer than half a page, and these hurriedly com- posed paragraphs were mostly plot summaries of books she found boring.
At the end of ER 37, teachers of the classes scheduled for ER 38 had pitched their courses during one lively Gathering (“Who ever heard of teachers acting like the worst TV sales guys ever, just to get students to take their classes?” she noted in a letter home), and Sylvie had registered for three classes that excited her: The Science of Cooking, Gonzo Journal- ism (taught by the head of the school), and Entrepreneurship. She liked having choices and being in classes with students both older and younger than she.
Although she was not aware of it, early in ER 37, any staff member who wanted to teach a class (especially the instructional specialists, fellows, and student teachers) had crafted one or more course proposals for ER 38, using the five expectations, power standards, and other aspects of the ILP as the basis for these courses. Midway during ER 37, the Director of Cur- riculum and the instructional specialists had analyzed the course propos- als and decided which ones would create an optimum course schedule for ER 38. They made sure of several things: (a) that near-graduates had the courses they needed to help them graduate; (b) that there were offerings addressing all five expectations; (c) that the courses catered to a variety of learning style preferences; and (d) that the schedule provided a blend of old, familiar, and cherished courses and new exciting offerings.
Then they had to create a schedule for ER 38. Conventionally, the day has three periods, and most courses are one period in length for the entire 10 weeks. But sometimes course proposals require some reconfig- uring of time. For example, service learning courses often need two pe- riods so students can travel to and from a service site and do substantial work while there. Intense courses such as Devising Your Own Moral and Ethical Code require a shorter but constant time period, best scheduled for five weeks, one period a day. Obviously, as one alteration in the con- ventional schedule is made—such as scheduling two periods for a class or one class for five rather than 10 weeks—other alterations also need to be made, and this process is complicated because ERS always wants to give students a variety of classes from which to choose. As a small school, ERS has the luxury of formatting learning experiences to fit the needs of the students, instructors, and content, but the process is not without its challenges.
The classes Sylvie took were very different from the classes she had taken at her previous public high school. First, there were no textbooks; students used teacher-made materials, the Internet, the library, and pri- mary resources (including real people they could interview, such as the chefs and chemists Sylvie interviewed in her Science of Cooking class). Second, there were no grades. Student work is declared proficient or not according to specific rubrics that students are provided advance of their work, and may even have created themselves with the guidance of instruc- tors. If not proficient—yet—the work can be redone until it demonstrates
proficiency or better. Sometimes “yet” means that students carry work over into the next trimester, folding it into what they do in new classes (as Sylvie did with work started in Entrepreneurship); sometimes it means that they independently work to complete in one trimester something started in an- other. Sometimes students abandon the work they have started and, later, begin again, perhaps with a new focus or a new process.
Sylvie learned that most learning is project based; some learning in- volves students teaching other students; all of it is discovery or inquiry oriented. It is active and interactive. Sylvie seldom sat and simply listened to a lecture—although occasionally she learned through mini lessons that led to activities. She also seldom took a quiz or test; she discovered that she had to demonstrate her learning in other ways.
According to Sylvie, assessment had always been a bit of a “hidden-ball trick.” For example, she had seldom known what would be on a test, some- times being lucky and sometimes not. At ERS, she welcomed being assessed according to documentations of learning that she produced according to known performance qualities. The rubrics were especially valuable to her because she knew exactly what qualities she had to demonstrate in her work for it to reach proficiency or better, and the instructional specialists often crafted mini lessons related to these qualities. The rubrics also estab- lished rigor in the ERS curriculum and, through them, Sylvie learned to raise expectations for her own work. Gradually, the rubrics stimulated Sylvie to strive for quality, rather than settle for whatever was the minimum, as she had in the past.
In two of her classes, Sylvie had two teachers, called instructional specialists, and a fellow; in the third, she had three teachers because ERS was hosting a student teacher. She struggled to call the adults she worked with by their first names but gradually began to like what a first-name basis connotes in terms of equality as learners. Instructional specialists are expected to be proficient in a particular discipline but cross-disciplinary in their thinking, and above all, experts in what it takes to help students learn.
Each year, Eagle Rock hosts 12 fellows who are part of Public Allies, a national organization that develops new generations of diverse lead- ers (http://www.publicallies.org). Each year, a few ERS fellows enter and complete ERS’s alternative licensing program approved by the Colorado Department of Education. In addition to fellows, Eagle Rock sometimes has other interns, student teachers, graduate researchers, and other indi- viduals who want to study and learn at ERS. The large number of adults plus the small number of students means that most classes have about 15 students and two or three teachers.
You can tell a lot about a teacher’s values and personality just by asking how he or she feels about giving grades. Some defend the practice, claiming that grades are necessary to “motivate” students. Many of these teachers actually seem to enjoy keeping intricate records of students’ marks. Such teachers periodically warn students that they’re “going to have to know this for the test” as a way of compelling them to pay attention or do the assigned readings – and they may even use surprise quizzes for that purpose, keeping their grade books at the ready.
Frankly, we ought to be worried for these teachers’ students. In my experience, the most impressive teachers are those who despise the whole process of giving grades. Their aversion, as it turns out, is supported by solid evidence that raises questions about the very idea of traditional grading.
Three Main Effects of Grading
Researchers have found three consistent effects of using – and especially, emphasizing the importance of – letter or number grades:
1. Grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself. One of the most well-researched findings in the field of motivational psychology is that the more people are rewarded for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward (Kohn, 1993). Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that when students are told they’ll need to know something for a test – or, more generally, that something they’re about to do will count for a grade – they are likely to come to view that task (or book or idea) as a chore.
While it’s not impossible for a student to be concerned about getting high marks and also to like what he or she is doing, the practical reality is that these two ways of thinking generally pull in opposite directions. Some research has explicitly demonstrated that a “grade orientation” and a “learning orientation” are inversely related (Beck et al., 1991; Milton et al., 1986). More strikingly, study after study has found that students — from elementary school to graduate school, and across cultures – demonstrate less interest in learning as a result of being graded (Benware and Deci, 1984; Butler, 1987; Butler and Nisan, 1986; Grolnick and Ryan, 1987; Harter and Guzman, 1986; Hughes et al., 1985; Kage, 1991; Salili et al., 1976). Thus, anyone who wants to see students get hooked on words and numbers and ideas already has reason to look for other ways of assessing and describing their achievement.
2. Grades tend to reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks. Students of all ages who have been led to concentrate on getting a good grade are likely to pick the easiest possible assignment if given a choice (Harter, 1978; Harter and Guzman, 1986; Kage, 1991; Milton et al., 1986). The more pressure to get an A, the less inclination to truly challenge oneself. Thus, students who cut corners may not be lazy so much as rational; they are adapting to an environment where good grades, not intellectual exploration, are what count. They might well say to us, “Hey, you told me the point here is to bring up my GPA, to get on the honor roll. Well, I’m not stupid: the easier the assignment, the more likely that I can give you what you want. So don’t blame me when I try to find the easiest thing to do and end up not learning anything.”
3. Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking. Given that students may lose interest in what they’re learning as a result of grades, it makes sense that they’re also apt to think less deeply. One series of studies, for example, found that students given numerical grades were significantly less creative than those who received qualitative feedback but no grades. The more the task required creative thinking, in fact, the worse the performance of students who knew they were going to be graded. Providing students with comments in addition to a grade didn’t help: the highest achievement occurred only when comments were given instead of numerical scores (Butler, 1987; Butler, 1988; Butler and Nisan, 1986).
In another experiment, students told they would be graded on how well they learned a social studies lesson had more trouble understanding the main point of the text than did students who were told that no grades would be involved. Even on a measure of rote recall, the graded group remembered fewer facts a week later (Grolnick and Ryan, 1987). A brand-new study discovered that students who tended to think about current events in terms of what they’d need to know for a grade were less knowledgeable than their peers, even after taking other variables into account (Anderman and Johnston, 1998).
More Reasons to Just Say No to Grades
The preceding three results should be enough to cause any conscientious educator to rethink the practice of giving students grades. But as they say on late-night TV commercials, Wait – there’s more.
4. Grades aren’t valid, reliable, or objective. A “B” in English says nothing about what a student can do, what she understands, where she needs help. Moreover, the basis for that grade is as subjective as the result is uninformative. A teacher can meticulously record scores for one test or assignment after another, eventually calculating averages down to a hundredth of a percentage point, but that doesn’t change the arbitrariness of each of these individual marks. Even the score on a math test is largely a reflection of how the test was written: what skills the teacher decided to assess, what kinds of questions happened to be left out, and how many points each section was “worth.”
Moreover, research has long been available to confirm what all of us know: any given assignment may well be given two different grades by two equally qualified teachers. It may even be given two different grades by a single teacher who reads it at two different times (for example, see some of the early research reviewed in Kirschenbaum et al., 1971). In short, what grades offer is spurious precision – a subjective rating masquerading as an objective evaluation.
5. Grades distort the curriculum. A school’s use of letter or number grades may encourage what I like to call a “bunch o’ facts” approach to instruction because that sort of learning is easier to score. The tail of assessment thus comes to wag the educational dog.
6. Grades waste a lot of time that could be spent on learning. Add up all the hours that teachers spend fussing with their grade books. Then factor in all the (mostly unpleasant) conversations they have with students and their parents about grades. It’s tempting to just roll our eyes when confronted with whining or wheedling, but the real problem rests with the practice of grading itself.
7. Grades encourage cheating. Again, we can continue to blame and punish all the students who cheat — or we can look for the structural reasons this keeps happening. Researchers have found that the more students are led to focus on getting good grades, the more likely they are to cheat, even if they themselves regard cheating as wrong (Anderman et al., 1998; Milton et al., 1986; also see “Who’s Cheating Whom?”).
8. Grades spoil teachers’ relationships with students. Consider this lament, which could have been offered by a teacher in your district:
I’m getting tired of running a classroom in which everything we do revolves around grades. I’m tired of being suspicious when students give me compliments, wondering whether or not they are just trying to raise their grade. I’m tired of spending so much time and energy grading your papers, when there are probably a dozen more productive and enjoyable ways for all of us to handle the evaluation of papers. I’m tired of hearing you ask me ‘Does this count?’ And, heaven knows, I’m certainly tired of all those little arguments and disagreements we get into concerning marks which take so much fun out of the teaching and the learning. . . (Kirschenbaum et al., 1971, p. 115).
9. Grades spoil students’ relationships with each other. The quality of students’ thinking has been shown to depend partly on the extent to which they are permitted to learn cooperatively (Johnson and Johnson, 1989; Kohn, 1992). Thus, the ill feelings, suspicion, and resentment generated by grades aren’t just disagreeable in their own right; they interfere with learning.
The most destructive form of grading by far is that which is done “on a curve,” such that the number of top grades is artificially limited: no matter how well all the students do, not all of them can get an A. Apart from the intrinsic unfairness of this arrangement, its practical effect is to teach students that others are potential obstacles to their own success. The kind of collaboration that can help all students to learn more effectively doesn’t stand a chance in such an environment.
Sadly, even teachers who don’t explicitly grade on a curve may assume, perhaps unconsciously, that the final grades “ought to” come out looking more or less this way: a few very good grades, a few very bad grades, and the majority somewhere in the middle. But as one group of researchers pointed out, “It is not a symbol of rigor to have grades fall into a ‘normal’ distribution; rather, it is a symbol of failure — failure to teach well, failure to test well, and failure to have any influence at all on the intellectual lives of students” (Milton et al., 1986, p. 225).
The competition that turns schooling into a quest for triumph and ruptures relationships among students doesn’t just happen within classrooms, of course. The same effect is witnessed at a schoolwide level when kids are not just rated but ranked, sending the message that the point isn’t to learn, or even to perform well, but to defeat others. Some students might be motivated to improve their class rank, but that is completely different from being motivated to understand ideas. (Wise educators realize that it doesn’t matter how motivated students are; what matters is how students are motivated. It is the type of motivation that counts, not the amount.)
Grade Inflation . . . and Other Distractions
Most of us are directly acquainted with at least some of these disturbing consequences of grades, yet we continue to reduce students to letters or numbers on a regular basis. Perhaps we’ve become inured to these effects and take them for granted. This is the way it’s always been, we assume, and the way it has to be. It’s rather like people who have spent all their lives in a terribly polluted city and have come to assume that this is just the way air looks – and that it’s natural to be coughing all the time.
Oddly, when educators are shown that it doesn’t have to be this way, some react with suspicion instead of relief. They want to know why you’re making trouble, or they assert that you’re exaggerating the negative effects of grades (it’s really not so bad – cough, cough), or they dismiss proven alternatives to grading on the grounds that our school could never do what others schools have done.
The practical difficulties of abolishing letter grades are real. But the key question is whether those difficulties are seen as problems to be solved or as excuses for perpetuating the status quo. The logical response to the arguments and data summarized here is to say: “Good heavens! If even half of this is true, then it’s imperative we do whatever we can, as soon as we can, to phase out traditional grading.” Yet many people begin and end with the problems of implementation, responding to all this evidence by saying, in effect, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but we’ll never get rid of grades because . . .”
It is also striking how many educators never get beyond relatively insignificant questions, such as how many tests to give, or how often to send home grade reports, or what grade should be given for a specified level of achievement (e.g., what constitutes “B” work), or what number corresponds to what letter. Some even reserve their outrage for the possibility that too many students are ending up with good grades, a reaction that suggests stinginess with A’s is being confused with intellectual rigor. The evidence indicates that the real problem isn’t grade inflation; it’s grades. The proper occasion for outrage is not that too many students are getting A’s, but that too many students have accepted that getting A’s is the point of going to school.
Let’s consider the most frequently heard responses to the above arguments – which is to say, the most common objections to getting rid of grades.
First, it is said that students expect to receive grades and even seem addicted to them. This is often true; personally, I’ve taught high school students who reacted to the absence of grades with what I can only describe as existential vertigo. (Who am I, if not a B+?) But as more elementary and even some middle schools move to replace grades with more informative (and less destructive) systems of assessment, the damage doesn’t begin until students get to high school. Moreover, elementary and middle schools that haven’t changed their practices often cite the local high school as the reason they must get students used to getting grades regardless of their damaging effects — just as high schools point the finger at colleges.
Even when students arrive in high school already accustomed to grades, already primed to ask teachers, “Do we have to know this?” or “What do I have to do to get an A?”, this is a sign that something is very wrong. It’s more an indictment of what has happened to them in the past than an argument to keep doing it in the future.
Perhaps because of this training, grades can succeed in getting students to show up on time, hand in their work, and otherwise do what they’re told. Many teachers are loath to give up what is essentially an instrument of control. But even to the extent this instrument works (which is not always), we are obliged to reflect on whether mindless compliance is really our goal. The teacher who exclaims, “These kids would blow off my course in a minute if they weren’t getting a grade for it!” may be issuing a powerful indictment of his or her course. Who would be more reluctant to give up grades than a teacher who spends the period slapping transparencies on the overhead projector and lecturing endlessly at students about Romantic poets or genetic codes? Without bribes (A’s) and threats (F’s), students would have no reason to do such assignments. To maintain that this proves something is wrong with the kids – or that grades are simply “necessary” – suggests a willful refusal to examine one’s classroom practices and assumptions about teaching and learning.
“If I can’t give a child a better reason for studying than a grade on a report card, I ought to lock my desk and go home and stay there.” So wrote Dorothy De Zouche, a Missouri teacher, in an article published in February . . . of 1945. But teachers who can give a child a better reason for studying don’t need grades. Research substantiates this: when the curriculum is engaging – for example, when it involves hands-on, interactive learning activities — students who aren’t graded at all perform just as well as those who are graded (Moeller and Reschke, 1993).
Another objection: it is sometimes argued that students must be given grades because colleges demand them. One might reply that “high schools have no responsibility to serve colleges by performing the sorting function for them” – particularly if that process undermines learning (Krumboltz and Yeh, 1996, p. 325). But in any case the premise of this argument is erroneous: traditional grades are not mandatory for admission to colleges and universities. (See Sidebar A.)
A friend of mine likes to say that people don’t resist change – they resist being changed. Even terrific ideas (like moving a school from a grade orientation to a learning orientation) are guaranteed to self-destruct if they are simply forced down people’s throats. The first step for an administrator, therefore, is to open up a conversation – to spend perhaps a full year just encouraging people to think and talk about the effects of (and alternatives to) traditional grades. This can happen in individual classes, as teachers facilitate discussions about how students regard grades, as well as in evening meetings with parents, or on a website — all with the help of relevant books, articles, speakers, videos, and visits to neighboring schools that are farther along in this journey.
The actual process of “de-grading” can be done in stages. For example, a high school might start by freeing ninth-grade classes from grades before doing the same for upperclassmen. (Even a school that never gets beyond the first stage will have done a considerable service, giving students one full year where they can think about what they’re learning instead of their GPAs.)
Another route to gradual change is to begin by eliminating only the most pernicious practices, such as grading on a curve or ranking students. Although grades, per se, may continue for a while, at least the message will be sent from the beginning that all students can do well, and that the point is to succeed rather than to beat others.
Anyone who has heard the term “authentic assessment” knows that abolishing grades doesn’t mean eliminating the process of gathering information about student performance – and communicating that information to students and parents. Rather, abolishing grades opens up possibilities that are far more meaningful and constructive. These include narratives (written comments), portfolios (carefully chosen collections of students’ writings and projects that demonstrate their interests, achievement, and improvement over time), student-led parent-teacher conferences, exhibitions and other opportunities for students to show what they can do.
Of course, it’s harder for a teacher to do these kinds of assessments if he or she has 150 or more students and sees each of them for 45-55 minutes a day. But that’s not an argument for continuing to use traditional grades; it’s an argument for challenging these archaic remnants of a factory-oriented approach to instruction, structural aspects of high schools that are bad news for reasons that go well beyond the issue of assessment. It’s an argument for looking into block scheduling, team teaching, interdisciplinary courses – and learning more about schools that have arranged things so each teacher can spend more time with fewer students (e.g., Meier, 1995).
Administrators should be prepared to respond to parental concerns, some of them completely reasonable, about the prospect of edging away from grades. “Don’t you value excellence?” You bet – and here’s the evidence that traditional grading undermines excellence. “Are you just trying to spare the self-esteem of students who do poorly?” We are concerned that grades may be making things worse for such students, yes, but the problem isn’t just that some kids won’t get A’s and will have their feelings hurt. The real problem is that almost all kids (including yours) will come to focus on grades and, as a result, their learning will be hurt.
If parents worry that grades are the only window they have into the school, we need to assure them that alternative assessments provide a far better view. But if parents don’t seem to care about getting the most useful information or helping their children become more excited learners – if they demand grades for the purpose of documenting how much better their kids are than everyone else’s, then we need to engage them in a discussion about whether this is a legitimate goal, and whether schools exist for the purpose of competitive credentialing or for the purpose of helping everyone to learn (Kohn, 1998; Labaree, 1997).
Above all, we need to make sure that objections and concerns about the details don’t obscure the main message, which is the demonstrated harm of traditional grading on the quality of students’ learning and their interest in exploring ideas.
High school administrators can do a world of good in their districts by actively supporting efforts to eliminate conventional grading in elementary and middle schools. Working with their colleagues in these schools can help pave the way for making such changes at the secondary school level.
In the Meantime
Finally, there is the question of what classroom teachers can do while grades continue to be required. The short answer is that they should do everything within their power to make grades as invisible as possible for as long as possible. Helping students forget about grades is the single best piece of advice for creating a learning-oriented classroom.
When I was teaching high school, I did a lot of things I now regret. But one policy that still seems sensible to me was saying to students on the first day of class that, while I was compelled to give them a grade at the end of the term, I could not in good conscience ever put a letter or number on anything they did during the term – and I would not do so. I would, however, write a comment – or, better, sit down and talk with them – as often as possible to give them feedback.
At this particular school I frequently faced students who had been prepared for admission to Harvard since their early childhood – a process I have come to call “Preparation H.” I knew that my refusal to rate their learning might only cause some students to worry about their marks all the more, or to create suspense about what would appear on their final grade reports, which of course would defeat the whole purpose. So I said that anyone who absolutely had to know what grade a given paper would get could come see me and we would figure it out together. An amazing thing happened: as the days went by, fewer and fewer students felt the need to ask me about grades. They began to be more involved with what we were learning because I had taken responsibility as a teacher to stop pushing grades into their faces, so to speak, whenever they completed an assignment.
What I didn’t do very well, however, was to get students involved in devising the criteria for excellence (what makes a math solution elegant, an experiment well-designed, an essay persuasive, a story compelling) as well as deciding how well their projects met those criteria. I’m afraid I unilaterally set the criteria and evaluated the students’ efforts. But I have seen teachers who were more willing to give up control, more committed to helping students participate in assessment and turn that into part of the learning. Teachers who work with their students to design powerful alternatives to letter grades have a replacement ready to go when the school finally abandons traditional grading – and are able to minimize the harm of such grading in the meantime.
For a more detailed look at the issues discussed in this article, please see the books Punished by Rewardsand The Schools Our Children Deserve as well as the DVD No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning. Click here for a brief account of a middle school that eliminated grades completely and a high school teacher who stopped grading students’ assignments. Click here for a more recent article about the subject that offers a skeptical look at “standards-based” grading, a more comprehensive analysis of why grading is inherently counterproductive, and more examples of teachers who have stopped doing it.
Must Concerns About College Derail High School Learning?
Here is the good news: college admissions is not as rigid and reactionary as many people think. Here is the better news: even when that process doesn’t seem to have its priorities straight, high schools don’t have to be dragged down to that level.
Sometimes it is assumed that admissions officers at the best universities are 80-year-old fuddy-duddies, peering over their spectacles and muttering about “highly irregular” applications. In truth, the people charged with making these decisions are often just a few years out of college themselves and, after making their way through a pile of interchangeable applications from 3.8-GPA, student-council-vice-president, musically-accomplished hopefuls from high-powered traditional suburban high schools, they are desperate for something unconventional. Given that the most selective colleges have been to known to accept home-schooled children who have never set foot in a classroom, secondary schools have more latitude than they sometimes assume. It is not widely known, for example, that at least 280 colleges and universities don’t require applicants to take either the SAT or the ACT. [By 2010, that number had grown to nearly 850, representing almost 40 percent of all accredited four-year institutions in the U.S.]
Admittedly, large state universities are more resistant to unconventional applications than are small private colleges simply because of economics: it takes more time, and therefore more money, for admissions officers to read meaningful application materials than it does for them to glance at a GPA or an SAT score and plug it into a formula. But I have heard of high schools approaching the admissions directors of nearby universities and saying, in effect, “We’d like to improve our school by getting rid of grades. Here’s why. Will you work with us to make sure our seniors aren’t penalized?” This strategy may well be successful for the simple reason that not many high schools are requesting this at present and the added inconvenience for admissions offices is likely to be negligible. Of course, if more and more high schools abandon traditional grades, then the universities will have no choice but to adapt. This is a change that high schools will have to initiate rather than waiting for colleges to signal their readiness.
At the moment, plenty of admissions officers enjoy the convenience of class ranking, apparently because they have confused being better than one’s peers with being good at something; they’re looking for winners rather than learners. But relatively few colleges actually insist on this practice. When a 1993 NASSP survey asked 1,100 admissions officers what would happen if a high school stopped computing class rank, only 0.5 percent said the school’s applicants would not be considered for admission, 4.5 percent said it would be a “great handicap,” and 14.4 percent said it would be a “handicap” (Levy and Riordan, 1994). In other words, it appears that the absence of class ranks would not interfere at all with students’ prospects for admission to four out of five colleges.
Even more impressive, some high schools not only refuse to rank their students but refuse to give any sort of letter or number grades. Courses are all taken pass/fail, sometimes with narrative assessments of the students’ performance that become part of a college application. I have spoken to representatives of most of the following schools, and all assure me that, year after year, their graduates are accepted into large state universities and small, highly selective colleges. Even the complete absence of high school grades is not a barrier to college admission, so we don’t have that excuse for continuing to subject students to the harm done by traditional grading.
Any school considering the abolition of grades might want to submit a letter with each graduating student’s transcript that explains why the school has chosen this course (see Sidebar B). In the meantime, feel free to contact any of these successful grade-free high schools:
Carolina Friends School, Durham, NC — www.cfsnc.org
Eagle Rock School, Estes Park, CO — www.eaglerockschool.org
Jefferson County Open School, Lakewood, CO — http://bit.ly/2arSEL
Lehman Alternative Community School, Ithaca, NY — www.icsd.k12.ny.us/legacy/acs/info.htm
Metropolitan Learning Center, Portland, OR — www.mlc-k12.com
Poughkeepsie Day School, Poughkeepsie, NY — www.poughkeepsieday.org
Saint Ann’s School, Brooklyn, NY — www.saintanns.k12.ny.us
Waring School, Beverly, MA — www.waringschool.org
A Letter for Colleges
We at ______________ High School believe our graduates are uniquely qualified to take advantage of what your institution of higher learning has to offer because they are interested in what they will be able to learn rather than in what grade they will be able to get. By the time they leave us, our students have grown into scholars, and that’s due in large part to the absence of traditional ratings. Students in other schools spend much of their time and mental effort keeping track of their grade-point averages, figuring out what is required for an A and then doing only that and no more. At ___________, that time and energy are devoted exclusively to encountering great ideas and great literature, using the scientific method, thinking like an historian or a mathematician, and learning to speak and write with precision. Our students not only think clearly – they take joy in doing so . . . precisely because their efforts have not been reduced to letters or numbers.
The enclosed transcript includes a wealth of other information about the applicant – a descriptive list of the courses s/he has completed and the special projects and extracurricular activities s/he has undertaken, as well as what selected members of our staff have to say about the student as a thinker and as a person. We believe that these data, together with the personal essay you may request and the interview we hope you will conduct, will give you a rich and complete portrait of this applicant such that a list of grades would add little in any case.
Anderman, E. M., T. Griesinger, and G. Westerfield. “Motivation and Cheating During Early Adolescence.” Journal of Educational Psychology 90 (1998): 84-93.
Anderman, E. M., and J. Johnston. “Television News in the Classroom: What Are Adolescents Learning?” Journal of Adolescent Research 13 (1998): 73-100
Beck, H. P., S. Rorrer-Woody, and L. G. Pierce. “The Relations of Learning and Grade Orientatio
ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT SCHOOL
When Gabe Ferdinand first saw the informational videotape about Eagle Rock School two years ago, he couldn’t believe his eyes. “I thought it was hilarious,” he says. “They had all these kids saying, ‘Eagle Rock is such a loving place.’ I was laughing! I thought they had paid these people to get on camera and say these things and go around hugging each other. I thought, I don’t know what world you live in, but that’s not the world I live in.”
His world was far from the mountains of Colorado, where Eagle Rock, a tuition-free boarding school for troubled teens, sits in blissful isolation 8,000 feet above sea level. Gabe, now 18, was living with his mother and little sister in what he calls the “nice” section of Watts, a predominantly African American community in Los Angeles reputed for its gang-related violence. “We were middle class,” he says. “Right in the middle. A nice house, three bedrooms, bathroom, all that nice stuff. The people on my block were respectable. I was the one doing things that were contrary to what I was taught.”
Problems in the Ferdinand household came to a head on Gabe’s 14th birthday, when his parents split up. A squabble over bills escalated into a major verbal battle, which ended when Gabe’s mother collected her daughter, her son, and the birthday cake and headed for the door. From that point on, Gabe’s father distanced himself from the family, and Gabe started hanging out with the Bloods in his neighborhood. He won’t discuss in detail his gang history, but in his application to Eagle Rock, he wrote: “I did everything and almost seen everything. I grew up where lies are sometimes your best friends. I have seen and been through situations that some kids would be shocked to go through.”
Gabe’s anger got him into trouble at Locke High School. No fan of authority figures, he once spat at his 10th grade history teacher, who refrained from reporting the incident. But the very next day, Gabe threw a textbook at the teacher, missing his head by inches. This time, Gabe was sent to the principal, who suspended him for a week. Other incidents followed, including one in which Gabe pushed a teacher as he was leaving her classroom. She claimed Gabe had hit her, and once again, he was given the boot, this time for a month. “I just had this rage inside of me,” he says.
At one point, Gabe’s mother, Edna, got so fed up with her son’s behavior that she kicked him out of the house. But when Gabe tried to move in with his father, “it was like warfare,” he recalls. Meanwhile, Edna had heard from a friend about Eagle Rock.
Founded by Honda, the car company, in 1993 and located in Estes Park, Colorado, a two-hour drive northwest of Denver, the school serves about 90 students, who come from all over the country (though half are from Colorado). Most have either dropped out or been kicked out of their regular schools, and many have substance-abuse problems. Some come from dysfunctional families. It is a place where students can get a fresh start.
Edna called the school and asked for information. When the videotape arrived, she urged Gabe to view it. Despite his lukewarm reaction, Gabe agreed to travel with his mother to Colorado to look the place over. “I was open-minded,” he says. He was 16 years old and, for all his anger, looking for a way out of the hole he had dug for himself.
“The reason why I would like you to consider me is because I know I need to change, and I have seen a better way since I have been to Eagle Rock,” Gabe wrote in a letter to L’Tanya Perkins, the school’s admissions director, after his visit. “I also believe that I can change and move in a different direction. I also believe that Eagle Rock is the place for me.”
To Philbert Smith, Eagle Rock’s dean of students, Gabe wrote: “I would really like to come. Philbert, to tell you the truth, I promised God that if he let me come I would not let him down. I am also going to make some promises to you. I promise that if you let me come, I will do my best, and I won’t let you down. My word is my bond. I have also prayed about it and wrote my promise down on paper and put it in the prayer box [at church].”
In Gabe’s file at Eagle Rock is this note, written by Smith after Gabe’s admission interview: “Gabriel. INVITE. Wants to come. Feels he could & wants to handle it. I like.”
To call Eagle Rock a school doesn’t do the place justice. From the start, Honda wanted it to be more of a community than an institution, and that’s exactly how it feels. Students, an equal number of males and females ranging from ages 15 to 21, sleep in bunkhouses with teachers as house parents, and everybody eats meals together in the dining hall. The day begins with morning exercises, followed by the 8 o’clock “gathering,” a kind of group-encounter session during which students, teachers, and administrators are encouraged to express their feelings. Spiritual development is emphasized as much as academic growth, and students must follow moral and ethical guidelines. There are rules, to be sure—no drugs, no alcohol, no sex, no violence—but Eagle Rock is not a boot camp, nor is it one of the increasingly popular “wilderness-therapy” schools, where wayward students are subjected to rigorous “tough love” survival courses.
In fact, there are just a handful of schools around the country that resemble Eagle Rock. One is the Milton Hershey School, a tuition-free private boarding school in Pennsylvania founded as an orphanage in 1909 by the chocolate manufacturer Milton Hershey and his wife, Catherine. Like Hershey, Eagle Rock was established by a successful corporation looking to address a social need. In 1989, two Honda executives, Tom Dean and Mak Itabashi, were asked by their corporate bosses to create a philanthropic endeavor that would, in Dean’s words, “give something back to society.”
“We concluded that education was where we ought to be putting our efforts,” says Dean, an educator who had previously developed Honda’s employee training programs. He and Itabashi hatched a plan for a tuition-free boarding school that would serve low-income students who were struggling to succeed in conventional schools. Honda gave the project the go-ahead, and Dean was named executive director of the nonprofit American Honda Education Corporation, created solely for the purpose of funding and administering the school.
Here’s how Dean envisioned Eagle Rock in an early written proposal: “The living environment will be very different from most of the students’ previous experiences. Students will be away from the negative influences which may have been present. The atmosphere at the school will be warm, friendly, and nonthreatening. The location and design of the school facilities are important in creating this atmosphere.”
To reach Eagle Rock School, you must first drive to Estes Park, a small resort town located on the eastern border of Rocky Mountain National Park. From the middle of town, you drive about six miles to a gated entrance, then another mile or so on a winding road to a cluster of greenish, shingle-style buildings with peaked roofs. Eagle Rock’s “campus” comprises 640 isolated acres of pine and aspen trees, lush meadows, and granite-covered crags. The mountain setting is breathtaking.
I visited the school for several days in early December, near the end of “ER 22,” the school’s 22nd trimester since it first opened. (Students are identified by their ER numbers, not as freshmen, sophomores, juniors, or seniors.) I arrived a little before 8 a.m. on a Monday. Just off the dining hall, in a high-ceilinged room with a sunken floor and an enormous stone fireplace, the gathering was about to get under way. Students—dressed in jeans, pile jackets, and knit ski caps—filed in and sat on large pillows on the floor. Outside the picture windows, a light snow was falling. Staff members, including Eagle Rock’s tireless director, Robert Burkhardt, were there, too. Ray Benally, a Navajo student from Arizona with long, black hair tied back in a ponytail, was sitting on the hearth, preparing to lead the gathering. At 8, he rang a small bell and bowed his head in silence, and everyone else followed suit for about 30 seconds.
“Good morning, everyone,” Ray said. In a barely audible voice, he told the students and faculty members about a sweat lodge at Eagle Rock that he’d helped build as a gift to the school, from which he’d soon be graduating. “It’s a sacred place,” he said, “where people can grow spiritually.” He answered a few questions and then opened the floor up to announcements. Then someone put on a scratchy recording of the gospel song “Hold On,” and everyone joined in, singing, “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!”
After the gathering was over, the students dispersed and headed off to their classes. I tagged along with Burkhardt and his golden retriever, Gussie, to the music building, designed to look like a one-room schoolhouse, where he and about 20 students practiced singing Christmas carols under the guidance of the choir teacher.
At 60, Burkhardt is a tall, thin, charismatic man with close-set eyes and thinning brown hair. He typically wears blue jeans, hiking boots, and a gray Eagle Rock sweatshirt that says, “All Who Dare,” the school’s motto. He lives in a house on campus with his wife and their two elementary school-age children. Aside from singing in the choir, Burkhardt teaches and takes students on field trips to Boulder and Denver. (Staff members at Eagle Rock wear many hats.) This trimester, he is teaching a course on Homer’s The Odyssey, for which his students, including Gabe Ferdinand, have written their own theatrical version of the story, a satire titled The Odd We See. They will perform the play for the entire school before the end of the year.
Though most students revere Burkhardt, he can be a tough disciplinarian when he has to. But, overall, he leads by example, not raw authority. “When I look at Robert,” Gabe told me, “I think, That’s what a man is supposed to be.”
Later that day, I was sitting with Burkhardt in his office—or rather, his book-filled corner of the school’s main office—when Sandy Rivera, an 18-year-old student from Pasadena, California, walked by. “Hola, Sandy,” he said. “Come over here and sit on my lap.” She did, and they gave each other a kiss on the cheek. “Now, this is something you can’t do in a public school,” Burkhardt told me. “I’d be arrested! But one of the things you’ll see around here is that people hug each other all the time. And you know what? Kids need to be touched, and they need to be hugged.”
Burkhardt seems perfectly suited to run a school like Eagle Rock, with its touchy-feely, progressive approach to education. He joined the Peace Corps in 1962, just after graduating from Princeton University. Then he taught high school for a while, went to graduate school, and, in 1970, moved to San Francisco and opened the Symbas Experimental School for, in his words, “dropouts, runaways, and incorrigibles.” One of a number of so-called “free schools” that blossomed in the late ’60s and early ’70s and were based on the notion that students should be free to pursue their own interests, Symbas lasted for six years. “Which is surprising,” Burkhardt said, “because most free schools lasted about 18 months. People with high passion and good intentions and no staying power would start them, and then about 10 months later they’d be worn out.”
Next came a three-year stint as a plumber, followed by several years working as a juggler, trumpet player, and roustabout in the Pickle Family Circus. “It was more of a collective than anything else,” Burkhardt said, “which is the kind of politics I like. We would go to some small town like Bend, Oregon, set up shop, and raise money for child-care centers, homeless shelters, food banks, and such.”
Burkhardt eventually returned to California, where, after years of working with the California Conservation Corps, he was asked by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein to start up a similar service-aid group in San Francisco. But in 1990, he jumped at the chance to help get Eagle Rock off the ground. “This place is sort of Symbas with a budget,” he explained.
Indeed, some elements common to free schools—an emphasis on community, a quasi-democratic governing structure, the notion that learning doesn’t just take place in the classroom—were incorporated into Eagle Rock’s design. Students work with faculty members to create individualized learning plans, and to graduate they must demonstrate proficiency in a number of “competencies,” not classes, which are tied to Colorado’s content standards. Because most classes are interdisciplinary, students may earn, in any one course, credit in a number of subject areas. In Burkhardt’s Odyssey class, for example, those areas include literature, writing, public performance, American government, geography, and world history.
There are no letter grades and few tests at Eagle Rock, so student assessment is based largely on portfolios, writing projects, and oral presentations. At the end of each trimester, a student must deliver a written and oral “presentation of learning” before a panel of faculty members and visiting educators.
This kind of in-depth approach demands a great deal of time, commitment, and flexibility from Eagle Rock’s 15 teachers, some of whom live on campus. History teacher James Sherman taught classes at Colorado State University before arriving at Eagle Rock four years ago. “We’ve got kids from all over the nation,” he told me, “from every circumstance you could imagine. In my World War II class, for example, some of them are well aware of the main events and the important individuals, but there are others who have no idea that the Holocaust took place, or who have never heard the name Adolf Hitler before. So you have to create a class that is going to be meaningful for all of these students. And that’s a real challenge here.”
Another important aspect of Eagle Rock is its professional development center. Every year, 1,500 educators descend on the school to study its program and return home with a new idea or two. What sets Eagle Rock apart, however, is not any one element but rather the sum of its parts: the isolated setting, the free tuition, the smallness of the place, the emphasis on community building and personal growth. What, I wondered, could a principal from a typical high school learn from a visit?
“I would argue,” Burkhardt said, “that you can take a number of things from here and put them in place in your classroom, or your building, or your district. For instance, take your 2,000-student high school and divide it into 10 families of 200 or 20 families of 100. I would argue that whether it’s a residential school in an isolated setting or a public, nonresidential school in an urban setting, you can build culture and community. It’s a question of what your priorities are.”
He added: “I think that Eagle Rock represents the art of the possible.”
In the fall of 1995, Doug Rutherford and his son, Matt, who was 14 at the time, visited Eagle Rock while on their way to the Grand Canyon. Doug fell in love with the place, but Matt was unimpressed. “Dad, don’t make me come to this school,” he wrote in a note that he left under the windshield wiper of his father’s car. “I’ll do anything you say. Love, Matt.”
Back home in Kent, Ohio, the Rutherfords, Doug and Cathy, had struggled for years to find a place where their son could thrive. Doug, who happened to be visiting Eagle Rock while I was there in December, told me: “Matt started having trouble in the 1st grade. Noticeable problems. He was clinically diagnosed as ADHD, and he started taking Ritalin when he was 8 or 9.” Matt was also borderline dyslexic, and he suffered from periodic bouts of depression. When he was 10, he began drinking and smoking pot. At 13, he told his mother that he “didn’t want to hide it anymore” and confessed about his drinking and drug taking; two weeks later, he entered a rehab program. He was the youngest participant.
Though he’s obviously bright, Matt struggled in school. For two years, he attended a private school in Cleveland for students with learning disabilities. That helped, but the school only went up through 6th grade, so the Rutherfords moved Matt back to a public school. They fought with administrators until the district agreed to provide their son with an aide who helped Matt take notes in class and organize his work. Nonetheless, Matt floundered, and his life became, according to his father, “an ever-increasing series of detentions, suspensions, and no-shows. I was beginning to know the local police juvenile division on a first-name basis.”
When a family friend who knew about Eagle Rock mentioned the school, the Rutherfords thought it sounded ideal. And despite Matt’s initial impression, he and his parents sent in an application. However, they were told that Matt, at 14, was too young; with rare exceptions, Eagle Rock students must be at least 15.
A year later, Matt’s sister, Rachel, was elated to learn that she had won a scholarship to attend the College of Wooster. That evening, Matt, feeling sorry for himself, got drunk and broke into a neighbor’s house in search of more liquor. He was arrested and eventually served 17 days in a juvenile detention center. While on probation, Matt participated in a 26-day Outward Bound program for at-risk youth. “He flourished,” Doug told me. “The highly structured environment was just what he needed.” Eagle Rock, whose program includes a three-week Outward Bound-type wilderness experience, as well as a 24-7 approach to education, suddenly looked even more appealing. Matt decided to reapply.
The Eagle Rock admissions process is competitive, but not in the usual ways. While the administration looks at school records, there are no entrance examinations. More important are strong indications that applicants are willing to change their behavior. Each applicant must write a 100-word essay describing why he or she wants to be an Eagle Rock student, and parents (or adult “sponsors”) must also write essays. Sometimes first-time applicants are rejected—administrators may sense they’re not up to the challenge—then admitted on the second or third try. Despite its rigorous selection process, Eagle Rock makes no promises that a student will succeed. According to one informational brochure, Eagle Rock “cannot, and does not, guarantee or warrant any particular result or outcome for any particular student.”
When Matt reapplied in 1996, he didn’t get in. And although he was admitted to Eagle Rock on his third try the following year, he was sent home just three weeks into his first trimester. “I had this idea,” Matt told me, “that you could be up here and smoke bud once in a while—like, walk out in the woods and get high—and it wouldn’t matter. I was wrong about that, and I got caught, so they kicked me out.”
Back in Ohio, Matt began what he calls an “insane” period of stealing cars, selling and using drugs, and drinking. He was arrested again, this time for possession of marijuana, for which he served two months in a detention center. The stint included 15 days “solo”—that is, in a single cell with no windows and no contact with other juveniles.
Eagle Rock offers students who are kicked out a second chance, provided they write a letter to students and staff members explaining what they did and why they should be allowed back. The letter is then read out loud at a morning gathering. (“About half of our graduates,” Burkhardt told me, “are second-chancers. They realize what they threw away. They fight their way back in, and then they take it more seriously.”) Matt, who ended up being readmitted, was sent home again when another student accidentally sliced the tip of Matt’s finger with an ax while chopping wood. But he was assured he could return the following trimester.
In September 1998, three years after he first stepped foot on Eagle Rock’s campus, Matt was finally ready to begin his journey.
Now 19, Matt is an intense, tough-talking student with short red hair on his head and a few stray whiskers on his chin. When I met him, he was dressed in baggy blue jeans and an orange Cleveland Browns T-shirt. At first glance, he struck me as someone not to be messed with. (He told me that back home in Ohio he carried a gun with him all the time.) But after a while, I realized that, in many ways, he’s still just a kid—and, for all his bluster, a sweet kid at that.
Gabe Ferdinand was dressed to the nines. For his end-of-trimester “presentation of learning,” or POL, required of all Eagle Rock students, he had picked out his Sunday best: a black, collarless, four-button jacket; an off-white dress shirt buttoned at the collar; dark blue slacks; and pointy black loafers. He’d topped it all off with a beige fedora, which he removed for his presentation. Tall and handsome, with an easygoing manner and a warm smile, he resembled the comedian Chris Rock.
Gabe’s POL took place in a small classroom packed with about 25 people, including teachers, students, and guests. A panel of five judges, several of whom were visiting educators from other Colorado schools, sat at two long tables in front, ready to assess each presentation. During the POLs, held over a two-day period, students are given about 15 minutes to, according to written instructions, “present evidence of their learning by gathering data from their portfolios and offering documentation of learning through examples of completed projects and products.” The panelists may then ask whatever questions they like before critiquing the presentation.
The primary focus of the exercise is academic growth, though students are expected to talk about personal growth, as well. Still, I was surprised to find that many students barely even mentioned academics, preferring to dwell almost exclusively on how they had battled various personal demons since arriving at Eagle Rock. Even more surprising was that none of the panelists seemed to mind.
For instance, at one POL I attended, a student named Crayton “C.J.” Bush, who announced that he was leaving Eagle Rock at the end of the trimester, spent the entire time talking about his “old self” and his “new self,” and how aikido—his passion—had become a metaphor for his life. (He even did a brief aikido demonstration.) He mentioned academics only once, when he said, “I’ve taken a lot of classes, and I’ve learned a lot.” Yet none of the panelists called him on it. Instead, they lobbed softball personal questions at him. Later, I asked one of the panelists, the dean of a private school in Denver, about this, and he said: “I wanted to ask him about academics, but it seemed inappropriate. It seemed more like a goodbye session.”
Gabe’s POL, on the other hand, was more balanced; he did a good job of demonstrating how Eagle Rock has stimulated his mind as well as his soul. He began by confessing that he still has a hard time communicating with some people, particularly authority figures. “It’s really hard for me to be civil with someone I don’t get along with,” he said. But he didn’t dwell on these matters, and soon he was explaining which classes he had taken and what he had learned. While Gabe didn’t dig too deeply—he glossed over a lot of information—I could tell he was serious about his studies.
Indeed, I knew from talking to Gabe that he had become passionate about history, and he credited one of Eagle Rock’s teachers, James Sherman, with providing the spark. And Robert Burkhardt had told me that Gabe was “coming to trust himself as a learner a lot more, and that’s building this sense of confidence.”
Nearly all of the panelists’ questions, however, focused on Gabe’s personal growth, and he, like most Eagle Rock students, was willing to discuss it. (Everyone at the school seems well-versed in the language of therapy.) Not to diminish his progress—all the people I talked to at Eagle Rock agreed that Gabe had come a long way since he first arrived in the summer of 1999—but it seemed to me the panelists were letting him off easy by asking such questions as: “Who are your heroes? And why?” and “What do you see in your future?” Why, I thought, didn’t anyone ask him to talk about the major themes in The Odyssey?
Perhaps I was being too hard on the place. Few schools, public or private, attempt to nurture students’ emotional and academic needs as holistically as Eagle Rock does. At most public schools, teachers teach, counselors counsel, and rarely do the two worlds intersect. At Eagle Rock, however, there’s no separation: Each staff member is expected to advise students on any number of matters, everybody is on a first-name basis, and there are very few secrets. “Students and staff,” the school’s brochure states, “operate as an extended family and are therefore mutually interdependent.”
In addition, one of Eagle Rock’s guiding principles is that intellectual growth can happen only after spiritual growth. According to Lois Easton, who directs the school’s professional development center, new students tend to “proceed very slowly through the competencies, often concentrating on the personal growth that comes from dealing with some of the issues that have blocked their learning for so long. As those issues are raised and addressed, the students begin to focus on academic learning.”
How successful is Eagle Rock? There’s no simple answer.
On the one hand, 55 students have graduated from the school since it opened seven years ago. “When they come in here,” Burkhardt says, “none of the students are looking at high school diplomas. Going out, all of them decide that they want to go to college or some kind of higher training.” Indeed, about half of the school’s graduates have gone on to college, and several others have entered the military.
At the same time, nearly 400 students have enrolled at Eagle Rock, which means most of them end up leaving the school before completing the program. In fact, half the students who leave do so involuntarily—they get kicked out. (Some, however, choose to reapply through the “second chance” program.) Clearly, Eagle Rock isn’t for everybody. Some students can’t handle the isolation, and others wince at the school’s touchy feeliness.
Based on the school’s attrition rate, then, Eagle Rock doesn’t appear very successful. But Honda’s Tom Dean believes the statistics are misleading. Even if they don’t graduate, he says, many Eagle Rock students are influenced by the school’s culture. And, as Burkhardt points out, those 55 graduates are students who probably would never have finished school otherwise.
Joelle S., who graduated from Eagle Rock in 1995, agrees. “I smoked cigarettes, did drugs, and obviously I was not going to graduate from high school,” she recalls. The daughter of an alcoholic father, Strasser, now 24, says that, after her parents divorced, she had trouble staying in school. Then she heard about Eagle Rock and managed to get herself into the ER 2 class in 1993. Caught smoking marijuana, she was almost expelled. But the school gave her a second chance, and she went on to graduate without incident. Strasser then gave college a try but ended up working full time instead. Now a Denver resident, she’s a customer service trainer for the Ricoh Corporation.
“It becomes your family,” Strasser says of the effect Eagle Rock had on her life. “You get endless support from students and staff. And I had the desire to change from the start. I knew I had to do something drastic, and I needed to be pulled away from my environment to do that. Eagle Rock is like a cleansing process, a detoxification of your mind, body, and spirit.”
Roland Barth, founder of the Principals’ Center at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and author of the forthcoming book Learning by Heart: How We Can Bring Wonder and Excitement Into the Schoolhouse, witnessed as much when he visited Eagle Rock. “A lot of these kids wouldn’t have made it in their home schools,” he told me. “And many of those who do not graduate from Eagle Rock have had a transforming experience.”
If it wanted to, Eagle Rock could have a more selective admissions process. But that, Burkhardt says, would go against the school’s professional development mission, which is to demonstrate to other educators that even the most incorrigible of students are not beyond hope. “For us to have any credibility,” he says, “we have to take the toughest kids that we can get in terms of the fragility of the potential of their success. If we can take kids who have been marginalized, who have either dropped out or are sitting in the back of the class with their eyes open but their minds shut down, if we can get those kids to succeed, and you’re a classroom teacher visiting Eagle Rock, you’re going to look at us and say: ‘How the hell did you do that? That’s what I want to do with my kids.’ ”
With that in mind, Eagle Rock’s disclaimer—that it “cannot, and does not, guarantee or warrant any particular result or outcome of any particular student”—makes sense. Of course, this kind of approach wouldn’t wash in a typical public school or at a private institution subsidized by the students’ parents. But because it’s a philanthropic institution enthusiastically supported—to the tune of $4-million a year—by a powerful corporation, Eagle Rock is able to set its own standards for success or failure.
Sitting on the floor of the room used for the morning gathering, Matt Rutherford leaned back against a large cushion and said: “I’m very thankful for this place. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about politics and political ideas, a lot of history, a whole lot of information. Which is beautiful. There’s a lot more one-on-one with teachers. And I’ve gotten a lot stronger and fitter. You know, I can bench press twice my weight if I want to.”
“What I like so much about Matt,” Robert Burkhardt told me later, “is that it’s as though you were with someone who’s seeing the world for the first time, in many ways. His mind just keeps opening up.”
Students at Eagle Rock are encouraged to follow their passions, and Matt has developed a taste for radical politics. “I have some real fires inside me as far as politics go,” he said. “I’d like to abolish the Electoral College. I think that’s a bunch of crap. And I’d like to help downsize corporate capitalism.” He has his eyes set on Antioch College after he graduates.
Matt has thrived at Eagle Rock. He won a scholarship to study for six weeks in Thailand and Vietnam, and when he returned, he was given the opportunity to teach a class on the Vietnam War. “He is no longer that underachieving misfit who was struggling with his feelings of failure,” his father said.
I asked Matt where he would be if he hadn’t come to Eagle Rock. He replied: “Well, I’d probably be in one of two places. I’d be dead—a lot of people get shot in the dope game—or I’d be in jail, which is where a lot of my friends are. There was no other solution left for me, my life was so insane.”
“That may be a little
Eagle Rock’s program and curriculum utilizes performance assessments that enhance learning.