September 2009 (17.09) issue
By Daniel Roth
Earlier this year in midtown Manhattan, a local venture capital firm staged a daylong conference on school reform. Authors, professors, financiers, and entrepreneurs took over the French Institute's skylighted penthouse and earnestly discussed how embracing "digital culture"—from deploying videogame-style rewards to encouraging kids to develop online reputations—could completely transform education. Outsiders were invited to participate via Twitter, and their ideas were projected on the wall. It was a high-minded, tech-centric affair—until Alex Grodd brought it back to earth.
Although Grodd now runs a site that lets educators share lesson plans, he started out teaching at inner-city middle schools in Atlanta and Boston. The businesspeople in the room represented a world in which innovation requires disruption. But Grodd knew their ideas would test poorly with real disrupters: kids in a classroom. "The driving force in the life of a child, starting much earlier than it used to be, is to be cool, to fit in," Grodd told the group. "And pretty universally, it's cool to rebel." In other words, prepare for you and your netbook to be jeered out of the room. "The best schools," Grodd told me later, "are able to make learning cool, so the cool kids are the ones who get As. That's an art."
It's an art that has, for the most part, been lost on educators. The notion itself seems incredibly daunting—until you look at one maligned subculture in which the smartest members are also the most popular: the geeks. If you want to reform schools, you've got to make them geekier.
"Geeks get things done. They're possessed. They can't help themselves," says Larry Rosenstock, founding principal of eight charter schools in San Diego County collectively called High Tech High. He has come up with a curriculum that forces kids to embrace their inner geek by pushing them to create. The walls, desks, and ceilings of his classrooms teem with projects, from field guides on local wildlife to human-powered submarines. (A High Tech High art project called Calculicious, based entirely on math principles, now hangs in the San Diego airport.) The students all work in small groups as a way to foster shared enthusiasm: Get two kids excited about something and it's harder for a third to poke fun at them.
But more important, Rosenstock keeps the students surrounded by adults. There are no teachers' bathrooms or lounges. Parents roam the halls. And the students are required to present their work to outsiders. This, it turns out, is the key to geekifying education. "A big chunk of the school experience is having them hang out with the adults they could imagine becoming," says private-equity manager Tom Vander Ark, former head of education investments for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a onetime school superintendent. "A big high school has a youth-owned culture. You've got to break that."
The result: One hundred percent of High Tech graduates get into college. Nationally, the college attendance rate for High Tech High's demographic—half are eligible for free lunch, and even fewer have parents who attended college—is about 55 percent. Yet all High Tech students take advanced math and science classes, and many of them end up at universities like MIT and Stanford.
Back on the East Coast, in one of Boston's toughest neighborhoods, Roxbury Prep (where Grodd once taught) uses a similar formula. Almost 80 percent of its eighth graders—nearly all of whom come from families earning less than $28,000 a year—go to college. Their teachers work nonstop to stamp out youth culture: Kids eat lunch in the classroom, they're not allowed to talk in the halls, and they're disciplined for using the word nerd. But it's about the nerdiest school you can imagine; every week, the faculty awards one child a "spirit stick"—a bedpost painted a rainbow of colors—for good grades.
In the public school I attended, that would be a homing beacon for a beating: "There's the nerd with the stick. Jump him!" But in geeked-out schools, that wouldn't happen—because everyone would be a nerd. At the final spirit-stick ceremony last year, 220 kids erupted in applause as a teacher read aloud the 14-year-old honoree's thesis. It started by calling America an "unfair and superficial nation." Hey, kids are going to rebel; better to have them cheered for doing it with contentious ideas.