Transcript of NPR Interview 2005 with Dr. Littky

In English   LINK to the NPR Interview

LINK to the NPR Interview

Dennis Littky and The Big Picture schools 
Interview with Margot Adler. 

All Things Considered, April 25, 2005 · It's hard to imagine a school with no tests, no grades and no classes. But those familiar elements of education are missing at two dozen Big Picture schools in six states, each with no more than 120 students. 

They emphasize work in the real world, portfolios, oral presentations and intense relationships between students and advisers. Margot Adler visits one of the schools, called The Met, the 10-year-old model for the schools, in Providence, R.I. 

Students are encouraged to discover their passions, interning two days a week with mentors in the community who relate those passions to the real world. The student might work at a hospital, a bakery, or an architectural firm. School projects are designed by the mentor, the adviser and the student together -- and are presented orally, along with a portfolio, every nine weeks. 

Vimar Rodriguez, an 11th grader interested in medicine, has a neighborhood pediatrician as a mentor. Dr. Hector Cordero says she knew little when she started interning at his office. 

"I think she's learning a lot," Cordero says. "I think it is motivating her to go to medical school, which is the most important thing." 

Rodriguez contrasts her own life with those of her friends at other schools. "They don't know [what college they are going to], if they are going to get financial aid, and here I can look at different opportunities and different choices." 

The school measures its success in many ways -- standardized achievement scores are higher than those at the three largest Providence high schools -- but parents are most excited by these statistics: Almost every senior gets into college, 80 percent go to college, and five years later, most of those students are still in college or have graduated. 

The core idea of a school is so embedded in everyone. I had a kid say to me "You're not a real principal." (Charlie Plant, one of six principals) 

Comments by Dennis Littky, founder of the Met School 
Students have a hard time adjusting to a school that they don't know. 

You put 15 students in a room with an advisor, you let kids discover and follow their passions, interning two days a week with mentors in the community who relate those passions to the real world. The students might work in a hospital or an architectural firm. School projects are designed by the student and advisor together and are presented orally in a portfolio every nine weeks. 

Students meet three days a week with advisors about their projects. Projects are tailored to get academic rigor into the presentation. "We're looking at how do you look at the world scientifically, how do you look at the world mathematically, do you communicate effectively, what are the skills we can get out of this?" 

Dennis Littky: 
"Students have been told what to do for nine years. When they enter ninth grade, it's rough. We are saying, Follow your interests and passions, make choices. They are not ready, they don't trust adults." 

Admisison is by lottery and most students qualify for free lunch. Student scores are higher than the average scores of the three local high school but even so, fewer than half are proficient. Almost every senior gets into college, 80 percent go to college and five years later, almost all are still in college or graduated. 

Students are followed for ten years. They are welcome to drop in, get some advice, the advisors are there for you. Advisors send letters and care packages to graduates in college. 

The drop out rate at the Met is 3 percent. There are kids that want a big school where they can be anonymous. It's not perfect. 

We separate kids from adults in our world. So of course there is this generation gap. 

It's a struggle to get trained teachers. 

Transcribed interviews 
Web Extra Audio 

Dennis Littky is co-founder of the Big Picture schools and is director of one of them, The Met Center in Providence, R.I. Hear Littky on: 

The challenges of creating a school like The Met and in creating rigor in the student's projects. 

There is no harder job than a new 9th grade advisor. I haven't figured out how to help them have a successful year. You get 9th grade kids who are angry at school, don't trust adults, and have been told what to do for 9 years and we are saying, follow your interests and make choices. They are not ready. We continue to struggle about how to get them involved, give them some structure but not too much structure. We are trying to make them learn to make decisions in life. What do we do in the first 9 weeks. 

One of our solutions was have them come in for 2 weeks in the summer and start learning the culture. It's easier to do in the summer and there's less pressure for academics. 

When teachers ask me how to prepare for the first 9 weeks in 9th grade, I tell them, Go bowling to get to know the kid, to get to know their passions. We struggle so much with it that I almost want them in their internships before they start school with us. Once they find their passion and interest and start to work in the internship, the rest takes over. they change. it's not school any more. "I love this doctor's office. I'm going to read about this. I love this Architect's office, I'm going to design this." So until you get the passion, it's too much like school. 

The second big problem is how to get the rigor and get the rigor ... how do you find mathematics working in a radio station. how do you find the good projects? the reading and writing is easier, but how to go deep in the analytical reasoning is the challenge. 

How do you do a transcript for colleges? 

We give our kids narratives, we don't give our kids grades. These are two-page detailed reports about strengths and weaknesses, every 9 weeks for four years. Colleges can't look at that. We put the areas that the colleges want to see, English, History, Math. The transcript can say English and it has the kid's project in there. 

Admissions officers can see that there are 4 English and 3 science credits and that's how we do it. Our job with narratives is to give kids feedback about how to get better. The job for the transcript is to help colleges know what's going on. 

The question: How do you make the outside world understand what you do? 

I believe deep down when you ask people, "What do you remember from chemistry class?" or trigonometry class, they don't have any answers. "Where did you learn to be a writer?" I ask them. "Did you learn it in journalism school, did you learn it from guidelines?" The answer: "No, I really learned when I was working and writing. People were being critical with my writing on the job." 

In theory, I believe I can get most people to see that we learn when we're involved in something. There is no learning theory that says that lecturing to adolescents is the way to get people to learn. The way to get people to learn is to get them to be motivated and interested. The more you are involved in something, the more you construct knowledge, the more you learn, we know all that. 

The problem is every human being went through a regular school, so we keep falling back on that model. 

Critics laughed when they saw we had internships. Then they saw that we had the highest attendance rate in the state. We had the lowest drop-out rate in the state. But they really became believers when they see that every kid got accepted to college. Five years later they're still in college or graduated? 

Sometimes you need to show those results so that people can accept the method. Every test that the other kids are taking, our kids are taking. We keep pushing ahead and trying to show that this is a way to help kids get educated. 

We outscored the three largest high schools in mathematics and we don't teach a mathematics course. The kids learn to think like mathematicians, to solve problems and use their minds. The scores are not great, but they are moving up. 
Colleges are impressed with how articulate and passionate our kids are. 
Creating Big Picture schools around the U.S., and the difficulty of getting good teachers 
If you have the right philosophy, 
every child has a learning plan, 
you find real work, 
you find their passion, 
it works. 

We put a big emphasis about training the teachers for a year before putting them into schools. If you get the combinations together, it can be a success. 

It's hard to find adults who are certified to be teachers, who are generalists and want to give up teaching their subject matter to really truly teach kids. As a teacher, you have nothing to protect yourself. There's no textbook to get in the way or to guide you, it's raw. 
You have to have that relationship with that kid. It's very hard work to do. 
Our schools vary in how good they are. 
It's the hardest work in the world because you are dealing with kids' lives, you get so deep with them. Many teachers tell me, "I've taught for seven years, I’ve been a good teacher, but I've never got so close to kids as I have here." When you have 150 kids, you can't get that close. 

By the way, critics say, "You just have 15 kids." Well, we get the same amount of money per student as the rest of the state gets. It's how you use your money. 

The ratio in most high schools of adults to kids to around 1 to 15. The classes are 1 to 30 because you have department chairs, you have guidance counselors, there are people around. We do it with the same amount of money that California gives out, which is less than what Rhode Island gives out. 

40 percent of our students are Latino, 30 percent are African American, 5 percent Asian. The free lunch population ranges from 60 to 80 percent, 70 percent of the kids have never had anyone in the family go to college. All of our kids are accepted in college about 80 percent go, 75 percent of our kids are still in college or graduated from some program. The national statistics are if you enter college as an African American or Latino, there is less than a 20 percent chance that you will graduate. One of the things we try to do is beat that. How do you get the kids to have such skills and passion that they overcome the barriers that the other 90 percent don't make it? 

How kids in good schools are losing out too, and why 
The Met's accomplishments) 
What makes me cry daily is when I hear a kid describe how he or she was before, and then how they found their passion and it changed their life. 

It's really about the environment that we built to help the kid find his passion. That comes from having respect for the kid and giving the kid time to learn. 

Half of our great work is because the kid got there when the kid grew up and got more mature. We were just patient. But in most cases, the kids never get to, they get stopped before they did something stupid or they weren't interested. By having the faith that the kid will learn and by struggling with that through the years, we can see how far they've come. 

Our secret is that we have the patience and the belief that anything is possible. Whatever you need to help you get passionate about something is what we do. it's the true belief in the student. 

Every school says that they respect kids. If you give kids work that is not important, you're not respecting them. I think my frustration with the world is that in many suburban districts where parents move to send their kids and the students come home with their As and Bs, the parents are satisfied, but they never look deeper, so they think those are good schools. They have the highest SAT scores, they have the most kids going to Ivy League colleges. 

Those kids are losing too. They are not dropping out because they are playing the game. When you ask them, "Have you made any decisions in school? Do you care about anything, are you passionate about anything that goes on during the day besides drama club or football after school?" They're getting the short end. They aren't allowed to get engaged with their work and go deeper. 

"My kid did well at that school." Yeah, but where could your kid really go if your kid got to work with a doctor in 9th grade, following her around, and really going in depth? 

The other frustration is kids are dying daily. They are dropping out daily. In some cities, 20 percent graduate high school. Nothing is changed drastically enough. 

I appreciate the accountability part of No Child Left Behind. There were some school districts that were not clear about standards and the law is helping them focus. The law is not going to help poor kids really achieve. 

Taking tests is not going to help improve kids. We have to engage them, help them find their passion, we have to respect who they are and where they come from.

LINK to the NPR Interview


PORTFOLIOS (See Gardner's point about how to assess students from Intelligence Reframed) 
If individuals indeed have different kinds of minds, with varied strengths, interests and strategies, then it is worth considering whether pivotal curricular materials like biology could be taught AND ASSESSED in a variety of ways. 
Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School 
Thomas R. Hoerr    (Principal, St. Louis)
Page 27 
Keeping a portfolio for each child – a collection of work and artifacts that give a picture of the child’s growth – is a way of capturing progress without using paper and pencil measures.  Unless the portfolio is given credence an shared with parents as a report card is, however, it will seen as just a grab gag with little educational significance.  At New City the spring Portfolio Night highlights the role of the portfolio. 

During Portfolio Night parents and children review student artifacts and refletions and put their hands on evidence of student growth.  Families come together to celebrate student progress and accomplishments and to talk about areas needing more attention and effort.  In short, reviewing portfolios gives parents an opportunity to view their children’s progress in all of the intelligences. 

All items in a portfolio should contain a reflection sheet.  Completed by students, teachers or both, these forms indicate the particular intelligence an item addresses and why it was chosen for the portfolio.  Without a reflection sheet, it is easy for objects to lose their significance over time.  Photographs of three dimensional accomplishments as well as audiotapes and videotapes that capture a student’s progress should also be included in each portfolio.



Speech to a Conference about High Schools, May 2005
By Bill Gates

The Kansas City, Kansas public school district, where 79 percent of students are minorities and 74 percent live below the poverty line, was struggling with high dropout rates and low test scores when it adopted the school-reform model called First Things First in 1996. This included setting high academic standards for all students, reducing teacher-student ratios, and giving teachers and administrators the responsibility to improve student performance and the resources they needed to do it. The district’s graduation rate has climbed more than 30 percentage points. 

These are the kind of results you can get when you design high schools to prepare every student for college.   

At the Met School in Providence, Rhode Island,
 70 percent of the students are black or Hispanic. More than 60 percent live below the poverty line. Nearly 40 percent come from families where English is a second language. As part of its special mission, the Met enrolls only students who have dropped out in the past or were in danger of dropping out. Yet, even with this student body, the Met now has the lowest dropout rate and the highest college placement rate of any high school in the state. 
These are the kind of results you can get when you design a high school to prepare every student for college. 

Two years ago, I visited High Tech High in San Diego. It was conceived in 1998 by a group of San Diego business leaders who became alarmed by the city's shortage of talented high-tech workers. Thirty-five percent of High Tech High students are black or Hispanic. All of them study courses like computer animation and biotechnology in the school's state-of-the-art labs. High Tech High’s scores on statewide academic tests are 15 percent higher than the rest of the district; their SAT scores are an average of 139 points higher.  

These are the kind of results you can get when you design a high school to prepare every student for college. 

These are not isolated examples. These are schools built on principles that can be applied anywhere – the new three R’s, the basic building blocks of better high schools:  
The first R is Rigor – making sure all students are given a challenging curriculum that prepares them for college or work; 
The second R is Relevance – making sure kids have courses and projects that clearly relate to their lives and their goals; 
The third R is Relationships – making sure kids have a number of adults who know them, look out for them, and push them to achieve. 
The three R’s are almost always easier to promote in smaller high schools. The smaller size gives teachers and staff the chance to create an environment where students achieve at a higher level and rarely fall through the cracks. Students in smaller schools are more motivated, have higher attendance rates, feel safer, and graduate and attend college in higher numbers. 

In Spanish   

LINK to the NPR Interview

Discussion Panel about the Spanish Edition of The Big Picture Book

Discussion Panel about the Spanish Edition of The Big Picture Book

Discussion Panel about the Spanish Edition of The Big Picture Book

Discussion Panel about the Spanish Edition of The Big Picture Book