Tests Are History at This High
Los Angeles Times
December 27, 2004
By Elizabeth Mehren, Times Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — When she wanted
to be a detective, Carleen Mylers studied criminal justice and took a job as an
investigator. When she thought she might become a lawyer, she worked in family
court. Now that she has an internship in a local middle school, people are
asking if she plans to go into teaching.
No, Mylers says. What she is actually doing is spying, using her observations as
fodder for a novel.
"I look at the kids who are always reading, walking around with a book in their
hands," Mylers said. "I know my novel will have a character like that."
For Mylers, 17, the diverse workplace experience is part of her curriculum at
the Met School — a thriving public high school here that caters to a largely
poor and minority student population.
The 9-year-old Met School defies convention, with no letter grades, no required
classes, and "advisors" instead of teachers who work with the same small group
of students for four consecutive years. Instead of taking tests, the 580
students present "exhibitions" of their work.
With 100% of its seniors accepted each year to college, the Met's "one student
at a time" approach to learning has caught the attention of educators around the
The success of the school also prompted the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to
fund a nationwide network of similar schools known as the Big Picture.
Awards of about $15 million made the Big Picture Company "our largest
alternative school grantee," said Tom Vander Ark, executive director of
education for the Gates Foundation.
"There simply are kids that are wired differently or have had different life
experiences. They need schools that are highly individualized and highly
supportive," Vander Ark said. "The Met certainly is both. We take people there
just to blow apart their preconceptions of how a school ought to work."
Among the 18 Big Picture campuses established in the last two years are schools
in Oakland, San Diego, Sacramento and rural El Dorado, Calif. Dennis Littky,
founder of the Met School and co-director of the Big Picture Company, said a
school in Santa Monica also was under discussion.
The conventional U.S. high school, Littky said, is little more than "an early
20th century assembly line."
"The word most kids use when they talk about high school is 'boring,' " Littky
said. "What a shame."
Littky began formulating his ideas about redesigning American high schools while
serving as a fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown
University. It was there that Rhode Island Education Commissioner Peter
McWalters approached Littky about setting up a new school for grades nine to 12.
The formal name of the school was to be the Metropolitan Regional Career and
Technical Center, but McWalters told Littky he wanted a college preparatory
school, not a vocational training facility.
"I thought, this is my chance," Littky said. "I've always wanted to work with
the poor, and with kids who are thought of as underdogs. I wanted to do
something different, something that would be best for the kids."
The result was a team approach in which parents, advisors and students were
equal partners. Students learn not from textbooks or lesson plans but from
individualized, real-world experience: internships that take them to a workplace
at least two days a week. The school focuses on writing, including a 75-page
autobiography that every student must complete as a senior project.
The Met, where more than 80% of students qualify for federal meal subsidies, has
the highest student retention level (98%) and the highest college placement
level of any high school in the state. The campus functions with the same
$11,000-per-student allocation that Rhode Island authorizes for every high
school, McWalters said.
Among five classes that have graduated, 75% have some kind of college degree or
certificate or are still in school.
"I am not sure [the Met] is a panacea. Right now, to me, it is an alternative,"
McWalters said. Even in a "data-driven, results-oriented era," he said, "there
is still this kind of 'there has got to be something wrong' kind of reaction
when you talk about the Met."
Indeed, the school ended up on a national watch list after faring poorly last
year on standardized tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Met students did better this year, and the school came off the list.
For Littky, the low test scores were almost a reverse badge of honor. He started
the Met by recruiting middle school students who were faring so poorly that they
were likely not to attend high school at all. Met students now are selected by
The student body is about 40% Latino, 30% African American, 26% white and 4%
"I believe that there is not one set of subject matter that all human beings
need to know," Littky said. "There is so much knowledge out there. The key is
loving to learn, finding knowledge and then applying that knowledge.
"I am fighting standardized tests," he said. "And I am fighting No Child Left
Littky, 60, intended to work with autistic children when he earned a double
doctorate in psychology and education at the University of Michigan.
But in 1969, he began working with a program to promote parental involvement in
schools in Brooklyn, N.Y. At 27, he became principal of a middle school on Long
Island, where he immediately ran into trouble with parents who did not like the
project-oriented innovations he was proposing.
He took the same pragmatic philosophy to his next job as principal of a small
school in a New Hampshire mill town that was in danger of closing. Littky turned
the school around, but his nontraditional methods so enraged a group of parents
that they had him fired. Littky went to court and won his job back. The
experience became the basis for a 1992 television movie called "A Town Torn
While working in New Hampshire, Littky attended a lecture by Theodore Sizer,
then a Brown University professor and a longtime critic of conventional
educational methods. The two became friends, as well as collaborators in Sizer's
Coalition of Essential Schools, a loose grouping of the leaders of about 1,500
schools who agreed to follow Sizer's educational principles.
"Instead of saying: 'This is what school is; how do we rearrange it to do
better?' Dennis said: 'How do you capture these kids that most people think are
already lost?' " Sizer said.
Along with workplace internships, Sizer said, Littky incorporated the premise
that "adults would be on these kids' cases all the time, because if you are not
on their cases, they will drift away."
At a recent Met School "check-in" session, the students in Rebecca Siddons'
advisory group gave status reports on their projects.
One student talked about a weekend workshop on eating disorders that she ran for
fifth- through eighth-grade girls. Another described his progress in trying to
help a Spanish-speaking family buy a house. An aspiring musician crowed that the
radio station he was launching finally made it onto the air.
"Most college admissions officers are blown away when they hear these kids tell
their stories," said Siddons, adding that Met students were not hampered by a
lack of traditional markers, such as grade points or course requirements.
"The War of 1812 is not part of the curriculum here," she said. "This school is
based on the idea that skills are more important than content, and that students
can learn what they need to know when they need to know it."
After working in a state program to prevent child abuse, for example, Mylers
decided she wanted to learn about psychology. She got Bs in two courses at a
community college — in Spanish and criminology.
The daughter of a carpenter and a day-care provider, Mylers is applying to half
a dozen colleges, including Amherst College, her "reach" school. She hopes to
finish her novel in the spring, and says that coaching middle school students
helps improve her own writing.
She said that learning through her interests motivated her to pursue subjects
she might never have explored otherwise. She also said it was "definitely cool"
to be smart at the Met.
"This school started out as an experiment," she said. "And now it is turning
into the future."