In a feature piece in the October 26, 2021 issue of The Washington Post Magazine, FutureEd Director Thomas Toch and Senior Fellow Alina Tugend explore the efforts of 400 public and private high schools to abandon grades in favor of a more comprehensive way of capturing students' high school experiences. We are grateful to the Barr Foundation for supporting the project.
Scott Looney, the head of the Hawken School near Cleveland and a leader in private education, had become disenchanted. The majority of American high schools, even the best money could buy, he believed, were delivering a misguided education. They treated students as passive receptacles and downplayed the importance of attributes such as collaboration and the many types of learning taking place outside classrooms. They reduced the high school experience of students with college aspirations to a formulaic pursuit of success in a narrow set of advanced courses that blocked many from exploring their passions.
Looney wanted to create a new secondary-school model, not just at Hawken and other privileged private schools, but also for the public school system that educated the vast majority of the nation’s students. “The industrial production model of putting kids on an assembly line when they’re 4 and moving them through at the same pace, asking them to do functionally the same work, is toxic,” he told us at his Hawken office in May.
He envisioned schools where students learned math, history and science not as isolated subjects in classroom-bound courses but while working together to address real-world issues like soil conservation, homelessness and illegal immigration. Such learning would make schooling more meaningful for students and thus more engaging, Looney believed. It would let students demonstrate more talents to colleges, holding out the prospect of a wider, more diverse range of students entering higher education’s top ranks.