A New Lesson Plan

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A couchant Demetrius Hill during a history class at Von Stuben Metropolitan Science Center

What these and other schools have in common is "an unashamed emphasis on producing results for our public," says Charles Venegoni, division head of English and fine arts at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights. "The idea that we get what's given to us in terms of [students' abilities] is toxic."

Seven years ago, Venegoni crafted a plan for Hersey featuring a logical, sequential curriculum aimed at producing student expertise in key skills, as determined by the faculty. "What if the students and what they will need in the future become the reason you teach something, and not just because you think it ought to be taught, not just because in my classroom it's the Chuck Venegoni Show and I'm the star?" Venegoni asks. "What if educational decision making had the kid at its center, not the teacher?"

Old way: In their junior and senior years, students take four semesters of English classes in whatever order they want, and in each class they read the stuff that the particular teacher likes. New way: Students take a standardized sequence of English classes designed to build each upon the previous one, and they read the books and write the essays that all teachers who teach that course have planned collaboratively.

The results have been impressive. Hersey's average ACT score climbed from 22 in 2000 to 23.9 in 2006. At the same time, the percentage of Hersey students taking the test has gone from 80 to 100, because Illinois now requires that all 11th graders take the ACT. That means that even while students with low academic abilities have joined Hersey's test-takers, the average score has gone up.

Certainly, something is working right at Hersey: The school placed well in the category of ACT vs. student spending on Chicago's comparative chart. Average ACT scores at Hersey (23.9) exceed test results at most other schools that spend in the range of Hersey's $7,647 per student. (In that spending range, an ACT average of one or two points lower is more typical.)

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