A New Lesson Plan

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Chris Ralston mulls a bridge-building problem in a natural science class at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.

There were some surprises behind all those school numbers. Whether in well-off suburbs with luxurious campuses or in the uneven Chicago Public Schools system, schools are conducting focused campaigns to root out obstacles in the path of student achievement. At first it seems too obvious: Isn't that what schools have always done? But many educators say a new attitude involves flipping public education's assumptions upside down. "It's not about what you're teaching; it's about what students are learning. That's not just semantics," says Richard DuFour, who spent 19 years at Stevenson, first as principal and then as district superintendent. Before leaving in 2002, he oversaw that school's growth into the nationally recognized model school it is today. (He is now an education consultant in Virginia)

The centuries-old teacher-centered model, DuFour explains, says that individual teachers hold the keys to the next level, and that a student's task is to absorb the facts and concepts the teacher presents. "A school was for sorting out the students who learned what we told them to learn from those who didn't," he says. In the student-centered model, educators "really mean it when we say all our students can learn. A high school is called upon today to prepare all students for what comes next and to make sure we know they have learned it," DuFour says. In other, more familiar words: No child should be left behind.

At Stevenson, that means that students who are struggling in a class are required to go to the school tutoring center as many times as needed (outside class time but during the school day), not as punishment but to get more intensive help. That's one facet of a larger program that, as DuFour describes it, "is constantly taking students' temperature. Are they learning what we want them to learn? If not, what can we do to help them learn it?"

In its first eight years, Northside College Prep, the highly selective school in Peterson Park, has become the premier talent pool for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), with an average ACT score that bests all other high schools in the state. There, an intensive focus on what might be called "curriculum delivery"—that is, the method by which subjects are presented to students—meant switching around the traditional progression of science classes. Northside's founding principal, James Lalley—who over the summer moved to a central CPS role coaching other principals—explains that biology, which has been the first-year science specialty in high schools since the 1880s, "is now very molecular, with the human genome project and other things." Physics, long the last-year class, is now seen as a foundation for comprehending chemistry and biology. Going with a "physics first" sequence is a key part of Northside's "constant attention on how we are doing at helping our students reach our expectations," Lalley says.

A student-centered orientation is not one formal school of thought, but an emerging philosophy about education, played out in varied ways at many different schools. In the Lincoln-Way high-school district in Will County, all freshmen take a required class in reading—not literature—that is designed to help them understand the peculiar language of textbooks and how to get what they need from texts, tests, and other materials. In the South Loop, Jones College Prep keeps a watch list of students, based on grades, attendance, and discipline data, that "shows our top 40 struggling kids out of 740, so we can give them each a case manager who connects them to all our supports and resources," says Donald Fraynd, the school's principal.

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