CSTA Classroom Science

Keeping High Standards Without Standards: An Interview with Ryan Gallagher, Director of Continuous Improvement, High Tech Schools

By Peter A’Hearn, CSTA President-Elect

This article seems more relevant now than when I wrote it a month ago. Testing is cancelled for this year. Everything is being redesigned and much will never be the same again. It’s time to imagine what a new system of accountability not based on standardized testing might look like. There are many possibilities. This interview points to some of them.

A while ago I had a conversation with Ryan Gallagher at High Tech High Schools about their positive school culture. In that conversation, High Tech High’s relationship with state standards came up. I thought it was worth a separate conversation. 

Photo by High Tech High
Photo by High Tech High

Pete: In our last conversation we talked about culture at High Tech High (HTH). One of the other things I find interesting is that you guys don’t really pay much attention to state standards. I know you’ve done some great work on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as part of the California NGSS Early Implementer Initiative, but compared to other schools where you might have pacing guides that make sure all the standards are being covered, that seems to be something you don’t do.

In the absence of state standards, you obviously set standards for yourself. So how do you make sure you are giving kids the rigor they need, preparing them to do science in college or career? How do you know you are doing right by kids?

Ryan: Let me answer that by talking about the history of HTH. HTH is 20 years oldish, and it was founded somewhat in response to the old state standards which were about all kids needing to know a specific set of facts regardless of connecting them to anything real or meaningful. We felt that was really stripping the joy, and through the joy, the rigor of learning. So kids weren’t really learning to think like a scientist or think like a historian.

But you can’t be formed just in opposition to something. We were asking some of the same questions you asked. In that void we grabbed onto ideas like 21st century skills and deeper learning competencies. Things like: Do students collaborate? Do students communicate effectively? Can they work effectively in a group? Can they solve real problems? 

So there was this set of standards that felt both loose enough for creativity and tight enough to make sure kids were getting what they needed for college and careers. But in working with those for 10 years we started to see that there were holes. We wondered if there is content that kids should get that we are missing? Are there ideas that we are hitting over and over again across the grades? So we became interested in where standards could take us. And the Common Core and NGSS felt different from the old state standards, so we started to look more closely at them.

Pete: That is a different way to think about standards. The approach is not, “Here are the standards, this is what we have to do.” The approach is realizing that we need some guidance, we need some help with structure. So standards become a way of looking at who has thought about this and laid out some roadmaps for how to get us where we want to go.

So the next question would be, “How do you hold yourselves accountable?” With the state standards, there is a state test that says, “You learned this.” We can argue if the test is meaningful or not, but at some level the test holds your feet to the fire that you are doing something. I know that you guys are very data driven, but that data is not driven by state tests. So what is it?

Photo by High Tech High
Photo by High Tech High

Ryan: The data question also gets back to the history of HTH. What we did originally was hire professionals, which is what Career Technical Education (CTE) currently does. That was about bringing down the walls between the inside and the outside. One of our original teachers, Jay Vavra, was a PhD Biologist who was really interested in genetics. His project was to have students create portable and affordable gel electrophoresis kits to test bushmeat in Africa. Jay took kids to Africa to field test the kits and build awareness of killing endangered species for food. I remember seeing this project and thinking, “these are high schoolers doing the kind of science I aspired to do in college and my career.”  

So that’s rigorous instruction because you brought in a professional who knows how to practice science in the real world and is now trying to share that practice with kids. So the accountability comes from the community of scientists. That works well in high school and middle school. There are questions about how that looks in elementary school. 

So if you want to know if a project is real and meaningful, bring in a doctor, bring in an engineer. That’s the proof that a project is meaningful.

A lot of times you get teachers who are real content hawks. Who think kids need to know all these chemistry principles for example. And my question is, “For What?” Is it to be a chemist? Because if you want to know what’s important in chemistry then ask a chemist what they are working on. Projects work best when you are using the science to tackle real world problems. 

Pete: But I know that you have worked with NGSS. High Tech High is one of the California NGSS Early Implementer partners. 

Ryan: Yes, one of the things that has been useful about the NGSS is that they have inspired our teachers to think differently about what they teach. For example, we have a teacher down in Chula Vista who does the “Space CV Project” and they have found that the NGSS can really inform the project in a new and creative way. But rather than feeling like it's a list of things they need to get through, it's actually inspiring them to think about new and engaging science to do with students. 

Pete: Again, the difference is how standards are perceived. They can be seen as a place to go for inspiration and feedback rather than as this thing that’s being shoved into your back.

Ryan: One thing people notice when they  first look at NGSS is that they are complex and people will very quickly dismiss them because of that complexity. I actually appreciate the complexity. But if you are going in thinking you are going to cover all of those performance expectations, you are going to feel like, “I can’t, I’m just going to go back to what I know.”

But you are always trying to push yourself to try something new. Looking to the NGSS can help with that. They help as long as you don’t have the feeling that the Performance Expectations are judging you as a teacher, but instead inspiring you to think about engaging kids in meaningful content. 

Pete: So that’s an interesting question. How can standards feel like an inspiration?  When NGSS first came out, I saw it as “Yeah! We get to be creative again!” I think more recently as testing has been added to it it's more like, “Ugh! It’s becoming a checklist of all this stuff we have to figure out how to fit in.”

That shift is really about the testing and not about the standards.

Ryan: I think leadership has a whole lot to do with that. If you are in a school where teachers are asked to put the standards on the board and you don’t allow staff to make mistakes, then the standards become oppressive. The first time you try a new project or to implement new standards you’re going to do it poorly. My guess is that’s true for everyone. 

So how do you create a safe environment where it’s okay to take risks? That’s the culture piece. And the test doesn’t help the culture piece.

Pete: Last time we talked, we discussed how a culture of conversations and collaborative structures help create accountability. If we are having these discussions and I need to be able to point to what works and what doesn’t, then that gives me accountability.

Ryan: Also we do presentations of learning for almost all of our projects, ideally presenting to a meaningful audience. Like kids presenting at UCSD. For example several of our Early Implementer teachers created this amazing urban ants project. They studied invasive ants species and conducted ant surveys around San Diego in conjunction with a Lab at UCSD. The project culminated with an exhibition of student work at the campus.  Presenting to an audience outside of myself as a teacher was an experience I didn’t have until my junior year of college.  Our kids do that starting in Kindergarten.   If a middle schooler can engage with a grad student about the work that they are doing, that tells me way more than a state test does about the learning. 

Discourse is really important. Are you having discourse with students, with their parents, with a community member to really unpack what they are learning? I think that is real accountability. 

Pete: I want to play devil’s advocate. There is an idea that many teachers have that if kids don’t have certain content, then they won’t be successful in college. And you, almost by design, ignore that. 

Ryan: I’ll use a personal example. When I was an 8th grader, I had to memorize the periodic table. And then I got to college and the periodic table was displayed in every class I walked into. In high school and even college I was asked to replicate lab procedures that others had completed. I was assessed on how well I could follow the recipe.  This is what I love about the science and engineering practices.  We are teaching kids to ask great questions and solve real problems.   

So in college it’s not that they want our kids to come in with this robust set of formulas. They want kids who know how to ask questions, to engage with the content thoughtfully. People who are successful in college work in study groups, work with others. We don’t know what they’re going to do in college. Most people change majors several times anyway. We want to provide them with a robust enough science education that they can choose a science career.

Our internships are also important. I think a kid who interned at Scripps Institute of Oceanography and went into the meat locker where they store whale carcasses is going to be way more inspired to study marine biology than a kid who sat in a class and got the full breadth of marine biology, 

Pete: So what is the data for your kids going to college? And how does it compare with someone who took a bunch of AP classes? 

Ryan: For things like A through G requirements, which is a baseline for going to the UC schools. For San Diego USD around 60% of kids get all A-G. For us it’s 100% of our kids get the A-G requirements. We are 90% 4-year college going. We have done a lot of research that shows our kids are not only getting into college but getting through college. 

Pete: I think that’s really important. Most high school teachers care very passionately about having their kids well prepared for college.

Ryan: We get feedback from kids. Formally through things like the Alumni surveys and First Gen support network and informally through empathy interviews , exit tickets, or consultations.  And a common one is, “I didn’t read enough.'' Taking a high stakes test is scary and intimidating the first time they do it. My hunch is most kids have that reaction, not just our kids. On the positive side we hear that our kids go to office hours, they seek out resources, they get into study groups, they get internships very easily. And those things are very important in success at college. 

Pete: So if you were thinking about the larger system of state standards and testing. How could the lessons of HTH be applied to the state of California, the USA?

Ryan: I am a firm believer in project based learning (PBL), and while I don’t think project based learning is the only way to do NGSS, the first time I read them, I thought, “Wow, these are perfect for PBL.” As long as you don’t feel pressure to hit every standard. 

This isn’t running a race, I don’t know why we feel that it helps kids. It makes us feel good as instructors. “See I told everybody everything.” whether or not it stuck. It's not going to stick. Most of it doesn’t stick on the tests anyway. So why?

We are trying to create lifelong learners. If you think back to your own educational career and you think about the things that stick out, it's like , Boy Scouts, or Girl Scouts, you made a lemonade stand, you engaged in real meaningful work, you have a need for the content, you engaged with professionals, we need to create opportunity in high schools.

There are lots of models out there. There are schools that are entirely internship-based in grades nine through 12. There are schools that are very based in nature, and they’ve done a lot of work with aligning Common Core and NGSS.

But I think it all starts with having kids share their learning. 

Pete: And also you shared that having a leadership that is tolerant of risk. I think a lot of administrators have bought into this idea that the test is everything. If you think about it, No Child Left Behind only really started to have teeth around 2005. That’s 15 years. And in 15 years it has become “the reality” to the extent that people can’t even imagine another way for schools to be. 

Ryan: I think we need to remember that what drives teachers is to love kids and love to work with kids. And for kids to do work that matters. So if we could just free teachers to do the things that matter. So it's not about adding. It's about subtracting.  I know that I don’t have the answer today but I am left wondering: “How do we create structure that truly liberates teachers in their classrooms, that will allow both teachers and students to show up as their authentic selves?”  It is a question that I will continue to ask here and look forward to learning from other schools and teachers.  

Peter A’Hearn is the CSTA President-Elect. You may contact Pete at casciencepete@gmail.com


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