MacArthur Genuis Awards: What's a Public School Teacher Doing There?

I had heard on NPR that one of the winners of this year's MacArthur Genuis Awards was a public school teacher who had created a robotics program at his high school. I wanted to say, "Yay for public school teachers!" (Want to be simultaneously depressed AND inspired? Read through all the winners. Amazing people.)

So here's what the MacArthur Foundation has to say about the teacher, Amir Abo-Shaeer, who works at a non-charter public high school in Santa Barbara called Dos Pueblos High School.

Amir Abo-Shaeer is a physics teacher who is inspiring and preparing public high school students for careers in science and mathematics. Recognizing the potential for programs at the secondary level to encourage students to pursue science and engineering degrees, Abo-Shaeer left a career in industry to become a teacher at Dos Pueblos High School in Santa Barbara, California.

In 2002, he created the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA), a school within a school with a rigorous applied science curriculum that integrates physics, engineering, and mathematics courses; hands-on building projects; and specialized competitions. The program culminates in the design and construction of a robot by the academy’s senior class and its entry into the FIRST Robotics Competition. Although often competing against larger and better-equipped schools, DPEA’s robotic teams have received awards in regional, national, and international contests. Abo-Shaeer’s ability to motivate students and his enthusiasm for science education have transformed the culture at his high school.

DPEA participants are highly regarded by other students, and young women now comprise approximately half of the academy’s students—a proportion considerably above the national average in advanced high school science courses. He is currently developing plans to expand the curriculum to accommodate students at different academic levels, as well as to establish a training program for educators interested in undertaking similar efforts at other schools.

Wait a minute. He created this academy in a regular public high school that has teachers represented by a union? Well, how the heck did that happen when we hear that only charters are doing innovative things because of freedom from the shackles of union rules? Waiting for Superman sure missed this school. Oh wait, that's right, they don't show a single good public school in the entire film.

Also, you want to see probably one of the most high-functioning high schools in the country? Check out DPHS's website. They have AP, IB AND a gifted program and a nationally ranked jazz choir, drama, visual arts, academic team championships as well as athletic ones. It's amazing. Their SAT reading scores are nearly 60 points higher than the national average; the math scores are nearly 80 points higher. One last thing, they are 24% F/RL and have 9.3% ELL.

From their website:

“Dos Pueblos High deserves a special word of congratulations because it had the highest combined SAT scores this year, the highest combined percentage of students taking the SAT's, the highest AP scores, and the highest number of National Merit Scholarship finalists of all schools in the county, public or private.”

Bill Cirone, S. B. County Superintendent of Schools

It can be done.


SC Parent said…
Another example of LESS curriculum "alignment" and MORE school/teacher autonomy and empowerment can generate amazing results. *Lucky* for my kid, MGJ is taking SPS in the opposite direction....

Also (I'm making an assumption about SBSD here) a good example of what can happen with a good working relationship between the superintendent and the union, both placing the students first.
Central Mom said…
And here's another prominent NYT story about a non-charter public high school significantly raising academic achievement despite a huge student body.

4,100 Students Prove ‘Small Is Better’ Rule Wrong

Significantly, the turnaround is credited almost solely to teachers at the school who revamped their curriculum and focused on strong basics and continuity of learning. District administration got out of the way. School administration got out of the way. The union got out of the way. There was no mass firing of teachers or mass turnover of students.

Again, it can be done.

And again, this story has almost nothing in common with the current tactics of our own district administration.
another mom said…
Central Mom,
Thanks so much for finding the NYT piece. It was heartening as well as inspiring. Home grown solutions do work. It is not necessary to apply a one size fits all approach to what ails K-12 in this country. Empower teachers and good things can and will happen.

The turn around at Brockton HS did not happen overnight and staff had to be brought along, but it worked. The key players laid the ground work and persisted. No mass firings necessary. Once results were evident -and the results were not even that great just an uptick-there was an all hands on deck approach. The entire building was empowered.

My favorite quote from the NYT article,
“Achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction.”

These are the examples that need far more attention. This can be done, but it is one student at a time and one school at a time. Get thousands of real educators involved. The system is capable of turning itself around.
And this is what happened in Everett in the turnaround in their graduation rates - looking at data, working with teachers and students and emphasizing one-on-one help. And, it was low cost.
Maureen said…
From the NYT article:

“Achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction.”

Not on identifying and firing the teachers who raised test scores the least.

I also liked the fact that teachers were encouraged to use the phrase "when you go to college" in every class everyday.
LouiseM said…
"Not on identifying and firing the teachers who raised test scores the least."

There is always a back story. Just because you didn't read that they fired teachers, doesn't mean they kept all their teachers through this effort.

That is one thing we all need to be mindful of when we're reading and citing things we want to believe in. I mean do you really believe that school had every single teacher and administrator in line with the effort? I don't. Not with a student body of 4,100 and apparently at some point an achievement level that wasn't desireable. I'd be willing to bet there are some on the way out now because they're not sticking with the program because it's too hard and too demanding.

I'm just sayin'...
Dorothy Neville said…
Actually, FFK, the story does day that teachers were dismissed. But not the mass firing from above. The message I got from this story is that it was a group of dedicated teachers who banded together, worked within the union rules, were not hampered by administration and they developed the plan, they encouraged, mentored fellow teachers and were effective in getting rid of the ones that just wouldn't get with the program.

Not edicts from above, not coaches wasting their time, the teachers were allowed to be the responsible professionals that many of them are.
Anonymous said…
We are thrilled that the MacArthur foundation recognized a truly amazing teacher. You can read about him and his vision in a book coming out in March named "The New Cool". Part of his success comes from partnering with many people in the community - he has a lot of help from parents, engineering mentors, and local businesses.

Jan said…

I suspect you are right. I don't for a minute believe that EVERY teacher standing in front of EVERY class in this city woke up so jazzed to teach today that they could hardly avoid breaking the speed limit to get to work. I absolutely suspect that when "big changes" occur in schools, individual educators have to sit down and personally assess their strengths, talents, commitment to change, and what they can bring to the project (including energy levels, experience, optimism, enthusiasm, etc.) And in some cases, they need to find other places to teach, or other things to do. This happens anywhere -- banking, health care, retail services, you name it.

But the decision-making that goes on in the situation described above is a far far cry from handing teachers a (flawed) canned curriculum and a pacing guide, giving them $500 to "help themselves" if they are in trouble, and then firing them if their student's scores on high stakes tests don't improve by some magical number.

And I also think that some teachers are only discouraged because they are NOT part of a team that is moving the needle and making a difference -- and that when an effort like this gets going, many teachers are more than willing to do whatever it takes to get on board. That is, after all, why they went into teaching in the first place.
seattle said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
seattle said…
This story is sad to me because it reminds me of what our alt schools used to look like. They were quite innovative, hands on, and "experiential". They were creative, and cutting edge. But not any more.

The other thing that is remarkable about this particular school is that it takes all comers. It is a neighborhood school, drawing it's students from the geographic zone in which it is located (which is a fairly mixed income area as far as I can tell). It's not a "choice" or self selected type public school (which sometimes draws more involved families).

Very inspiring.
WenD said…
I love this story.
Jan said…
Anonymom: I agree that what has happened to alts over the last few years has been one of the saddest things to happen to SSD schools. So -- how do we fix this? There are still a few successful alts that are -- alt -- like NOVA and TOPS (and maybe others, I don't mean to exclude). Virtually ALL alts, even in their weakened states, have waiting lists, and some have very long ones. How do we get the District to "create" alt capacity to fill the clear demand that is there?
seattle citizen said…
I agree with Anonymom that this story seems to speak to our alternative schools, what they were (in a couple of cases) what they are, and what they could be. Combined with the district's recent look at waivers, at allowing and maybe even supporting non-standardized curricula, I'd suggest that there is a good chance, now, to build a number of programs up, not just alts but other various sorts of programs.

The work of the Alt Coalition, then board members who voted in Policy C54.00 four years ago, then the work of the district's Alt Committee that further examined "altness" and produced a valuable check-list/measuring stick to help us all understand what it is that alts are or do...This work, perhaps to be taken up again with the appointment of Jobn Minor as a sort of Alt Director, is promising and can be replicated. Various school programs, teachers, parent/teacher cooperative coalitions (such as the Alt Coalition) could work with the district to examine possibilities, refine curricula to make it both innovative and "standards-based," and otherwise collaborate to bring new (and existing) excellence to light.

So I agree, anonymom, that this movie strikes us as sad in its recall of our own alts (and their recent neglect) but I feel there is hope that sadness may give way to lollipops and rainbows! (sorry, whoever I borrowed that sticky phrase from)

(WV better call an exterminator: Its outbox has a bintic)
seattle citizen said…
Of course, the cynic in me that (wait for it) suspects, no, KNOWS that there are larger forces at work wonder what sort of "alternative" or "innovative" school the Broadies have in mind. Methinks these schools would still be "data-driven" in the Broad model, using "technology" and "quantitative analysis" to drive curriculum, no matter how much it appears to deviate from a district-wide curriculim.
Methinks also that one of the big Broad goals is the destruction of the union and the replacement of "dinosaur" teachers with shiny, new, replaceable, cheaper, warm bodies that enter the system, teach to a known curriculum (one tied to "the standards," and when the students don't measure up, teacher is eased out to be replaced with another malleable (and cheap) warm body.

This model, the Broad model, might allow some diversity of programs, but only on its own terms (data driven), hence the waiver model: Instead of good classes or programs merely showing the district they're good, this process requires a preliminary sign-off by downtown, which could result in stifling conditions that attempt to lever Broad precepts into truly innovative, independently developed curricular plans.

The whole thing gives WV antses.
peonypower said…
Teachers are inspired - and given resources and some autonomy they will build awesome programs. This guy is not an anomaly- I work with people who build telescopes, take students on international research trips, compete in nationwide programs like Imagine Tomorrow, and all of this without district dollars. If we want great teaching this is what we need. I chose the school I work at for my first grueling year of 3 different classes each day and no room of my own so that I could be part of such a great team. It has paid off in that I have been mentored and helped along the way and my students have benefited from working with these folks. We need more of this not less.

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