Levine, Eliot

Eliot Levine earned his doctorate in psychology from the University of Maryland and his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from M.I.T. He has worked as a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Now he works for the Big Picture Company, a nonprofit education reform organization in Providence, Rhode Island, and he is preparing to become a high school teacher. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife, son, and foster daughter. He welcomes your feedback at elevine@alum.mit.edu.

Dennis Littky

Also participating in the interview will be Dennis Littky, who co-directs the Big Picture Company with Elliot Washor. Dennis is nationally known for his 30 years of work in secondary education in urban, suburban, and rural settings. He has been a community organizer, curriculum coordinator, and principal of two innovative schools. His work at Thayer Junior/Senior High School in Winchester, NH, was featured in an NBC movie, "A Town Torn Apart," based on the book, Doc: The Story of Dennis Littky and His Fight for a Better School (Contemporary Books, 1989). He has a double Ph.D. degree in psychology and in education from the University of Michigan. Additionally, Dennis is Co-Principal of The Met Center. E-mail Dennis at dlittky@bigpicture.org.

"This is a Great Book. A great piece of research. A Great Story. Will the Met Model sweep the world off its feet? I wish. With deserved help from the Gates Foundation (you go, Billy-non-Harvard-graduate), maybe so. Frankly, the odds are long, given the wrong-headed nature of The Establishment's retro approach to education. But there is a learning revolution going on. The Internet is leading it. So, interestingly, are talent-strapped corporations, looking for new ways to inculcate an ethos of life-long learning into their corporate "cultures." We're gonna get this damned thing done, by hook or by crook, and The Met Model—learning through passion for the task—will be front and center—come hell AND high water."

From the foreword by Tom Peters

[We here at tompeters.com are strongly encouraging businesses, foundations, networks of social service organizations, and education organizations to get this book and distribute it to their networks. If you’re interested in ordering discounted bulk quantities (10 books or more), please contact Michael McGann, Teachers College Press. Tel: 212 678 3919. Email: mim11@columbia.edu. See other links at the end of this interview.]

tompeters.com asks …

Why have you written this book, Eliot?

Eliot Levine: I got a two-year research fellowship to study anything at all having to do with evaluating social programs for children, and I was trying to find something truly radical and oriented towards social change and social justice for children as a way to spend my two years. I was moving to Providence from Boston at that time, and an amazing number of people pointed to this school as an epicenter of school change for someone like me who wanted to study that. And the school really resonated with my own ideas about education, as well.

Dennis, you are the principal of the school we’re talking about, the Met School?

Dennis Littky: Elliot Washor and I started the school about six years ago and worked as co-principals. Since then we’ve recruited some of our own teachers who want to move into leadership positions, and we’ve trained them to take over the schools as we expand from two campuses to six campuses.

Elliot and I have taken a step back, but we still serve as master principals and mentors to all of our new principals. But everything that Eliot Levine has written about in the book was written about when Elliot Washor and I were principals.

What is the underlying principle of the Met School?

Dennis Littky: Most schools are boring and irrelevant for a great deal of students, especially in cities. The Met’s underlying principle is to take one kid at a time and try to help them find their passions and their interests. And then allow them to find adults in the community to help them with those passions and those interests.

And so every kid has their own curriculum. There is a reason why we have such a high attendance rate, why we have a low dropout rate—it’s because kids get to work around something that’s very important to them.

The other part is how do you truly involve the parents in their kids’ school? It’s not bake sales anymore—it’s inviting them to help develop the curriculum for their kids. We have a school where probably 98 percent of the kids will talk to you about a passion they have. They will talk about loving animals and working in the zoo and doing research on penguins. Or they will talk about their love of music, and working in a music studio with a Brown professor. And then we get them to read, write, and think around that.

The students actually create products related to their passion. The students working in the music studio would create a CD of their band, or the student working in the zoo might create a proposal to the zoo staff about what kinds of habitats they need to develop in order to support the acquisitions of new animals they’re considering. So, it’s real products.

You want a story? A girl came to us as a ninth grader and said she wanted to study death. And we said, “Oh God, she’s a strange one.” She started reading about death. She started going out to funeral homes, talking to people about things. Then, every nine weeks, the kids do an exhibition of their work—they write a paper and show the work they’ve done, and they do this in front of their parents, teachers, internship mentors, and fellow students. That’s the way we do exams.

And this girl showed her work. In her previous school she’d been a student with low grades and hadn’t done much. But on this project she had done 37 drafts of a paper! And the reason was that her family had fled Cambodia, and her sisters and brothers had all been killed.

During her exhibition I had asked her “Are you going to continue working on this, past this quarter?” And she said, “No. I don’t have to anymore. That had been in my mind 99 percent of the time. But now I’ve had time to clear it out of my mind, and I’m ready to move on.”

That’s a good example of what we do. I felt proud that we could give a student the time she needed to study and work through what was important to her. It allowed her to move on to other things. If she’d been in a regular school she’d be doing all her subjects, but she would have never worked that through. It’s an example of how a kid’s interest was tied to something that had been holding her down.

Eliot Levine: It’s also important to mention that the Met integrates the traditional curriculum areas into these projects, in a personalized way. For example, the Cambodian student who studied death would have also learned about Cambodia in general. So it has that social studies component, but instead of studying the Spanish American War, which she would have immediately forgotten, she would study the Khmer Rouge regime, and learn important principles of history, but in a project that’s of great interest.

Why is this alternative so radical? It doesn’t seem radical; this is radical, right?

Dennis Littky: Well, even the word “alternative” is interesting. It’s like “alternative” medicine. What we now call “alternative” medicine is often the more natural kind of medicine, whereas our “regular” medicine in this country is often the more artificial, synthetic kind.

So I look at everything we know—I happen to be trained as a psychologist, Eliot Levine also. And everything we know about the way kids learn, and the way everyone learns-you learn when you’re interested in something. You learn when you get to effect some change in something. You learn better by doing than by listening.

And of course we know that “regular” schools don’t work that way. You’re being lectured at in a big group, not being able to do anything. You’re memorizing rather than constructing knowledge. So, in a sense—

Eliot Levine: It’s not tailored to each student.

Dennis Littky: Right. So, in a sense, it’s very sad that we’re called the “alternative.” Because we are truly doing what we think is the way kids learn.

I’ve been a principal for 29 years now, and I’ve run two very good schools. And they weren’t traditional, but they were much more like a regular school than what we’re doing now. Our new school-the Met-was an opportunity to say, oh my gosh, if we could really do what we believe is right, and think about the best way to educate kids, then this is what we would do. That’s how we came upon it.

If you were home-schooling your kid, you wouldn’t put him in the kitchen for 45 minutes and ring a bell and move him to the living room for 45 minutes, and ring a bell. And you sure wouldn’t have him reading textbooks.

What you do is you take the kid and have experiences with the kid. You’d watch movies, you’d read good novels. One way to think about it is that we’re taking the home-schooling notion of individualized education but we’re putting it into a school.

Getting back to the title of the book, which is One Kid at a Time, you have a system that’s-in the business world we’d call this mass customization, I suppose. And yet, can this work on a large scale? Could you educate every child in this country in this way?

Eliot Levine: There’s no reason that you couldn’t do it, because the school is operating with a typical budget. It would require a lot of changes, such as training teachers differently, thinking about education differently, but actually the Met is now scaling up to building a total of 18 schools nationwide-six schools here in Providence, plus another 12 being funded by a $4 million grant from the Gates Foundation. There are a lot of trends in education that are pointing in the direction of this type of schooling.

But, from what I understand, the system relies on real engagement from the students, which makes a lot of sense. They find something that they’re interested in, and they learn about writing, communication, and the thought process based on what they’re interested in. But, it also relies heavily on advisors. You’ve got groups of 14 students headed by one advisor, right? And this advisor gets to know each of them very well, but also is expected to be with them through their four years from 9 through 12, right?

Dennis Littky: Right.

This seems to be a radical departure from a normal kind of teaching situation. And it seems subject to massive burnout. And what happens if an advisor says, “I can’t hack it,” after two years and bails? How do you deal with that burnout issue for those students?

Dennis Littky: One, it does not have to lead to burnout. It is a different way of looking at teaching. And if we train our people better, so they’re prepared for this, it’s so much more satisfying than teaching 150 kids a day, which is really what burnout is about. So, we don’t have the burnout.

The other thing is teachers do leave after two years for various reasons. And then kids get a new advisor and they adjust. It’s not as good as we’d like, but that’s life. So, we’ve had many cases where people got married and had a baby, or other things and they left. Or, people weren’t good enough, and so they left.

It’s not a perfect system. You know, there’s one group we’ve had that’s had three different advisors. Not perfect, but we salvaged it in a good way. They still have someone paying attention to them in the right way.

Eliot Levine: You also need to realize that there’s tremendous burnout in the mainstream educational system. Something like one out of four teachers doesn’t make it into their second year of teaching. So, unlike traditional mainstream schools, where you have that massive dropout in the first few years, the Met doesn’t experience that kind of dropout because there’s a culture of support and professional development, mentoring of new teachers, and so on.

I guess one of your cases for success is that you’re sending, I think you say, 100 percent of your students off to college.

Dennis: One hundred percent are accepted to college, and about 91 percent have gone off to college.

Which I would imagine is a very high percentage.

Eliot Levine: It’s a remarkable percentage.

But, my question is, you’re basing your success on them sending your students off to a type of schooling that seems to be more like the traditional kind of school that you’re not in favor of to begin with.

Dennis: Let me answer that, and then I have to run. But, two things. Unfortunately, and I’m dealing with it right now, unfortunately the way to move up in this world is to have a college degree. And especially if you’re a person of color, and do not have a college degree, you cannot get very far.

So, unfortunately, you are correct. We have to put our kids through that regular system. And we’re finding, in many cases, that it’s not only color, but it’s class also. You know, I just talked to a girl this morning whose roommates have brought up a little TV and a microwave and they’ve got money for snacks every night and this girl has nothing.

Colleges are middle class institutions—not set up for poor people, not set up for people of color. So, you are right, they are not the ideal place to send kids who graduate from a school like the Met. But, right now in our world, that is the only option we have. We work hard to find smaller colleges who are supportive of our kids and don’t have a chemistry class with 600 kids, like the one I had when I went to college.

We’re also thinking more and more about starting a new college. The first thing we need is a president. I think I’ll ask Tom to do that next—a hands-on college that allows kids to do things in ways similar to the Met. Not just for our kids. We’ve got kids all around the nation that the regular-fat-textbook-500-kids-in-a-lecture-hall, is not for them.

Eliot Levine: With regard to big lecture halls, it’s important to note that many Met students have gone off to large institutions and are doing great. We have two African-American students from low-income backgrounds who went to Brown University and are thriving there. We have students going to Northeastern, and a number of large colleges where you do, in fact, get those big lecture halls and fat textbooks, and they’re doing fine.

Dennis Littky: But, there are students that it’s not right for, also. We’re just trying to figure it out. So, your question is on the nose.

You point out in the book that there was a case where a student recited some lines from Hamlet, and then half of the other students said, “Yo, what’s this Hamlet thing all about?” And sort of leading into a discussion about well, okay, we don’t get this breadth of coverage that-I mean, I here as an English major might think, “Oh my God, you’re not learning about Shakespeare in high school, what a tragedy.” How do you deal with those charges?

Dennis Littky: Let me say my last thing, and then Eliot will continue where I’m taking off. My thing is this. I’m an extremist on subject matter. There is too much out there now for us to know it all. A panel of prominent historians got together and spent five years trying to figure out what kids should know in history, and they couldn’t figure it out. Whose history is it these days?

Here’s my extreme example, related to yours. I’d rather a kid say, “Yo, Shakespeare who? That sounds cool, I think I’ll go read him,” than many kids I know who read Shakespeare in 10th grade, read him in 12th grade, read him in college, and hate it because they’re forced to read it; they have no feeling for it.

Ideally, I would love kids to do both. I would love kids to have that love of learning and also to know as much information as possible, because it makes you able to make decisions better. But when we only have the kids for a certain amount of time, I think the most important goal is to get them excited about wanting to continue to learn.

I once added up all the hours that kids are in school, from the time they’re 5 to 22, and then pretended that people lived until 70. And just nine percent of their life is spent in school. So, if it’s only nine percent of their life, I’d better teach them to keep wanting to learn and read the rest of their life. It’s a balance. I would feel embarrassed if I was there and a kid said, “Who’s Shakespeare?” But, I’d rather that the kid first get excited about Shakespeare and then go read it.

Eliot Levine: The idea is that when kids are following their interests, that’s what’s going to get them more excited about learning in the future. But if someone forces them to read Macbeth in 10th grade, and it bores them to tears, then the opposite will happen.

So, how is the message of this book relevant to a business audience?

Eliot Levine: Well, we all know who’s going to work for the businesspeople. And that’s the graduates of our nation’s schools. So, if the graduates aren’t arriving with the type of education that’s needed, then the businesses are all in big trouble.

Many businesses have indeed come to that conclusion and realize that they need to get more involved with education. That’s why we see all these business-education roundtables, all these business-education magazines, conferences springing up around the country. Businesspeople see who’s coming down the pipeline, and they’re finding that they can’t find applicants with the skills they need.

A recent book called Teaching the New Basic Skills, from Richard Murnane and Frank Levy at Harvard, says that personal qualities—such as persistence, dedication, being organized, and having high standards—are essential to success in the world of work. Their research shows that employees need a basic level of academic skills, but beyond that it becomes the employee’s personal qualities that make the biggest difference in job performance.

But mainstream schools do not pay much attention to those personal qualities. Instead, they focus on getting students through calculus and through trigonometry, when almost no one ever uses trigonometry or calculus again-even many people in fields like medicine. But, what schools don’t teach is how to organize a complex problem in arithmetic or algebra, which is 99 percent of what everyone else uses for the rest of their life.

So, the business community has a real need to pay attention to changes that need to be made in our educational system, so that it produces the type of people who can do the jobs that are coming up. Actually, Tom talks a lot about this in his foreword. He talks about how the Met is all about getting students engaged, and how relevant that is to the business world.

Tom’s message to the business world is about getting workers engaged in the work. He talks about Wow Projects, and it’s a model where you don’t just take what the boss tells you to do, and do that; you figure out what could actually make it really interesting for you and other people, including customers. And so to go from there.

And engagement. Tom is always talking about passion. I think you guys have hooked on exactly the right word when you’re talking about your students, and the fact that they are engaged. They are engaged in learning.

Which then leads me to my next question. You’ve been able to measure how many are accepted at college, how many have gone to college. The first graduating class was in the year 2000. So, they’re—

Eliot Levine: Sophomores.

But, will there be a way to track these students beyond college out into the real world to see if there is actually what everyone is calling “lifelong learning,” to see if that’s really taken hold with them? Is that something that’s of interest to you? Do you think that’s necessary? Would you want to do it if it could be done?

Eliot Levine: We’re writing research proposals to get this done, to evaluate the success of Met students over the long haul. We definitely want to find out if that’s true, partially because the people here really believe that it is true, and they want to be able to demonstrate it to the world.

We’re anticipating a study that will be a minimum of 10 years in duration so we can really look beyond grades in college, the types of things that people often look at, because grades in college don’t mean that much in terms of lifelong success and lifelong learning. College degrees are very relevant, but that’s what gets you in the door. And after a few years, no one cares what your grades were.

But, we also want to look at well-being and happiness and quality of life. Dennis feels that he’d much rather see a student who was happy being a parent and working as a carpenter and contributing productively to the world, than someone who, say, is an anxious, stressed-out professor trying to get tenure. He certainly would like students to be able to go into all professions, but there would have to be a variety of ways of evaluating what success means in this model.

And it will also include making sure that students have developed the personal qualities we think are important—lifelong learning, persistence, high standards, and others. Also active citizenship, which is promoted here in terms of knowing your community and contributing to it.

You mentioned the Big Picture Company. What is that? And how is that related to the Met School?

Eliot Levine: The Big Picture Company is a nonprofit organization in Providence whose first project was creating the Met School. Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, who are the founding principals of the Met, are also the founding directors of the Big Picture Company. And they’re still the co-directors.

Back in 1995, the Big Picture Company got oversight of planning a new school that had been funded through a bond issue by the State of Rhode Island. They developed the unique curricular materials and the 1,001 other complex pieces that go into putting together a school that is so innovative. But, since then, the Big Picture Company’s mission has expanded to promoting change in the educational system of this country in accordance with the learning principles that we have discussed today and which are espoused in One Kid at a Time.

Big Picture has created a K-8 charter school in Providence that’s based on learning principles similar to the Met’s. They’ve created a principal residency network, a unique way of training principals. Instead of becoming a principal by taking a bunch of college classes and never really learning how a school works, these principal candidates actually apprentice with a distinguished principal for a couple of years in small, personalized schools like this one.

And the largest project of the Big Picture Company right now is to use a $4 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to scale up the Met model to an additional 16 schools around the country. That includes four more in Providence, and 12 more around the country. Six of those schools will be opening this coming September in Michigan, New Hampshire, Vermont, Seattle area, Detroit area, Sacramento area, and Oakland, California.

Why is all of this happening in Providence?

Eliot Levine: Dennis and Elliot ended up in Providence as a result of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, which recruited them from their previous positions in New Hampshire. And then a number of different factors, a number of stars aligned so that there was this new school being planned. Dennis and Eliot were the right people, and convinced the state of that. And it went on from there. So, that’s why it ended up being Providence.

You mentioned that you’re in training to become a teacher.

Eliot Levine: That’s right.

Where will you teach?

Eliot Levine: I’ll be teaching in a Met School. It’s important to understand that, although I’m now working with the Big Picture Company, and I’m planning to teach in a Met School, when I began my research project, which resulted in this book, I had never heard of the Met. I’d actually never been to Providence. And I didn’t know any of the people who are here. And it was in the course of doing my research that I realized the value of this approach to education.

I had always wanted to be a high school teacher. When I got out of college, I didn’t have a teaching certificate, but I applied for alternative certification in New York City and got it teaching math. And then because it was April and they couldn’t give me a contract until September, I got another job and went into a 12-year detour. But, now I’m going back to teaching, which is something I always wanted to do.

Thank you.


One Kid At A Time: Big Lessons From A Small School

Email, Eliot: elevine@alum.mit.edu
Email, Dennis: dlittky@bigpicture.org