Profiles in Transformation: Generation Schools
Furman Brown co-founded Generation Brooklyn High School in 2007 as a radical experiment in redesigning the school day and year. Brown began from the premise that while teacher quality is paramount to student achievement, schools are not structured to support or develop high-quality teaching practices.
The Generation Schools model reorganizes the school day and school year to prioritize teacher collaboration. Teachers are networked into grade- and subject-level teams and have substantial time set aside each day for collaborative planning, professional development, and shared examination of student work.
By thinking creatively about how to use time, Generation Brooklyn provides a 200-day instructional year for students and a two-hour daily planning block for teachers without extending teachers’ contractual hours. The school is funded by the same per-pupil allocation as any other public school in New York City.
Since opening in 2007, Brooklyn Generation has posted impressive results. While only 20 percent of Brooklyn Generation’s entering ninth-graders were on grade level four years ago, nearly three quarters are on track to graduate on time and college-ready. Attendance is 85 percent, despite the longer school year.
Generation Schools will open a new small school, West Generation Academy, in Denver, CO in the fall of 2012, and will work with a second new small school on the same campus, the College Board's West Leadership Academy.
Generation Schools Principles
According to Brown, teacher effectiveness is the leading indicator of student achievement, but schools’ traditional organization presents fundamental obstacles to effective teaching, especially for high-needs students. Large classes and forty-five-minute teaching periods don’t allow most teachers to engage students in meaningful learning or to differentiate instruction.
A profile of Brooklyn Generation by Education Sector, an education policy think-tank, notes that U.S. Department of Labor studies have found that teaching is a complex profession, like psychology and social work. In contrast to these professions, though, teachers’ work is governed largely by time; contracts mandate start and end times, and schools follow rigid class schedules. While other professional work is characterized by vertical and horizontal teams and substantial influence over core work features, U. S. teachers are largely isolated, even when new on the job, and have very little say over the structure or content of their work.
The Generation Schools model shifts these patterns so that time is utilized to support best practices in teaching effectiveness. Rather than adding responsibility for collaboration on top of other duties, the school day and year is designed to maximize time for teamwork. Students learn core subjects in small classes with extended block scheduling.
The model is designed to ensure that teachers at different levels of experience and with different backgrounds regularly work together to maximize learning. Generation hires teachers who are “strong to begin with, but strong in different ways,” according to co-founder Jonathan Spear.
A typical school day at Brooklyn Generation starts with two ninety-minute “foundation” courses. These courses – core academic subjects like reading, math, and history – are taught by all teachers so that class sizes can be kept as low as fifteen students.
After lunch, students move into a sixty-minute “studio” course. Studio courses are electives and are generally larger, around twenty-five students. In the afternoon, teachers have a two-hour block of common planning time.
Rather than a long summer vacation, teacher grade-level teams each take two staggered four-week breaks per year. Three weeks are time off and the fourth week is used for common planning. While one grade-level team is on vacation, another team teaches their students a month-long “intensive” literacy course focused on career exploration or college access and preparation. The model provides a 200-day school year for students.
Teachers are organized into teams by grade level, subject area, and course type. The teams are intentionally designed to facilitate peer learning among teachers with different skills, levels of experience, and content knowledge. Rather than basing leadership roles on experience, any teacher with the interest and capacity can become a team leader.
Collaboration extends beyond the school itself. Local community-based organizations and higher education institutions partner with Brooklyn Generation to design studio and intensive courses and provide internship opportunities. Because the school is co-located with five other high schools, it can share resources like an English language learning specialist and discuss best practices with the staff of the other schools.
While modifying the school schedule required the agreement of the school system and the United Federation of Teachers, Brooklyn Generation operates on the regular New York City per-pupil allocation. The school has received start-up funding from a number of private sources.
The Generation model is only fully operational at Brooklyn Generation, and results are still preliminary. Brooklyn Generation is part of the transformation of South Shore High School, a large struggling school, into a campus of small high schools. For years, South Shore High School was the least-often chosen high school in New York City’s complex high school choice process. But In the 2009-2010 school year, 80 percent of Brooklyn Generation’s incoming freshman ranked the school among their top three choices.
Though only 20 percent of incoming freshmen are on grade level, 78 percent are on track for college four years later. In its first year (2007-2008), the school scored in the top five among its group of forty demographically similar comparison schools in credit accumulation, Regents exam pass rates, and attendance.
In recent years, attention has turned to how high-scoring countries across the globe structure teachers’ work. Organization for Economic Development (OECD) studies show that teachers in the United States spend more hours on instruction – 1,080 on average per year – than teachers in any other developed country. Korean teachers, for example, spend just 800 hours per year on instruction.
In countries that outperform the United States on international achievement tests, far more of teachers’ time is spent developing curriculum, common-planning, observing other teachers, and grading. Research in the United States has also demonstrated that peer learning among teachers that allows newer teachers to learn from talented colleagues improves student achievement.
Prioritizing teacher collaboration has obvious benefits, but it does come with tradeoffs. Ninety percent of Brooklyn Generation’s full-time staff are teachers, meaning that the school employs far fewer support staff than most high schools. Because most of those staff plays several roles and almost all have responsibility for teaching the core foundation classes, the school has few specialized staff or specialized programs. Because so much of teachers’ work is shared, individual accountability and growth can be harder to pinpoint.
- Generation Schools website
- “Teachers at Work: Improving Teacher Quality through School Design.” By Elena Silva. Education Sector. October 2009.
- “Time Well Spent: Eight Powerful Practices of Successful, Expanded-Time Schools,” by the National Center on Time and Learning. 2011.
- Generation Schools website