Students prepare for final presentations at Wharton

Please join us the week of June 7-10 for the Fourth Quarter Exhibitions. As the fourth term of the school year comes to a close our students will present their work and projects to their peers, parents, guardians, and community members. We hope you will be part of this important part of the Workshop School’s educational process. Students share what they’ve learned and where they have struggled. They get feedback from classmates and set goals for the upcoming year. It’s a powerful experience for students and audience members alike.

Having an authentic audience for exhibitions is an essential part of the presenting experience for students. We would truly appreciate your support and attendance. For more information, or to let us know you will be coming contact Matt Riggan at

Below: On Wednesday, the sophomores practiced for their year-end presentation. At the Workshop School, the sophomores’ final presentation is called “Gateway”, and is one of the pieces needed to prove their readiness to take college classes in their junior year. To practice for their Gateways, the students presented at Wharton School of Business, which houses world-class presentation spaces.




Beginning with Trust

The Workshop School has a very different vibe than most Philadelphia Public Schools. As a graduate student this year, I have had the opportunity to visit many schools in the area–public, charter, and private. The only school that I have visited this year that can be likened to the atmosphere at the Workshop School is a wealthy, private, suburban school, rooted in the Quaker tradition.

Why? Certainly, it’s not that the Workshop School and this private school have the same funding, unlimited resources, or pristine facilities. (Donations welcome here!) In my opinion, the similar vibe is due to both schools’ fundamental belief that all children should be trusted and given the opportunity to grow, learn, and explore as inquisitive human beings.

The Workshop School doesn’t have a metal detector, and students are allowed to move about the school in ways that aren’t militarized or scripted. Students are allowed to use tools and borrow supplies that will support their learning. Students are given real choices and taught how to manage their time on their own. In an educational era that is driven by data, testing, and behaviorist school rules, the Workshop School believes that all children should be trusted, valued, and taught how to think for themselves. We haven’t figured it all out yet, but beginning with trust seems like a great place to start.

Below: Juniors work outside to prep a car for a new coat of paint. Far below: Freshmen use the workshop to create props for the school play on June 3rd.



10th Grade designing their own water filters

The 10th grade has spent the last few weeks studying water filtration and the devastating water crisis in Flint, Michigan. After researching both the political and environmental problems in Flint, try students investigated how water becomes contaminated. Now, students are designing their own water filters out of recycled materials, and thinking about how to prevent more crises in the future. IMG_2920

Above: Mr. Hauger teaches students how metal corrodes in water.
Below: Sophomores travel to the Philadelphia Water Works Museum to learn about Philly’s water filtration.


Ms. Matthews’ advisory envisions, creates, and runs health fair for Workshop students, staff

Ms. Matthews’ advisory studied the body and nutrition during the third term. As a culminating project, the advisory created a health fair for the entire school. Students were responsible for designing and running their own health stations. The sophomores ran tables that taught visitors about healthy recipes, exercise techniques, nutrition labels, and mindful living. Ms. Miki Palchick from the Urban Nutrition Initiative worked with Ms. Matthews’ class throughout the spring as they completed this project.

Below: Students made fresh-fruit smoothies and spiced-popcorn, among a variety of stations that taught students about nutrition and health.



Student leadership: Allowing students to have real agency

Many schools claim to give students leadership opportunities, but in many ways, these opportunities are just façades. Teachers say students are leading, but in reality, the adults are doing a lot of work behind the scenes. At the Workshop School, teachers make sure that the “behind the scenes” work is student-led as well because if we want students to really learn, they must be involved in every step of the process, not just the end product. On Friday, April 1st, Advisory 215 hosted Open Mic Night–a showcase of poetry, dancing, and music open to the entire community. Students were responsible for every aspect of the night. From building a stage and a podium to soliciting donations for food and decorations and from auditioning students in the weeks leading up to the night to MC’ing the performances on the actual night, students were in control.

Of course, teachers and administrators were present to provide support and guidance, but final decisions, details, and deliberations were in the hands of the students. What happens when educators are guides on the side instead of sages on the stage? Not only do students learn more, but also, they are given chances to problem solve in authentic spaces for real audiences. IMG_2850
Above: Over 150 community members attended the First Annual Workshop School Open Mic Night.

Rethinking the achievement gap (Part 3)

We focus intently on the achievement gap because we see closing it as the best way to combat poverty and inequality. As I argued here and here, this gets us into trouble when we define achievement too narrowly. But it actually oversimplifies poverty and inequality even more than it oversimplifies learning.

Two articles currently posted at the Atlantic make this point in depressingly persuasive fashion. The first reminds us that inequality is about much, much more than income or even wealth, while the second documents that while Clinton-era welfare reform was hugely successful in reducing the number of people receiving public assistance, that’s not actually the same thing as helping them re-enter the workforce or otherwise get back on their feet. Welfare reform deepened extreme poverty, and (more usefully for its authors) it also made it less visible.

The leap of faith that equates test score improvement with a ticket to the middle class grossly underestimates just how hard it is to climb out of poverty in America. It is a convenient, comforting thought that if we just focus all of our energy and effort on one thing, it will be the first domino to fall in a chain of broader social and economic transformation. But this view skirts two important truths. The first – obvious from the research but somehow taboo in ed reform circles – is that poverty changes education a whole lot more than education changes poverty. If we are really serious about addressing what Derek Thompson calls “total inequality,” we need to stop shredding the social safety net and making it all but impossible for poor people to enter and remain in the workforce. The second truth is that for those of us committed to educating disadvantaged kids, the skill set we need to help them develop goes way beyond reading and math: we need to teach them how to navigate and negotiate a world that is hostile to their very existence. That skill set includes the ability to be self-aware, manage emotions and stress, communicate effectively and persuasively, link short-term actions with long-range planning and strategy, build and utilize networks, and understand and navigate complex systems and institutions.

As educators, we do what we do because we hope to give kids a shot at a healthier, happier, more stable life. Closing the achievement gap is the proxy for this desire – a way to shrink an overwhelming challenge to a manageable scale. But the proxy and the reality it represents have diverged wildly. If we paused to consider what inequality really is and why it persists, we might think differently about what the work is, and how we define success.

Rethinking the achievement gap (Part 2)

I didn’t really know it at the time, but this graph would change the way I thought about the achievement gap.

CWRA result

Before opening the Workshop School, for two years we ran a small pilot project called the Sustainability Workshop. It was basically an alternative senior year program. We enrolled about 30 seniors a year from three neighborhood high schools, and ran them through an intensive one-year, project-based experience. To assess students’ learning at the end of the year, we administered the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA).

CWRA is the only standardized test I’ve ever seen that I really like. Basically, students are given a real-world problem scenario and a library of documents, data sets, etc. Their challenge is to come up with and articulate solutions to the scenario. Their “performance task score” is a measure of their ability to think critically and solve problems. Since the tasks involve making sense of numbers and writing out answers, CWRA controls for what it calls “entering academic ability” – basically the type of literacy and math skills that the SAT requires.

This graph above plots students’ critical thinking score (Y axis) against their entering academic ability score (X axis). Each data point represents a school or college. (CWRA is administered to both high school and first-year college students.) The line represents the regression, with the red diamond representing the average performance of first-year college students on the exam.

The red dot on the left hand side of the graph represents the performance of our students that year. Not surprisingly, when looking at entering academic ability, our students lagged far behind the typical first year college student. But when we look at critical thinking, their scores are nearly identical. Our students vastly outperformed what would be expected based on their entering academic ability (CWRA put them in the 99th percentile for this metric).

My point here isn’t that our students were awesome (though they were). It’s that our understanding of the achievement gap is a function of how we define achievement. If we define it in terms of traditional metrics, this graph tells the same old story: poor children of color lagging behind their more advantaged peers. But if we look at it in terms of critical thinking, the gap nearly disappears.

As someone who deeply believes that critical thinking, collaboration, self-awareness, ownership, and project management are just as important to students’ long-term success as literacy and numeracy (and maybe more so), I find this incredibly encouraging. Viewed through the lens of traditional tests, the achievement gap can seem insurmountable – a reflection of so many class advantages that it’s hard to see how it could ever be closed. Is it possible that because schools have not traditionally emphasized skills like critical thinking or collaboration, the “gap” between poor and middle class students is actually smaller?

Class is always going to be a factor in students’ prospects for success, and literacy and numeracy are both important. But if we rethink what achievement means, focusing on the skills that matter most, we may find that the “gap” that we’re so concerned about looks very different.

Rethinking the achievement gap (Part 1)

There are a lot of ways to think about equity, and a lot of ways to think about achievement. In ed reform world, the most common is what we call the achievement gap: the quantifiable difference in test performance between poor and middle class kids. This concept has done a lot of good in highlighting inequities in our school systems, and creating a sense of urgency for change. But from a learning standpoint, this narrow understanding of equity has been terrible.

There are two reasons for this. First, schools (and school systems) focused narrowly on the achievement gap end up devoting most of their time, energy and resources to things that bring up test scores. It’s not that literacy and numeracy don’t matter (though on the math side much of we force kids to learn isn’t really numeracy). It’s that other things matter just as much, if not more. A narrow focus on the achievement gap pushes all of those things to the margins.

Second, if you’re mostly focused on getting a specific body of knowledge into kids’ heads, you organize a school that seeks to minimize or eliminate anything that gets in the way of that work. You create systems that reward compliant behavior, because it keeps everyone on task. It’s efficient. But kids don’t own their behavior in these systems. When young people leave school, they have to make their own decisions. Learning to be independent and responsible is just as important as learning to base claims on evidence. But somehow we’ve decided that we need to sacrifice the former in service of the latter.

This is deeply counterproductive. Critical thinking, problem solving, self-direction and awareness, and even grit require agency – students’ capacity to shape the world around them, and the related belief that they possess that capacity. How can we cultivate such agency in an environment where every word and action is prescribed, measured, and monitored? How can we expect students to think critically when we tell them that being a “good” student requires them to uncritically submit to micromanagement of even the smallest actions, or to an environment where the sole means of regulating behavior consists of reward or punishment?

The alternative is to create a space where students get to define, shape, and reinforce the norms and culture of their school. This is a messy, inefficient, imperfect process. When it’s working, it feels miraculous. When it’s not, it feels chaotic and maddeningly inefficient. The important thing is that between those two poles lies the daily work of figuring out who we want to be individually and collectively, and striving to live out those ideals and values. This requires honest self-appraisal, difficult conversations, and nearly constant struggle. And it’s a huge investment of time and energy; time that could be spent testing students, differentiating instruction, and providing intensive support in specific areas of academic need. All of these things would be much more efficient strategies for reducing the “achievement gap.” And that’s exactly why the achievement gap is such a flawed way to think about the problem we’re really trying to address.