The conversation started as school leadership walked back across a field from the low-slung building hosting its robotics lab en route to Purdue Polytechnic High School (PPHS)’s main classrooms. The lab also contains a hydroponic gardening system, so they explained that they’re hoping to increase the amount of the school’s food grown on campus; I asked if they’ve considered using that field to do some outdoor farming.

The adults pondered for a moment, then turned to Xavion Owens, who explained that the field’s soil is too polluted to grow food, but that it’s being considered for other uses, such as renovation into athletic fields. “Oh yeah?” asked one of the adults. Owens, a PPHS senior, laughed and explained what he’s heard about the various options.

A student explaining potential facilities plans to the school administration? It’s not the usual way of things, but PPHS is not an ordinary U.S. high school.

A student explaining potential facilities plans to the school administration? It’s not the usual way of things, but PPHS is not an ordinary U.S. high school. The school is housed in a former battery factory, but its brick walls and large, rectangular windows give the campus a less institutional framing, suggesting “tech startup warehouse headquarters” rather than “U.S. high school.” Fittingly for the setting, class changes materialize in the hallways without warning. PPHS students have broad freedom of movement; there are no bells to mark their schedule. “We pride ourselves on not controlling students’ bodies,” says Drew Goodin, lead coach at PPHS (the school’s teachers are referred to as “coaches”).

In The Allure of Order, his sweeping history of American education reform, Harvard professor Jal Mehta charts a pattern of “repeated efforts to ‘order’ schools from above.” From the original American progressive reformers’ efforts, to a mid-century wave driven by business and the U.S. Department of Defense, to the last twenty years of standards-based reform under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), American public education has weathered many efforts at reorganization—even while retaining its largely decentralized governance structure. As Mehta puts it,

[T]here are legitimate reasons why policymakers seek to rationalize schools: they are trying to decrease the variation that protects privilege and perpetuates inequality. But at the same time, trying to do this by specifying simple and easily measured outcomes and raising the stakes for achieving those outcomes tends to produce education focused more on preparing students for tests than on developing genuine learning.

That’s the rub: the United States’ decentralized approach to school governance has produced education systems that reflect and even amplify racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and linguistic divisions in American society. Left unmonitored, schools won’t prioritize historically marginalized students. So it’s intuitive for policymakers—led by civil rights groups—to try to raise standards and impose accountability across the system to try to convert U.S. public schools into more reliable ladders of upward social mobility. In 2000, two years before NCLB required all states to set standard academic expectations for students in math and reading, the GAO reported that, left to their own devices, states generally lacked the systems, capacity, data, and political will to monitor whether schools were equitably meeting all students’ needs.

But if all of this accreted mass of structures, of checks and balances grew from real, genuine concerns about yet another public system marginalizing vulnerable kids, there’s been some evidence that it had a stultifying effect on schools. Studies suggest that NCLB’s focus on math and reading drove many schools and teachers to allocate more—and more test-focused—time to those subjects at the cost of others.

What’s more, because standardized tests, and the accountability systems attached to them, are largely built for equity—to focus resources and attention on the achievement of historically marginalized groups—educators serving large numbers of these students can feel unique pressure to change their schools to fit these systems.

So here’s the result: the standards, tests, and systems designed to ensure that schools give kids of color access to academic rigor can also combine to narrow the range of schools’ curricula. Or, put another way, policy reforms seeking to make public education fairer can make public education less interesting, ruling out more adventurous pedagogies that give students and teachers more agency to inquire and explore in authentically curious ways. And in a country struggling with chronic absenteeism, these sorts of pedagogies can combat student disengagement and raise academic outcomes.

Public education ought to be both equitable and engaging. How can policymakers—and teachers—simultaneously advance these genuine goals of public education?

Raising Achievement through Trust: A Case Study in Indianapolis

What would happen if a school decided to ignore systemic pressures to conform teaching and learning to narrow test preparation—and instead built its pedagogy around trusting that kids generally want to learn?

That’s precisely the experiment at PPHS, an intentionally diverse charter school in Indianapolis. As a member of Indianapolis Public Schools’ Innovation Network, PPHS has significant freedom from many district-wide rules, but its academic results still count towards the district’s scores in accountability calculations. They’ve used this flexibility to launch an educational experiment testing a straightforward hypothesis: how would “school” look if it abandoned the project of coercing students to learn particular topics—and of dictating how teachers had to teach them? Might students learn more?

“[T]inkering around the edges of the one-size-fits-all high school was never going to work,” said PPHS founding executive director Scott Bess, describing PPHS’ genesis. “We needed to blow up the model altogether and completely start over.”

During class periods, some kids carry work out of rooms and work on couches in a study hall lounge set off to the side of one of the airy, open hallways. “We had the World Cup on all the time over there last year,” says PPHS senior Xavion Owens, pointing to a flatscreen in the lounge area.

A visit to PPHS can be a jarring experience for observers accustomed to the norms and routines of U.S. public education—particularly in an urban school, and even more particularly in the secondary grades. Most of modern schooling’s structures are proxy efforts to simulate real world consequences children will encounter as adults—to threaten, entice, incent, encourage, or nudge students to do work they presumably would not otherwise choose to do. Schools have late bells, demerits, behavior management systems, grades, cell phone policies, and the like because these ostensibly forge students from lazy to engaged and from incurious to learning.

Take a step back from what seems normal for a U.S. public school, however, and it’s clear just how ill-suited this system of substitute consequences is to its task. Anyone who’s spent time with a child knows that they’re hard-wired for curiosity. How did schools get to a situation where they’re having to invent all these artificial proxies to cajole students to be on time and to pay attention?

Meanwhile, if a PPHS student is late, they don’t receive a special slip or a demerit or some sort of check by their name on a chart. They’re just late, and the world keeps turning. Same goes for cell phones: students can have them out, can use them when they feel it’s necessary or useful, and—like any adult surreptitiously scrolling Instagram during an office meeting—can miss information they might need or want. Rather than inventing consequences to shape students’ choices, PPHS opts for authentic ones. And when students do struggle or fall behind, the school gives them chances to repeat projects—and even courses—to demonstrate mastery of key skills, concepts, and knowledge. “We tell students, ‘Try as many times as you like, and we’ll take your highest score,’” says PPHS CEO Keeanna Warren.

If a PPHS student is late, they don’t receive a special slip or a demerit or some sort of check by their name on a chart. They’re just late, and the world keeps turning.

Of course, students make better use of this sort of freedom at school if they’re studying things that they actually find interesting. PPHS coaches shepherd students through project-based activities that embed core content knowledge that covers expectations in Indiana’s academic standards. In addition, every six weeks, students get a chance to explore a unique “passion project,” which they often design in tandem with coaches, local businesses, or other community organizations. “This school thrives on giving kids opportunities to do things other schools aren’t doing,” says PPHS design and engineering coach Gregg Nowling, showing off a frame that he and a student are using (at the student’s behest) to build a canoe. “[And] our focus on electives makes the school better.”

This pedagogical approach isn’t as simple as direct instruction, where teachers lecture and drill students on standardized materials, teachers say, but it’s a much better way to get students to actually engage the content. “I can do everything and that is so exciting,” says social studies coach Sophie Longest, “But that is also so overwhelming.”

PPHS’ academic outcomes suggest that the extra work involved appears to be paying off. PPHS students—including students from historically marginalized groups—generally outperform state proficiency rates in math, language arts, and science (see Tables 1, 2, and 3).

Table 1: Tenth Grade ELA Proficiency Rates, 2019
PPHS Indiana as a whole
Black students 37.5% 26.4%
Hispanic students 54.2% 39.1%
Low-income students 46.9% 35.5%
White students 75% 58.3%

This fact hints at a resolution of the tension introduced above: how can we measure schools against common standards so that all kids get a chance to learn…without homogenizing schools into deadly dull routines? PPHS’ answer has been counterintuitive, raising student achievement to meet standardized metrics for school success—by de-standardizing school. As I wrote back in December 2019, “Research suggests that schools that narrow their curricula to focus on test prep do not generally improve students’ test performance.” Progressive pedagogies like PPHS’ give students room to explore and inquire, with the goal of moving them into higher-order thinking and genuine engagement with complicated academic work.

Table 2: Tenth Grade Math Proficiency Rates, 2019
PPHS Indiana as a whole
Black students 20.6% 8%
Hispanic students 20% 14.6%
Low-income students 25.4% 13.3%
White students 63.4% 30.7%
Table 3: Tenth Grade Science Proficiency Rates, 2019
PPHS Indiana as a whole
Black students 22.7% 15%
Hispanic students N/A 24.3%
Low-income students 40.5% 23.4%
White students 76.7% 44.4%

Keep the Testing, Change the Road Taken to the Test?

As noted above, pedagogies that honor student agency and provide project-based learning are often reserved for privileged students. This seems to be both a feature and a consequence of school accountability policies designed to focus on closing academic gaps between historically advantaged and historically marginalized students—that is, it’s assumed that only the white, wealthy, and English-dominant children can be trusted to make productive use of progressive pedagogies.

That’s why it’s critical to note that PPHS’ demographics generally reflect the broader community: nearly 40 percent of its students are African-American, 30 percent are white, and 24 percent are Latino, while 64 percent of students are low-income. The broader district’s students are 40 percent African-American, 22 percent white, 32 percent Latino, and 65 percent low-income.

But if schools can raise students’ academic performance measures on standardized tests by releasing control of students’ time and choices, perhaps it’s unfair to blame testing and accountability policies for narrower curricula. That is, the key fault may not be in public efforts to monitor inequities in schools’ academic performance—and instead lie in schools’ short-sighted choices to default to narrow test preparation pedagogies.

How can policymakers shift the decision calculus for the public education system, away from the status quo and toward monitoring for academic inequities but encouraging schools to improve student performance by giving students more freedom, not less? One strategy could be to use existing accountability systems but with different incentives. When schools persistently struggle to improve educational outcomes for historically marginalized children, they could be identified for additional investment of public resources, to be devoted to a multiyear effort to reorganize the school’s schedule, curriculum, and teaching to provide more freedom and elevate students’ engagement. This would be an intensive, intrusive reform—likely more difficult to execute than past school accountability efforts—but PPHS’ example suggests that that sort of well-resourced patience might be essential for school reforms to genuinely work.