Not Oprah’s Book Club: The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test

book cover of The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School by Linda F. Nathan. The book cover is a picture of a school hallway with Nathan talking with and putting her hand on the shoulder of a young male student of color.
People are always surprised when I talk about how much I loved my high school, that is unless they also attended the Boston Arts Academy (BAA). Yes, I entered high school a pro-life Christian fundamentalist, and I didn’t come out as transgender until well into college, but besides being a teenager high school was one of the best experiences of my life.
BAA is an urban public high school for the visual and performing arts. Students audition for their arts major to get into the school, but previous academic success is not part of the admissions process. The school is racially and economically diverse, and students bring a range of academic experience and achievement. About half the day is spent in non-tracked academic classes and the rest is spent studying one’s art major. Getting to do something I love for so much of the school day helped make high school a place I wanted to be (staff literally has to kick students out of the building hours after the school day ends). The school strives to link arts and academics so student artistic achievement can translate into other areas as well. And they’re doing a great job – the school has a 94% college acceptance rate, pretty much unheard of among schools with a similar socioeconomic breakdown in this grossly underfunded district.
Linda Nathan, the school’s founding headmaster, has written a book that outlines her experience of the creation and growth of BAA. Reading The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School brought back so many memories and emotions for me. I was sometimes moved and inspired, sometimes enraged, just like when I was at BAA. The book highlights the deliberate process of asking the right questions that has informed every major decision at the school. While gaining insight into how BAA was formed I also realized the degree to which students were encouraged to question as well. This is dangerous: the idea of encouraging young people to ask the hard questions probably scares a lot of educators who would expect rebellion. And yes, BAA can be a contentious community, but it is very much a community. Students, teachers, and staff feel an ownership of the school that creates a powerful learning community where everyone works and grows together. This is education for liberation, what I believe public education should be.


Nathan discusses the school’s approach to issues of identity, especially race. At BAA students and teachers talk openly about race and racism in a way I’ve never seen modeled anywhere else. Much of my academic and organizing work since high school has focused on racial justice, but the most honest conversations I’ve had about race are still with other BAA alums. Which is not to say I loved this in high school – Nathan tells the stories of a number of white students resisting the school’s focus on race, stories that are not about me explicitly but easily could be (the story about the walk out against the Iraq war – that’s me). I went through a difficult process where I pushed back while my teachers and classmates challenged me and generously created a space for me to learn and grow.
Nathan also addresses achievement within the school community along racial and gender lines. This is very different from the typical writing about male underachievement in school. Nathan talks about a concrete reality and doesn’t ignore intersecting identities, discussing grades that are starkly lower for African American male students than for other groups. And she also talks about the hard, controversial, and ultimately powerfully productive process the school is still engaged in of addressing and changing this reality, striving to create a school where every student excels.
BAA is not perfect. Part of what makes the school special is an openness around its struggles and willingness to recognize and engage with mistakes. Reading about an incident involving queer identity that occurred after I graduated and that Nathan mishandled infuriated me. But the willingness to share this mistake, and the complex questions it brought up, is an example of why BAA is excelling: the school doesn’t try to bury hard realities, but faces them head on.
Urban public education in the U.S. is a travesty, a crime perpetrated against our young people. BAA is a living example of how to do public school right – creating a learning community where young people are taught they do have value, their ideas matter, and they can achieve greatness when they work hard and are given the necessary resources. I’m so grateful to Linda Nathan for putting her story of BAA’s early days down in book form. I hope this example can help create a reality where more urban youth are given the opportunities and encouragement I had.

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8 Comments

  1. TeenMommy
    Posted February 8, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for posting this, Jos. I’ve always been profoundly interested in the way schools can either uplift or utterly fail students. Even in the “very good” suburban school district I grew up in, I watched the creativity and intellectual excitement get squished right out of almost every kid. Sometimes the state of public education seems so dire that I want to throw my arms up and forget about it, but then I hear about a school like the Boston Arts Academy. I will definitely read this book. Again, thanks!

  2. femme.
    Posted February 8, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    This is education for liberation, what I believe public education should be.
    I wholeheartedly agree. BAA sounds like what all public education should be. Thank you for posting this, Jos. Fabulous as always. I’ll be on the lookout for that book.

  3. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted February 8, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Question, does BAA cherrypick?
    That is, do they use a selection process whereby they only enroll students who they think will graduate and go on to college?
    I ask that because I understand that a lot of schools and youth programs that stand out as success stories often get there because they go out of their way to only pick students who will succeed – and leave the kids who they suspect will fail to attend other schools (and those schools get to carry the dropouts on their books).
    When I was a GED program coordinator for a youth program, I was told that I was expected to only admit students who were likely to compete the program – other kids were dumped off on the New York City Department of Education’s GED program, which had to take all comers.
    The logic of that was – our program would look good because we had a high success rate, and, when it came time to apply for funding, we could compare ourselves to the Dept of Ed’s program, and use that as an argument to get more money.
    It was my understanding that everybody operated that way (at least in the Bronx, where that program was located) – I wonder is that what’s going on here.
    Not to knock your alma mater, but I’m just trying to analyze the roots of it’s success – and, if that success is based on cherrypicking the best students, perhaps it’s model cannot be reproduced by other schools in that district.

  4. Posted February 8, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the book rec. I’m writing a paper about teaching diversity and social justice in secondary schools for my master’s program, and I find this very relevant.
    I went to a private arts high school (Interlochen) and probably because of its private aspect, the school was not as diverse as BAA. I am curious to read about how BAA works within the Boston Public School System; much of what plagues education today is the lack of education about sexism, racism, classism and so on as a part of the curriculum—many schools, educators, and education policy makers do not believe that this is relevant to the standard education (English, math, etc.) that is in our curriculum today.

  5. Comrade Kevin
    Posted February 8, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I think what needs to be encouraged above all else, public, private, urban, or otherwise is critical thinking skills. I see some of that reflected in how you’ve described this school.
    I honestly believe that rebellion is a product of feeling disconnected from the subject matter, not engaged with it and somehow free to create problems. Encouraging people to form their own views and their own opinions rather than learning disconnected facts and dates in rote fashion is what needs to happen everywhere.

  6. Taisa Marie
    Posted February 8, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I really like the freedom schools like these give. I think treating any student as a person, with an independent mind capable of critically analyzing the world around them is a few leaps in the right direction.
    I went to a traditional high school. I graduated ten years ago now, but all I really feel that I ‘got’ out of high school was in my jewelry making class (where the teacher showed us the basic techniques and let us have at whatever we wanted to make, walking around and showing individual students individual techniques pertinent to their project) and my CISCO class (it was a pilot in our school and the teacher would literally have her class the day before she would teach us that portion, knowing our teacher was also a student somehow made her more human, lol). College was a breath of fresh air.
    I taught a college course (public speaking) for high school seniors at several schools. Basically, if they had all their other stuff out of the way or on schedule to complete their units, they could take my course (and a few other courses) for college credit (California State University… not AP stuff). We went to the schools. The difference in students in a school with a very rigid structure (smart, great students but had a hard time asking questions or thinking outside the box) to a private and very expensive Catholic school (essentially their parents are paying for their grades, but they were smart and they could be great students IF they would actually do their work), and finally a charter high school (great diversity in the students, not all were great students but the school and everyone there told them they were great and let them be independent when they wanted it and get extra help when they needed it. Some struggled for their grades as they expected a lot from them but the students loved it and called most of their teachers by their first names).
    I guess the point I am trying to make was the greatest experience I had teaching at the high schools were the students could actually debate their viewpoints on ‘sensitive’ topics (in all my other classes I make speeches about abortion, death penalty and gay marriage off limits. not because i dont think they are worthy topics but they are overdone and become more of a distraction to learning how to give a speech/presentation than anything else) without having feelings hurt and still being best friends with the person who has the opposing view. They were also allowed if done with their work in class (such as when I gave time to work on their speeches in class) to go out and about on the campus. They could go and socialize, many of the boys and a few of the girls would go play basketball, go to the library or the computer lab or even go to one of the junior classrooms (as in 6-8th grade, the school was 6-12th) and assist the teacher in anything from tutoring to copying. Above all the students were trusted as individuals capable of making the best choices for them. I still keep in touch with many of them and have monthly lunch dates with a group of them too.

  7. Jos
    Posted February 9, 2010 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    No.

  8. another constellation
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I did my student teaching at Fenway, which as a similar approach to BAA and currently shares the building (and therefore many resources) with them.
    One of the things that I found again and again as a green teacher that it was so much harder to help students to find answers than it was to tell them what was going to be on the test. Though I was in humanities (Fenway, like many schools in Boston’s pilot schools system, doesn’t have English or History, but a Humanities class that combines those disciplines with economics and social sciences), I sat in on classes in other disciplines frequently and was both interesting and annoyed by the approach math classes took. There were no formulas on the board.
    In one geometry-themed class, a teacher simply drew a picture of a triangle and, through some leading questions got students to recognize that triangles are half of a rectangle and that the formula for the area of a triangle is therefore half that of the comparable square. It was frustrating for me because I knew the formula 1/2bh and I just wanted to give that to them but there is obviously and advantage to experiential math like that. It was hard for me to fully… experience? trust? that giving someone the formula is not the same as helping them to develop the tools. The latter is really what schools such as Fenway and BAA are striving to do. Whenever someone asks me what student-centered teaching is, that’s always my first example. It’s when you allow students to interact with the material and to ask the questions that will help them to learn the answers.
    GREGORY– While I can’t speak for BAA, I know that one of the teachers involved in student selection at Fenway was incredibly explicit about the need to pick students that are representative of Boston schools as a whole. As he explained it, they are trying to prove that student-centered learning can work so their methodology of student selection has to be representative. They aren’t proving that certain students can learn or excel, but that ALL students can when given the proper resources.
    My classes were extremely homogeneous in terms of “achievement level” (by which I mean those kids who are simply do well in a traditional classroom), English-language learners, students who took classes in substantially separate classrooms, who came from different neighborhoods, represent different levels of dis/ability, socio-economic status, sexualities, races, et cetera.
    Fenway was originally concieved for what they used to call “hall rats”: kids with strong enough connections to the school to show up and hang out in the halls, but who didn’t like to go to class, often because they were failing (or being failed). Many had no plans whatsoever of going to college when they entered, but, over time the last year in Fenway has been much more focused on life after high school, including mandatory college visits, essay-writing, and application. As a consequence, many students who didn’t think they wanted to go to college go to school. So now Fenway and other innovative schools are earning good reputations with parents who want their kids to go to college.
    When people ask me how I felt about teaching at Fenway, I always answer that it was the absolute proudest I have ever been in my life and that I will not be good enough to go back there for a good long time.
    It was really hard for me to present material I had learnt in a very good but very traditional suburban public school in a way that focused on the students’ learning and not my teaching– in other words, in a way that was truly student-centered. I wasn’t ready to make so radical a translation and my hat is absolutely off to all those teachers who are able to. The teachers there were all incredibly self-reflective and engaged. The experience was really just amazing.
    I’ll end this epic comment by urging families to look into the educational opportunities offered by the schools in your area. Get to know them and their philosophies. I love public schools and the idea of a pilot was sort of uncomfortable to me because I didn’t think of them as “really” public. Now I’m a believer.

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