Reversal Revolution

Clintondale High’s ‘flipped’ school is getting results — and global attention
Illustration by Marci Roth

A visiting delegation from overseas would mark a special occasion at most schools, but it’s just another day at Clinton Township’s Clintondale High School. “So many people come here that I can’t remember exactly who has interviewed us and who has followed us,” says Clintondale senior Autumn Flynn. “I can’t even keep track.”

The big draw is Clintondale’s “flipped” school, a radical revision of basic educational norms. All students at Clintondale do their homework in class under the guidance of their teachers, and then receive their lessons in the form of short videos to be watched at home.

Clintondale Principal Greg Green first tested the model with a government class in the spring of 2010. “These kids were extremely at risk,” he says. “They had failed the class three or four times, and it was kind of a last-chance, desperate attempt to get them through the content. They actually outperformed the other kids, and that’s when the light bulb started to go off for us.”

At the time, performance among Clintondale’s student body as a whole was looking grim. Thirty-five percent of students were failing their classes, and health teacher Dave Schindler says it’s because they weren’t understanding, or doing, their homework. “If they have questions, Mom and Dad don’t always have the answers … [or] they don’t go home to Mom and Dad,” Schindler says. “A lot of the time they’re home by themselves.”

Clintondale slowly rolled out more flipped classes, and in fall 2011, it became the first completely flipped school in the United States. “It was like lightning in a bottle,” Green says. “It’s just something that we could realistically live with, it didn’t cost a lot of money, and our teachers grasped the concept very quickly.”

Reformatting lessons for the flipped model did take some extra effort, however. Lesson presentations vary by class and teacher, but most are done in a “screencast” format — a teacher-narrated slideshow video that’s usually about 10 minutes. Some incorporate images or YouTube videos; others include examples and problems drawn on the screen in the teacher’s handwriting, as on a traditional blackboard.

“The first dozen or so [lessons] took a lot longer because there was a learning curve,” says social studies teacher Andy Kastl. “But if I had to sit down and do one now, I could probably do it in 15 minutes.”

The lessons are much shorter than a traditional class period. But Kastl says that once you subtract traditional classroom time spent on attendance, disturbances, and collecting homework, the duration of actual content delivery is about the same.

Students like Clintondale junior Jahya Dunbar seem to enjoy watching a digest-size lesson via mobile device. “You can’t really go wrong with a video on the Internet,” Dunbar says. Meanwhile, teachers are devoting classroom time to what Kastl describes as “higher-learning” projects that emphasize group work — and getting help when needed. “There’s no excuse for the kids not to do it,” Kastl says. “If you’ve got a question, man, turn around and just ask me.”

Failure rates schoolwide have dropped to 11 percent, and those dramatic results have drawn countless visitors. Green says he lost track after Clintondale welcomed its 200th visiting school, and guests have come from every continent but Antarctica.

The school has also attracted considerable attention from media, including CNN, the New York Times, and PBS NewsHour. European and Asian media outlets have traveled to report on the school, too. “We see [reporters] a lot,” Dunbar says. “A lot. Everybody’s taking pictures.”

The U.S. government has taken an interest in Clintondale, as well. After the Times piece ran in October, representatives from Oak Ridge National Laboratory contacted Green to participate in the development of a “personal recommender” software. “It’s similar to Amazon,” Green says. “Based on students’ demographics or previous learning styles or whatever data you put in, you get to nail down what resources kids need to be successful.” Clintondale will pilot the program this winter, before the laboratory rolls it out to more schools nationwide.

Clintondale now stands as the forerunner for a still-germinating, but genuine, educational movement. Green says most of the schools that have visited Clintondale have since implemented flipped practices “in some way, shape, or form.” And some, like Illinois’ Havana High School, have flipped their schools entirely.

While Clintondale staff and students still seem a little overwhelmed by all the interest, they also have a renewed sense of pride. “Clintondale never had the chance to show their strength in education before,” Dunbar says.

Although Green is thrilled with that newfound strength, he says that he never expected to draw attention. “We intended it just to better serve our kids,” he says. “But it’s much better for us. I think if you live through it and talk about it and get a grasp on it, you understand it more and more yourself.”