The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

project-based learning
Ninth grade students organize nuts and bolts the day after their end-of-the-year showcase in which they flew their school-made drones for parents and visitors. Credit: Andra Cernavskis

SAN DIEGO — During her junior year of high school, Grace Shefcik wrote and directed a play about the Lavender Scare, the time during the Cold War in the 1950s when gay and lesbian people lived in fear of prosecution. The young playwright’s debut work met with success: It was one of three chosen by her class to be produced for its end-of-year showcase.

Like most high school juniors, Shefcik and her classmates were studying American History. Unlike most students, however, they did not read a text and then take a test; their English and History instructors for the semester had groups of students research a subject, write it as a play, and then, as a class, produce the three top picks.

“We had the opportunity to research something that wouldn’t necessarily be taught in a textbook but was an important part in history,” Shefcik says of the assignment.

There weren’t any textbooks at her high school, a small, experimental charter school in San Diego called High Tech High, which follows a project-based model that emphasizes depth over breadth and is considered a national model for “deeper learning’’ – which encourages students to become both college and career ready via critical thinking, collaborative partnerships and problem solving.

As a result, for Shefcik, college – with its large classes and lecture-based materials– came as a bit of a shock at first. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, she is one of more than 15,000 undergraduates, her assignments now usually consist of essays and exams. At High Tech High, Shefcik had just 127 students in her graduating class, allowing her to form close relationships with peers and teachers.

“Assignments are most engaging when it’s something I relate back to,” Shefcik says. “The play was something I was really passionate about. It was something I got constant feedback and support on over the year. In college, you don’t get the feedback or see the paper again unless you go back the next quarter and ask for the final paper back, but that’s unheard of.”

Even though she found her projects at High Tech High more engaging than many of her college assignments, there were moments in her first year at Santa Cruz when Shefcik wondered if project-based learning was the best preparation for the coursework expected of her in college.

“The feedback from University of California students is that it is really challenging.”

“I didn’t really learn study habits at High Tech High,” Shefcik says. “We definitely did testing, but it wasn’t emphasized as important as it is here. Learning how much time I should be studying or even how to study was difficult in my first quarter.”

There are no reliable estimates of how many schools have adopted project-based learning, but experts who have studied the model say that it has expanded across the country in the last decade. Its first wave of success came in the 1980s and ’90s when medical schools started to implement its tenets, but it has now reached all levels of education in all regions. One network of project-based schools that began as a single school in Napa, California, in the late ’90s – known as the New Tech Network – has grown to 160 schools in 26 states and Australia.

Shefcik’s struggle highlights one of the paradoxes of attending an innovative school. What happens if the rest of the education world hasn’t caught up? Now in its 15th year, Shefcik’s alma mater is riding on a new wave of national attention, thanks to a recent documentary about the school called “Most Likely to Succeed.” The film hasn’t yet opened to a wide audience and has only been viewed in limited screenings but it could eventually introduce more people to project-based learning.

Related: How can we fix U.S. high schools?

project-based learning
Freshman physics and math teacher, Scott Swaaley, supervises students in his workshop as they break down their drone projects. Credit: Andra Cernavskis

The film opens with the proclamation that the American work environment has changed drastically since the advent of the public high school before the turn of the last century, and that schools must now adapt. Director Greg Whiteley says that instead of preparing people for the assembly lines that once defined Americans’ careers, schools need to prepare students to work for companies and in jobs that do not yet exist but will undoubtedly require skills like teamwork and the ability to solve complex problems. The film depicts High Tech High as a school designed to prepare students for that future.

The original High Tech High – now known as the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High – opened in 2000 with about 200 students in ninth to 12th grades. As it became increasingly popular, the High Tech High “village” expanded and school after school was added into the system, each of which had names that played off “High Tech High.” There are now 13 schools, including five high schools, serving approximately 5,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade across San Diego County. The high schools, three of which ranked in the state’s top 30 percent in 2013 based on academic performance, enroll students through a lottery system based on ZIP code to ensure a diverse student body.

79% — percent of High Tech High graduates who were accepted to four-year schools in 2014

With the success came national and international attention. Hundreds of educators from around the world have visited the San Diego campuses to attend special seminars on how to replicate its project-based model.

But the project-based approach, which asks students to work for long periods of time solving one problem or question, doesn’t always line up with the reality of college coursework.

In 2014, upon graduation from what the documentary depicts as educational Nirvana, 67.4 percent of the students went to four-year schools (out of 78.9 percent who applied and were accepted). While many students opted to attend two-year community colleges after high school to save money, many High Tech High graduates end up in large, public institutions in which they sit in massive lecture halls with several hundred other students as a professor talks from the front of the room.

After a recent screening of “Most Likely to Succeed” at the New Schools Summit in Burlingame, California, High Tech High CEO Larry Rosenstock told an audience, “We actually find that many of our students find themselves bored when they get to college.”

Teachers and administrators at High Tech High don’t tell many stories about their students reporting boredom, but they do hear about experiences like Shefcik’s. They say students find themselves overwhelmed by the different environment at college and have a difficult time making the transition to lecture-hall learning.

Related: Whose job is it to ‘nag’ first generation kids into applying for college?

Critics of project-based learning say the model doesn’t provide a rigorous enough education or a breadth of knowledge. While students tend to delve deeply into a single topic, many others subjects are not addressed. But educators who have worked with the model say that students can succeed, even in larger universities with traditional classrooms.

Over the past 15 years, the three high schools located in the city of San Diego – the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High, High Tech High Media Arts and High Tech High International – have sent most of their thousands of graduates to large, public colleges in California. A combined 310 students enrolled at Santa Cruz, while 599 graduates enrolled at San Diego State University, and 1,183 enrolled in San Diego Mesa College, a two-year community college in San Diego, in the 15-year period. Graduating classes at each school generally have 90 to 100 students.

77% — percent of High Tech High graduates who have graduated from or are still in college as of August 2014

Few graduates attend small colleges that emphasize, even in part, the project-based learning model with which they are familiar.

“The feedback from University of California students is that it is really challenging,” says Chris White, college counselor at the original High Tech High.

White and other faculty members encourage these students to carve out smaller communities within the larger college system that mimic their high school experience.

Despite the initial academic hiccups some students may encounter, teachers say the High Tech High experience is still the best preparation for getting the most out of college because the schools encourage students to build strong relationships with professors and prepare them to be comfortable with new experiences.

Scott Swaaley, a former electrical engineer who is one of the faculty members featured in “Most Likely to Succeed,” teaches ninth grade physics and math at High Tech High. When he started almost four years ago, he worried that his project-based, hands-on approach to teaching wouldn’t match up with the way the subject is taught in college. “It was a valid concern, but also a scapegoat,” he said recently.

High Tech High is known for hiring people like Swaaley, who had no formal teaching experience but was dedicated to project-based teaching and had a clear vision of how to carry it out. His classroom functions a lot like a workshop. On a June afternoon, he could be found directing students in his classroom, who were using screwdrivers and power tools to dismantle the drones they flew in the grassy fields outside the school the night before.

But sometimes it takes High Tech High graduates a semester or a year at college or university before they feel like they’ve cracked the code.

“I had a harder time transitioning than other students,” said Mara Jacobs, a High Tech High graduate who just finished her second year at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and is the daughter of major donors Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs.*  “I couldn’t just do the work if I wasn’t bought into how I was being taught.”

“High Tech High very much teaches you about life,” she says. “It might not teach you as well for being prepared for college, but in the long run, I think life is more important.”

Related: A new way to design a school

High Tech High’s leaders are betting that learning life skills will ultimately translate into success in college. They may be onto something: The college retention rate for High Tech High graduates, many of whom are low-income, far exceeds the national average: More than 70 percent of High Tech High graduates from all five high schools have graduated from or are still in college as of 2014, according to school administrators.

This is compared to 39.9 percent of 18- to 24-year olds who were enrolled in degree-granting programs nationally in 2014.

“Learning how much time I should be studying or even how to study was difficult in my first quarter.”

Bob Pearlman, a former educator who consults with experimental K-12 schools, said there tends to be a disconnect between such high schools and most colleges. Universities are clinging more tightly to traditional models of teaching, he said.

“But the kids tend to make their way,” said Pearlman, who was director of strategic planning for eight years at the New Technology Foundation, now known as the New Tech Network, a separate system of innovative high schools. During his tenure he helped launch 50 project-based schools across nine states.

Pearlman thinks higher education may eventually catch up with what’s happening in the K-12 sphere. Some small private colleges have already developed project-based learning models, he said, but that option may not be realistic for large, public universities.

White, High Tech High’s college counselor, said he has a few students every year who want to continue to learn in a project-based environment, but when financial aid comes in, the possibility of pursuing that goal usually vanishes.

He recently worked with a Hispanic student who was the first in his family to attend college. The student wanted to go to Menlo College, a small, private school that pegs itself as “Silicon Valley’s business school.” When the student discovered he couldn’t afford the school even with the financial aid offer, he had to look to cheaper alternatives.

“So the back-up solutions are the smaller-feeling [public universities] like Sonoma State, UC Merced, and Cal Maritime,” White says.

Project-based learning is still only a small part of the national high school experience, so it’s hard to make conclusive statements about how well it works on a large scale – a reality that the film “Most Likely to Succeed” confronts. It features parents who are uncertain and worried that their children aren’t receiving the full breadth of knowledge they will need to advance later in life.

Shefcik, now heading into her junior year at UC Santa Cruz, has decided to major in cognitive science. After her shaky start, she said she took the “life lessons” she had learned at High Tech High and applied them to her classes. She formed independent study groups and presented her work confidently in classes that required it. By the spring quarter of her first year, she was on the dean’s list.

“At the end of the first year, I felt disappointed in High Tech High and wished I hadn’t gone there,” Shefcik says. “Now that I finished my second year, I would say High Tech High prepared me for college, but maybe a bit more for life after college.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about California schools.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

*Clarification: The story has been clarified to reflect that Mara Jacobs is the daughter of the original school’s namesake and major donors, Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *