In these Tim Talks, Carnegie President Tim Knowles engages “friends, allies, and conspirators” in micro-conversations about education, equity, and the future of learning.
Diane Tavenner is the co-founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, a leading network of public schools that operates 11 schools in California and Washington. She was elected as the Chair of the Carnegie Foundation’s Board of Trustees in January 2022 after having joined the Board in 2016.
In this microconversation with Carnegie President Tim Knowles, Diane shares how Summit Public Schools balances leading edge technology with a community grounded in deep, connected relationships—a formula that allowed Summit to effectively transfer schooling online during the pandemic.
“The pandemic really created circumstances where families and students needed different approaches, different ways of doing things, different models in order to stay connected and engaged and continue to learn,” said Diane. “And because our infrastructure and our philosophy is built that way, we were able to do that while different school districts and networks across the country were debating a single one-size-fits-all grading policy, we actually already had a flexible approach to mastery that enabled students to engage in, and be evaluated, and receive grades and marks that were truly reflective of what they were learning in the way that they needed it in that moment given their family circumstances. That personalization was and has been and continues to be invaluable, and I think a real example of why we need to all be moving in that direction.”
Also discussed is the future of the Carnegie Unit—the time-based reference for measuring educational attainment used by American universities and colleges. Tim asks Diane for her thoughts about what Carnegie can do now to move the education sector past this conflation of time and learning “that really basically ignores what we’ve learned from cognitive psychologists, and neuroscientists, and others about how people learn and has developed abysmal results for students who depend on the schools the most.”
“This challenge brings together the long history of this Foundation in truly designing and inventing and reinventing incredible structures that have had a profound impact on our society in really meaningful ways,” said Diane. “Carnegie has the ability to convene and bring together groups of people to collaborate and to get creative around what does that redefinition look like? And, most importantly, what does it look like in the field and in practice, and how can we make that happen?”
Tim Knowles (TK): Diane, welcome. For those of you who have yet to meet Diane, Diane Tavenner is the president and CEO of Summit Learning. She’s an author and an educational entrepreneur. And Summit, as most people do know, is an extraordinary network of schools on the West Coast of the United States. In addition, an important addition, Diane is also the new board chair of the Carnegie Foundation.
Welcome, Diane, to this micro-conversation. Thank you for joining. I have I think three questions, but we’ll see what happens. The first is this, the first is about Summit, and technology and personalized learning have been sort of the heart and center of Summit learning since its inception. And I think it put your school on more secure footing than other schools during the past two years of virtual learning during the pandemic. Can you share what Summit has learned as a result of the impact of COVID and how your work is shifting as a result?
Diane Tavenner (DT): What have we learned? Well, Tim, I think one of the things that Summit believed before the pandemic was that a device that a student can actually do meaningful work on, so not just consume but to do meaningful work on, and an internet connection like nice bandwidth, good bandwidth, both at school and at home, we thought that those were like a paper, and pencil, and textbook before the pandemic happened. And I think what we know today along with everyone is that they truly are paper, pencil, and textbook.
The concept that learning and schooling can happen without that basic infrastructure needs to be put to bed at this point. And so just a doubling down on that effort and you’re right, we had an advantage because we had all already invested in that and we had that in place. And so, when we turned into a virtual school over the course of a weekend, we actually had that infrastructure in place and we were able to do that while many others were scrambling and sadly continue to scramble to this day to keep kids just even connected.
I think the second thing we learned was that learning happens at the speed of relationships. And what we do at Summit, while the fancy technology and all of that is what people often focus on, is truly build deep, connected relationships between teachers and students and between students and students and in a community. And so that transferred online. And one of the key things that we learned was we could stretch that connection for quite a while while everyone was trying to figure out this new world. And we had to learn a lot of new strategies and techniques to build relationship in a non-physical world.
I don’t think any of us think that that is the ideal way, that we would always be virtual, but I do think we have learned a new set and continue to learn a new set of strategies and techniques and opportunities for building deeper and more connected relationships both in-person and virtually. And I think those are really valuable learnings that came.
And then the third, I’ll just speak to the personalization. This is where I think Summit has had a true advantage throughout the pandemic, and I think it really shines a light on what’s possible in learning.
The pandemic really created circumstances where families and students needed different approaches, different ways of doing things, different models in order to stay connected and engaged and continue to learn. And because our infrastructure and our philosophy is built that way, we were able to do that while different school districts and networks across the country were debating a single one-size-fits-all grading policy, we actually already had a flexible approach to mastery that enabled students to engage in, and be evaluated, and receive grades and marks that were truly reflective of what they were learning in the way that they needed it in that moment given their family circumstances. And so the personalization was, and has been, and continues to be invaluable, and I think a real example of why we need to all be moving in that direction.
(TK): I think you’re getting at this, but as I understand it, Bill Gates came to visit one of Summit’s schools and said, and I’m quoting, “What I love about Summit is that its vision of success is bigger than getting students to master skills in reading, writing, and mathematics.” I put in my language, my non-Gate-ian language, you’ve been a trailblazer in terms of building or helping young people build agency, and self-confidence, and the ability to work independently since you started and to work with their peers.
And I think I would posit that that has a great deal to do with the fact that your graduates who complete four-year college degrees are doing that at twice the national average, according to Newsweek and US News Report. You consistently are ranked as one of the best schools in the nation. For those people who think that schools should be focused on the basics, can you talk about why schools have to do more and why that’s an instrumental part of your equation?
(DT): Let me start with three questions I ask myself every single morning and have for the last 20 years. I ask myself, are the schools that we run today, a school that I would want to go to as a student, teach in as a teacher, and send my own child to? And my personal criteria has been if the answer is no to any of those questions, then there’s something wrong in our school.
And so when I take those perspectives and I think about what does a parent and a student really care about? Why do they go to school? Well, they go to school because they think that school’s preparing them for life, for the life that they want to live, for a good life, for a fulfilled life. One that has purposeful work, and is financially sustaining, and relationships, and community.
So to me right there, that suggests school has to be more than just reading or solving math equations. And then when I think about it from the societal perspective, why do we invest so much in schools as a society? Again, is it so we know that every child can read at a certain grade level, or because we want to prepare people to be contributing members of our society, and we want them to be members of a democracy?
And I would suggest that it’s the latter. And so we are all aligned in what we ultimately want, and I think the question is are K-12 schools delivering on that, and how much are they delivering on? And I really think we’re at this turning point right now where if K-12 schools continue down the path of only measuring reading, and writing, and math at a very basic level, society’s going to start to look at them as sort of like one little piece of a solution because they’re going to have to put together all the other pieces that prepare children.
And I think our view is that our schools really attempt to be a partner with families in developing their whole child and preparing their whole child for the future or the ultimate goal. And I think having been in our schools when Bill Gates has visited, what he experiences and what others experience are students who are whole human beings, who are living a fulfilled life in school because it’s full and robust and they’re directing it.
They’re not like little robots in a desk doing math problems. That’s not to say they don’t do math problems, but that’s not the reason they’re there. And so I just think we’re at this crossroads and we’re going to have to decide what role really K-12 plays. And I hope it is that robust role.
(TK): That’s a really exciting articulation of what the opportunity is today, and so I appreciate it and agree entirely that that’s where the opportunity lies. I’m going to transition to my third question, which is arguably my favorite subject of the moment. Carnegie, as you know well, is the place that brought the world this thing called the Carnegie Unit, or the course credit in regular parlance. So the course credit, or the Carnegie Unit, is the bedrock currency of the educational economy. It’s everything.
Not to sound hyperbolic, but it’s infiltrated into all aspects of American schooling, whether it’s what’s assessed, what is taught, who gets financial aid and who doesn’t, what goes on a transcript, what accreditation involves, it’s really the river that runs through it. It was developed before the automobile, and it was developed before the advent of broadly available electricity. Forget about computers, just basic light when it’s dark.
So, I’m puzzling with this reality, and another way to describe it is a great conflation of time and learning, it is seat time in essence. So my hard question for you is, what can Carnegie do to move the education sector past a conception of learning, a paradigm that really basically ignores what we’ve learned from cognitive psychologists, and neuroscientists, and others about how people learn and has developed abysmal results for students who depend on the schools the most. So what should we, and now it’s we because you are my board chair and we are Carnegie, what should we do about this 120-year-old predicament?
(DT): Well, like you, I’m pretty obsessed with this now, too and so I’m excited, and I can share some of my initial thoughts. And I think we’re both inviting a lot of people into this conversation with us. The first thing I will say is oftentimes people believe because I’m advocating for change in K-12 education that I am in some way judging what exists or has existed previously, and I think that’s a misunderstanding.
And so what I want to say about the Carnegie Unit is I think it was beautifully designed for the moment in time. It served an incredible purpose, and countless people have better lives because of what came to be, and it’s not relevant in this moment in time. And the longer that we let it stay the way that it is, we’re the ones that are allowing it to do harm to the students who I think need us the most.
And so the question is, where do we go from here? And I’m not sure that getting rid of the Carnegie Unit is the answer, I wonder if redefining it is the answer. And this is where I find great hope in the Carnegie Foundation. And I think this challenge brings together this long history of this Foundation truly designing, and inventing, and reinventing incredible structures that have had a profound impact on our society in really meaningful ways.
And so I think we have a track record of being able to do that. I think we have a moral authority around being the people who invented it, and if we’re the ones who are calling it into question and saying it needs reinvention, I think we’re the exact right people to do that. And I think that Carnegie has the ability to convene and bring together groups of people to collaborate and to get creative around what does that redefinition look like? And, most importantly, what does it look like in the field and in practice, and how can we make that happen? And I think our most recent history around continuous improvement will really aid and assist us in that way.
And so, as I think about all the people who’ve been talking about and playing with this idea and strategizing around it for decades now, to me, it feels like this is the moment. Carnegie is one of the key leaders and players in what will need to be a much broader effort, but I do think Carnegie’s bringing the key ingredients in order to truly act on and make real this need to redefine the Carnegie Unit for this moment in time and hopefully at least the foreseeable future.
(TK): Well, I promised you this would be micro, this conversation, so I’m going to end it here but with the note that I’m incredibly excited that you’ve agreed to come on this adventure. I think that, as you know well, Carnegie has conceived of this thing called the Carnegie Unit. It was instrumental to the Pell Grants, it was instrumental to GRE, the Education Testing Service, the standards for medical, and engineering, and law school, so the list of its… for creating TIAA-CREF.
The list is long, and I do think there is this opportunity for us to build ecosystems, frankly, and not try to do things by ourselves, but to build connectivity with others who are interested in figuring out what the next fifty or a hundred years, what the paradigm should look like in terms of young people learning, achieving great outcomes, finding purposeful and fulfilling lives without necessarily always needing to be in math class 45 minutes a day, frankly. So, really appreciate you coming along on this journey and look forward to lots more conversation.
(DT): Thank you.
(TK): Thank you, Diane.