Five Questions for Diane Tavenner

Diane Tavenner, Founder and CEO, Summit Public Schools

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Diane Tavenner is the Founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, a Charter Management Organization (CMO) that operates seven schools in the San Francisco Bay area, serving approximately 2,100 students. Tavenner founded the flagship school, Summit Preparatory Charter High School, in 2003. Newsweek and US News & World Report include it in their rankings of the nation’s best public high schools. Tavenner also serves as the board chair of the California Charter Schools Association.

Carnegie Corporation: Summit is recognized as a pioneer in the area of personalized learning. What is your vision for this approach? 

Tavenner: My vision is that personalized learning will be the American public education system. I believe in the next 10 years, we’ll see half of the schools in America doing personalized learning.

I think there are actually four principles to personalized learning. One, personalized learning means that what students are doing on a daily basis is connected to their long-term goals and they understand the connection. Two, they own and drive their own learning—it’s self-directed—and they have a lot of control over their learning. Three, learning is primarily around richer, deep problems and projects where they’re really bringing a lot of skills to solve them. There’s a level of mastery that’s expected in the learning. And finally, personalized learning takes place in communities that are rich in feedback, where students put their work forward and they get a lot of feedback on it that’s diverse.

Carnegie Corporation: What changes in the field have affected your work?

  ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) really opens up a space for looking at a broader view of students and student outcomes. I think it’s going to give us some opportunity on this front. Educators are coming around to a belief that personalized learning is what we need. The technology now exists. Schools are connected and have devices for kids. I think we’re going to see a pretty rapid uptick in people trying this and implementing it in their schools.

Carnegie Corporation: How does Summit develop principals and teachers who are prepared to implement learning models that are relatively new? How do you bring them along?

 Our belief is that the best type of professional development happens when it’s job embedded. Here’s how I like to think about it: when you’re a teacher, you have regular moments when you’re asking yourself, “How do I meet the needs of that English language learner student, or how do I write this lesson, or how do I assess what students know?”  You’re asking yourself that constantly.

Our platform, if it’s linked to the professional development platform, can give the teacher immediate support for those questions within the context of student learning. So when they are working on a project and saying, “How do I make this available for an English language learner?” we can deliver the answer in real time. Now they’re open to learning. We can get them the answers they need and the resources, and then we can sort of lure them into the bigger learning.

Carnegie Corporation: Carnegie Corporation has supported Summit’s Innovation Fund since 2012, when much of the focus was on implementing new design models to create self-directed learners. The second round of the fund will address the 30% of your students who still tend to struggle. Who are these students and can you give us an example of the new techniques you intend to try?

Tavenner: There are some known groups that fall into this 30%. Certainly special needs students who have individualized education plans, and English language learners fall in here. More and more we’re seeing students with mental health issues, or the results of poverty and stress in their environments, which affect their ability to learn. And then there are students who are very far behind. This fund is looking at what types of immediate interventions we can provide to these students because they need lots of regular attention.

Can we send them a message that says what they need it to say in that moment? If I’m a teacher, I think about that. Can I intervene at that right moment? That’s really difficult. What can we automate to add these additional supports and intervention?

One intervention we’re working on right now is creating an ELL curriculum that’s easier and more accessible.  As a teacher, when you have kids mainstreamed into your classroom from both special ed and English language learners, you need to take what you’re doing with everyone, and then you need to customize it to meet particular needs.

When we have a curated curriculum, we can do that at scale, so as a teacher I’m not having to do that at every moment. You two can be in the same classroom working on the same project, but the student gets a personalized experience that may have some additional resources, or some modified resources, or some primary language resources that help you. It’s personalized support. It’s not like you got pulled out. It’s not like you get labeled.

Carnegie Corporation: How does the technology piece work?

We’re not creating anything new here. We’ve curated what we already know works, and what is best, and brought it together in a new design and model to make it actually doable, so that we can do what we know is best for kids.

The technology piece is a fully curated curriculum. As an individual teacher in a classroom, I always wanted to differentiate for all my kids. I don’t know a teacher who doesn’t want to do that. Here’s an example of where the technology makes something possible that literally the human being can’t do without technology.

Two, it’s about putting the data and information in the hands of kids and parents in a way that’s meaningful. Let’s just think about how we report to parents and kids in traditional settings around how we’re doing—with mailed report cards that come weeks after the end of a grading period and you can do nothing about it. That’s absurd. We’re talking about what the technology can do on a minute-by-minute basis, telling kids and parents exactly where they are, what they’re doing, what they can do better, how they can improve, and getting feedback. A teacher has that information as well and can make really good decisions as a result.

So it’s about arming all of the important people with the data they need to change their behavior in the moment to get the outcomes they want. That’s hugely important and those are two big things that the technology does. Then let’s everyone share.