Podcast: What Parents Can Do to Help Kids Prepare for College

This interview with Diane Tavenner was recorded on October 28, 2019. The transcript for the audio excerpt can be found below and the full show audio recording can be heard here.

Highlights from the Interview:

What do kids want out of life and how do schools help kids figure this out for themselves?


Audio Transcript:

Paul Peterson: This is the Education Exchange, with Paul Peterson. I am the senior editor at Education Next. Thank you for joining us. More students are filling out their college applications for next year than ever before. But, many are feeling unprepared for what lies ahead. Forty percent of those applying to a four year college, will never obtain their degree or at least won’t obtain it within six years. And, over half of those entering junior colleges or community colleges will be gone by the end of the first year.

Paul Peterson: Why do high schools leave their students so unprepared for the independent study that college requires? And, what can be done in our high schools to make every student prepared for college? Well, that’s the question that Diane Tavenner, co-founder and Chief Education Officer of Summit Schools, which was founded in Redwood City at the beginning of this century. And, Redwood City is in the heart of Silicon Valley. Well, that’s Diane Tavenner asks that question and she provides and answer in her new book entitled, Prepared: What Kids Need For a Fulfilled Life.

Paul Peterson: So, I’m pleased today to have Diane Tavenner on the Education Exchange. Thank you Diane for joining me on the Education Exchange.

Diane Tavenner: Thank you, Paul. It’s so great to be with you.

Paul Peterson: So, Diane let’s start at the beginning. Why did you decide to take on the enormous challenge of creating a brand new public charter school in the richest corner of the United States, Silicon Valley?

Diane Tavenner: Well, Paul, uh, there were a few reasons. Uh, but the first one was, um, I was an educator, a teacher, and then a school principal in traditional schools for a number of years, and- and the reality was no matter how hard I work, I kept running up against brick walls. Um, preventing us from doing what I- What I believe and what many believe was best for kids. And, so the opportunity to start from scratch and- and design the school, uh, to really meet the needs of kids was somewhat irresistible. And, at that point, um, in- in history, was a really- It felt like rare opportunity. One that you really had to-to grab because I wasn’t sure it would be around for to long.

Diane Tavenner: Um, but there were two other pieces there. One, I- I’ll have to admit I was a bit naive. I had no idea what would the- what the work would entail. Um, and then the-the final piece was I was pregnant, now with my first and only child, and was about to become a mom. And, um, you know, everything changes when you become a parent and you start thinking about education through the lens of- of, um, your own child.

Paul Peterson: Oh, absolutely. I think that everything I do is shaped by the children that I’ve had grow up with me. So, uh, let me ask you this question, what were those brick walls that- What were some of the brick walls that- that you felt hemmed in by that you wanted to address by starting all over again?

Diane Tavenner: Um, I think the- the biggest one was, um, how Kind of narrow our focus was, or the focus is in most schools. And, how siloed, um, in high schools the education is. And, so really, um, not much has changed in terms in most high schools are very focused on teaching kids very separate subjects in, um, accord- sort of a day that you run through and hour by hour. Um, in a relatively traditional manner where there’s a combination of textbook and lecture, and, um, you know, kids take test. And, um what we know from the science and from our experiences, that’s actually not the way to prepare kids for the world that we currently live in.

Diane Tavenner: Um, they need, um, preparation in much more dynamic set of skills that are needed today. Um, that include both the hard academic skills, if you will, but also, um, the habits and the mindsets that they need in order to be successful and engage people. And, the structure of the school is really so hard coded that it was impossible to make changes there. Um, at least I felt, uh, without starting from scratch.

Paul Peterson: Well, so when I read your book it reminded me of a book by Ted Sizer, Horace’s Compromise, written 50 years ago.

Diane Tavenner: Yeah.

Paul Peterson: And in that book he says, I’m going to quote him, “No more important finding was he emerged from the inquiries of out study than at the American high school student, as student, is all too often docile, compliant and without initiative.” Is that sort of what you’re saying? That this system creates bored students who are compliant and without initiative?

Diane Tavenner: Uh, uh, that is what I’m saying. It is actually the system, um, incentivizes that. And, um, really deincentivizes students who want to assert their own autonomy and their own agency. And, it doesn’t help students build self direction. And, um, you know, one of the most important things we do, and one of the most important things that I try to do as a mother, and a parent, is to build my child and to build all of our kids, um, ability to really have agency and earn their learning and self direct their learning.

Diane Tavenner: And, that is a corner stone of our school model. Um, and it’s something that I think a lot of parents and people don’t realize. That kids are just born this way. Kids aren’t just born able to, you know, earn their own, uh, destiny and journey. They- These are skills that. Just like me reading a mask can be developed. And, they have a place in our schools for development.

Diane Tavenner: And, so that is, um, I couldn’t agree more. Um, and indeed the work that were engaged in today.

Paul Peterson: So, you know, you have a remarkable, uh, record there at Summit Schools with, uh, 98% of the students going on to a four year college. We’re not talking going on to college, we’re talking about qoing onto a four year college, which is a- is a big difference. And, and I know you think you have accomplished that because you’ve aroused the curiosity and the initiative of the young person. So, I want to know how do you do that?

Diane Tavenner: Well, we start with a project based curriculum. And, so, um, wh- our students if they stay with us for middle and high school engage in about 200 different real world authentic learning experiences or projects while they’re with us. And, in these projects they start, not with sort of a unit of study like we normally do when we say to a student, You are going to learn about… you know, causes of World War 2, or you’re going to learn about…uh, you know, a specific type of grammar, or the, um, you know, quadratic formula.

Diane Tavenner: Instead, we ask a big question that’s interesting to them. So, you know how does, um, how does a product actually become a product in our world, for example. And, believe it or not, that’s our- that’s a question that opens a study of the industrial revolution.

Diane Tavenner: And, rather then sorta study the industrial revolution in a methodical sort of boring way, we bring it to kids and say, you know how do you think that- Why did that come about? And, how did that come about? And, they follow and trade the particular product through their journey. And, along the way not only do they learn their history, but they are bringing in a whole bunch of other skills. They’re calibrating with their peers. They’re getting to make a lot of choices about what it is that interest them most even though they’re learning a core content. And, really preparing for what the world demands, which is much more, um, initiative, and thought, and strategy, and creativity in today’s world.

Paul Peterson: Well, so I understand that maybe you- you say, okay, so- How- How do you- How do we-we- How come this- this weather- How did this weather- How did this product come into it- into being.

Diane Tavenner: Right.

Paul Peterson: And, then that can lead to all kinds of loom and a spinning wheel, and on and on you can go. But, so, that gives you a lot of specifics but how do you get to the higher level of generalities so you can talk more about the industrial revolution and things like that.

Diane Tavenner: Yeah-[crosstalk 00:08:46]

Paul Peterson: How do you get them the specifics, yeah.

Diane Tavenner: Well, a couple of parts. One, sometimes when people do projects they forget that you actually need to go learn and know content and information. So, we, um haven’t forgotten that part. We don’t assume kids come with it. And, so, we spend time with our students helping them develop their, um, their skills they need to learn and to learn how to learn. And, so our kids still engage in a lot of content work, but they do it using playlist. And, through choice and developing their own strategies and goals around that. And, in service of answering those big interesting questions.

Diane Tavenner: And, then the second piece is we done a really vigorous job of creating, um, and identifying the 32 most important skills that kids need, both in high school and college, and career. So, these are skills like problem solving, and analysis, and effective communication. And, those skills are embedded throughout every single project. And, so the students are practicing them over and over and over again.

Diane Tavenner: And, then here’s the key, the teacher is not standing up in front of the classroom lecturing. The teacher is giving really meaningful feedback on the students actually doing that work throughout the project. And, it’s timely, and it’s actionable. And, what we know about skills is that you have to practice them and get feedback and then practice again in order to get better. And, so that is the construct of the project.

Diane Tavenner: Um, and so, you know, sometimes the worry about a project is kids are going to have holes or miss content. We’ve dealt with that. But, the- and took the advantage of really focusing on kids having these big valuable skills that they are practicing over and over again with very intensive feedback and lots of opportunity to practice in real world ways.

Paul Peterson: Now, I know you, from reading your book, I know that the emphasize corporation and calibration and deemphasize competition. And, wha- it’s not a matter of whose going to get into which ivy league. It’s going to be a matter how we all get what we want in- in here and beyond. So, h- h- how- How important is that to your strategy?

Diane Tavenner: I think it’s incredibly important because I think people don’t often realize is the way that our schools are currently constructed with, um, where we literally stack rank kids, you know. When you have a valedictorian and you stack rank kids by G.P.A. The kids on the top are benefiting from those who are on the bottom. And, that is- And the school is benefiting from the kids on the top being, you know, successful. And, so it’s designed for their to be winners and losers. And, it’s designed for them to be judged on very single narrow measures.

Diane Tavenner: And, so we we’re done at Summit is say, we actually acknowledge and recognize everyone of our students, has hopes, and dreams, and wishes, and strengths, and things that contribute, and areas that they need to grow. And, that they actually don’t all want the same thing out of life. They don’t want to have a good life, but that looks very different for different kids. They have different values. They have different families and backgrounds and things there care about.

Diane Tavenner: And, so what we do is we really spend time figuring out, what is it that every single student wants and we do that in partnership with the parents and the family and who ever else is supporting it. And, we do it over many years through exploration. Our kids do eight weeks a year of expeditionary learning where they’re really figuring out what there strengths are and what they’re good at and testing things, and trying things, and ruling things out.

Diane Tavenner: And, so we’ve figured out what they want and then what we’re searching for is the best fit for them. And, we make a commitment that every single one of our students will find multiple best fit post high school options.And,those look very different. You know, I’m not- believe it or not, not everyone wants to go to Harvard. It’s not a good fit for them. Um, and what’s better is when they do find a good fit that matches who they are, both for economic reasons, geographic reasons. They’re, you know, future aspirations. All of those things.

Diane Tavenner: And, so when you think about each individual student and them wanting something different and driving towards that outcome versus a single outcome for a select few. That is where you can really think about everyone being successful.

Paul Peterson: Well, that’s good for the- and I can see that you can pursue students of that, but how about their parents. Don’t their parents say, Oh I want my child to succeed, and their definition maybe much more competitive than the one that your describing here. How- How do you explain your mission to your- to the parents?

Diane Tavenner: Well, I’m so glad that you asked that question because, you know, honestly we had similar hypothesis. And, so really the main reason I wrote this book is one of the things that we have discovered, um, as we’ve been working across the county, uh, in 40 states now hoping to share the Summit model, um, through the Summit Learning Program. Um, and in conversation and discussing with parents all across the country, is it believe it or not, parents actually have, um, they have shifted their definition of success.

Diane Tavenner: And, they really- Yes, it’s important to them that their kids have, you know, economic stab- stability in their future life. And, so they don’t- They don’t want their kids to be poor, or living in their basements. But, what they really care about in addition to that is that their kids are happy and they have good lives, and that they, um, basically are fulfilled. They are doing what they want to do and they have good relationships and all those things.

Diane Tavenner: But, here’s what’s really interesting, we found Paul. Most parents think that there alone in that belief. They think other parents have a much more traditional definition of success. That’s much more about status, and power, and wealth. And, so they are very quiet about their belief because they don’t think that they are shared.

Diane Tavenner: And, so- one- The primary reason I wrote the book was trying to help parents realize that they are not alone. And in fact, that they are a majority in this country who want their kids to be happy. They don’t want their kids to be depressed, and bored, and, you know, it- it- far worse that you know and I both know are happening with our teenagers today.

Diane Tavenner: Um, and so this is the- this is an important thing and we as parents need to be open and vocal about it and asking for this. And, so that’s a long way of answering your question. We have a lot of parents who are very attracted to this way of learning because they really believe in it. And, it’s what they want for their kids.

Paul Peterson: But how do you get this 98 or 100% success rate? Uh, aren’t there some students that simply refuse to be engaged? Isn’t there- I mean, whatever you do- However talented your teaching staff is. Don’t you run up against somebody who you can’t get to say, I- I- I want to -I want to do this today. They just are going to resist everything.

Diane Tavenner: Well, certainly on a day to day basis. Um, you know, educating kids is a very human business, and it can be very messy for sure. But on the whole, it’s- it’s- we haven’t run into kids who really don’t want to succeeded in life, and who don’t have some sorta of vision for themselves in the future. We run to a lot of kids who had really bad experiences before they get to us, or who don’t believe in themselves. Who don’t think that, that’s possible, who have lots of reasons for that.

Diane Tavenner: But, um that means you just need to build a trusting relationship with them and you have to show them that it’s actually possible. And, you have to be consistent, and stable, and honest, and authentic. And, you know our schools are designed to build those types of relationships. Um, you know, one of the things I talk about a lot in the book is the mentoring element of- of our schools and how we really ex- spend a lot of energy building relationship with kids.

Diane Tavenner: Um, because that- that matters to them. And, what we know about high school kids, is that they have one meaningful adult relationship on campus, they’re much more likely to be successful. And, so, um overtime were able to really, um, become partners with both kids and families in helping them pursue their future success and their journey.

Diane Tavenner: And, again I think this is a very different mind set where most schools are about getting kids to do what they want them to do on the measures that they care about. As oppose to helping the students find what is important to them and their next step in life.

Paul Peterson: So, one of the things that’s really attractive about the- your model, is that you emphasized students teaching students, the peer.

Diane Tavenner: Yes.

Paul Peterson: The peer can be the teacher. So, how do you structure that- that relationship?

Diane Tavenner: Well, that has been one of our best exciting discoveries. Um, and humbling, quite frankly because, you know, as teachers, you know, you and I both know, Paul, that we, I think, value our skill, and our ability, and our professionalism. And, so it can fill a little humbling when we hear that kids would actually rather learn from their peers then from us. Um, but when you push past that, um, and realize that, um, what we know is when someone teaches something, they actually learn it better, and deeper, and more.

Diane Tavenner: So, there’s this double advantage of kids feel that they are really heard and they understand things better when their peers are helping them. And, oh by the way, they feel great when they can be that resource. And, then they’re learning more and they are being validated as someone who knows something well.

Diane Tavenner: Um, and what we find is, you know, all kids aren’t good at all things. And- But, all kids are good at somethings. And, so it really builds a culture where kids are very aware of what they are good at, and they’re very generous in offering that. And, then they are also very willing to accept that help and open to accepting that help.

Diane Tavenner: And, so what that looks in practical terms is we actually set up spaces and structures in the day that encourage kids to teach each other and work with each other. Um, everything from the physical space to the technology platform that lets kids offer themselves up, when you know, do really well as resource to their peers on that particular content.

Diane Tavenner: And, then, um, we work hard to teach them the skills around how do you collaborate and how do you help someone without giving them the answers. And, how do you support them in learning without doing it for them. And, those are skills. And, they are valuable and important. And, so those are a part of our curriculum.

Paul Peterson: So, this, is, uh, amazing thing you put together at Summit, but- but now you’re- you’re expanding. You’re going to scale. You’re – You’re working with Facebook to put up a platform out there that allows any school anywhere in the county to download the technology that you have been utilizing with these- for these playlist. So, I want to ask you this question, can you go to scale with- or is this something that wor- that can work in your environment that you’ve created in this particular place, can it be introduced into the sort of main stream with the same degree of impact?

Diane Tavenner: Well, it’s- it’s such a good question. And, I think it’s- it’s one of the questions that get asks all the time in education, is can you replicate what happens in one school or in small space. Can that actually happen across the country? And, you know, what we did at Summit is we built tools that we needed as educators in order to offer the type of learning experience that we believe out kids deserved and wanted. And, we are so fortunate to be able to build those tools and partnership with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and then to be able to offer them to other schools and communities who wanted them.

Diane Tavenner: And, so about five years in now, it turns out that there’s 400 communities in 40 states who so far wanted to use these tools. And, you know, it’s so inspiring, Paul, when- when I go across the country and visit these places, it doesn’t look exactly like Summit. I mean, we have schools, big giant schools in large urban areas and small teeny one house schools- room, one room school houses in rural areas and everything in between who are using these tools to get to the same kind of learning, real world, authentic, collaborative, self directive. They look very different in all the different places, depending on who’s there and the content and all of that.

Diane Tavenner: And, we actually believe that, um, it is possible when you think about it that way. You won’t- It won’t look like the cookie cutter across the country, but it will get to the heart of what we really care about it, which is preparing kids for the world that we live in, and their futures.

Paul Peterson: Well, if- if- if you were to do a 2.0, as I’m sure you’re probably thinking about doing, what are some of the- some of the things that you would ju- that you are thinking of doing or would do to- to- to make your program even more effective?

Diane Tavenner: Yeah, and it’s- it’s, um, again, I think, one of the big reasons I wrote the book, is really we think that 2.0 involves a much deeper, um, and more authentic engagement with families and communities. And, um, you know, the- the type of expeditionary learning our kids have done where the school really does become the community can be taken so much further and so much deeper with deeper engagement and I think more creative and innovative engagement in communities. And, it’s something that everyone talks about, but not very many people do incredibly well and not in a systematic way.

Diane Tavenner: Um, and so I think that’s what’s really interesting about this next- this next phase for us. And, what I’m really hoping for is that, um, parents will read the book and they’ll be attracted to this way of learning and this will be something that their passionate about and that we can have much deeper partnerships between families, and communities, and the schools. That’s really [inaudible 00:23:31] are pretty separate.

Diane Tavenner: Um, and so that- that is my hope. Um, and that what we’re doing at school to prepare our kids for the future can be really accessible to parents at home. And, so, you know, in addition to the book, we’ve created a whole website, preparedforsucess.org, that provides parents tips, and resources, and tools they can use at home. So, that, um, even if you’re not in a Summit school or in a Summit learning school that these- you can still prepare your kids in this way. And, we’re really hoping to build a movement. Um, and like you said, Uh, Uh, let the world know that lots of people believe in this new idea of success and how we should be preparing kids for the future.

Paul Peterson: Well, thank you Diane. This is a fascinating, uh, tale that you have put together in your book, Prepared: What Kids Need For a Fulfilled Life. I’ve been speaking with Diane Tavenner, co-founder and CEO of Summit Schools and the author of this, uh, new book for parents that helps to explain what schools need to do to prepare students for life. Thank you, Diane.

Diane Tavenner: Thank you, Paul.

Paul Peterson: Thank you, Diane, for joining me on the Education Exchange. I am Paul Peterson. Please join me for a new Education Exchange Podcast released on the Education X website every Monday at noon eastern time.