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Podcast: Expert Stacey Childress Talks About Rethinking the Way We Teach and Evaluate Students and ‘Unbundling’ America’s Education Experience

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Hans-Peter Gauster/Unsplash

Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on , or.

Michael Horn and Diane Tavenner welcome back Stacey Childress, Senior Education Advisor at McKinsey & Co., for the second episode of a two-part series on the challenges facing K-12 education and promising strategies for addressing them. In this episode, each of them makes the case for one high-impact reform to address the challenges laid out in the previous episode. They discuss reforming how schools evaluate and recommend students, unbundling the core education experience, and doing more to instill character in values through education. 

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

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Diane Tavenner: Hey, Michael and Stacey. Wow.

Michael Horn: You got to say hi to both of us. This is fun.

Stacey Childress: Hi, Diane. Hi, Michael.

The Two-Part Series on K12

Diane Tavenner: Good to be back together with you two. This is part two of a two-part episode the three of us are doing together. The premise for this episode started when we did a two-part episode previously around higher ed, and some of our devoted listeners and folks said that they enjoyed it so much, and they encouraged us to do something similar for K12, which we are doing. So this is our second episode, and it’s so much fun to be back together with the two of you.

Michael Horn: Hopefully, our listeners are not regretting that request after listening to the first part, but we’re going to be briefer this time. It’s our resolution.

Stacey Childress: Yeah, we even wore ourselves out on episode one of this series. So, yes.

Diane Tavenner: Just to remind folks, if you haven’t heard it, part one was identifying the elements of the K12 system that are the core elements and then identifying the problems with them right now. That’s all to lay the foundation so we could propose solutions. Since we recorded the first problem episode, we’ve had some good conversations, the three of us, and really pressed each other about how we wanted to approach solutions. We ran through a bunch of different options. But I think the one we got most excited about, and where we ended up landing, is rather than trying to go through a laundry list of all nine elements. Because it’s expansive, if you listened to the first one, you had to hang in there for quite a long time with us. We decided that we would each pick one of the nine to work on solutions for. And it turned out we all picked different ones.

So I think the approach we’re going to take today is to make our case for why we would try to solve the element that we’re picking, how we might solve it, and what solutions might be in the world already that are attempting to solve it. And in that, is there a way to unbundle it from the others to make it more possible? The other two of us will react to that and see if we have anything to add. Does that sound right?

Michael Horn: Let’s go forward with that as a plan. Diane, you get to go first, so you model what this looks like for us.

Diane’s Proposal: Reforming Schools’ Evaluator-Recommender Role 

Diane Tavenner: All right, well, I’m happy to go first. I suspect some folks might be taking some bets right now on which of the nine we chose. I am going to pick what was item number six in our first episode, the evaluator recommender. Let me just start by saying I think there is a huge opportunity. You both know I’ve spent the last several years trying to figure out what I want to do post-Summit. As part of that exploration, I’ve been searching for what I think is the greatest lever we have for change in the K12 system. I keep returning, sort of sadly and reluctantly, to assessment at the big level. I am attracted to this category because I think it’s a huge opportunity.

I also think it’s one of the easier things to unbundle from the rest of the K12 element list. I know that probably sounds counterintuitive to a lot of people because how in the world could you unbundle evaluation and recommendation? But I think with a mindset shift, it becomes pretty doable. Let me unpack three ways that I think we could do that and then share the mindset shift that would have to happen. First, when we talk through evaluator recommender and the element that schools do, they write these recommendations for colleges. There’s a huge expectation from higher ed that high school teachers and K12 will put in substantial effort to make recommendations of students. As Stacey pointed out in our last conversation, that’s for a relatively small number of students, but it takes up a huge amount of energy and time from people. I think the way to decouple this in K12 is to just stop having higher ed ask for recommendations as we know them, which are these letters. The most offensive part of these questions you have to answer as a recommender would say, “In what percentage of your lifetime experience with students does this student fall? Is it in the top one, top five?” I see you, Michael, leaning in because…

Michael Horn: This is the worst question ever.

Diane Tavenner: Worst question. Anyone who knows about the way our brains process will know no one’s capable of doing this in any unbiased way. It’s got to be the worst data ever. I don’t know why people keep asking for it. So, anyhow, I think do away with that. My invitation to higher ed would be to rethink how you’re doing admissions because, by the way, you should just rethink that to begin with. There’s better ways of doing it. And stop putting this extraordinary amount of work on K12 that is super biased and probably not helpful.

You’re probably not even really factoring it into your decision. What I would offer in exchange is, if you have to do something, do reference checks once you’ve already decided. Mirror the professional world: once you’ve already decided that you want to accept this student, if you want to do a reference check, great. Make it a simple, straightforward call-up reference check. I’m sure we all do reference checks regularly for former employees, and it can be very efficient. It would take far less time, it would be far less biased, and I think that would be a strong way to go and a change that could be made quite quickly and efficiently. I think it would be greatly appreciated by K12 on multiple levels and take them out of that role. The next thing is grades. As you all know, I have long believed that teachers should not be asked to both teach and coach and develop and grade their students for external reasons.

Diane Tavenner: Let me offer how you would provide students grades or feedback if not by their teacher. Step one: technology is actually pretty good at a lot of this, and with AI, it will get significantly better. It’s already getting significantly better at this. Put as much on technology as we possibly can. For a decade-plus, we’ve been doing this at Summit, and there’s people doing it all across the country. This is not out of reach. This is totally happening and possible and getting better every single day. Do as much there as possible.

I would argue the only type of grading that teachers should be doing is if it is a combined part of their professional development where they’re growing and developing their skills of teaching. There’s a whole methodology here, been doing it for 20-plus years around calibrating your scoring and then doing that in a group scoring. The more we have high-quality curriculum, which I expect might come up in some of your proposals later, the more the world is going. You have common assignments that this can be done around, which is a win-win for everyone. You have other teachers who are providing the actual scoring of your students. It makes the whole system better and a learning system. I think those are very possible, doable changes that could be made fairly easily and decoupled from most of the other elements.

Diane Tavenner: The final piece is around the high school diploma and the transcript. Here, a lot of people are working on a vision where the student is the keeper and the owner of their own transcript. I think this makes so much sense. More and more every day, students are learning from multiple institutions and multiple places. This is such an antiquated notion that you would go to one institution and have this transcript there. If you look at kids’ high school transcripts now, they’re already including community college and other types of institutions on those transcripts. The mindset shift is that the student is the owner and keeper of their transcript. Again, technology is our friend here.

It can be used to make sure this is validated, true, honest, and that they have the world of learning opportunities available to them that get integrated into the transcript. They control where it goes, who they share it with, and who they give it to. It’s very similar to a portfolio model and very complementary to a portfolio. It’s just the right way to think about young people and even older people having agency and self-direction around their own learning and how they’re driving it, and then what they’re sharing with the world. My last piece on all of these things is it focuses us more on evaluating the quality of the work that people have done versus someone else’s evaluation of who knows what. That’s my proposal. What do you all think?

Discussion of Diane’s Proposal

Michael Horn: Stacey? I’ll jump in first, and then you can tee off there. We’ll flip the order a little bit. No surprise, Diane. I love peeling this off from the rest of the enterprise. We’ve talked about this before. I would think about it conceptually almost in reverse order, in the sense that particularly grading and things of that nature should come before the reference checks. When you started with reference checks, I thought, that’s a lot harder for colleges to do for 18-year-olds than we might think. But if we flip the order and start with the system where the student is the keeper of their record, they’re having their performances and accomplishments validated by a range of individuals—teachers from other districts, professionals themselves—maybe actual projects for companies and organizations.

There’s real importance to what they’re doing, not pretend, but real. There’s an incentive for those professionals to give feedback on it. Using technology to help with inter-rater reliability, making it translatable, and so forth. The application then comes into a college, and they can trust it. They can say, “I’d love a double click on this.” You have a team around you of folks that have worked with you. So, I know who to call. When I imagine it almost in that way, then I start seeing how this hangs together even more.

I would offer just one last observation on this. You all know I’ve long been fascinated with Western Governors University in the higher ed world. They have a whole separate faculty who is trained just in the art and science of assessment. When you haven’t mastered something yet in their competency-based model, you don’t blame the teacher because the teacher who assessed you does not know you. To your point, Diane, it just seals that thing. They’re not evaluating something about you as the individual or a bias or whatever else. They’re just looking at the work. We can have multiple faculty members who are trained in assessment looking at the work to make sure it really represents what a great performance does or doesn’t look like. Stacey?

Stacey Childress: Yeah. I like flipping the concept of evaluation and recommendation on its head as well. I resonate with moving to a world where a student is the keeper of their portfolio of learning experiences and the evaluations of those. I wonder about which actor in the ecosystem is the keeper or provider of this different construct. Is it like at Western Governors University, where it’s still in-house, but we’re staffed up differently in terms of expertise, roles, etcetera? And in the K12 system, maybe think about the system more granularly or modularly. How does this look in the early, elementary to middle school years, and then how does it start to shift in middle school? Maybe it’s fully from an outside partner in high school, where we need to see the supply of partners who have the tools in school districts that have this kind of expertise. It doesn’t have to be built inside the system. That probably increases the validation, credibility, and legitimacy of the credential as it then goes on to the next steps in education and preparation. Diane, I’m not sure how you were thinking about that, but it’s an interesting idea to think about. How does the ecosystem shift as kids get into their teen years on their way to graduation from high school in a way that creates an opportunity to introduce new players, new expertise, and maybe increases the validity and credibility of the signal to the next step on a kid’s learning journey. But just wondering how you were thinking about that.

Michael Horn: Yeah, I was going to say quickly, quick clarification, then I want to hear Diane’s answer. You raised a good point. Western Governors would be better, in my mind, if it was an external entity playing that role. I think the reason why at the higher ed level we can’t get to competency-based education and replace paying for seat time is because no one trusts that the institution is going to fairly evaluate itself for learning. I think they’re right not to trust that when dollars are at stake. The more unbundled this can be, the better it is. Diane, you can give the more thoughtful answer, though.

Diane Tavenner: Well, no, that’s super thoughtful and pulling strings from both of you. One of the things I love about this proposal is I think it helps us start to unbundle the role of the teacher, which is something we have all been talking about for a decade-plus at this point. There are people who are amazing at assessment, and they love assessment, and they think about assessment. You could unbundle those roles within an institution. That would be one way. Like you, I like it even better across institutions. When we talk about a common high-quality curriculum, it doesn’t make sense anymore for an individual teacher to be writing and developing their own individual curriculum. We should be using high-quality curriculum that is across institutions.

There’s a huge opportunity there for people from different institutions to be evaluating on the same projects, the same work, etcetera, across institutions. I do think, and I’m personally involved with a number of them, some I can speak about, some I can’t, efforts are underway to build nonprofits and for-profits that have the ability to do these evaluations. The ones that I think are most exciting are on-demand for students and families. No matter where I’m learning, I’m able to go to a place where I can validate the skills I have, the knowledge I have, and the work that I can do. That way, I am not handcuffed to my zip code and the one institution that may or may not be gatekeeping me on multiple levels.

What this does to the psychology for families and students about what’s possible, it undoes so many of those negative effects we were talking about yesterday in these other groups where the system is not actually doing what we wanted it to do. We’re not going to touch on that particular element today, but I think we are because this is a powerful solution to fulfilling that number nine, that dream, that promise. If you work hard and drive your own learning, there are ways that you can show that and truly benefit from it.

Stacey Childress: Yeah. I love that.

Michael Horn: Should we dive into the second one?

Stacey Childress: I think it’s probably an interesting segue into my choice, which was number one, just that core education experience. It was at the top of my list. If I had to pick from our 17 or 82 on our list, however many there were. Twelve, nine. So, just to remind folks, this is like, when we think of school, we think of these things, right? It’s the core educational experience. Historically, it started with the three Rs: reading, writing, arithmetic, and lots of other subjects have been added over time. It includes the strength and breadth of the academic program and the social learning. It’s different than social-emotional, but like, how to be part of a community, what’s it like to be in a group, in a class, in a team, your people. It also includes those social aspects of managing yourself.

Stacey’s Proposal: Unbundling the Core Education Experience

Stacey Childress: On top of that, extracurriculars, sports, interest-based activities—all of those experiences we consider part of the education of our kids. We said a challenge with it was often what we teach and how we teach it is not aligned to the current science of learning. What we know about how learning happens and what makes for a good, integrated set of learning experiences, but also towards what end. Our second challenge is a lack of vision and purpose. We have these large cafeteria menus at high school and a broad waterfront of concepts, skills, and topics that we ask elementary schools to cover. But the “to what end” has gotten lost over time as we’ve added more and more. That was one of our main critiques.

Following our model here, I thought first about whether this core academic function could be unbundled. Diane, you started to talk about how unbundling the evaluation and recommendation piece might open up more opportunities to start unbundling the actual core educational experience.

If you were able to demonstrate your learning outside of the mandated tests at the school or state level, maybe you could have more options for how to get that learning, how to experience it, and prove it to an outside provider. Another thing that would have to shift is policy, which was number five on our list. Policy would have to be in play to create some of the shifts we see. Along with evaluation, funding policies would need to shift. There are efforts in states about this, which can be quite controversial and politicized. But for unbundling the core function to work at any scale in a community or region, along with the evaluation function moving to something external, the dollars would have to come to families. Not just follow students to their chosen place, but actually be in the hands of families to spend on educational services.

These types of programs, such as traditional voucher programs and education savings accounts (ESAs), usually go to a bundled school experience. They are not driving the unbundling of the core educational experience in any way. I am an informed, interested observer, but because these policies are not driving the unbundling of the core educational experience now, it makes me wonder what would have to happen. It also makes me a bit skeptical that these policy solutions will lead to an unbundling of the core experience. 

Let me say a little about why I think that is. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. There aren’t sufficient choices for families to take advantage of in core educational opportunities. That includes the core academic experience and character-building experiences, the social learning aspect. Even if I got my money directly from the state, I don’t have enough options to spend it on in sufficient quantity to choose among them. I am likely to choose a bundled experience that is better than what I had but may not allow me to unbundle.

Unbundling shifts a lot of non-financial costs to families. If I don’t have that bundled experience to go to, I am responsible for putting things together. I might not have the time or interest in doing that, even if I do have the resources. You can imagine other providers growing up that could play that orchestration or concierge role among some online experiences and some local, regional, and state providers. That’s super interesting. The biggest barrier is it flies in the face of our concept of school as the place we go, where our kids go, and where we get everything we need or most of what we need. But there’s something compelling about the idea.

As more choice options emerge in states where there is a financial and policy component, the long-term aspiration of what it could be if we unbundled evaluation, unbundled the money, and had some incentives in the communities for the options to arise based on the science of learning, are clear about what vision they’re educating against, and maybe have chunks—maybe I’m not getting reading here and math there and character here—but maybe I’m getting those bundles from a provider and also have options for sports leagues, which already exist. A lot of sports leagues, children’s theater, and those kinds of interests and extracurriculars show much more promise.

What does that hybrid look like? Where we’ve got some bundles validated with the science of learning and an external evaluator? I am more optimistic and less skeptical about that. So, that’s my unbundling piece in the bundled environment. I think we’re seeing some interesting things. Diane and I are on the board of an organization we helped start called Transcend Education. We worried about communities not being engaged in the vision of schooling. Transcend has this amazing process that takes whole communities through to create or unearth the values, wishes, dreams, and intentions of a community against what an educational experience should aim for.

They have built expertise around processes to be on a journey of reinventing your schools and your system of schools in ways that align with that vision, so schools and districts aren’t on their own trying to do that piece. It’s still a bundled experience. The work they’re doing in Texas with lots of districts, for example, Aldine Public Schools, which has 60,000 students and 80 schools, and 90% of the students are economically disadvantaged. There’s this beautiful community-wide process with the help of Transcend as an expert partner.

I’d love to see more Transcends, more capacity for Transcend, and more Transcend-like organizations that can work with systems and schools in their communities. We still need more opportunities for school creation. Diane, you know this better than any of us. When you can have that conversation with a community and create a new school that lives into that vision, is based on the learning science, and isn’t trying to do everything but has agreement on the core things they will do across core academics, character building, and interest-based activities, you’ve got a lot more likelihood of achieving coherence. 

I am distressed by the reduction in new school creation around the country, both with philanthropy and policymakers. In the last 20 years, and even in the eight years I was at New Schools, we helped enough new schools come into existence to serve as many kids as the San Francisco Public Schools and the Boston Public Schools. These interesting models meet community needs, create great results for kids, and have more ability to do it because they’re not burdened with the layering that has gone on over the last 100 years or 40 years or 30 years. I’ve been talking for a long time, so I’ll pause. But we need a vibrant mix of opportunities so more unbundled services can arise, so districts can undertake this with expert support, and we still have new schools opening up that meet these aspirations and provide examples of what’s possible while serving their communities.

Discussing Stacey’s Proposal 

Diane Tavenner: Wow. There’s so much in there. Let me try to pull out a couple of things. I resonated with all of it. One thing I feel is this tension for families. When we talk about family choice and parent choice, there really is only choice at the bundled school level for the most part. That’s as far as we’ve truly gotten.

It’s like you can either pick a whole school for your child, or you can be a homeschooler family. In that case, you’re responsible for everything. Over here, you still have to curate a lot because the school doesn’t generally work in the summer, so you have to curate the summer. Oh, by the way, the holidays don’t match your workdays. It feels a little more steady, so that is very limited choice in my mind. I love that you’re proposing a more doable choice if it’s on a continuum, something more in the middle of this concierge model, these new entities. I think this is an interesting space for new entities to come into where they have a different mindset.

They want people to be able to assemble what works for them and make that easy and doable, without putting the full burden on a parent. Most parents I know have spreadsheets to try to manage summer experiences alone. By the end of summer, I was exhausted. Just put me back in school, even though it’s 8:00 to 3:30, because at least that’s consistent except every other Friday and the holidays, whatever. You know my rant about this. I love that idea paired with ESAs. These are very controversial right now because they’re happening quickly. I think we’re up to maybe eight.

Michael Horn: 14 or 15 states, I think.

Diane Tavenner: Okay. Who have these in motion. There’s probably another ten that are working on them.

Stacey Childress: Texas will likely happen this year.

Michael Horn: Yeah, exactly. There’s a bunch that failed last year, but after the primaries, it will likely pass.

Diane Tavenner: There are people from multiple sides of the political spectrum who don’t like ESAs and are working hard against them. The two primary arguments are, one, accountability—how do we ensure kids are getting quality education, which we all care deeply about—and two, adult reasons. They don’t want money going away from the system, which is sometimes the largest regional employer. There’s more to it than that. I’m not being nuanced, but you know what I’m saying. They’re not thinking about what’s good for families and kids. These systems are far from perfect. Policy is very difficult to write. I don’t want to throw it out because we have a couple of egregious examples of someone using their ESA money to buy a big screen TV and claiming they were showing their kids learning content on it. Not awesome. That’s not the kind of thing we want. We need to learn how we can help people spend this wisely. We need significantly more supply of good science-aligned options and help for them to assemble those options to really take advantage of it.

I hope we can keep moving forward and make this better versus trying to rip this system out. I think we had this intuition when we said we were only going to talk about three topics that we’d end up touching on many more. What I love about what you said is in this vision, it contributes to the mixing of people, socioeconomic mixing and political diversity, which we’re concerned is not existing right now.

A lot of people get afraid when people want to talk about school choice. They’re worried it’s going to cause more polarization. I think this approach has people doing more mixing because you are picking and choosing and engaging with other people. It goes to that big societal intention and hope of our system if we can stick with it and figure it out. What do you think, Michael?

Michael Horn: Yeah, I agree with what you just said. I’ll unintentionally come back to this when I tackle my lever. On the mixing point, when you have dollars that can unbundle the school experience in the way described, you lower the stakes on picking the thing. My guard comes down. I’m worried less about the mix of kids around me and the parents. It becomes a more optimal choice for something different now in these different experiences that contribute to what you just said, the different mixing.

I wrote a piece on how we shouldn’t expect a great unbundling right away. In all markets, customers initially prefer highly proprietary, interdependent bundled offerings because they don’t yet know their preferences and customization they want. We don’t have any experience as a society for the most part outside of homeschoolers and increasingly hybrid homeschoolers in picking and choosing and thinking outside of a school frame of reference.

It’s not surprising that you look at the state of Florida with its education savings accounts. The majority of those dollars go to full school tuitions. What’s interesting is if you look at Florida over time, fewer dollars are going to tuition. I had a conversation recently with someone in Utah, and they were seeing the same trend. That’s starting to change. The big thing is now we need the supply side of the market to catch up. We need more good school operators in there.

We need more concierge-type services and more one-offs in the ways we can imagine. What’s exciting is I don’t see a way to incentivize what Diane was talking about in her first point unless we go in this direction. Otherwise, you’re asking a school to somehow pay out money to an external validator. They’re not going to want to lose those dollars. If it’s the kids and the parents saying, “I want to validate that Michael learned how to do X and show evidence of it,” and it’s dollars that I get to control in a wallet, it’s greatly preferable to vouchers or tax credit scholarships, which I don’t think accomplish any of what we’re talking about.

Stacey Childress: So you’re saying ESAs as a preference?

Michael Horn: Strong preference. I think the other two are not. They do several things wrong. They don’t force me, as the individual, to think about value trade-offs in terms of saving the money for different offerings. When I think about Diane’s vision of separate places to validate what I’ve mastered or learned or accomplished, you can imagine in the professional world, there’s the CFA, CPA. There are longstanding credentialing bodies that we pay for to show mastery. 

You can imagine a flourishing of supply-side options that start to do the same thing. Colleges, employers, apprenticeship programs start to say that’s a valuable signal. That’s how we start to get around some of the accountability concerns in the longer run, by this flourishing. We have talked about the challenges with philanthropy in this country. We may find a time to come back to this topic. This calls for real patient capital to seed this marketplace and acknowledge that it’s not going to all come together at once and be comfortable with a messy transition as we get there. Diane gave one example of messy, where there’s going to be some bad spending, as though that never happens in districts today. There will be a messy transition of us trying to figure out how to do this in a way that doesn’t overstress parents and comes together. It’s not going to be an overnight process. It’s very grassroots, what you just described.

Stacey Childress: Yeah, it’s interesting. We’ll kind of wrap up on this one based on your reflections, both of you. I do want to say I think I might be a little more skeptical than I hear the two of you being about our shared ambition for socioeconomic diversity and racial diversity in the choices that emerge. I often say, if I had more confidence in my fellow man, I’d be a libertarian. If I had more confidence in my government, I’d be a liberal. If I had more confidence in my church, I’d be a conservative. So I actually don’t know where I fit on all of these.

I’m not sure. I think where I get a nagging sense that the critics are likely right about this is that I don’t know if, left to our own devices with ESAs as currently conceived in the policy frameworks, we’re likely to get less isolation rather than more. If I had to lean one way or another, I’d say we’re not likely to get more equity. I’m not certain about that. It could happen, but I’m not certain in the current climate and conception. But I do think it’s interesting to consider ESA policy provisions that don’t squelch their vibrancy and goodness but include some thinking about the great American experiment. It could be an interesting addition to the thinking.

Michael Horn: It’s a great point, Stacey, and I don’t think Diane or I want to sound pollyannish on this. I’m putting words in your mouth, Diane, but I guess what I would say, and increasingly have felt, is the current way we’re doing it isn’t accomplishing it. So I’m willing to take a gamble.

Stacey Childress: Yeah, totally. No, I’m not certain. You guys know me. I’m not defending the status as better.

Diane Tavenner: No.

Michael Horn: I think it’s an important caveat, though, that you introduced.

Stacey Childress: Yeah.

Michael Horn: Yeah.

Diane Tavenner: I think this is a nice segue into, Michael, the element you’ve picked to unpack and provide hope and solutions for. But I just want to mark, I feel like the three of us should take an action item out of this conversation so far. We have this privilege of engaging with a lot of, whether they be your students at the university level or young people, at least younger than us, who are very entrepreneurial and ambitious. There is such significant opportunity right now to conceive of new nonprofits or for-profits to create the supply that is so needed here. So I think we should all take, not that we don’t already, but even extra care in nurturing and encouraging that type of entrepreneurship going forward. I just gave you an action item, Michael.

Michael’s Proposal: Teaching Character and Values

Michael Horn: The best meeting is one where you assign someone else to work. Okay, so let’s jump in. She’s good at it. The one that I picked was the character values bucket. It was our second bucket yesterday, and it was, to use Diane’s words, more macro than the social bullet that fell under the core education that, Stacey, you just tackled. To remind people, there were three big pillars we talked about yesterday. One was the basic norms and values of living with other people in society together, preparing people for adulthood.

So something we often call habits of success. I’ve adopted Diane’s language on this. Character, though certainly in the now sunsetting Character Lab, has used that phrase to encompass a lot of these characteristics. And then thirdly, being a participating member of a democratic society. The observation I made is that the public school system in many ways got its start around this particular purpose of inculcating, and I’ll use that word intentionally, democratic values in the populace. The first question, can it be unbundled? I’ll lead with what, in a lot of our worlds, would be the controversial statement: of course it can, because parents are the first teachers. There’s that observation, but that’s not where I want to sit with my thoughts, because I know a lot of families, and to your equity concerns, Stacey, that’s not the entry point.

Where I want to go is a different starting point. Yes, that’s part of this possibility and part of the fabric. But what I want to say is, in our conversation yesterday, the flip side we observed is that while there’s significant polarization and arguments against certain character education, there’s actually a lot of commonality in the populace around what we agree the centerpieces of these things are. I can’t remember the exact number I said, but there’s a lot of agreement. It’s interesting that in education savings accounts, there’s a lot of agreement at the population level that they’re popular. It’s just the politicians that don’t necessarily agree, which is interesting.

My observation is that there are two ways to approach creating a common set of democratic values, civic values, and values of how we conduct ourselves in a society with people we may or may not agree with. One is a top-down approach, almost like the Common Core approach, which aims to get alignment. The challenge I’ve observed is you get a lot of energy around what’s in and what’s out, and you get a lot of anger on either side that often erodes consensus. The controversial point I want to push forward is that if we took an unbundling approach, very much like what you said, Stacey, in our previous conversation about how each school community comes together and has this conversation around its purpose, and we trust that most Americans have these central values they want their kids to learn, we can get 80% of the results with 20% of the effort. This might be the most productive way to move us forward on these things we really care about in a grassroots way, rather than spending 80% of the energy trying to get the 20% to fall in line. 

I get it, it doesn’t solve everything, but we’re not solving everything at the moment either. An 80-20 rule that takes some of the tension out of the culture wars would be a really important way to go. I think education savings accounts are an interesting way to approach this. I can start to opt into school communities, and I’m going to trust that families are going to make choices where they’re making sure that, for the most part, 80% of the population is saying, “I want my kids to understand the promise of the American dream, acknowledge the dark parts of our history, and strive for a more perfect union.” These values are integrated into these experiences.

I think this approach will open us up to a lot of innovation in terms of form factors and how it integrates. I really like your observation, Stacey, that we’ll rebundle the content with the character as we unbundle other things. One question I’d love you both to reflect on, in addition to the stuff you react to, is that starting with Diane’s point, we’re going to do a lot for increasing agency in this country. We’re going to do an incredible amount, and that’s really important to thriving and having people feel better about themselves. I think the two questions we should worry about and think about are coherence among experiences, which goes to the concierge, but also content and things of that nature. 

The second question, which has been on my mind lately as we’ve watched things unfold across college campuses, is how we embed a sense of humility in kids. How do we make sure they know they’re still learning and don’t know everything? The one nagging worry I have is when I see so many great interest-based school communities thriving, kids are picking things they’re excited about. But when is the thing that says to them, “You don’t know X, and that’s okay”? Are we modeling things that introduce some uncertainty where they get the feedback that they can do, but also the humility to say, “I don’t know everything”? I don’t know if that’s well articulated, but that’s the one thing on my mind at the moment. I’ll kick it to you all for reactions.

Discussing Michael’s Proposal 

Stacey Childress: Go ahead, Diane.

Diane Tavenner: Okay. Still processing those questions. As you were talking, Michael, and listening to this whole conversation, here’s what’s coming up for me. First of all, I can imagine what you’re proposing, because like Stacey said, Transcend does this work. I did this work with Summit Learning for a number of years. I had the privilege of working with communities in just the type of experience you’re talking about. It was fascinating and amazing.

Diane Tavenner: Communities really did come together and identify what they thought the purpose of education was. There was huge agreement, and it was a powerful experience. I could imagine this, and I’ve seen it with Transcend and others. What was coming up for me is we’re at a point in time where the public has lost trust in most institutions in our country. Trust in institutions is at the lowest level we’ve seen in a long time. I hear this all the time, “I don’t trust, I don’t trust, I don’t trust. You don’t have my trust. You’ve broken my trust. Trust, trust, trust, trust, trust.” In my experience, the only way to build trust is to do meaningful, authentic work together, which builds trust. People often say, “We have to communicate better to build trust.” I don’t believe that at all. Communication is important, but it is not the pathway to building trust.

It’s truly working together and building relationships over meaningful work. This is such a powerful idea that every school community can do. Every school community in the country is doing some sort of community engagement, whether through their accreditation, strategic planning process, or federally or locally mandated committees of parents that do work. Most of the time, that is not meaningful, authentic work that builds trust. It is box-checking, perfunctory, rubber-stamping. What if we took those existing opportunities and flipped them into true dialogues and consensus-building around what the purpose of education is? What do we actually share together, and how are we going to build that? I think that’s a very doable thing within the existing system that would go a significant way towards the vision you’re talking about and building the trust we need. Let me pause there with my reaction and turn to Stacey. I will gather my thoughts around your good provocative reflection questions.

Stacey Childress: Yeah, and Michael, I want to pick up on your powerful insight about the challenges with top-down approaches at any level, but especially at the national level. They are destined for disappointment. Even though I joked about different political philosophies, I trust people with their own choices, especially parents making decisions for their kids and families. Since I joked about it, I want to make sure that’s clear. What I love about what you said, Michael, is because we trust that, and because we know top-down approaches are probably not going to be all that good anyway, and we’re allergic to them as Americans, where real trust is built is on the ground, doing meaningful work together. If we give up trying to get national consensus, we’re going to get it at the ground level. Where people are together every day, showing up at school or other educational options, in the grocery store, in their churches, and at community activities, they agree on 80% of important things.

If the locus of shifting to a vision of learning and education that works better for kids and sets them up for long-term community living, self-sustainability, following their dreams, and being strong and productive members of our democratic society, starts where they live today, tomorrow, and 20 years from now, where we actually experience all the dynamism of being part of a pluralistic society and a functioning democracy is in our neighborhoods. I love what you said, Michael. If we ever do have the conversation about philanthropy, I think this is where we miss big time. We’re looking for scale and things that can work everywhere, but scale is healthy communities doing strong work together. That leads to clarity about shared values and a vision for how to help the next generation build towards those values. As Michael said, “Yes, I’m capable of everything, but right now, I don’t know everything.” What are the habits of mind, skills, and habits of success that lead to that possibility at the micro level for every young person, at the building level for every school, at the community level for groups of families in schools, and then it builds up from there without feeling like we have to have national fights and mandates. I think we’ll be much more successful moving from the smaller level to a larger agreement if we’re talking to each other in our communities and neighborhoods.

Diane Tavenner: Awesome. Maybe I’ll say a quick word on your provocation around humility in kids. I’ll leave the coherence aside and just say two words: Swiss cheese in the existing system. There’s no coherence given the way it is. On humility, here’s what came to me: the habits of success and the building blocks pyramid we often reference. One of the top building blocks is curiosity. Underneath humility is curiosity. We can cultivate that because it feels impossible to lack humility if you are truly curious. What I see across our country, and it’s not just young people, is a lot of people who act like they know everything and are not curious about other people’s perspectives, lived experiences, or what knowledge they may or may not have. As a K12 educator, I believe curiosity is something you can cultivate.

There’s debate about whether you can teach it, but there’s a whole suite of skills around it that curate that approach and mindset. That is where, and I would put that under both of your buckets, core education and values, character education. Working with communities across the country, curiosity often comes up as a value they care deeply about in developing young people.

Michael Horn: Well, maybe as we transition out of this to our final segment of the show, I’ll just say you gave me a lot more faith. Thank you. That was a very helpful answer. The other thing that occurs to me, hearing both of your reflections about the declining trust and faith in institutions and that there’s humility in recognizing we don’t know the individual circumstances of every single community and family. As my co-author in “Choosing College,” Bob Mesta, likes to say when he does the jobs to be done research, you can’t imagine someone’s job to be done from a kitchen table. You have to go out and shoot the movie of them living to figure out what their circumstances are. There’s no way to create blanket statements or policy that covers all those unique circumstances. I appreciate y’all digging in on this.

Ƶ Recommendations

Michael Horn: As we wrap up, I hope everyone’s enjoyed it as well. We get to return to the segment we know a lot of people enjoy and have even created tracking lists around. You don’t know this, Stacey, but our recommendations for books or things that we’re watching, reading, or listening to. We’ll give Stacey a moment. Diane, why don’t you go first, then Stacey, and I’ll wrap us.

Diane Tavenner: I’m happy to go first. Some folks might not know that I actually lived in LA for about ten years a long time ago and lived in close proximity to the Academy Awards show every year. I used to be an avid follower but have sort of fallen off. This year my husband and I watched all ten Best Picture nominees for the 2024 awards from last year. I have been pleasantly surprised. What a spectacular lineup. There are the big banner movies like “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie,” but there are so many gems in that list. We had such an enjoyable time watching all of those films.

If you want a movie list, pick those ten and go through it. It’s hard to pick a favorite. I love “The Holdovers,” which provides commentary on schooling and education. I love “American Fiction,” and I really loved “Past Lives.” It’s such a beautiful, nuanced film that is incredible. It’s a reminder that I don’t think it would be made in America. It’s not a film we would make here. What a gift of a global community to share such a beautiful film.

Michael Horn: Very cool. Stacey?

Stacey Childress: Yes. I have not seen “Past Lives,” and I’m always a sucker for a movie about a school. So I also loved “The Holdovers.” I recently finished the book called “Hello, Beautiful.” It’s about four sisters in Chicago. I’m the oldest of four sisters, and the title comes from what their dad would say to them when he saw them: “Hello, beautiful.” It follows them from their late teens, early twenties into their early fifties. It’s wonderfully written and beautiful, but it’s also really hard. They are very close, but as they go on their life’s journeys, things happen, and sometimes people don’t live up to high standards. There are breaks in relationships, and then suddenly you’re in your early fifties looking back, wondering where all the time went and missing your family. It was not what I thought it was going to be, and I really loved it. So, “Hello, Beautiful.”

Last time you guys invited me on, I was so excited about the Astros. Then the season started, and the Yankees showed up in town and literally punched them in the face, swept them in four games, and they had a hard time recovering. They are off to their worst start since 1969 when I was four years old. I’m hanging in there with my guys, but it is really hard. It’s really hard.

Michael Horn: Well, you’ve had a run of success that most places would be envious of. We’re spoiled. I’ll wrap us. I love all these. I thought, Diane, you had routinely watched all the Best Pictures, so this was a learning for me. I finally kicked back into overdrive and started reading a bunch of books. I’ll pick out “The Three-Body Problem.” It sent me and a few others said I had to read it. Now it’s on Netflix as well. But I read the book first, and it definitely made me think. It made me ponder a bunch of scientific concepts, as good science fiction should. It also freaked me out a little bit. It hit all the points.

Diane Tavenner: Are you going for number two and three? Because that is a trilogy, Michael, my son’s favorite all-time trilogy.

Michael Horn: Is that right? We’ll talk offline about how I’m thinking about it. We’ll leave it there. Thank you for joining us on yet another epic episode. We’ll see you all next time on Class Disrupted. Bye.

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