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LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E16: Rethinking College for All

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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 Apple Podcasts,Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every other Tuesday).

In their final episode exploring the themes of meritocracy and education, Diane Tavenner and Michael Horn describe the rethinking that has gone on in education around the college-for-all movement and suggest a path forward that learns from the past.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane Tavenner: Hey, Michael.

Michael Horn: Hey, Diane. How are you?

Tavenner: Michael, it’s amazing to see you here, but also in person this week. The few times it’s happened always make me realize how very much I’ve missed seeing people in real life.

Horn: Indeed, and seeing you right back after your trip to Germany. Well, actually, that provided some fodder for future episodes as we were pow wowing, but we’ll come to that later, I suppose. Right, Diane?

Tavenner: We will come back to that, because Michael, we launched this podcast at the start of the pandemic as a way to — well, I mean, to try to surface the opportunities we have from what is turning out to be a prolonged and, quite frankly, pretty terrible experience across the board. We, of course, had no idea at the start that we’d still be talking well into a third season and a third school year that’s been disrupted by the pandemic.

Horn: Absolutely, Diane. Certainly had no idea. And much like what we both want in schools and learning, this podcast obviously has evolved to a place where we’re now both following our own curiosity, and today is no exception. It’s a topic that we want to talk about that I know you’ve been doing some really deep reflection on and that’s been brewing for some time as we’ve been talking about it. But it’s really coming to light really throughout all the conversations on schools right now. So I’ll let you introduce it, and then we can jump in.

Tavenner: Great. So Michael, over the last few episodes, we’ve really been going deep on the idea of meritocracy and then thinking about it in the context of both selective high schools and then selective college admissions. And so today, we’re going to dig into yet just one more dimension of the intersection of meritocracy in college. And this topic is what most people are referring to as the College for All movement.

Horn: Absolutely. That’s right, Diane. And this will sort of cap our four-part miniseries, I suppose, on meritocracy. But I would argue that College for All has its origins somewhere in the 1990s, and I’ll just name a few things that I think are sort of the beginnings of what then became a full-blown strategy around reforming high school, really. And if we go back to the ’90s, the basic idea is that what started to become very evident is actually a trend that started in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Basically, we started seeing that people with bachelor’s degrees made more money, they were more employable. The nature of the economy itself started to change through globalization and technology. And that really, at the simplest level as a country, you needed a bachelor’s degree to have access to middle class and above jobs.

And against that backdrop, you could say that college attainment was, to say the least, incredibly uneven, right? We know all the dividers that that sort of manifests itself in. People with more wealth, more likely to go to school, more likely to complete, more likely to have bachelor’s degrees, and therefore, more likely to continue to have access to these good jobs that produce good wages. Those who are low income, often from underrepresented minorities, tend to have less access to those opportunities. And so at the same time, there are a bunch of educators, policymakers, philanthropists, trying to figure out, “How do we get more low income and historically underrepresented students ready for and then into college?” And Diane, I think you were one of those educators.

Tavenner: Guilty as charged, Michael. I was, indeed. In the early ’90s, I started teaching at what later becomes referred to as a “dropout factory.” I think we like to name things later after they’ve happened. And this dropout factory was in Los Angeles. I spent five years basically, what felt like beating my head against the wall, trying to create classes and programs and writing grants and doing all sorts of things with this sort of band of really dedicated teachers who were trying to create opportunities that would enable our students to become college ready.

And like so many, I was really disillusioned by that experience, and I almost left the profession. Fortunately, we moved to the Bay Area and I found a high school that was working to open access to AP and honors courses for all students. That probably sounds kind of funny and weird to people now, but this is the evidence of this sort of movement that has happened. And in a bid to give access to college, this was one of the first entryways that people saw, like, well, you have to take the classes that are going to get you accepted to college.

Here’s a fun fact, Michael. People probably don’t remember or know that the first sort of high school ranking list that we now find in The Washington Post and Newsweek and all of those places was actually in a book, a book written by Jay Mathews, who’s sort of the founder of these lists in many ways. And the school that I ended up going to teach in and then become an administrator in was on that very first list in this book. And I thought, “This is where I want to be. We can really make some progress here.”

Horn: I do remember those early lists from Jay well, I think once they jumped into Newsweek initially. But I’m curious, what happened next, Diane?

Tavenner: Well, Michael, we made progress. We opened access to AP and honors courses, and we did start to see more and more students enrolling in college qualifying programs. And I spent five years working on that as both a teacher and an administrator, and it was good work. It was meaningful. It felt like the right work. We were learning a lot. But it, at the same time, felt incredibly slow, and I just was starting to learn and see all of the structural barriers that I believed were ultimately going to prevent us from reaching the goal. And that goal became very crystal clear by then, which is, we need to prepare every single high school student to not only graduate from high school, but to be accepted to a four-year college.

Horn: And I would say there it is, Diane, right? That’s the birth of College for All. And there’s this moment, or probably more accurate, a decade where a bunch of people, really together, you’re all rowing in the same water, so to speak, develop a really rational hypothesis that the way to bring equity to our K-12 system is to ensure that every single student graduates from high school and that they’re qualified to go to a four-year college.

Tavenner: Absolutely, Michael. And at the very same time, the first charter schools are becoming enabled in law. And I think this is a really important, sort of pivotal moment, because as you know, this becomes my story. I fully believe in the hypothesis. And I felt like we as the field, if you will, knew how to design and operate high schools that could in fact prepare every single student regardless of their prior preparation or background for college.

My experience taught me that we were just being bogged down and thwarted by the systems and structures that seemed unmovable in our existing schools, the very same things that we’ve spent the entire of this podcast discussing. And so the prospect of starting a school from scratch without any of those burdens and with an incredibly clear outcome was… I mean, I’ll be honest. It was irresistible for someone like me who wanted to move fast and get impact and have outcomes. It became my mission, and it literally has been my mission for 20 years. And as you said, I was not alone. So many other folks were doing this.

Horn: No, you weren’t, right? Yeah. No, you weren’t. And you and many others… Let’s be honest. You succeeded in that mission, right? You changed the narrative that this was possible for students to succeed in school, frankly, without other conditions dramatically changing throughout the rest of society. And here we are two decades plus later, and you all accomplished large portions of what you set out to do.

Tavenner: And…

Horn: And…

Tavenner: It didn’t work out exactly as we had hypothesized. And so that’s what we’re here to talk about. And what happened was, Michael, schools like mine and many others really succeeded in getting many more students accepted to college, and in most cases, all of the students going to our schools, which was really transformational, and I do believe completely changed the narrative in this country around college. And we learned that there are so many barriers once the students leave us and go into college. Many of those are financial barriers on so many different levels. And what we discovered is that they became blockers to completion of college.

And so in the beginning, people like me thought, “Oh, the ticket is to get students accepted to a four-year college. And if we do that, the rest will take care of itself.” And what we didn’t realize is that they weren’t going to make it through college because of all of these challenges and blockers. And so a lot of people over the last couple of decades have been working hard to follow their students to college or figure out… Like us, we took the approach of like, “What more can we do to prepare students so that they can be successful once they get there?” And there has been an extraordinary amount of effort and energy around that over the last, at least decade, as those of us who really had this hypothesis started to recognize that we were sending students out there and they weren’t all completing.

What that looks like in the big picture, Michael, is that the country has dramatically increased college entrance, and you know this better than I do for sure, but completion is pretty flat. And I don’t know that we’ve moved the needle on that, given all of this effort. And that really, there’s so many unintended consequences of that, but the one that is becoming increasingly important is that that means that a number of people leave college without a degree, but with debt. And so this is the double whammy here. Not only did you not get the degree that unlocks the opportunities, but now you’re paying for something that’s not worth anything.

Horn: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right, Diane. I mean, the way I always say it is, taking out debt is actually not a bad investment as long as you complete and get the lift from that degree. But if you don’t complete and you have debt, you’re actually often worse off, because you don’t get that earnings bump in the market. The market doesn’t recognize the credits you’ve made toward a degree. It tends to recognize a degree. That’s changing somewhat right now, but not dramatically.

And you have all this overhang now, these payments, and often it’s not a lot of money in sort of absolute terms, but relative to your income, it is a lot, and it is a burden that is really hard to overcome. And I think it’s fair to say, Diane, that, as you said, higher ed writ large has not been able to meet this moment and evolve to create a value proposition for all, regardless of your walk of life, regardless of preparation and so forth. And so just to call it out so people are really explicit, over 40% of students who enter a four-year degree program have not graduated after six years.

Tavenner: Yeah. Yeah.

Horn: That’s almost half, right, of students do not graduate within six years. I remember you looking at your own statistics of your students that haven’t graduated. You were above the national average, and it was still a relatively… For you, it felt like an unacceptable rate. And I think this is not a good picture, right? Now, here’s the other piece of it. If you’re well-off, you’re in the top quartile or quintile of economic background, wealth in this country, then the number is like 77% or something like that graduate within six years. That means a quarter of well-off students are still not graduating. And if you’re in the bottom income quintile, it’s only 11% are graduating within six years. That’s abominable when you think about it.

And I would argue the other piece of this is, we also know that we have this underemployment problem, which is that increasingly, students who do graduate, they get jobs for which they don’t need the bachelor’s degree. Which maybe that’s not problematic for your first job in theory. We all took some of those first jobs that didn’t pay particularly well and whatever else. But what we’re learning is that for a great number of those individuals, when they get in the work workplace, if you undermatch in your first job, you keep undermatching all the way into at least you’re five years out and so forth, and that has a significant drain on your future earnings. So I just think colleges writ large, and there are some exceptions, but writ large, they just haven’t met this moment for society or individuals, Diane.

Tavenner: Michael, you can probably see my face as you’re rattling off all of those statistics, which I know and I feel and I live every single day, and they’re so painful. And I think it’s an important moment where we just pause right here, because you and I both believe that it’s unhealthy to sort of regret or blame, and we are not doing this episode to do that. We’re doing this episode because we think it’s really important to understand what has happened, where we’ve come from, what the hypothesis was, what the good was, what the unintended outcomes were, and then, quite frankly, to pivot.

And I don’t regret what we’ve done, but I hold myself accountable in this moment for now understanding where we are and not continuing to try to do the same thing that we know isn’t working, or isn’t working in the fullest way that we want it to. And so it’s time. It’s time to shift. And what I think we want to talk about is the way that the shift is starting to materialize in the direction that seems to be in the right direction. And we also want to learn from what we’ve just talked about and bring those learnings into this next phase to get better.

Horn: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right, Diane. And I’ll just plus one, if you will, what you just said about not viewing it as a mistake, per se, but really a learning moment, which is what we all ought to be doing anyway. But also, Clay Christensen always said, “A good theory is one that’s circumstance-based.” When you’re in a particular circumstance, you do X. And when you’re in a different circumstance, you do Y. And frankly, the circumstances have changed in the knowledge economy, and degrees aren’t even what they used to be in many cases.

So I think what we’re seeing right now is that the pendulum is swinging very dramatically back to what it was before the College for All movement. And this is an emphasis on high schools having what’s now called career and technical education, and leading to more career and technical degrees and industry certifications and things like that. Prior to the College for All movement, back in the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s, this would be called voc-ed, right?

Tavenner: Yes.

Horn: And let’s be honest, right? This is something that a lot of people, historically, they wanted to run away from. This is just to further amplify that what you all did wasn’t a mistake. In many cases, these voc-ed tracks were tracks based on someone’s race or background or gender or things of that nature, not their promise or what was the right path for them personally. And so we’re seeing this pendulum swing back, but I think there’s some genuine concerns about, how do we manage this as an and, not an or sort of situation between these two poles that we’ve had?

Tavenner: I think you’re exactly right. And again, guilty as charged, Michael. I was one of those people literally running away from what I saw as an incredibly oppressive and inequitable system that just put basically all the students that I ever taught into dead end tracks, there’s no way, that weren’t going anywhere. And so I didn’t see benefit from it, and so in fact, everything we did was in the other direction. And so I think that’s a really important place to start, and it’s probably surprising to some folks that I now am one of those people who thinks we should be moving in this direction. So how is that possible given that sort of history?

And I think where I’m starting in on this is with this kind of mantra of, beware of the past, be knowledgeable of the past, be clear about the past, but we can’t be afraid of it. And so we can’t simply just rule out this direction because of what has happened previously. And I do think there are some very legitimate worries, and as a result, some people literally aren’t even willing to have a conversation about this yet, and this being were bringing back an approach and an emphasis on career and technical learning and certifications and knowledge.

I am not one of those people. I think that everyone who knows and understands the history needs to be involved here so that we can rewrite that history into a future that is different. And I also think that we really need to recognize all the things we’ve been talking about on this podcast, Michael. It’s a totally different world. We have very different tools now. We have very different options and opportunities, and we need to bring all of those to bear on this next set of solutions and our next hypothesis, if you will.

Horn: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s exactly right, Diane. And it’s a good place to start to lean in on how we might sketch these solutions so we don’t repeat either of the past mistakes, because we are all about the solutions. And I know we both have definite thoughts here. I’ll jump off, and then I’m really curious what you’ve been noodling on and how you all have been framing it at Summit. But I will say that I am hearing some of the conversations be like, “Hey, certain people academically just aren’t going to cut it in college. Let’s get them into the career and technical education track sooner rather than later.”

I think I have a different take from that one, which is that I hear that, but I think actually everyone in high school and even earlier, middle school… And frankly, there’s a great district outside San Diego where we just both were, Cajon Valley School District that does it as early as elementary school, where all students are intentionally exposed to a range of careers. They learn what’s involved in being in those careers, like what will it take academically to get to do those? What does the day to day look like? They get to connect to real mentors and people in the field to build their social capital, which we know is incredibly inequitably distributed across our society.

And they start to understand, “What are my aptitudes, what are my strengths? And if I might want to go do something, what does that then mean,” so that the students themselves can make this intentional choice of, “Gee, I want to double down on the academic track and go hardcore calculus because college is the right thing for me to, say, go do organic chemistry and become a doctor,” versus, “Gee, actually, I want to go take this very different path that looks at statistics and data science and things of that nature, because that’s the pathway I want to go. And by the way, I’m probably going to go to a bootcamp after I leave high school and then take an industry certification from Google or something like that and get a job in one of those fields.” I’m making this up a little bit, Diane, but basically, just as we’ve talked about the importance of students having agency and building that in them, I’d rather students were making this choice from an informed perspective than the guidance counselor or schools judging the student based on what they have seen so far.

Tavenner: Michael, I couldn’t agree with you more, and I think we keep coming back to the same theme of our belief in student agency and self-direction and ownership. And I think this is a criteria for moving forward. And I think that historically what has happened is people try to protect students. I think they don’t believe, or they’re skeptical that you could actually expose kids to things and let them explore and that they can make good decisions. And you and I just believe more in kids and believe it’s very possible, and also believe that, again, we have new tools and opportunities that we didn’t have before that make this possible. And so… I want to add on another one, and this is just going to put a point on something we’ve been discussing for a couple of years now, which is, these are not totally different experiences in elementary, middle, and high school. The bottom line is, the stuff we’ve been talking about now over and over and over again, the universal skills, the habits of success, the key knowledge, these are the same things that an 18-year-old would need in order to go into a career track as into college. So there is significant overlap when this is done well, and so it’s not like you’re dividing kids up and they’re having totally different experiences and learning totally different things.

In fact, there is huge overlap, and we can educate everyone, to your point, collectively and prepare them and equip them with the skills and the habits that are going to help them be successful not only in college, but career. And this has been one of the problems that we’ve been encountering, is that we haven’t been doing that, and we weren’t doing that, so they weren’t prepared for either of those, truly. And so I think just building on that strength and recognizing that. And that is very different from what we saw in those earlier decades that you were referring to, where they truly were completely separate and not getting access to equitable sets of skills or knowledge or habits.

Horn: 100%. And I guess just two last thoughts on this from me, Diane, which is, one, something that we’ve talked a lot about in this podcast is the promise of personalization. And I think this comes into this part here in sort of two ways. One, the promise of personalization and using technology to personalize means that we actually don’t have to make these judgements about you’re a this track and you’re a that track in a very ironclad way, because I can be learning just math, and if all of sudden something triggers in me and I get super excited and I want to go deep down the academics, great. Because we’re mastery-based, I can keep going down that path.

And then all of a sudden I might hit a fork and say, “Actually, this…” For me, it was, as you know, in college, multivariable calc, hit a road and was never going to get past it. I could go a different direction, right? And so I think personalization breaks apart a lot of these old trade-offs that we had to make in the traditional system, and technology is an aid in that. And then the second point I would just say is, less people think this is only going to benefit, say, students from low-income backgrounds.

I think I’ve said this on the podcast before, but me growing up in a middle income household in Washington, D.C. in the Beltway, I knew of basically two or three career pathways in the world, law, I guess doctors, and then people in government, basically. I didn’t know what engineers were. I didn’t understand what scientists did. I didn’t know any of those things. And I, frankly, think that that was to the detriment. It worked out OK, as we’ve said, but it was to the detriment when I got to college and didn’t understand any of those possible pathways. I clearly would’ve benefited, many people clearly would benefit from a clearer exposure, a more intentional exposure to all these pathways and opportunities earlier in a systematic way.

Tavenner: Undoubtedly, Michael. And I’m so glad that you made that point, because it’s 100% true that we know what is immediately familiar and around us, right? And unless you actually have a system that is dedicated to providing pretty expansive exposure, pretty expansive opportunities for people to explore and then go deep and pursue, as you just said. And it’s interesting thinking about you and knowing you now and all the things that you love and care about and are interested in doing. And I’m thinking about you in a multivariable calculus, and it’s like, that could not be a worse fit, truly. But it’s what you knew and what you were supposed to do and what you thought was the right thing.

Horn: Exactly.

Tavenner: And so what we want for everyone… And just imagine a world where everyone actually is able to be exposed to a huge swath of possibilities and opportunities and really come to know themselves and explore them and then find their thing. That’s the world I want to live in. That is truly the world that I want to live in, and for everyone. No one should be miserable doing something because they just didn’t know about it. And I’m so glad you brought up technology there, because to me, technology really is a fundamental game changer in this particular space.

I mean, when you’re talking about a teacher in a classroom, in a school, in a community, how in the world would you provide these exposure opportunities without having the connections of technology in the world available in your classroom? How could a school do that? How could a community do that? But it is possible now, and this is where I think we need to really embrace. This is the place that technology can be incredibly powerful and useful, and it’s totally underutilized right now.

Horn: Amen. I think that’s a great place to leave our solution set, to allow people to start visioning what this could be, because we both think there’s a ton of opportunity here to learn from the past and create opportunities for all that allow all to succeed. So I’m curious. Before we leave, Diane, what are you reading or watching outside of education that we can all enjoy?

Tavenner: Well, as I think you know, Michael, I’m addicted to books, so I buy a lot of books and sometimes don’t read them. So I have this shelf of unread books that I was going through, and I discovered this book I bought several years ago called A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka. I think I said that incorrectly. I apologize. And so of course, given where we are in this moment in time, I had to pull that off the shelf, and it was a delightful, novel read that really actually explored not only familial and human relationships, especially of immigrants, but of Ukraine too, rooted in the culture of Ukraine. And of course now, when I read this book now, I actually recognize all of the towns and the cities and the places, sadly, that I wouldn’t have known six weeks ago or so. It’s delightful and a really interesting insight into that country and culture.

Horn: Well, I will throw it on my list, then, a burgeoning list. But keeping in that way, actually, the one that I read was inspired by you. You had read recently, reread a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude. I had read Love in the Time of Cholera, but I had not read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Did it over our spring break vacation. It was wonderful escapism reading and just very interesting to see the recurring patterns of a family written through fiction that has continued to have me thinking. Normally I like reading books by myself, but this is one where I would’ve liked the book club, Diane. So with that note, I will say thanks to all of you for joining us on Class Disrupted. We’ll see you next time.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator, innovator, and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life. 

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