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LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E19: Are Older Students Fixed in Their Abilities?

Why the traditional education system perpetuates this flawed belief

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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 this episode, Michael brings Diane a puzzle. A reader recently pushed back on an assertion in his upcoming book, From Reopen to Reinvent, that “fixed grouping of children by perceived ability… narrows opportunities,” by suggesting that older students are, in fact, relatively fixed in their abilities. In turn, Diane unpacks what’s behind the statement and why the traditional education system perpetuates this flawed belief.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane Tavenner: Hey, Michael.

Michael Horn: Hey Diane. Do you realize that when people listen to this episode, it’ll be after Memorial Day? Which means we’re coming down the home stretch of the school year over the next few weeks, and swimming pools are open, and summer is just around the corner.

Tavenner: And wow, what a year it’s been, Michael. Far more exhausting and trying than I think most of us expected, heading into this third school year disrupted by the pandemic. And of course, a lot of the challenges that have been caused by the pandemic have been exacerbated by our existing education system.

And, Michael, that’s really why we started this podcast. We wanted to help explain so many of the challenges in the present education system, and then highlight the opportunities to do things so much better for all students in coming out of this crisis.

And this year we wanted to take our curiosity and follow it, to ask questions around why things in the education system work the way they do. Why have we had these struggles? And we didn’t just want to ask why questions, but we also wanted to get into the how, and the what, and the where, and the when and the who as well.

Horn: Yeah. And Diane, as we come to the end of this, our third season of Class Disrupted, we only have one more episode after this. But for today I have a puzzle that I wanted to bring to you.

Tavenner: Oh, OK. Sure, go ahead. What’s on your mind?

Horn: Yeah. Well so, as you know, and some of the listeners know, I have a new book coming out called From Reopen To Reinvent. And as you know in particular, it’s based on a lot of the themes that we’ve covered in this podcast, and this just deep urge to make sure we don’t slide back into our normal routines of schooling. And do something that really starts to create the structures that would actually serve all students well.

So the book comes out in July. But Diane, I started to get some reactions from a few folks that I’ve shown early parts of it to. And one of the push backs really caught me off guard and surprised me. And I just needed to, I started saying, I need to go to Diane and get her take on it.

Tavenner: OK, now I’m really curious. So we’re right in the theme of this year. All right. What are you hearing?

Horn: Yeah, so the pushback in essence was this. I have a passage in the book, and I’ll quote it. It reads, “Fixed grouping of children by perceived ability as measured by point-in-time tests and grades narrows opportunities.” For those who’ve listened to this podcast, that’s probably not surprising. But the person said to me, right. In essence, that…

Tavenner: I’m like, “Yep, no, duh.” OK.

Horn: Yeah. So I didn’t think it’s a terribly controversial statement. But the person said to me in essence, sure, I agree shouldn’t be fixed. But isn’t it interesting that the example that is used in the book to illustrate this is of a fifth grade student who is struggling in math, and then getting personalized instruction that allowed him to fill in his gaps and start to soar.

But, and here’s the but Diane, “This story,” and I’m quoting here from the person who wrote, “The story would be much rarer once that child is in high school. Most kids don’t change much by then, sadly.” End quote.

Now you can see it on my face, Diane. I was caught totally flatfooted and shocked to read that. But I’ll admit Diane, it’s true that the majority of the examples that I use to illustrate that fixed groups are bad are from elementary schools where schools have moved personalized models, they’re able to help students who would’ve traditionally been thought of and tracked in the bottom of the class start soaring.

And I think I’ve just made an assumption that with all the advances in understanding brain plasticity and so forth, I think that giving up on older kids and assuming they can’t do certain work, and again, to an earlier episode we did, that’s not assuming that it’ll end up in college per se. But assuming that they can’t achieve or excel in any variety of things when they’re still only in high school, it strikes me as limited and shortsighted with all that we’re learning.

And my quick reaction, Diane, was that, well, of course it looks this way. Those older student examples are rarer because it’s an outgrowth of the structure in our schools. As in, if you’re a student and you don’t take Algebra I until ninth grade instead of eighth grade, well, because algebra one is taught as a full year class. You don’t have the opportunity to accelerate and jump into a higher math class if you really excel. Because it’s a full-year curriculum and you can’t take geometry until the following year. That’s how schools have designed themselves.

And then of course, geometry is a one-year class. Well, that only leaves so many years, because of the way the system works. It’s fixed, it’s a fixed-time system, as you and I have said many, many times. And as a result, because traditional high schools and middle schools don’t allow students to move flexibly and fluidly through material. It seems to me at least that one of the reasons we don’t see students really flexibly and fluidly moving themselves when they get older is an outgrowth of that system.

I also suspect that one of the reasons we’re seeing a lot of pushback right now against honors classes and things of that nature, that are driving, frankly, other parents out of the education system, is because we’ve sort of created these two poles. And there’s not a lot of ability for flexibility or nuance in between.

But look, I don’t have a ton of examples. I’m not in a school that personalizes like Summit does. And so I just kind of wanted to check in with you. Am I crazy? You’ve built a school that personalizes, and creates this flexibility and fluidity. What do you see on the ground? Are high school students who perhaps haven’t historically excelled eventually able to?

Tavenner: Michael, you’re right. I can see the surprise on your face. And honestly, I hear it in your voice too. And your passion. And we’re not going to talk about the reaction you saw on my face when you just shared this. Seriously, very sadly, I’ve heard this argument before, as you might imagine. It still really disappoints and frustrates me.

And so I’m a little exasperated, but glad to have the chance to talk about it today. And trying to think about where to even begin on this. So let’s just start with something we talked about on our last episode, which was about charter schools and the contributions they’ve made over the last 30 years. And one of the things we talked about was a contribution charters have made is to prove, at scale, that low-income and traditionally underrepresented groups of students can absolutely prepare for entrance into and success in college. And we talked about how that might sound obvious now, but it certainly wasn’t 30 years ago.

What we didn’t discuss in that conversation is that many of those students entered charter schools in middle and high school. Many had been written off by the traditional system, and not been given access to college prep courses and experiences. But they actually found success in their charter schools, and one of the reasons that they went to them.

Certainly this is the story of Summit schools, where most of our students begin in ninth grade. We’ve always been clear that, regardless of prior preparation or background, we would prepare all students for college so that they could have that choice. And if we dive even more deeply into how Summit made that claim 20 years ago, and then made good on it, I think we’ll get to your wonderings about this being a product of our system.

When we were designing Summit, I was coming from district high schools where I had really immersed myself in the mechanics of the system, if you will. In an effort to, at that time, to provide more opportunities, specifically college opportunities, to more students. And one of my observations was that we, the school, knew in the freshman year if a student was going to be four-year college eligible. And yet the vast majority of students and families didn’t know that.

And the reason is that four-year college eligibility is actually pretty formulaic for the vast majority of colleges. And the formula is essentially, you have to take a specific set of college-qualifying courses, and you have to get a C or better in all of them. And I know this sounds simplistic, but in reality, the system makes it incredibly complicated. And so students end up falling into kind of three traps.

One of them is that they get a grade lower than a C. And just to be clear, that’s a D or F. Which still exists in the system, which we still give. Or they end up missing or not taking one or more of the many required courses that you need. Or they take a course or courses that don’t actually qualify.

And so if we were using the sort of five-why approach to figuring out this problem, we would ask, “Why at this point?” A second why. And, “Why do things happen?

And, well, I think the answer is you’ve got a system that still assigns Ds and F grades. In other words, that isn’t based on competency or mastery. There’s no expectation that all kids will achieve competency or mastery. And the system’s set up for that.

And you’ve got a system that has high school graduation requirements that are different from college entrance requirements. And so taking the right classes can be confusing, but more importantly, oftentimes you aren’t allowed to take the college entrance classes if you don’t meet entrance requirements that can call back to your earlier grades and test scores. Which is sort of creeping back to where this mindset, I think, is coming in.

And I think the big takeaway here is, the system is perpetuated by people. It was designed a long time ago as we’ve talked about. But before we knew today about … Before we knew what we know today about learning and development. But now that we know, why are we still running a system that doesn’t align with the science or serve students?

And I would argue that most adult mindsets haven’t changed either, Michael. The person who gave you pushback is expressing beliefs that most people have. Which is that once you’re a teenager, you’re pretty much who you are. You are smart or you’re not. You are college material or you’re not. And that there isn’t much you can do to change that.

And honestly, it’s so very yucky. That’s a technical term, in case you were wondering. Yucky to even say this way of thinking out loud. And yet there it is. It’s what most people believe. And perhaps the biggest barrier we have to transforming our schools to actually serve our children and our society

Horn: That lands, Diane. I guess I’d love you to go a layer deeper. Just, because that starts to set the framework of why this occurs, and why these mindsets perpetuate. I’d love a couple stories or some data from your own schools. And what do you say to people that sort of present you with this notion more generally, Diane, that the older the student, the more fixed they are in their abilities?

Tavenner: Yeah, Michael, I know that over the last couple of years science has taken an image hit. But I still think it’s incredibly valuable and important. I think you do, too. So let’s start there, as two people who appreciate science.

Specifically with this science that has proven that adolescents, so middle and high school age students, not just younger kids, are able to learn the academic skills schools are teaching when they’ve had effective learning experiences and enough time. The science here is pretty wide-ranging. I’m talking about everything from the oft-cited Benjamin Bloom studies that show this very clearly, to what Sal Khan and the Khan Academy have proven in sort of an everyday practitioner way. And a whole bunch of science in between, I would say.

And so with that as a foundation, one of the key design principles of Summit schools is that learning is fixed and time is variable. Let me say that again, Michael. And then contrast it to the design principle of the vast majority of other schools.

At Summit, we believe that the learning is fixed and the time is variable. And quite frankly, that’s the opposite of most schools, which have systems based on the principle that time is what’s fixed and the learning is variable. And so, in other words, most of us are familiar with schools where you take a course from September to June, and during that time you either learn what you were supposed to and demonstrate it, or you don’t. And at the end of that time, you’re evaluated.

The timeframe and the deadlines don’t change, and then that opportunity passes you by. The only thing that changes is if a student has learned what she was expected to or not. Well, when you follow the science and put learning first, you develop a very different system, Michael, that makes time the variable element, not the learning. And this shows up in so many different and nuanced ways in our schools.

So let’s just take a pretty simple, basic example. And they’re called content assessments, but most people would just view them as tests, if you will. So even in a project-based school model like ours, students need to learn and understand content. So this is academic language, and knowledge, and facts, and information. So that they can apply it in the projects.

And our students, to do this, take what we call content assessments. Which are essentially multiple choice or short answer tests. And unlike most places, every student is required to demonstrate an understanding of all the core knowledge that we actually put forward and say is important. And then, therefore, test. So it’s not 60% of it, or 70% of it, a C or a D, a passing, but all of the core knowledge that’s needed.

And this is important so that we don’t get what we call the Swiss cheese effect, where kids end up having all these holes in their learning that end up, over time, really accumulating.

And so if everyone has to pass, how do we do that? Well, for starters, this type of learning is self-directed. Students have access to a bunch of resources for learning that are on a playlist. They have all of the learning objectives, diagnostics, a variety of ways to learn. And they can take the assessment on-demand when they’re ready. And they know immediately if they pass, and are given feedback that tells them what they didn’t show confidence in.

And then they’re expected to keep learning. And test again when they’re ready, and then do this until they’ve achieved mastery. And Michael, you’ve seen this system in action and the technology that powers it. So tools now exist that enable us to do this. And so you know there’s a lot more nuance and sophistication than I’m sharing here right now.

But what I think I’m just trying to focus on is the fact that what the people who are designing and operating the system believe about our students has an incredibly profound impact on if students learn or they don’t. Rather than blaming the kids in their biology, we might just want to look to mindsets and beliefs of the adults and the systems they’ve put these students in. And…

Horn: And…

Tavenner: There’s one other thing I want to emphasize. Because I’ve been talking for a long time, but there is one more important thing.

Horn: All right. What is that, Diane? I want to hear it, don’t stop.

Tavenner: Well, it’s not just about having a more personalized model to enable all students to learn and grow, to be prepared for adulthood. It’s just not only about that.

Horn: All right. I’m going to take the bait. I want to know what you’re referring to, because that sounds cryptic on the high-level.

Tavenner: Well, not really. Because we’ve talked about this so often Michael, because we literally can’t talk about them enough. And those are the habits of success. And they’re so critical to this conversation. These are the skills and the mindsets that are proven to be connected with academic learning and school achievement.

And as you know, my favorite framework of these habits comes from the organization Turnaround For Children. It was developed by Brooke Stafford-Brizard, it’s called The Building Blocks Framework. And it contains 16 of these skills and mindsets that are organized in a developmental progression.

And I love this specific framework because each and every one of those 16 has a strong base of science that has shown that this particular skill or mindset is, one, directly related to achievement in school. And two, malleable. In other words, it can be taught. And that piece is what is most relevant to the conversation we’re having right now. So let me just say that again, these are teachable, learnable, malleable. So often people believe that children are either born with the ability to self-regulate, or with the executive functioning skills like organization, or with resiliency.

And it just isn’t true, Michael. These things are teachable, and learnable, and without them it is very difficult for someone to build competency and mastery of quote, “academic knowledge and skill.” And so I just think they’re so critically important.

And as I was thinking about this, what is coming to mind for me is, this is AVID. And let’s call up this program that is honestly, probably 40 years old at this point, Michael. AVID stands for Advancement via Individual Determination. And the short story here is that some high school teachers in San Diego, a long time ago, were trying to figure out how to get more of their historically underrepresented students into and through college prep classes.

And so I think somewhat intuitively, because not all the science we’re talking about now was known, or at least accessible, that they convinced their principal to allow a group of students who were, quote, “not qualified” for college prep courses, but who they thought could succeed to opt into a program they designed.

And the program was pretty simple, Michael. One, the students were clustered into college prep classes. So there were four or five of them put into a single section of the class versus spreading them out, sprinkling them.

And two, they had one period a day with their AVID teacher. And the AVID teacher was one of these teachers who most importantly believed these kids were capable. And then two, essentially taught them the habits of success. And it’s funny when I look at it now, I’d never really thought about it this way.

But really what AVID classes were, or are, are habits of success courses. Where they work on everything from key mindsets, like a belief that they belong in these courses, and they see themselves as capable of academic tenacity, to the ability to stick with something when it’s challenging, strategy-shift and make it through. And all of these other habits.

Anyhow, AVID experienced tremendous growth and grew across the country. And what I think is so notable, Michael, is that, the program starts with adults changing their beliefs about kids, and about what they can do. And even after four decades, and tons of accolades, and proven success, Michael AVID’s still only in 7,000 schools in America. And it serves only a fraction of the students, even in those schools.

And so I’ve just got to call this one a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the great news is there isn’t anything biologically or developmentally wrong with students. They are capable. And the other good news is, we know the mindsets we need to have as adults. And the systems we need to create that will enable their success. The bad news is, it continues to be very difficult to get the adults to change their minds and the systems.

Horn: Yeah, I hear that. But I’ll take this as a net positive. I confess, I’m feeling better, Diane. Because yet again, I’ve learned something that I can pull forward with me. So first, thank you.

But I will say, I’m also hearing in your last sentence, and something you’ve sprinkled throughout your comments today, the butt of something that we should dive into more soon. Which is, how do we get adults to change their minds? And how do we get systems to be able to test approaches, and iterate, and learn?

And that’s a whole nother thing, so I won’t go there now. But as we draw to the end of this episode, and again, the next episode will be our last of the season, that’s something I think we should return to in some form or fashion next year, Diane. So I’m putting us on the spot, committing us to another year.

But before we wrap up here today, I am curious, what are you reading, listening to, or watching right now?

Tavenner: Well, Michael, I’m feeling curious. So look out, I might be coming to you with some questions for next time, which will be, as you said, our last episode of the year. Which is something I’m having a hard time believing.

As of what I’ve been consuming lately, I’ve been in watching mode versus reading mode. And so I’m deep into Crash Course, Black American History, which is hosted by Clint Smith. Who’s spectacular, really so great to be hosting and leading this learning experience.

And for those who don’t know, Crash Course was founded about a decade ago by former teacher and young adult author, Hank Green. Who has great YA novels, how I first was introduced to him. It’s on YouTube, and essentially it’s a fast-talking, high interest, short segment set of lectures that come. But lectures in kind of a cool, modern-y, almost TikTok-y way. That come together as courses, well, on history is where it began, but have expanded to all sorts of other subjects.

And the Black American History offering is excellent. And in my view, should be considered required learning for everyone. As we’re recording this, Michael, it’s following a weekend where we saw yet another mass shooting in Buffalo that appears, at this point, to have been a racially-motivated attack on black people.

And sadly, this type of racial terrorism has a long history that runs right up into our present. And it’s something we should all know, and understand, and I believe working to eliminate.

Horn: Yeah, no, I’ll just plus-one that, obviously. And the events in Buffalo were a sobering reminder, Diane, just how much work there is to do. And I appreciate you going to my bread and butter, history, to pull forward on how we grapple with it.

But I’ll switch tone, ever so ungracefully from that, Diane, because I have a couple things that I’ve been having fun with. But I’ll go with this one because, inspired by you, I’m sticking with fiction, actually. And not just fiction, but fiction rooted in Russia, out of a desire to understand the culture there a bit more. So I’m taking things from you throughout this podcast, maybe we’re flipping roles.

But this one might surprise you. I’m reading Crime and Punishment.

Tavenner: It does surprise me. Much in there.

Horn: Well, so I’ll say I’m not done with it yet. But I’m well past the two-thirds point now, so I think I’m going to make it. Because I’m really enjoying it, and I’m seeing so much in it that’s fascinating and you can pull forward. But I also say it’s noteworthy for me, Diane. And I’ll out myself because crime and punishment was a book that was assigned in my senior year of high school, in the English class.

And for those who went to high school with me or Dr. Bowman, if she listens to this podcast, they will know that despite subjecting the people I was driving in my car to listening to Crime and Punishment as a book on, it was on tape back then while driving the tennis matches and other such shenanigans, I just couldn’t get into it. And I never got past page 256.

So I’m past that now. And in the spirit of growth, and perhaps our theme for this episode, I’m giving it another go and really getting something out of it. So I’ll leave us all there, and thank you all for joining us on Class Disrupted.

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