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School Co-founder Diane Tavenner on Redefining Success in Education, Why Project-Based Learning Should Be a Team Sport and Tips for Parents on Raising ‘Prepared’ Kids

By Laura Fay | October 6, 2019

Courtesy of Summit Public Schools

When Summit Public Schools launched in 2003, founder Diane Tavenner says, she felt alone. She and a group of parents in Redwood City, California, had set out to design a school that would prepare all students to pursue college degrees as well as fulfilling lives beyond the classroom — particularly low-income and minority students whose families said they were being underestimated in their current schools.

But not everyone believed they could build it. “People literally thought we were crazy,” Tavenner says, recalling all the critics who said, “‘You can’t do that.’”

Today, that original Summit concept has grown into a network of 11 schools known for its focus on developing a project-based learning curriculum that can be shared and replicated with other schools.

And this fall, Tavenner has published a new book that, again, urges parents to balance their focus on academics with what’s happening beyond the classroom.

“Parents are super busy, they don’t have a lot of time, and they get a lot of confusing and conflicting messages” about how to raise their children, she told The 74. That’s why Tavenner wrote Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life, partially a history of the Summit network, a reflection on Tavenner’s own parental experiences, as well as a guidebook for families looking to better prepare their children for challenges beyond school.

It’s a message that’s resonating. Bill Gates recently mentioned the book as a standout read in an interview with The Wall Street Journal; it was featured prominently in a segment on Good Morning America.

In an in-depth interview, Tavenner talked with The 74 about her decades as an educator, what parents should know about raising kids to be prepared and how schools can rethink assessments.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The 74: Let’s talk about the Summit origin story. What do you think made you the right person to be there in 2003 when this school was starting that was going to focus on project-based learning? 

Diane Tavenner: Summit is really the creation of a community of parents. There was this big group of families who had done a lot of work, looking around at their options for high school and feeling really unsatisfied. They got bits and pieces of what they wanted, but not the whole package. I had been doing my graduate work and was coming to very similar conclusions. One of my projects in graduate school was to design an ideal school. My adviser was connected with this group of parents and saw some similarities in our views, of what we wanted for kids and what we thought schools could deliver on, and brought us together.

Through those conversations with literally hundreds of community members, parents and kids, it was clear that we all wanted schools that went beyond what they had historically done and thought of kids as whole people, and really sought to prepare them for the world that they were entering and to be productive, fulfilled, happy people in that world.

It was that match that brought us together.

Courtesy of Summit Public Schools

You’ve been in this work for more than 15 years now. What are some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned? 

Education is deeply personal. It’s more than reading and math; it’s about developing whole people. When we build schools that partner with families in order to do that, we are most successful. When we find ways of helping kids figure out who they are and what is important to them, connect that to the learning and think about a broader set of skills that they will need in the world, we are most successful.

That means customizing, and personalizing, and making the process of learning very human.

We recently published a story about the Mastery Transcript Consortium, an effort that has gained some traction, but the idea of rethinking grades and what it means to be “successful” in school wasn’t really part of the education conversation when you started. What was it like starting a school that revolved around rethinking what the school day looks like when people weren’t talking about things like that? 

They definitely weren’t. And, not only that, it’s funny: I talk now with new teachers and new families who come into our schools, and I say, “It’s probably hard for you to even imagine this, but, when we started Summit and said that every student was going to take AP classes, and every student was going to be prepared for college, people literally thought we were crazy and said, ‘You can’t do that.’”

It’s not that long ago that this country had the mindset that not everyone could be prepared for college or to be successful. That was kind of the context we were living in, and specifically students of color, and students from low-income backgrounds, were not represented in that landscape, and not really conceived of as being able to be prepared.

It felt like we were pretty alone. And regularly doubted. I’m forever grateful to the families who came first, who shared the vision that we had, and trusted us, and partnered with us. That was the powerful part of starting then — that community that was built on a shared vision, and shared values, and a shared commitment, and a willingness to try things. And, a lot of what we tried is what exists today, and is amazing.

And it’s worth saying: Some of what we tried didn’t work. It was very collaborative and very learning-oriented among teachers, kids and families in the context of a world that didn’t seem to believe in us.

Summit has 11 locations across Washington state and California. (Courtesy of Summit Public Schools)

Now that more organizations and schools seem to be on board with the idea that 100 percent of kids can be prepared for college, I would imagine it feels different for you, since that attitude has shifted in some places.

It does. I don’t feel alone anymore; we don’t feel alone anymore. And not only that, but we were, from the very beginning, a diverse-by-design school. Which, at that point, no one was doing or talking about. A lot of people have come around in the decades since to the broader benefits of truly diverse school environments.

But there continue to be similar challenges that still feel like people are pointing at us and thinking that we’re crazy. I think probably the biggest thing on that front is, while people’s vision and mindset are starting to evolve in regard to what they want from schools, the way they measure schools is still very antiquated and still aligned with how kids do on standardized tests in math and reading.

Our measurements have not caught up with what people care about, and that is a difficult world to live in, and it’s very conflicting for schools thinking, “What am I supposed to do?” Because on the one hand, families want these broader skills. They want kids to be prepared for life. But on the other hand, [schools say] “I’m measured and judged by math and reading scores on state tests.”

That tension is very real, and feels very similar to some of the early tensions that we faced.

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In the book, you’re focused on what Summit is doing to prepare kids to be fulfilled, whole people and on what that means for parents. What are the most important things that adults can do to help kids become fulfilled people? 

I wrote the book with parents in mind, and as a parent of a child who’s going through this, because it can be so hard and confusing to know what the right thing to do is.

I think the three most important takeaways for parents are: one, spending time to look back with your child regularly; two, thinking ahead; three, seeking purpose. And to make those three things a habit in your home, like brushing your teeth twice a day. That incorporates the big ideas of the book, which are to spend time with your child mentoring them and in conversation where you’re reflecting.

A simple conversation in the evening might look like — instead of asking, “How was your day?” and you get the answer, “Fine,” or a one-word answer — asking, “What was the most interesting part of your day?” Or “What worked well today? What didn’t work well today? What might you have done differently to make that work better? What could you do tomorrow that would make that go better?” Simple questions like that get kids to start thinking about what happens, and then thinking about the next day, and the agency they have in their next day, and creating the day that they want to have.

One story that struck me in the book was your conversation with a parent who said something like, “Summit’s approach won’t work for my child because he needs so much structure.” How do you help parents overcome their personal histories of what school looked like when they were a child, and their perceptions of what students need to be successful? 

I have that conversation a lot with parents because it’s pretty common that kids don’t have the skills to direct their own learning, or to set a goal, make a plan and execute it themselves. The first place we start in the conversation is acknowledging that those are all skills that are learnable, and people aren’t just naturally born with them or not born with them. I’ve never met a parent who hasn’t agreed that those are valuable skills that they would like their child to develop before they become adults.

Then, the question is not, “Do I put my child in an environment where they don’t have to use those skills or develop them?” The question is, “How can we develop them?” The answer is, with a lot of practice — and a lot of feedback. And, in order to get the practice and the feedback, you have to be in an environment that’s focused on doing that.

Summit is not a place where there’s absolutely no structure and we’re just throwing kids into the deep end to see if they swim. Summit is a place where we build the entire experience around practicing those skills, with getting lots of feedback so that over time they build and develop those skills.

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As you’ve tried to create that experience at Summit, what’s surprised you most about how students have responded?

I think kids are far more capable than we give them credit for.

Sometimes people look at teenagers and they think that they’re unmotivated, and they don’t care, and they’re disengaged, and that’s just not my experience at all. As we have started to create environments where kids truly are empowered, we see what that means for them as people and [that changes] how engaged they are, how much they care, how dedicated they are to their own learning, and how hard they are willing to work.

There’s a moment at the beginning of the book when you’re talking about a student named Isabella who comes to enroll, and you admit that you were skeptical that she would come back with all her paperwork and meet all of your expectations. Then she does, and it’s this amazing moment. How do you approach conversations with educators who are having those doubts and have to overcome their own biases and alter their mindsets?

With a lot of humility and honesty. What I recognize in that story is that I had spent the prior 10 to 12 years being conditioned to believe that kids like Isabella wouldn’t advocate for themselves and they wouldn’t work hard and they wouldn’t actually show up. I was wrong. Look what happened. I’m so grateful for her, for her persistence and for teaching me that.

I approach the conversation from that place of understanding. I know what it feels like to be an educator who, for good reasons, believed what I believed, and for very good reasons had to change and reshape how I thought about things. When I did, that changed the opportunity for so many kids. … So much of being an educator is being willing to look at ourselves, and it’s a constant work in progress.

I think the same thing is true for parents. We parent based on our own experiences as children and based on the models that are around us, and much of that is often good and other parts of it probably need a good hard look or a rethink. That’s really difficult to do, and I think it’s a thing that we need to do. We need to do it without judging each other and ourselves, in a community and in a way that helps us find a path forward that aligns with our values and also helps us get to the outcomes we all want for our kids.

One of the things you talk about in the book quite a bit is helping kids find and identify their “-ings.” Can you explain what that means?

Sure. Most everyone has been in the position of being young and someone asks, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Or “What do you want to do?” Or “What do you want to major in?” We sort of lock kids into a very specific job and aren’t super helpful to them at a moment in their life where they’re trying to figure out who they are and what they care about and what matters to them, and when they’re at a moment in time where very specific jobs may or may not exist in the future.

We like to set those questions aside and instead focus on a very different place.

What’s probably more valuable for students is actually understanding: What are the things that you really like doing and that you’re good at doing and that are motivating for you and that you care about? We call those the “-ings,” because they are words like exploring or discovering or entertaining or researching or questioning. They’re these active words.

Collectively, when they come together and you know yourself and your portfolio of -ings, then you can start to figure out pathways that bring all those things together.

We spend a lot of time helping kids take their everyday experiences and reflect more deeply on questions like: “What were you doing in that moment when you were really happy? What were you doing in that moment where you weren’t happy and it was really hard? What are the underlying -ings there?” It’s starting to tease those out so they can start to figure out who they are, what they care about, and what they like.

How do you think that teaching kids to pay attention to those things and to find them in their own lives changes the way your students approach the college application process and some of those other big life decisions?

When they have a much stronger sense of themselves by knowing a portfolio of -ings, what comes from that is, “Wow, where would I be able to go with my life, to bring all the things that I like and I’m good at, all my -ings, together in one place?” They are much more discriminating about [things like] the college that they want to apply to or the major that they want to think about or eventually the job that they want to pursue — or if it’s a different type of postsecondary experience, whether it be the military or a journeyman program.

I think it enables our kids to be much more thoughtful and discriminating in finding a good fit. When you have a good fit, you’re much more likely to be able to make the most of that and make it stick.

What advice would you have for parents who, like you, are starting on the journey of applying to college with their kids? How can they work with their kids to find a college or a postsecondary opportunity that will be a good fit?

I think it’s never too late to ask some of these questions and dig into: What is it that I really want? What is it that will fulfill me? Then the next step is accessing as many resources as possible to find a match that fits, as opposed to the brand name, if you will. I would suggest not getting caught up in the brand name or the rankings of schools, and instead look much more at, “How is this a fit for my child and what they want to do, and for my family and our values?” Because it really is often a joint decision that families need to make.

The most important thing that I’m trying to keep at the top of my mind, and it’s really hard, is that the way the system is set up, it very much feels like the choice is not the choice of the student. It feels like the choice is of the colleges or the institutions and that they get to pick. … What I’m trying hard to do as a mom and as an educator is to ensure that this is a choice for each student and that they are not viewing this as someone else’s decision, but that they can make a decision and that they are empowered to make a decision. When they look beyond the top 50 school list or the brand name list … and they go deeper and find places that match up and offer what fits for them, then it becomes much more their choice that they are making.

That’s the most important thing. College is expensive, and families are the ones paying for it. When we go out to buy a car or even groceries, we are much more empowered as consumers to feel like we should get something of value for what we’re paying. Somehow the university system has turned that on its head, and it’s not how parents and kids feel. I would really like them to feel that way and encourage them to find ways to feel that way.

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Students at Summit make three different plans for life after high school, and that includes those students who are the most driven and the most focused on having a specific career path. What do you think is the value of students having all those different plans?

First, it enables students. It asks them to focus on who they are, what they want and what they care about and value. When you have to make multiple plans that are different, you can’t just get caught in, “I’m going to say what I think is the right answer.” Where I live, Stanford is very close to several of our schools. So lots of kids say they want to go to Stanford. The reality is, very few kids are going to go to Stanford. Mathematically, not very many kids who apply will land a spot at Stanford.

When you dig in and talk to them, the reason they say Stanford is they know the world thinks Stanford is good, and Stanford is close. And it usually stops there. Making multiple plans forces you to go beyond the superficial and start to think about plans that are more aligned with what you care about, what you want to do, what’s meaningful to you, what matters to you, where would you be able to get that …

The other thing is, so often kids apply to top schools and when they don’t get in, it feels like they have failed and it feels like they are not good enough. The reality is, that’s just simply not true, but that’s what it feels like and that’s the message that gets sent and absorbed. I think when you make multiple plans and you realize that there’s multiple pathways to things, it’s far less likely that one of the pathways not working out will feel like a failure, because it’s like most things in life. Every day that I drive, there’s multiple paths to get to a place. One day one path is better, and then other days, another path is better. So getting to where we want to go is the ultimate objective, not necessarily how we got there. There are always different ways to get there.

Even though maybe you’re mostly writing for parents, I imagine that some educators will read this book and think, “I want to implement project-based learning in my school or in my classroom.” You’ve been at this for a long time, so I’m wondering what are some of the lessons that you’ve learned about how to implement it and then some of the challenges that Summit is still facing with that? 

Definitely. I would say project-based learning is a team sport. It is very difficult — if not nearly impossible — for an individual teacher to implement project-based learning on their own, number one. Just the volume of work that it takes to create really great projects and to be able to assess them. But then, probably more importantly, as a single teacher, you only have a finite amount of time with students. Projects are really dependent on multiple years of building big skills over time. If you don’t have other people in your school that are working with you, it becomes very difficult to actually see the benefit of the students practicing those skills over and over as they mature and grow.

Second, let’s not reinvent the wheel. When Summit really committed to project-based learning, I was actually surprised at how few resources were available for a school that wanted to commit to that approach. Those that were available mostly were quite expensive and required subscriptions and things that we just couldn’t afford as a school. And so, our commitment was to build a real open-source library of materials and projects and everything that goes with them in order to make sure that schools had a real baseline to begin this work with because it takes years to develop, and a real commitment by lots of people in order to do that.

Fortunately, we have that now, and teachers and schools continue to contribute to it and make it better. My advice would be that they actually engage in that collaborative network and not try to go it alone and build from scratch because that is a very daunting undertaking that takes an extraordinary amount of time and energy and resources.

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What do you think are the challenges that schools and educators are still facing with project-based learning?

There are a couple of things. One, most teachers aren’t trained to teach in this way, and both teachers and schools are set up so teachers are in a classroom by themselves, without the space, time and support to collaborate with their peers. That isolation and the way that teachers are trained don’t really set them up for project-based teaching and collaboration. We have to find ways to overcome that through professional development and restructuring our time so that we actually have time to work together.

The other challenge is, we get really nervous as teachers and parents. While we’re doing project-based learning, we can see and feel the value of it, but we get scared because it’s not the way most of us learned. When the high-stakes tests come along or when we’re going to be held accountable for making sure our kids have learned the state standards, we panic a little bit and go back to an old method of teaching because it’s familiar.

We see a lot of people go all in and then get kind of scared in March and pull back and start doing something different. It’s a much more emotional response than a sort of data-driven response, so it’s very understandable.

The conversation around personalized learning and project-based learning is changing really fast. In some ways, talking about personalized learning used to be mostly talking about ed tech. But now, the conversation is more about reshaping classroom instruction and changing the whole school experience. What do you think of that shift, and where do you think the conversation should move next?

I’m excited about the shift because I feel like it’s finally the right conversation and the conversation that certainly we have been wanting to have and what we’ve been doing all along. I feel like the tech was a bit of a shiny object there for a while. A lot of the coverage and the interest was in the technology and the furniture, and what people really missed was … what we were doing underneath that and why we were doing it.

There are some real challenges and barriers to this type of deep, meaningful learning in the way that we are currently assessing our and structuring our schools.

That should be the conversation: How are we thinking about the professional development of teachers, how are we thinking about curriculum, and how are we thinking about the structure of the school and the school day and time in order to support this deeper, more meaningful learning? That should be where we’re having our conversations, rather than what technology program they’re using or buying, and if that specific program works or doesn’t work — when we haven’t even defined works at what, for whom, under what conditions.

What questions do you think that parents should be asking of their students’ teachers and of their students’ schools to find out whether their kids are getting the skills and traits that they need to grow into whole, fulfilled people? 

I think probably the place to start is … it seems that, as parents, we’re really conditioned to focus on the letter grades that our kids are getting instead of asking, “What is my child learning? What are the skills that they’re learning? What are the habits that they’re learning, and how are they doing on those specific skills?”

As an educator, I am really excited when parents ask me that because that’s the conversation I want to have. And as an educator, I’m sort of required to boil that down into a single letter grade.

But what I really want to do is focus on those individual skills that I’m teaching kids. That’s where I would start — less about the letter grade and more about what it is that teachers actually teaching and what parents can be doing to support that at home.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Doris & Donald Fisher Fund provide financial support to both Summit Public Schools and The 74.

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