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August 22, 2018

A Community United by a Common Vision

Sam Franklin, VP of Schools

In a large, decentralized public school system, progress is often incremental and change is slow. VP of Schools Sam Franklin, talks about how AltSchool is working to create a network of shared growth and scalable change.

There are over 13,500 public school districts in the United States. Scaling change across this massive, decentralized system is notoriously difficult. I used to tell my grad students at Carnegie Mellon that it’s a stretch to say that we have one education system in this country—it feels like 50 different ones with 13,500 different sets of interpretations and ideas. When you look at the system in this way, it’s no surprise that we see two things again and again in education reform: incremental progress and pockets of success.

Yet change is needed. At AltSchool, we are part of a broad community pushing for a shift from adult-centered to learner-centered education. We believe all children are capable of amazing things—strengthening communities, inspiring movements, starting businesses, bringing people together. It’s time to move beyond the industrial era system of mass production to a post-industrial one of mass personalization, high quality, and high flexibility. This will enable far more children to achieve their potential and empower children to help shape the future that they ultimately inherit.

This change is possible. There are many teachers, administrators, parents, and kids who share this vision. We’re working to enable them to make this shift, and I believe we’re well positioned to do so for three reasons: First, we’re building a network of schools that cuts across traditional boundaries; second, this network is enabled by technology to help address the challenge of scale; and finally, we’re doing the hard work ourselves every day. In our lab school classrooms we are challenging assumptions about what is possible for learners and working together to deliver a learner-centered, post-industrial education.

Read Introducing the AltSchool Student Storytellers by Heads of School Emily Dahm and Alex Ragone.

A Network That Transcends Traditional Boundaries

When I joined AltSchool last June, our network included our own lab schools in New York and California and three partner schools. As we prepare to start the 2018-19 school year, we now have more than 20 partners in addition to our schools. Our network, which includes medium-sized public districts, Jewish Day schools, charter, and independent schools, transcends boundaries that have been stark in education. Our community doesn’t share the typical features that have often brought educators together, such as governance structure, student demographics, geographic proximity. Instead, they share a common vision for the future of learning: that it will be driven by the learner, competency-based, personalized, socially embedded, and open-walled.

Read I Learn According to My Needs: Enabling Competency-Based Education by VP of Learning Colleen Broderick.

Rarely in my years of experience in public schools as a teacher, school founder, and district executive was I in a room where different types of schools were working deeply together. One of the potential benefits of the push for school choice and the proliferation of school options was that innovation and learning would flow through the system and lift everyone. But too often the reality has been competition, not collaboration.

At AltSchool’s recent partner summit in New York, I had a chance to sit down with Rabbi Gil Perl, Head of School at Kohelet Yeshiva Lab School in Merion Station, Pennsylvania. Together, we examined where we were relative to the features of Education Reimagined’s framework for the future of learning. We discussed what we would be prioritizing this school year to make the next leap forward. At the next table over, public and private school educators were together, doing the same thing.  

Watch: Transforming Education, Together.

A Human Network, Enabled by Technology

If you visit one of our schools, you won’t see students spending much time alone in front of a screen. Instead, you’ll see them collaborating and chatting, sitting on the floor in circles, making and thinking, venturing outside of the school, reading in little nooks or on bean bag chairs, or engaged as a group in animated discussion. In the age of computers, it’s the deeply human skills that will be the most in need and the hardest to automate. We work on being part of a community, being curious, empathetic, self-aware, growth-oriented, socially intelligent, and learning how to learn. We do hands-on projects and wrestle with essential questions.

Technology supports this experience. You might see a child use a tablet to capture a photo of their project and reflect on their learning. You might see them submit evidence of progress toward a personalized learning goal or working with a classmate on a challenge in their Playlist. You’ll see educators using their machines to create new units, share progress with families, co-construct goals with their learners, and keep track of progress across learner-centered competencies.

Watch: How Capture Enables Learner Agency.

Education is too fundamentally human to think it will be a sector in which the work of people will be replaced by machines. But technology-enabled networks can certainly help with the challenge of scale. They can help us transcend the boundaries of school districts and governance models to implement a common set of learner-centric practices that work well for educators and for kids.

Read Exploring the Power of Rubrics by Senior Learning Designer Courtney Reynolds.

Transforming Education, Together

Perhaps most important of all is that we’re doing the hard work of transforming learning ourselves, in our own classrooms, every day. Like the hundreds of educators in our partner schools, we are gearing up for back to school. On September 5, we’ll welcome our students back for the first day of the 2018-19 school year.

Last year, we had our best results yet, even while managing a considerable amount of change in our schools. According to our latest MAP test results, the average student in our schools grew at a rate of more than 130%, with many nearly doubling the typical fall-to-spring growth rate. Our graduates have now been admitted to 45 different high schools and are thriving academically and socially in a wide range of environments. These results are accompanied by high levels of student engagement and parent satisfaction.

Read I Drive What I Learn: Enabling Learner Agency by VP of Learning Colleen Broderick.

Our teachers bring a diverse set of experiences, and many come from public schools. They participate in partner educator training and onboarding and in biannual network-wide summits designed to bring educators together, build community, and share best practices. Across the network, we share content and resources, and collaborate at conferences like SXSW EDU, NAIS, Learning and the Brain, and ISTE.

Because we are doing this work every day, we understand the challenges our district and school partners face. Like them, we’ve had to make hard decisions, manage change, and coordinate all of the day-to-day logistics of managing our own schools. We know how challenging it is to redesign schools for the future while also managing the real challenges of the here and now. This is why we’re well-positioned to convene and grow this unique community.

Read Radical Collaboration: Building a Student-Centered School by Head of School Alex Ragone.

The Power of Network Effects

This year, we will focus even more deeply on the theme of learner agency, and explore ways to empower students to drive their own learning and shape their own communities in and out of school. I’m confident we will learn as much from our partners as they do from us, and this learning will benefit students and families across our network.

We feel great urgency in this work. Far too many children continue to be failed by the current paradigm. Personally, I know that scaling change is not easy, and recognize the tradeoffs associated with the governance model we have embraced for our nation’s schools, but I see great potential in our growing network. I see passionate educators pushing themselves to embrace the messy reality of learner-centered teaching, and people across all different sectors and schools who believe all children deserve access to the best education available.

Our educators love to open their classrooms. They are eager to share what they’ve learned, and what they continue to struggle with. Our students love to share their stories, too. I welcome you to come and visit us, and wish you the best for a successful school year.  

Learn more about our lab schools and our partner school program.

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