What Is Summit Learning’s ‘Secret Sauce’? Diane Tavenner Answers

Summit Public Schools was founded in 2003 with the vision of preparing a diverse student population for success in a four-year college or university, and to be thoughtful, contributing members of society.

Fifteen years later, our network of 11 schools in California and Washington consistently rank among the best in the nation. Ninety-eight percent of Summit graduates are accepted to at least one four-year university and students complete college at a rate double the national average. Summit is one of only ten schools in the nation to win the XQ Super School challenge for designing a “school of the future.” And this year, Summit is sharing its successful approach to teaching and learning with more then 330 schools through the Summit Learning Program

Looking at these accolades and achievements, Paul Peterson, Harvard professor and education reform scholar, wants to know: How did we do it? What’s the secret sauce?

Diane Tavenner, CEO and Co-Founder of Summit, answers this question and more in an interview on September 18 with Peterson on his weekly Education Exchange podcast, produced by EducationNext. Launched in July, the podcast highlights education policy news through in-depth interviews with leaders in the education field.

In the interview, Tavenner reveals what Summit’s secret sauce is, exactly how to motivate students, and why kids can’t be “batch processed” into lifelong learners. She also tackles tough topics like policy barriers to personalized learning, and how adults need to tolerate a bit of discomfort when rethinking the traditional classroom model. The podcast is a great listen for anyone interested in the Summit model or how to transform education for the next generation of students.

No time to listen? Here are 5 key takeaways from the interview:

1. Summit’s ‘Secret Sauce’

Tavenner: “The secret sauce is alignment. What Summit has done well is gone back to really explore the purpose of education. We have really spent the last 15 years building an aligned and coherent school model. And different from the industrial model that most of us have experienced ourselves and continue to perpetuate. The reason that alignment is the secret sauce is that there’s tons of people who are experimenting with really interesting things and they see one piece of something whether it be teacher education or technology in the classroom… They try to sort of wedge that into an existing model that isn’t really designed to get the outcomes that we want and we need and we value today.”

2. Giving Students Control

Peterson: “Some students are just automatically [motivated] but other students are not. How do you get everybody on board with this?”

Tavenner: “In our experience about 20 percent of students are kind of naturally that way and we sort of receive them that way but about 80 percent we don’t. What we key into is natural human motivations. So people…naturally want to have control over their lives and what they do. They want to have purpose, they want to know why they’re doing what they’re doing. And they want to actually be good at it — it turns out no one wants to be bad at what they do every day. What we do is we create a system where kids have a lot of control. They make a lot of choices around their learning.”

3. Tolerating the Discomfort in Change

Tavenner: “Not everyone just is successful at [personalized learning] right out of the gate. What happens is adults start to feel uncomfortable. Because we are used to these classrooms that are controlled. Where it looks like kids are doing what they are supposed to be doing because they are being compliant. They’re sitting in rows and they’re being quiet and they look like they are taking notes… But the question really is are they really learning? I think the evidence suggests that a lot of them aren’t.”

4. The Importance of Learning How to Learn

Tavenner: “What we know by the time we are 18 is certainly not going to carry us through our lives so we need the skill to be able to learn for the rest of our lives….Yes, they should leave us with this very important basic set of knowledge. But probably more importantly they should know how to learn.”

5. What Parents Say About The Summit Environment

Tavenner: “What we hear very clearly is this has been transformative. My child, for the first time ever, is engaged in school and can tell me exactly what they are doing, can tell me why they are doing it, feels ownership over it. I’m not having to make my student do homework or go to class or things like that because they want to because they know why, because they care about it. When people come and visit any of the schools we are working with and our [own] schools they inevitably tell me, It’s amazing, every student I talked to knew what they were doing and why and they had a plan, and they had goals, and it wasn’t because someone was telling them to do it.’

About the author

Katie McNeil
Katie is a storyteller at Summit Public Schools, shining a spotlight on inspirational stories from the Summit Learning community. She started her career in journalism, covering K-12 education in the Bronx. Katie won a feature writing award from the Education Writers Association for her higher ed coverage in Utah. Before arriving at Summit, she earned a master's degree in educational technology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a New York State teaching certification.