Diane Tavenner Reflects on 2017: 5 Reasons I’m Grateful

As we approach the end of 2017, I’ve been reflecting on our progress and thinking about the year ahead. The holidays are an opportunity to pause and take a breath before we launch into the second half of the school year. In that spirit, here are five reasons I am grateful.

1. The Summit Learning Community

I am honored to be part of a community that includes more than 300 schools, 2,400 teachers, and 54,000 students. The Summit Learning Program began in 2015 as a small pilot to explore whether we could share our approach to personalized learning with like-minded schools. Today, it is the largest personalized learning network in the country, and we continue to hear from schools that are interested in joining our community.

Teachers and school leaders are looking for the tools and supports offered by the Summit Learning Program to help them bring their vision for personalized learning to students. And they are sharing their experiences in their districts and states. Survey results show that more than two-thirds of participating teachers recommended the Program to their peers. In fact, in a testament to the grassroots nature of Summit Learning, 69 percent of new schools this year joined the Program as a result of a recommendation from a trusted peer.

Even more important than the growth of the Program is the positive response from our partner schools: 93 percent of schools remained in the Program, and of those that had the ability to expand to more students, 81 percent did.

2. Our shared vision

In 2017, I had the opportunity to hear from educators across the countryat our summer training, regional convenings, and events throughout the year. No matter where I went, or who I talked to, I heard similar themes.

More than ever, I’m convinced that we share a common vision for education across the country. Educators, parents, and practitioners are aligned on broad goals to prepare students not just for college, but to engage in their communities. And the defining characteristics of personalized learningwhich is being adopted in a wide range of communities and school contextsare becoming clear. (For more, I recommend reading this post from Jim Shelton, president of Chan Zuckerberg Education, and this post from Beth Rabbitt, CEO of The Learning Accelerator.)

For us at Summit, this vision is the powerful idea that all students deserve an education that equips them with skills, knowledge, and habits they need in today’s world. Our obligation as educators and parents is to give them the tools that prepare them to lead a fulfilled life—one with choice, financial independence, community engagement, strong relationships, and health.

I believe this vision can unite us, and the hundreds of schools participating in the Summit Learning Program are demonstrating that we can make this vision a reality for all kids.

3. Promising signs of progress

With the growth of Summit Learning, I get this question a lot: “Is it working?”

The answer is yes! As a parent with a child at Summit, I’ve seen my son make progress because teachers know his goals, his strengths, and where he needs to develop. As an educator, I know it works because Summit Learning is grounded in learning science research, and it is designed to ensure that students develop the skills, knowledge, and habits to succeed in college and reach their full potential.

As the head of Summit, I know it works because I hear from teachers about the transformation that happens when students take ownership of their learning. Our partner schools report promising progress, including gains in state test scores, greater student engagement, increased attendance, and improved behavior.

For example, at Rancho Minerva Middle School in Vista, CA, students in the Summit Learning Program are making big gains on annual state tests. Twice as many students scored at or above proficient on state tests compared to the previous year. That’s the strongest growth among the five middle schools in the district. Summit Learning also is helping Rancho Minerva students stay more engaged and excited about school. Among sixth graders, there has been a 30 percent reduction in discipline referrals due to behavior.

At Blackstone Valley Prep in Rhode Island, which introduced Summit Learning in the 2015-16 school year, more students are ready for college. Eleventh-graders scored an average of 108 points above the state average on the SAT, and they are 91 percent more likely than a typical Rhode Island 11th grader to be college and career ready in both literacy and math.

In the Pasadena Independent School District, 23 schools are participating in the Summit Learning Program, and the district plans to expand to all its traditional middle and high schools in the coming years. PISD has seen increased student engagement and academic performance in a personalized learning setting. In 2017, grade 7 students who were farthest behind grade level made an average 20 percent gain in reading and an average 17 percent gain in math on annual state assessment scores.

Although it’s still early, we’ve seen promising signs of progress across the entire Summit Learning Program: On average, Summit Learning students achieved an academic year’s worth of growth in math and reading. And students who started the furthest behind made the biggest academic gains. 

4. A new way forward

However, year-end standardized tests only tell part of the story. As a parent, I want to know three things: Is my son on track to be successful in his next phase of education or life? Has he been able to discover his interests? And does he have a goal for where he wants to go in the future, and is he on track for it?

Yet we still place an enormous weight on end-of-year test scores. This approach misses the forest for the trees. Test scores are important, but they don’t fully capture the work teachers do to change their practice and to inspire their students. Nor do they tell us much about the long-term outcomes we want for all students—like completing college and finding a meaningful career.

Summit Learning empowers students to lead a fulfilled life by equipping them with the skills, knowledge, habits and a sense of purpose. At Summit, we measure student proficiency in each of these four areas:

  • Cognitive Skills: Interdisciplinary, higher-order thinking skills—like correctly using evidence to support an argument.
  • Content Knowledge: Rigorous content across all academic subjects.
  • Habits of Success: Behaviors, mindsets, and dispositions like perseverance.
  • Sense of Purpose: Self-knowledge, values, relationships, and a credible path that enable students to achieve their long-term goals.

In partnership with leading academics, we’re continuing to design ways to reliably measure the development of Habits of Success and Sense of Purpose. Our 2017-18 research agenda outlines projects to improve the Summit Learning approach to teaching and learning, while advancing the education field.


5. The year ahead

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m never satisfied doing the same thing over and over. In fact, if you come to my house for dinner, you can bet I will try out a new recipe.

At Summit, we set ambitious goals, use data to examine how we’re doing, and find new ways to get better. Do we always hit the mark? No. But when we don’t meet our goals—as a network, as a school, or in a classroom—we re-examine our values, consult the science, redesign our approach and implementation, and drive to rapidly improve.

Our commitment to continuous improvement is just another way to say that we’re committed to learning. I know 2018 will bring opportunities to learn from our successes and challenges. And I’m humbled and inspired to be on this journey with the Summit Learning Community.

Diane Tavenner
About the author

Diane Tavenner is the Co-Founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, a leading public school system that operates 11 schools in California and Washington, as well as a free program that enables schools across the U.S. to implement Summit Learning, its nationally recognized personalized approach to teaching and learning.