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Learning Deeply, Shared Broadly

By Contributing Blogger — September 23, 2014 6 min read
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This post is by Adam Carter, Chief Academic Officer at Summit Public Schools.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

This African proverb has become a rallying cry for Summit faculty as we’ve worked together to deliver on our promise to our students--a promise implicit when families enroll in a Summit school: if you are willing to go on this journey with us, you will graduate with the skills, knowledge, habits of success, and perspective-changing experiences that will prepare you for success in college, and for adult life.

Twelve years ago, when Summit Preparatory Charter School first opened its doors in a now-demolished bank building in Redwood City, California, our seventy-eight families wanted desperately for college to be an option for their children. The small founding team of educators believed in the potential of every child, and in removing the barriers to college entrance for all students. Four years later, with 97 percent of our graduates accepted into four year universities, we felt exhausted and exhilarated. We felt as though we had met our mission.

Nearly four years ago, many of us old timers found ourselves discussing our mentees and students from the early classes of Summit Prep. As we wistfully recalled stories and pieced together what we could of their lives after graduation, a newer, less exhilarating picture emerged. Troubled by the conversation, we began to collect what information we could, from whatever sources we could--the National Student Clearinghouse, word of mouth, Facebook--about our graduates’ persistence in college. After an exhaustive search, a new number sat side-by-side with 98 percent as an indication of our organizational success: 55 percent.

Fifty-five percent is the approximate six-year college graduation rate of Summit’s first two graduating classes. While that number is roughly twice the national average of high school graduates who go on to earn bachelor’s degrees, we had to ask ourselves: is it good enough? We also had to ask ourselves who made it, who didn’t, and why.

In the course of our prodding, questioning, and reflecting, a few abiding beliefs became clear:


  1. 55 percent is not good enough. We never set out to double an abysmal national average. We set out to unlock the potential in every child, and to remove the barriers to college entry for all students.
  2. We have to allow students to direct their own learning. Our graduates floundered when they left the safety, supports, and scaffolds of Summit behind for college.
  3. We have to be crystal clear on our outcomes. Forty days of built-in professional development and a deep love of students, of teaching, and of content is not enough. Standards are not enough. We needed to get clear about what college readiness really means.
  4. We have to reexamine our very model of schooling. We have incredible, talented educators, amazing kids, and a culture of empowerment. We were often ranked in the top 10 percent of California schools by standardized test scores. We were named a “Miracle School” by U.S. News and World Report. But we had to do better.
  5. We can only succeed if we work together. Perhaps most importantly, we had to get back to our roots. Even though we continue to grow--we have seven schools now--we have to find ways to work as collaboratively and as productively as we did when we were six educators in a musty bank building.

So we embarked on a journey to define college readiness, and to develop the shared systems and structures--from online platforms to daily schedules to meeting norms--that will allow us to realize our mission, together.

In the past four years, we’ve learned so much. We continue to learn every day. In future posts, I’ll go into greater depth about particular aspects of our moves


  • away from teacher-directed classrooms and towards self-directed learning,
  • away from structural isolation and towards meaningful collaboration,
  • away from gut responses and towards data-driven decision making,
  • away from recreating the wheel and towards adapting curricular materials,
  • away from seat time and towards shared accountability for students’ learning outcomes,
  • away from a mentoring emphasis on group bonding and towards a vision of academic belonging,
  • away from knowledge acquisition and towards skill development,
  • in a phrase, away from college acceptance and towards college readiness,

but for now I’d like to give a snapshot of where we are, and how deeper learning is at the center of everything we do every day with students.

Common Language

After careful research, we defined college readiness in the terms of four basic quadrants:


  1. Content Knowledge, which students access via online playlists housed in Activate Instruction, which we co-developed with Illuminate Education and the Girard Education Foundation. Competency-based content assessments are available on-demand, and teachers teach students how to learn--with a focus on the five behaviors of self-directed learning (left)--rather than on lecturing.
  2. Cognitive Skills, which students learn by engaging daily in project-based learning. Regardless of the discipline or the grade level, projects are built--and assessed--on a single, longitudinal Cognitive Skills Rubric and designed to meet the standards of a Task Quality Rubric. We co-developed these assessment tools with the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE). We collaborated with partners like Educurious to make our projects great.
  3. Habits of Success, or “non-cognitive skills,” which include self-awareness, self-management, decision making, and elements of self-directed learning. Students frequently set learning goals and log reflections as part of their self-directed learning cycle, and they receive at least ten minutes of dedicated one-to-one mentoring every week.
  4. Expeditions, perspective-changing experiences, offer eight life-changing weeks per year in which students explore passions, enhance acquired skills, and prepare for college and career.

Over the past two years, we’ve built and curated 200+ projects meeting the standards of SCALE’s Task Quality Rubric. We’ve built over 400 playlists and content assessments in five core subject areas as well as in College Knowledge and Academic Literacy, with the singular goal of giving all students the tools to become college ready. Thousands of days of work have been dedicated to the development of the curricula and the assessments that will guide our students, step-by-step, to college.

But we’re not willing to stop there.

Because students set goals and own their processes of meeting them--with our support--they’re able to take increased responsibility for their learning. Teachers wear the hats of mentor, teacher, and leader, meeting regularly within and across schools to share best practices and design interventions for students. Weekly, teachers meet in:


  • Course-level teams across Summit schools via Google Hangouts in order to share best practices and curriculum ideas,
  • Grade-level teams to look at student learning data and collaboratively design interventions for students,
  • Leadership teams at each site to make programmatic decisions.

Administrators also meet weekly in varied teams to examine student learning data, share best practices, engage in ongoing professional development, ask questions of each other, and hold one another accountable for high standards.

Student learning information is in the foreground of much of this collaboration, but research-based curriculum and assessment design, shared norms and values (from meeting roles to “principles vs. rules-based” leadership to consensus-based decision making), and a shared language for continual improvement (from The Lean Startup’s Build-Measure-Learn to the Carnegie Student Agency Improvement Network’s Plan-Do-Study-Act) gird our process.

It’s certainly not always easy. Google Hangouts fail. It can be difficult to know who is responsible for what. Initiating courageous conversations is hard, and it takes real investment in one another. Building relationships, building trust, takes time. It turns out that shared principles can be interpreted quite differently. Sometimes it would be more efficient, in the short term, to just close the door and do your own thing.

But we’ve tried that, and it didn’t work. Not for all of our students. So for now, we’ve got to go far. We’ve got to play the long game. We’ve got to go together.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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