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Changing the World, Step by Step

Todd Sutler of the Odyssey Initiative files his second, and final, post on the Bridging Differences blog today.

Debbie,

What do we mean by a "successful school"?

Our team began our design meetings for Compass Charter School by talking about what we believe about children. This first step helped ground us in our agreement that children have rights and should be treated as human beings who are invested in the learning process. Education is not handed down to them, but rather, they should have ownership over it.

We then asked ourselves, "What do we want our graduates to know and be able to do?" Key takeaways from this conversation were that we wanted our graduates to develop critical literacy across core subject areas, have the research and analytical skills to approach challenges strategically, cultivate a critical understanding of the world, take action when they become aware of injustice, be able to express themselves not just through competency in literacy but also through other forms of expression such as the visual and performing arts, be comfortable grappling with the unknown and with confusion, and productively work with others. Determining whether our students are advancing toward these goals will involve both standardized and qualitative assessments (e.g. rubrics for teacher and family observations), as well as anecdotal evidence from inside and outside of the school.

We do not pretend that we have easy work lying ahead. One of the driving forces behind the Odyssey Initiative was the belief that we had a lot to learn. Before taking the standard planning year to build our school, we thought it was vital to conduct an independent year of research to enrich that planning process. We also knew that this expedition would allow us to highlight for the country what was already working in great schools across America. You echoed the importance of such sharing when you wrote:

"... what we need is an umbrella which we can all fit under that spreads the word about our work and is a political voice in the larger world."

While discovering what makes these different schools "blood brothers and sisters," I think we will find compelling information that can influence policy. My dream for the umbrella is one that identifies the practices, systems, and philosophies that these great schools share through comprehensive qualitative and quantitative research. After all, data is what drives much of the important decisionmaking in this country, whether it is by a venture capitalist, philanthropist, or legislator.

During our year of research, it has been powerful to see how many schools are committed to finding blocks of time in the work day for their teachers to collaboratively plan curriculum, engage with families about their child's social-emotional and academic progress, use assessments to help modify curriculum, and, my favorite, find time to get to know their students. Some of these priorities are present in the Coalition of Essential Schools' common principles and in schools you have written about over the years.

Analysis of the concrete ways schools follow these principles and data demonstrating how such a commitment translates to stronger outcomes for students should inspire the country to take action. I would love to see your friends in academia lead this charge.

Armed with convincing data, our movement will earn a larger seat at the education reform table. We will be empowered to shift important conversations toward our priorities. This umbrella you imagine is achievable, even if it does require a little dreaming.

I fondly look back on a visit I made to your home this spring. It was weeks before Elliot Witney joined Bridging Differences, and I remember how passionately you argued for more collaboration and debate between the different factions within the education reform movement. When it came time for me to say goodbye, you hugged me, grabbed my hand, and said, "Let's change the world."

At the time, I did not think you knew how intensely your words affected me. Here you were, wise, experienced, and accomplished, and you were using language that might sound naïve to some people. Of course, I knew you were not advocating for impulsive or fleeting efforts to overhaul our education system overnight. Instead, I presumed that you were, like me, a romantic incrementalist. I presumed that you thought that we should continue discussing, debating, pushing, and inspiring in hopes of identifying concrete strategies to making education a more fulfilling experience for all children. Most importantly, I presumed that you knew that whatever change was going to occur, it was going to take a long time to achieve and that it would be actualized through small steps and little victories.

I remain honored that, possibly, this brief correspondence is doing some of that pushing and inspiring. Judging by the number of educators who have shared with me that they were drawn to tears by your post, I am comforted by the fact that your voice continues to play an important role in this movement. And I am grateful that you continue to think about changing the world.

Todd

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