Transcend: A Conversation with Jeff Wetzler

Q&A   21 April 2016
By Jeff Wetzler

 

We believe that the potential of every young person is infinite and that the role of education is to help students see, unleash, and realize that potential.

Jeff Wetzler
Transcend

Education Reimagined met up with an old friend, Jeff Wetzler, who we first got to know when he was at Teach for America. He is now onto another adventure having launched Transcend—a nonprofit dedicated to the creation and proliferation of breakthrough school models.


Q.  What got you first committed to education? Are you still committed for the same reason?

A.  My commitment to education really began while I was a learner during my own K-12 education. In many ways, school worked well for me, in that I had wonderful teachers in a safe, loving environment, as well as parents who advocated hard for my educational opportunities.

When I looked around, I saw a lot of my peers disengaged from learning and fairly disenchanted with school. So, I began to spend much of my time in class imagining what would be possible if school were different, more engaging, more hands-on, more rigorous, more student-driven. Every year in school, I dreamed about being a teacher of the grade level that I was in, and I asked myself what I would do differently if I were the teacher. I know it sounds a little odd…

And then, in high school, I met a chemistry teacher, Ron Perkins—who changed my life. He gave me the opportunity to put my ideas into action by teaching hands-on science to students in elementary schools throughout our district. I loved every moment of that teaching. In fact, I got inspired to co-found a similar program in college called Providence Science Outreach, where Brown University students teach hands-on science in urban schools and libraries throughout Providence, RI. My passion for education deepened in college, where I had the opportunity to study with Nancy and Ted Sizer, whose views on school design and whose authentically designed course experiences (such as ethnographically documenting “moral moments” in schools or designing our own high school) have been a pivotal foundation for me.

 

In high school, I met a chemistry teacher, Ron Perkins—who changed my life.

Jeff Wetzler
Transcend

Twenty years later, I am still committed to education for all of these reasons, but over the past decade while I worked at Teach For America, my commitment has deepened based on working on education through the lenses of race and class. While the “factory model” of schooling is highly problematic for all students, the disparities in educational opportunity faced by students of color, students in low-income communities, and students who learn differently outraged me. At TFA, not only did I begin to see the opportunity gap in education as an issue of social justice and human rights, but I also experienced how—in classrooms, whole schools, and networks of schools—it didn’t have to be this way…that when students of all backgrounds get the educational opportunities they deserve, they defy all odds and prove that demography is not destiny. This fueled my fire and is what continues to get me up every morning (early).

Q.  What was your journey from TFA to launching Transcend?

A.  I spent over a decade at Teach For America, with most of that time focused on continuously improving the preparation and ongoing support of TFA’s tens of thousands of teachers working in low-income, public schools across America. Again and again, I saw the power of strong teacher development. But, over time, I began to grow concerned that the core design of the teacher role is fundamentally not conducive to fostering transformative learning with their students. In other words, the traditional design of schools and classrooms does not set teachers up for true success with students, on the full range of dimensions that matter for student growth. (Exceptional teachers can get the job done with many students, but even for them, it is exhausting and hard to sustain.) This insight—combined with other experiences as a founding board member of urban schools in New York and as a parent of two public school students—deepened my conviction in the importance of more fundamentally rethinking the core design of learning environments.

Several years ago, my co-founder, Aylon Samouha, and I had the opportunity to partner with Achievement First, which runs a network of high-performing schools in the northeast, to rethink the design of elementary and middle school. This process resulted in the Greenfield Schools model. The more we got into the work, the more we realized the power of stepping back and thinking afresh about every aspect of school design—from the aims, to the total learner experience, to the content, to the roles of educators, parents, and community members, to the use of time, and so much more. We also realized how much capacity this type of work requires of school operators—to not just imagine and design but also to build, test, and iterate all the components of new school models.

 

The traditional design of schools and classrooms does not set teachers up for true success with students, on the full range of dimensions that matter for student growth.

Jeff Wetzler
Transcend

Along the way, we teamed up with Stacey Childress and Diane Tavenner (who are now on Transcend’s board) to capture our vision for the future of learning environments and develop a theory of change for how these can be created and spread over time. These ideas are captured in a paper we recently put out—Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic: Moving Faster Toward New School Models.

Q.  What is the major need that Transcend is trying to address?

A.  Among the many barriers to the creation and spread of new “school” models is a lack of what we refer to as research and development (R&D) capacity—the capacity to imagine, build, assess, iterate upon, codify, and ultimately spread new approaches. Without this capacity, even the most visionary school operators are often forced to revert to the traditional model of school design, given how much work it takes just to run schools on a day-to-day basis. We formed Transcend to address this gap in the field by fueling R&D capacity to accelerate the creation and spread of new kinds of learning environments that prepare students far better to thrive in and transform the 21st century. We do this through three, integrated activities:

BUILD TALENT: We are building a world-class, diverse force of R&D talent from a wide range of disciplines (e.g., instruction, social-emotional development, technology, learning science, etc.) who are motivated and well-positioned to work on innovation.

BUILD MODELS: We deploy this force of talent by engaging in a small number of deep, multi-year partnerships with school operators (districts, CMOs, independents) who are looking to create, codify, and spread breakthrough models of learning environments.

BUILD KNOWLEDGE: We extract, codify, and share our learnings about the new models and the innovation process to accelerate the field’s progress.

Q.  How will Transcend work with districts and other school operators?

A.  Transcend works arm-in-arm, in a deep, partnership-oriented way with districts and other school operators. We meet school operators where they are—whether they are right at the beginning of considering new models, already piloting innovations and looking to turbocharge their progress, or beginning to codify and spread whole-“school” innovations. We can then “afford” them the R&D capacity needed to innovate in profound ways. “Affording” capacity sometimes looks like Transcend bringing in external people and expertise from our talent force, sometimes looks like orchestrating talent that already exists within a district organization, and sometimes looks like developing their internal capacity to do it themselves.

In all of these situations, the end result is that we help districts and other school operators grow their capacity to keep innovating, while also giving a lift to current R&D efforts. At every step of the way, we aspire to not only take a user-centered design approach that draws upon the experience and ideas of students and families but also to draw from evidence-based insights that emerge from rigorous research in cognition, neuroscience, and social-emotional development.

Q. What have you done and learned in partnering with Achievement First on their Greenfield School model?

A.  It’s hard to capture such a big question in just a few sentences! We are in the early days, as we are just in the midst of piloting the new models in three grade levels—next year, the pilot will expand to seven grades.

With this, we have seen what is possible when a strong school operator invests the time and energy to step back and rethink every aspect of the student experience from a “green field.” We have seen the courageous, visionary leadership that this requires. We have seen the serious capacity required to not only imagine and design but also build and iterate in a rigorous way. We have seen the challenges of change management and execution. But, most importantly, we have seen what is possible when students and their families engage deeply around students’ most ambitious dreams; when students have the time and space to pursue passions, such as martial arts or music or STEM inventions; when students build habits of success through life-changing expeditions; and when students begin to direct their own learning rather than “receive” instruction from a teacher. This is an ongoing, multi-year learning journey. It is not neat and clean, and it is not for the faint of heart. But it is worth it.

Q. Where is Transcend headed at this point?

A.  Transcend is heading into an exciting phase of entering into partnerships with a variety of school operators, as well as bringing aboard individuals with diverse talents who are looking to build the future of “school.” We welcome folks who may be interested to reach out to us!

Q. What possibilities are you most excited about?

A.  We believe that the potential of every young person is infinite and that the role of education is to help students see, unleash, and realize that potential. When educators have the capacity to transform learning environments in ways that transcend the bounds of the traditional model, our students will astound us.

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