Reimagining What Schools Look Like

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Episode 80 │ Reimagining What Schools Look Like

Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024

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Aylon Samouha

It’s time to think creatively about school reform! Co-CEO of Transcend Education Aylon Samouha joined the show to share the latest in school transformation. Tune in to explore the purpose of education, innovative learning models and the journey towards creating extraordinary, equitable learning environments.


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Helen Westmoreland: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Helen Westmoreland and I am missing my co-host, Kisha today. But I am excited to dig into an important topic with a fantastic guest. So in the aftermath of the pandemic, many of us hoped for a quote unquote new normal when it came to our child's school lives.

But instead in the majority of schools across America, we sort of returned to business as usual. Today we're gonna explore what it would look like to reimagine schools and what it would take to make these ideas come to life, which is why we are so excited to have with us today. Aylon Samouha. Aylon is the Co-CEO of Transcend an organization focused on supporting communities across the country to create and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.

Before co-founding Transcend, Aylon served as the Chief Schools Officer at Rocketship Education, the highest performing network of low-income schools in California. He also spent several years as a senior VP at Teach for America directing pre-service institutes and service development for teachers. Last but certainly not least, Aylon is a proud husband and father to two children. Welcome to the show, Aylon.

Aylon Samouha: So glad to be here.

Helen: Thank you for joining us, we are thrilled to have you. We love to start out with you just telling us a little bit about yourself and what led you to Co-Found Transcend.

Aylon Samouha: Thanks. So as an educator, I've spent my whole career trying to make sure that as many kids as possible and ultimately all kids get the kind of education that they deserve. And when I was at Teach for America, where I had the privilege of seeing thousands of classrooms across the country. I saw very quickly that in every single room that I went into, the hardest working person was always the teacher.

And it got me thinking about why is it that way? How do we make sure that students are deeply engaged and working as hard as we know they can with purpose and with love of learning. And as I started pulling that thread, I started realizing, school wasn't really designed for that.

And it led me to, as you mentioned, Rocketship education, where we were able to design a model in which the community was much more involved. Parents had much more of a role in it. We started using technology in ways that made teaching easier because there was more personalization, et cetera. What I came to realize is that even some of those steps that we took required a level of community-based design and an R & D mindset of trying new things that was the exception and not the rule. And so when my co-founder Jeff Wetzler, and I started Transcend, it was out of the recognition that if we are going to get to where we want all kids to be, we're gonna need to do school fundamentally differently. And during that period, I also had, you know, the first of my two kids. And as any parent knows, once you see how precious and infinite your child is, and you start to see, that school's kind of like the system that you plug them into, and maybe you get lucky with the right teacher. Maybe you get lucky with the right school.

Helen: Yeah. You send your babies off, like yeah.

Aylon Samouha: Right. You know, and, it made it 10 times more visceral for me. The idea that school needs to change. And so, that's why we started Transcend and why we work with communities to try to redesign how we do school.

Helen: Oh, that's great. I am so glad you're there and thinking about that and doing this work. And can't wait to dive into it. I wanna take like 20 steps back. 'cause when we say our education system needs transformation,  there's something implied there and I feel like a lot of it is around the purpose. So when you say meeting the mark, I'm curious from your perspective, like how do you define the purpose of education right now, and how do you feel like that's maybe shifted and how we're meeting that purpose or not meeting that purpose?

Aylon Samouha: I'm so glad, Helen, that we're starting there because that's often where we start, actually always where we start when we're working with a community. And I'll give you some of my answers and some of the answers that I've heard, but I think it's important to name that the answer to that question needs to come from students and families and educators and community leaders and district leaders all working together to interrogate that question.

What's interesting is that lots of themes come up that I think would resonate for so many parents and educators. The purpose of school on some level is to help ensure that a young person has the skills and mindsets and orientation and context that will set them up for success in life, professionally, personally, et cetera. And certainly speaking as a parent, I want my kid to learn how to do reading and math. Absolutely. But that's not enough. Yeah. Right. I want them to know how to collaborate. I want them to know empathy. I want them to understand, parts of their history. I want them to understand themselves, their community. So when you create the space to answer that Very good question that you raised here. It's almost a flood of beautiful ideas about what education is. And it's so funny too because you can almost always trace back something that someone says that feels novel and new and then you go back to  education philosophers of over the last few hundred years, frankly. And they'll say the same thing. like it's been in a book somewhere. Right.

Helen: It's, it's our big existential question, how do we all walk in our purpose?

Aylon Samouha: Exactly. Exactly. And so and so I would say that the reason why it's so important to start with that question is because this model, which I'm positing here is outdated. It doesn't take that into consideration.

That is not the purpose that folks had in mind when they designed what is what we now call the industrial model school.

Helen: Well, you think it, what was the purpose that you think is being reflected in our current system predominantly?

Aylon Samouha: Yeah.Let's not forget that when the industrial model was created, it was an innovation. We were going from a world where very few people had access to any kind of formal education to one where in this country, we were trying to get more and more kids and, you know, unfortunately it wasn't all kids, but more and more kids into formal education.

And so that in and of itself was an innovation and, they were good backwards planners at the time, and they thought to themselves, okay, well what are we preparing them for? And so, especially in urban centers, the answer was, well, we're some of them will go, you know, to universities and so on, but mostly we're preparing them for factory jobs.

And so, in quite a cohesive and aligned way, they started designing school to not just prepare you for the factory mail, but actually to mimic a factory. Right. Where, it's like an assembly line, right? You get a little bit of math, for 45 minutes. Then you go to reading, you get that for 45 minutes, then you get to eat. Then you go back and you do science and you. And things like how many hours you spend in each of those things. So the things that we now think of as seat time and the carnegie unit. They were born out of this, Mm-Hmm. 'cause everything else that one might think a young person needs was presumed to be fulfilled by other parts of society.

Family, temples or churches. And whether or not that was true, is obviously in question, but that was the sort of idea.

Helen: The intent. That is such helpful context and I'm intrigued by your response when I ask what's the purpose that from your mind where you sit, there is no one purpose. There are many, many purposes depending on the community and the kids, and the young people and the families and all of that and what they want. And you mentioned that this current model we're using was an innovation at the time. I'm curious what, given the many purposes you've heard from communities as you've been working with them, what are you seeing as some innovations now? Like what are some of the things that excite you, that are being tried?

Aylon Samouha: So many things. We are seeing schools do a number of things that change the core experience of school to be one that is frankly, much more aligned to the 21st century and to both the quote unquote hard and soft skills that students need to be happy and successful today and into the future. One frame that has been really handy for us, and I should say that, one of the hallmarks of school, like the factory, is that school was designed for a set of outcomes. Mm-Hmm. The experience of school was not really the thing that was trying to be maximized. Just like the success of factory is not the experience of the workers in it, it is the efficiency and the quality of the outputs.

And so a zoomed out level answer to your question is, that we're seeing schools focus more and more on the experience of school, not instead of outcomes, but right side by side with them and in a way that enables outcomes today and tomorrow, and so one handy way that we think about how the experience of school's changing, is what we call the 10 leaps. We asked ourselves, well, what about the experience of school? What are the dimensions that are the mark of the industrial model? And how do those dimensions change as we go into more extraordinary 21st century learning for all?

And so we're seeing things like learning that is happening in a more rote way to more rigorous learning, where students are using more critical thinking. Making deep meaning of what they're encountering. And some of that, by the way, is actually captured in some of the, you know, updated standard academic standards. But it's also an approach. It's an experience so it requires more project-based learning, more inquiry-based learning, more as Jal Mehta in, Harvard calls Deeper learning.

And what we see as a result of that is that students are much more engaged. The, literally the experience of learning is better, but also, not surprisingly, they'd learn the material better as well when it's done well, right?

Another example of a leap, would be the experience of school in the, in the past, is one of passive compliance because, you're getting your 45 minutes of each subject and your success is based on, are you just listening to the teacher facing forward. We're seeing lots of communities elevate active self-direction. where young people are more drivers of their learning. An example in, in where I live in Chicago, there's a school called Intrinsic where, it's a 7th to 12th grade school. they have an entire day a week that's called Choice Day, where

Helen: Oh, wow.

Aylon Samouha:Students themselves are figuring out what they need sometimes with the help of an adult to ask the right questions. But they might choose to go get some extra academic help. They might choose to work on a project with a student. Over time it would evolve to, they can go take an internship because that's what they need to get a certification that they want. And that's a very concrete example of it, but even within more traditional environments students having more voice and choice in their learning.

Helen: I love that. And I like the way you described it as thinking more about the experience of school, not just the outcomes. I wanna talk a little bit more about what you mentioned, as you're working in communities, talking about the purpose of education, and what you've been hearing that surprises you a little bit tell our listeners, a little bit more about some of the things you hear that you think are frequent misunderstandings about the work you do.

Aylon Samouha: Yeah. Yeah. So, there's a real tension in education, but it's also a tension in any sector when you're trying to do innovation work, which is, They have a term for it called the innovator's dilemma that has many different aspects to it. But, you know, I think in education, it looks like this, you know, my kid only has one chance at fifth grade. I don't want you experimenting on him, right?

Helen: What if it doesn't work?

Aylon Samouha:  Exactly. So like, do the innovation somewhere else. I don't want any part of that. I went to school this way, it's gonna work for my kid. And, so I would say that the misunderstanding is that one has to make a choice between what is current, known and safe, versus something that might have a lot of rewards but is very risky. That there's that binary choice because that is not what we find at all. And the way that we've described and pursue community-based design you're able to do a few things at once. One is dream big, right?

So there's nothing wrong with having a really big vision for something that happens. You know, over the course of 3, 5, 10 years, right. The way you fall into that trap is, is if someone would say, okay, well that's the vision. So we're doing it now. Like, you know, let's run the plane today. Mm-Hmm. Nothing's been built yet. We haven't tested it. We don't even know if it works, but we're just gonna do it, that would be reckless.

Helen: But in some ways not totally unfounded. Because that has been how education changes often rolled out, right?

Aylon Samouha: That's right. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And so, right, so it's, it's not an unfounded fear, right? I would say that that there are ways of doing it where you can dream big and then say, okay, given our conditions and what we know, what's the very first part of that we want to take on?

With whom, should we take it on? Where do we have the highest chance of both learning the most, but also of proving out the most with the lowest amount of risk? So for example, we've had folks who have had the crazy, crazy idea that they want to try. It's like, well, let's actually not try that for all of fifth grade. Why don't we try it with an afterschool program? Why don't we try it with a summer school course? Why don't we try it just on a Saturday with six kids and see what happens? So there are lots of choices, where you can pursue the high reward, but maybe high risk kind of ideas.

And then there's lots of ideas that actually are proven. That other communities are doing and the stuff is codified and you can use it. We have  an entire website called, the, the models exchange where there's stuff that at some point it was someone's dream, but today it's someone's reality. You can go to the schools and see the kids use it. So I would say that that is one big misunderstanding is that, yeah. you have to make that choice. And then because you know what, if it takes 10 years, that's okay, it taking never years is the problem. Right. Which I think leads to the second misunderstanding, which is that somehow the thing that we're doing now is actually all that safe and good.

We have a student survey that we've now given to a hundred thousand kids. And I'll tell you, you know, and this probably won't surprise parents, like most kids, basically the best you're going to hear about school is it's fine.

Like, that's the high watermark. Yeah, I challenge us, as parents in our own communities, to go around. Just go have 30 minute conversations with as many kids as you can and track for yourself. How many are saying school's extraordinary? I mean, I can't believe the weather was so terrible today that I had to miss three hours of school. How painful that is for me. In school if a kid just says fine and basically complies and gets pretty good grades, everyone's happy.

And it's like, that's a misunderstanding, right? That's like we have too low of a bar of what's possible. Yeah. and, and so thinking that what we have now is just like good enough and safe, I would consider a fundamental misunderstanding as well.

Helen: I think that is so insightful. I think sometimes we hear on the news and the media a lot of these arguments which are meaningful, about like the NAEP scores, right? And our kids aren't performing and that, is meaningful, but it's not the same as when you're a parent and you're trying to convince a kid to get dressed and out of bed and to school that doesn't wanna go, because they don't like it. They're bored. Like whatever. Like that hits.

Aylon Samouha: That's right.

Helen: In a different way.  I also wanna know how do communities get started in this transformation work? What are you seeing as, taking that pacing comment to heart, like some of those first few steps, entry points for a district to kind of rethink and reorganize how, it's doing, its work in the service of, of kids and families.

Aylon Samouha: Mm-Hmm. Yeah. And I'd be happy to share a resource with your listeners. We published a short paper, very accessible, describing what we mean by community-based design with a bunch of resources that you can click into and use. And so with the caveat that it does look different in every community, it's usually some group of people that comes together and importantly, a group that is representative of a few different stakeholder groups. The best examples are when there’s a couple of teachers with the school leader or a couple school leaders, if it's a larger district, someone at the district level, maybe even the sup often, and some students and families coming together And starting to, we have a bunch of tools to do this, interrogate these big questions like what's the purpose of school? At the beginning, there's some amount of looking inward and looking outward, that a community needs to do, the looking inward to understand what is happening. Actually right now. Let's challenge the assumptions we might have. And we do that by literally going to classrooms, observing, having 30 or 45 minute conversations with young people. It's a big challenge to try to talk to a young person as an adult for 45 minutes, where the adult only talks for three of the minutes.


Helen: You gotta have some good interview questions.

Aylon Samouha: That's right. We have that, that is something you can click on and get, we call them student interviews. Or  if you want to go even a step further, shadow a student for an entire day. And, so there's  some of that or looking at data, like who's succeeding by traditional outcomes, who's not? Why is that right  and then some looking outward, right?

What does learning science tell us? And we have some materials for that. What are some of the most innovative, models around the country and increasingly the world, what can we learn from them? What is our community demanding of our students that we work with? You know, a ton of rural communities, for example, where they're asking themselves not just, you know, big macro questions about the future trends of work, but like in this community, who are the employers and what is it that they need and what would make them wanna open, a new office right? So that is the beginning. Then from there it's figuring out, what's our vision for what school can be? And that's not something that communities need to do from scratch.

There's a lot of great stuff. We have some of it, but there's also  so many places we can point you to, to get the inspiration to say, we think we want something like this. and mm-Hmm. And, and the reason why it's good to have a coalition of people doing that is that it's that group that is starting to build the coalition and the conviction and the clarity that the community needs to start pursuing the change at whatever pace makes sense for them.

Helen: Gosh, it seems on the one hand, so straightforward. On the other hand, still daunting. I feel like it's almost even hard for me to step out of this like, ‘Oh, it's so hard to change.’ It's so like, ‘will it really happen?’ Change. So I'm curious if you've encountered that sort of skepticism. Mm-Hmm. I guess Mm-Hmm. Like, or pessimism about it. And how you've advised folks you've worked with who really want to advocate for change to like help get past that, that skepticism and make a change.

Aylon Samouha: Oh, yeah. And look, it's real. While I may sound optimistic because I am, and it's my job to be,

Helen: Yeah, yeah. Right. Like, you know, thank you for being optimistic.

Aylon Samouha: But I don't wanna make it sound like it's easy 'cause it's not. And it requires a lot of work. Right. But the reason why I remain optimistic is that, every community has a certain set of conditions, and we believe those conditions can grow over time. And usually those conditions grow over time when, at least the community in some set of folks in that community are willing to go on a learning journey. It is through learning that the conditions get built. Where you start getting the conviction, because it's like, it's so true what you're saying, that it's like, look, it's really hard how's it gonna happen? But, after you talk to the sixth kid, that says I don't feel like I belong in school. Yeah. Yeah. You start getting a little more conviction to overcome some of that skepticism.

Helen: Or guilt if you don't do anything with it right?

Aylon Samouha: mean, that's the thing. I mean, we've had school leaders say like, I can't unsee what I've seen now. Yeah. Right. Yeah. but I think the silver lining is that because, there's not some prescription of, okay, so once you know it, year one, everyone stop what you're doing and you know, it's this herculean task. Because at least our prescription is just move at the pace of your conditions. Wherever you are, there's something you can do. It doesn't have to be the whole thing, right? I'm thinking about a student who we had, come on to one of our team calls from Northern Caste, North Dakota, who just absolutely did not like history, ninth grader.And on that survey that I talked about, she was definitely one of the people who said learning wasn't relevant. In fact, only I think 25 or 30% of the kids said learning was relevant.

And when she had the chance to create her own history course? And by the way, there's a pilot with six kids. It was not high stakes, right? She loved history. I mean, so much of that she'd get on a call with a hundred adults and explain how, you know, writing a course about women in history that really spoke to her, made her realize all these realizations that any parent and any teacher would want to hear. And when you start to see that. And you combine the like, ooh, that this doesn't feel good, that kids are saying learning is irrelevant. And actually we tried something and eight or 12 weeks later we're starting to see a little bit of light. You know, it's that momentum that overcomes the skepticism.

Helen: Well, I could probably talk to you all day, Aylon but I'm curious, you mentioned optimism and sort of the student when you look ahead to the next maybe 10, 20 years Are you optimistic? And why or why not?

Aylon Samouha: It's such a hard question to answer because, there are so many forces at work. I do believe that if we resist the temptation to just pick silver bullets and dump 'em on top of communities, which is what we've done for years and years but rather, give ourselves the time and space to have these kinds of conversations, the natural human inclination towards learning and innovation and progress will take hold. And I believe that because I study history, but also because I see it in communities that we get a chance to work with. Yeah. And so once you start Seeing it, you start thinking it's more and more possible. And so I am optimistic and I like that outlook. Yes, that's good.

Helen: I'm grateful for your optimism. Before we go, any final words or advice you wanna offer our listeners?

Aylon Samouha: As you can tell, I think it's possible. It looks different in every community and we have lots and lots of tools that people can, can use and conversation starters.

Helen: Tell us where folks can go to Find out more about the work you're doing.

Aylon Samouha: So our website, has everything. There's the models exchange, there's the leaps that I talked about, community-based design tools. Soon we will be coming out with a book, that folks can read that will also link to all those kinds of tools. And our hope is that the collection of resources, which we make open source by design, will inspire folks to do things like, invite some people around the kitchen table to start some of these discussions.

Helen: Excellent. Well, I'm looking forward to checking those tools out. Thank you again for joining us, Aylon. We appreciate your expertise and your optimism.

Aylon Samouha: It was a pleasure being here. Thanks for having me, Helen.

Helen: Thank you, and to our audience listening, thank you for joining us. For more resources related to today's episode, check out Thanks for tuning in and please join us next time.