LISTEN — Class Disrupted S4 E5: Why Aren’t There More Innovative Schools?

LISTEN — Class Disrupted S4 E5: Why Aren’t There More Innovative Schools?

Receive stories like these directly in your inbox. Join Newsletter to stay informed.

Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly podcast in the field of education, hosted by Michael Horn and Diane Tavenner from Summit Public Schools. In each episode, they engage in conversations with educators, school leaders, students, and other members of school communities. Together, they explore the challenges that the education system is currently facing during the pandemic and discuss potential directions for the future. You can find all episodes on our dedicated Class Disrupted page or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or Stitcher for new episodes every other Tuesday.

During a recent visit to the Anderson Institute of Technology in South Carolina, Diane Tavenner shares her enthusiasm with Michael Horn. This prompts the question of why there aren’t more schools like the one she witnessed.

Listen to the episode below, followed by a complete transcript.

  • Class Disrupted S4 E5: Exploring the Lack of Innovative Schools

Diane Tavenner: Hello, Michael.

Michael Horn: Hi, Diane. How are you doing?

Tavenner: Michael, I am absolutely thrilled to discuss a recent school visit I embarked upon. It has given me so much hope for what is achievable.

Horn: Well, Diane, I must say that you don’t usually get this excited about school visits. Perhaps a decade ago, but now you seem to have become more skeptical and jaded. However, this sounds intriguing and even promising. The underlying premise of our podcast is that the crisis caused by COVID-19 could potentially lead to the reinvention of schools. Yet, after four seasons, we are still waiting to witness this transformation. I am eager to learn about what you found promising and what has ignited your excitement. Let’s dive in. Please tell me about your visit.

Tavenner: Wow, where do I begin? So, I had the opportunity to visit the Anderson Institute of Technology, also known as AIT, in South Carolina. Let me start by saying that hosting visitors is a lot of work, and I am incredibly grateful to Dr. Couch, Kelly, Cecil, Dana, Stephanie, and the entire AIT team and their students for their remarkable hospitality. They were truly amazing, Michael. They were open-minded and generous with their time. As you mentioned, I am not easily impressed by school visits these days, but this one ignited a sense of inspiration within me. AIT is a young institution, only four years old. It opened its doors in the fall of 2019, and, as you can imagine, they had barely completed one year of operation when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. It was definitely a challenging time to be launching a school.

Horn: Absolutely, not an ideal situation at all.

Tavenner: Despite the difficulties faced by everyone, they have persevered and overcome the obstacles. AIT functions as a school where high school students from three different school districts come to attend half-day or full-day sessions in any of the 18 available career pathways. The school’s main focus is to prepare students for college and career readiness. Now, I know that many schools claim to prioritize this, but AIT truly stands out because of its highly interactive learning experiences. They emphasize hands-on activities that revolve around solving real-world problems and engaging in meaningful projects.

Horn: Those are some impressive assertions you’re making. When I hear you speak, I can’t help but think of other schools that have excelled in this area. Take for example Big Picture Learning schools, which have a long history of success. They provide students with real-world internships as part of their educational experience, allowing them to work on fascinating projects. Another example that comes to mind is Korea, where I witnessed the Meister Schools, led by a former semiconductor company CEO. These schools even have real semiconductor plants. Although they may not offer the same level of choice as you mentioned, they are certainly noteworthy in their own right.

Furthermore, I consider vocational high schools near me, as well as those in New Jersey, which have gained prestige over time. However, your proposal appears to be distinct and much more diverse than the traditional vocational education system. It goes beyond just being associated with blue-collar work. I agree that there is currently a lot of talk and momentum in this direction. Therefore, I’m curious to understand what sets your approach apart from other initiatives that aim to prepare students not only for college but also for their careers. It seems that your approach takes this objective more seriously. I would appreciate it if you could provide further insights.

Tavenner: Absolutely, let’s start by acknowledging that some people do recognize the need for a value proposition for students in their educational journey. To some extent, we also incorporate this idea into our approach. However, it seems that AIT has truly embraced this concept. They offer students dual enrollment or dual credit options with colleges, industry certifications, honors credit opportunities, and even apprenticeships and internships. These additional opportunities create tangible benefits for students beyond just acquiring knowledge and skills. They result in valuable credentials, certifications, and credits. Many institutions strive to provide similar advantages, but what sets AIT apart is the depth and extent to which they offer these opportunities. It’s truly remarkable.

Additionally, I want to address a point you mentioned earlier. AIT is not the vocational education system that people often fear. Many individuals have reservations about vocational education due to its history of limiting students’ options and leading to dead-end experiences. However, AIT is different. Every pathway at AIT explicitly outlines the various possibilities for students who choose not to pursue further education after high school, as well as the opportunities available with an associate’s, bachelor’s, and even higher degrees. The career prospects and salary ranges are clearly displayed on the walls and in the catalogs. This transparency is commendable.

Let me provide an example to illustrate this further. AIT offers an electrical design and integrated smart systems pathway. It’s particularly interesting because people often use electricians or plumbers as examples of lucrative careers in trades. According to AIT’s catalog, upon graduating from high school, students can begin their careers as electrician’s helpers or apprentices, earning approximately $46,000 per year, which is quite impressive, especially considering the region. With an associate’s degree, opportunities expand to become an electrical technician, controls technician, or smart system network technician, with income in the range of $78,000. A bachelor’s degree can lead to roles such as electrical engineer, project manager, or engineering maintenance management, earning around $90,000. This level of detail is provided for every pathway, outlining the necessary steps and responsibilities involved.

Horn: This is very interesting. Please continue. I am quite curious about this. So, these pathways, how are they structured? What is the level of rigor involved? How do they ensure that these experiences provide options and skills rather than pigeonholing students into specific pathways?

Tavenner: Absolutely, and what I find intriguing is the wide range of pathways they offer. There are a total of 18 different pathways, including electrical engineering, digital art and design, health sciences, biomedical sciences, and pre-med. We spoke with several students who are pursuing the pre-med pathway. They also have pathways in cybersecurity, network fundamentals, computer science, and aerospace engineering. They even have flight simulators where students can practice simulated flights. They also have simulators for driving tractors, which I found surprising but necessary for learning how to operate such machinery.

Horn: That’s amazing.

Tavenner: Yes, and what struck me while talking to the students is their excitement and curiosity about the various pathways available to them. It was clear to me that they were being exposed to and exploring different possibilities. I also met some students who had changed their pathways. They initially started in one pathway but discovered a more appealing one while in the program, so they switched. I think this flexibility is great. However, the question of rigor always comes up. Personally, I find it fascinating to observe how teenagers respond when adults express trust and belief in them. The professionalism and the use of industry-standard machines and technology in the program create an environment where students can thrive. The instructors, who have been carefully selected for their teaching approach, are industry professionals themselves. The learning style is very hands-on and self-directed, with an emphasis on problem-solving.

I particularly enjoyed a specific experience we had during our visit. We witnessed a group presentation by students in the networking pathway. They noticed that their teachers were faced with the challenge of taking attendance from multiple high schools. Each teacher had to log in to PowerSchool for each school, which was inefficient and cumbersome. I was impressed that the students recognized this issue. They decided to tackle the problem by utilizing the thumbprint scanners that are used throughout the building. These scanners are used to log hours needed for industry certifications in many of the pathways. The students proposed using these scanners for attendance purposes and began contacting the company responsible for the fingerprint scanners, as well as PowerSchool. They realized that a connector was needed to integrate the two systems. I typically find that programs like this focus on teaching students to become entrepreneurs and build multimillion-dollar companies. However, in this case, the students were tackling a real problem creatively, cost-effectively, and collaboratively, while maintaining an appropriate level of rigor for their current stage in life. This, to me, is exactly how it should be.

Horn: That’s incredible. Truly incredible. How do the students view traditional aspects of high school, such as athletics?

Horn: Wow, this is really different from anything I’ve encountered before. It’s comprehensive in a unique way, providing students with the opportunity to test and apply what we’ve been discussing throughout this season of Class Disrupted in relation to themselves.

Tavenner: That’s correct.

Horn: I’m curious about where it fits for me as I enter this field. Will I develop a passion for it? I don’t believe that we are limited to a fixed number of passions, so can I cultivate one for this? If it doesn’t resonate with me, can I explore other options? I also want to point out that I didn’t realize until you mentioned it that students can enroll part-time while still being part of their home high school, which I find to be quite unique. It seems like there might be a growing interest in this area, Diane, so perhaps we will see more schools like this in the future. What are your thoughts?

Tavenner: Well, that’s the part that caught my attention during my visit. As you can imagine, Michael, I had many questions about why more people aren’t doing this and how it came about. It’s important to discuss the school’s leader and founder, Dr. Couch, as he seems to be quite exceptional, which might explain the lack of similar schools. He had a successful career as an educator and then moved on to the Department of Education in South Carolina, where he spent 20 years. It was during this time that he learned about these models and even led a delegation to Europe to study them, which greatly influenced his work. He played a key role in the passage of legislation in South Carolina that supports this type of school and learning.

However, after the legislation was passed, no one in the state took action. Schools weren’t opening and programs weren’t being implemented. This is where I greatly admire Dr. Couch. He didn’t just sit back and accept the lack of progress. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and started a school that aligns with the legislation. He experienced some challenges along the way, which led him to pursue AIT. But my concern, Michael, is whether someone who isn’t as knowledgeable as Dr. Couch, who doesn’t have the same connections and understanding of the legislation and hasn’t had the opportunity to visit Europe or establish relationships with companies and community organizations, can actually open a school like this. When I delved deeper, it became evident that his extensive background and personal connections played a significant role in making this happen.

Horn: That’s incredibly interesting. Before I share my thoughts, I’m curious to hear what else you believe might be hindering others from embarking on similar endeavors or what other aspects of Dr. Couch’s background make him unique in this context.

Tavenner: Policy is another factor that comes to mind. Through my experiences in various states, I’ve noticed that policymakers at the state level genuinely believe that they have policies in place that encourage and enable individuals to pursue initiatives like this. It seems like that’s what they want to see happen. However, they often feel frustrated when no one takes action. Some states even offer waivers for such initiatives, granting flexibility. Yet, no one seems to be taking advantage of these opportunities or utilizing the allocated funding in the desired manner. To me, there seems to be a disconnect between the reality on the ground and the policymakers. I’ve pondered this extensively, and it seems that when these policies are enacted, they fail to address the existing demands and requirements adequately.

Horn: It absolutely makes sense. My belief is that innovation in education should be the norm, not something that requires navigating through regulations and seeking permission. Recently, I had a discussion with state policy makers who were focused on assisting districts in implementing innovative practices through waivers. They were proud of their efforts, such as simplifying the application process and providing consulting support. While I appreciate their intentions, I want to emphasize that innovation is a challenging and time-consuming endeavor. It shouldn’t be burdened with excessive bureaucracy and uncertainty. It’s mind-boggling to think that a waiver process can truly foster innovation. Instead, innovation should be embedded in our approach to improving student outcomes without needing permission. I also want to address a common misconception I heard at the conference. Some individuals in the innovation world suggest that innovation and positive outcomes are incompatible. Let me clarify: true innovation is only valuable if it helps students or stakeholders make progress.

Tavenner: Michael, I completely agree with you. After reviewing the waiver processes in various states, I have decided against pursuing that route. Even though we have the resources and determination to do so, it doesn’t seem like a feasible option. I want to point out a telling moment during my conversation with Dr. Couch. When I asked him about his peers and sources of inspiration, he struggled to name anyone other than a couple of schools he had visited. It was evident that he lacked a network of like-minded individuals to collaborate and share ideas with. As someone involved in innovative education initiatives, I understand the feeling of isolation and the desire to keep things under the radar to avoid negative reactions. However, it is concerning that the education industry, which spans across 50 states, isn’t utilizing waivers to promote innovation. There seems to be a lack of incentive and connectivity among educators. If we genuinely want to drive innovation, we must explore different approaches.

Tavenner: Well, Michael, I have a surprising choice for my current read. I’m delving into Good Economics for Hard Times, a book written by the esteemed economist and Nobel Prize winner, Abhijit Banerjee, and co-authored by Esther Duflo. I must admit, I may have mangled their names a bit, and for that, I apologize. It’s hard to believe that the 2024 presidential cycle is already underway, but I felt compelled to educate myself on the pressing challenges confronting our country and the world. I wanted to approach these issues from a fresh perspective, and this book certainly provides that. I’m already gaining a wealth of knowledge and find it utterly fascinating. So, that’s what I’ve been engrossed in lately. How about you?

Horn: I’m delighted that you’re diving into that, Diane. As for me, I’ve immersed myself in the world of fiction. I finally completed Anna Karenina, the lengthy novel by Tolstoy that you playfully teased me about when I first started reading it. But I persevered and managed to finish it. This is a personal triumph for me, spanning not just a week but several months, I must say, Diane.

Tavenner: Congratulations! That’s quite an accomplishment.

Horn: Thank you. With that, we’ll conclude on a hopeful note. We appreciate your presence in this episode of Class Disrupted.

Michael B. Horn is dedicated to creating a world where individuals can pursue their passions and fulfill their potentials. He achieves this through his writing, public speaking, and involvement with various educational organizations. He is the acclaimed author of multiple books, including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Revolutionize Education and the recently published From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)creating Schools for Every Child. Additionally, he is a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank.

Diane Tavenner serves as CEO of Summit Public Schools and is a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. With a lifelong commitment to education and innovation, she has made significant contributions to the field. Tavenner is also the author of the book Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilling Life.


  • tobyevans

    Toby Evans is an educational blogger and school teacher who uses her blog to share her ideas and experiences with her students and fellow educators. She is passionate about helping her students learn and grow, and uses her blog as a way to share her knowledge and insights with the world.