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edReformer interviews Scott Hartl

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    Ben Smith

Katherine Vander Ark interviews Scott Hartl, CEO of Expeditionary Learning

Expeditionary Learning partners to open new schools, enter existing schools, provides professional development, curriculum planning and creates school structures. What do you see as the greatest challenges for EL?

The challenge for EL over the past several years has been to balance our growth with the high-quality program we’re known for. Over the past 18 years we’ve grown from 10 schools to a network of 165 schools, 45,000 students and 4,300 teachers. We’re one of the bigger school improvement organizations out there. We have a unique model that has proven to be transformative for many schools, and we have a tremendously deep program of professional development for EL teachers.

Building quality and consistency across our broad and diverse network is our biggest challenge. This means keeping each of our schools focused on a deeper set of measurable student outcomes: both high achievement scores and the ability to communicate, think critically, problem-solve and collaborate. It doesn’t take long for visitors to our schools to understand that they’re different than traditional schools – students are really engaged in their academics because they are learning with a purpose. Our students don’t just read things in textbooks – they’re out in the field, working with experts, and making a difference in their communities.

We also need to work harder to make our voice heard in the national dialogue about school reform. For example, we are very interested in how the new common core assessments will measure student outcomes such as critical thinking skills and problem-solving so that schools are incentivized to align time and instruction toward these outcomes. We’re also concerned that the current focus on teacher quality downplays the importance of supporting the growth and development of the teachers we have. We have important contributions to make to these conversations.

You work with teachers and the administrations to create the best functioning schools and classrooms. What are some of the outcomes for children and how do they benefit from your model?

Like all school improvement organizations these days, we track our results very carefully. We are seeing excellent results on state tests, the most traditional measure of academic achievement. In schools that are implementing the EL model, students are 9.1 percentage points above district averages in reading and 4.5 in math. In all demographic subgroups, EL students are outperforming their district peers. We are also finding that the longer and more fully schools implement our model, the better their students do: 100% of the schools that are implementing our model at the highest level are outperforming districts in reading, and 90% in math.

While these results matter, they don’t tell the whole story. In addition to giving students the essential basic skills that they need, EL schools push students much farther. Our model is unique in how deeply we engage students with their learning. They’re compelled to care about and contribute to their learning because it has real value in the world. EL teachers expect high-level cognitive engagement and high quality finished work.

There’s an emerging common consensus in the field that achievement tests do not focus enough on the full range of outcomes critical for college readiness and success in the 21st century workforce – outcomes like critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, habits of scholarship, and quality work. EL is strongly focused on becoming a leader in measuring and tracking these outcomes. We’re thinking outside the box in how we define student achievement, beyond just test scores.

We are also finding that the longer and more fully schools implement our model, the better their students do: 100% of the schools that are implementing our model at the highest level are outperforming districts in reading, and 90% in math. Scott Hartl CEO, Expeditionary Learning

You recently attended the Aspen Institute and Startl expo on education and innovation in Washington D.C. What did you see or hear that was interesting and caught your attention?

There were a great number of innovative ideas and organizations at the expo that caught our attention. The growing focus on sharing innovative ideas helps motivate us to create realistic plans for bringing our innovations to scale, generate credible research in support of our model, and track the conditions associated with our most successful schools and programs.

Being around so many other highly innovative organizations also pushes us out of our own silo where we tend to think that we have to figure everything out for ourselves. EL is a broad and multi-faceted organization and being at events like the expo put us in touch with others who are developing elegant solutions to many areas of need in our schools. We are all working toward the same goal – student success – and events like the expo help us see how we can support one another. It’s a great way to seed potential partnerships and collaborations.

More specifically, we were very pleased to see the growing focus and attention on proficiency-based and competency-based learning pathways reflected at the expo and in the priorities of several of the major foundations that were present. We have been involved in this work for a long time and, more than ever, it has the potential to move the needle from a focus on “covering” the curriculum to a focus on what students are actually learning. We were also excited to see the growing number of “data dashboard” solutions on display at the expo. Providing platforms that allow teachers, school leaders, and students to efficiently draw on data from multiple assessments to inform curricular and lesson planning decisions at the classroom and individual student level is essential.

What are some of the innovations in the education sector that you have been following?

On the technology side, we are very excited about all of the energy going into making distance learning more practical. EL has 18 years worth of resources, including an extensive archive of exemplary student work, which we are working hard to bring to the desktops of every teacher and staff member in our network and beyond it. These resources can help educators implement our model more consistently and have the potential to bring EL to more people across the country and internationally. We now work in 30 states and D.C. and we are experiencing a growing demand for EL schools from educators in India, Taiwan, and South Africa. As distance learning technology advances in reliability and lowers in cost, we look forward to the time when we can convene this incredibly rich community of educators across geographies. The opportunities for both the delivery of content and learning support, and for harnessing the power of diverse communities is immense. These resources and accompanying technology also hold great promise for connecting our community of students and bringing them resources that can bring their learning to new levels.

We’re also excited about a growing focus on deeper learning being led by the Hewlett Foundation. It is resonant with EL’s strengths in helping students be self-directed learners and critical thinkers. In EL schools, deeper learning prepares students to master core academic content, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and understand how they best learn. These skills are critical to success in college and beyond and we’re happy that deeper learning is bringing focus to this work.

In EL schools, deeper learning prepares students to master core academic content, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and understand how they best learn. Scott Hartl CEO, Expeditionary Learning

The movement toward anywhere-anytime learning also holds great potential for EL. This work has one foot in technology solutions, and one in the curriculum, assessment, and reporting world. EL has long been about making learning during school time more connected to real world work that drives the deep engagement of students and teachers. When our schools get this right, the boundaries of school time become almost irrelevant and this is when students start asking teachers if they can stay late and come in on Saturdays. Creating the technology systems, practices, and values in schools to allow all of what students are learning to be treated as a whole cloth is very exciting to us.

Lastly, we’re bringing innovative solutions to the growing number of school districts that have both EL charter schools and EL district schools. We’re helping them develop a unified strategy to elevate the achievement of high needs students across what has historically been a pretty sharp boundary between charter and district schools. We’re excited about the opportunities for knowledge and resource sharing within these collaborations.

For more, read about the EL approach.