Q & A with Bob Lenz, Envision Schools

Bob Lenz leads Envision Schools, a Bay Area network of high schools that stress what the Hewlett Foundation calls deeper learning by engaging students in projects, infusing the arts, and asking good questions.
Q. You recently attended the Aspen Institute Education Innovation Forum & Expo in Washington D.C. What did you see or hear that was interesting and caught your attention?
A. I was really encouraged by the attention that’s being placed on what we believe at Envision Schools to be the ultimate outcome: preparing students for success in college and career. We think there are a lot of things that need to be done in order to get students there – including focusing on preparation not just for college application or acceptance but for college and career success, using a performance-based learning approach that both teaches and assesses “deeper learning,” which means mastery of core academic skills and knowledge as well as critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills. When leaders like Alan Greenspan (who spoke in the opening session) are calling for these types of innovations, I think people will start to listen. We also went to showcase some technology we’re working on for performance assessment, and had some good conversations about how that might meet the needs of other schools, which is something we’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately as we build out our Center for College & Career Success (3CS).
Q. What are some of the innovations in the education sector that you have been following?
A. We’ve been really interested in the development of the Common Core standards, and are hopeful that they’ll be implemented in a way that covers not just academic skills and content, but also skills like critical thinking, collaboration, and effective communication. It’s really important that strong performance assessments are developed to measure these new standards, too, and in ways that really capture what students know and can do. We believe that this has the potential to drive huge changes in how we design teaching, learning and assessment in public schools – and in the ways students learn outside of school too. I’m also encouraged by the potential of technology to make this type of teaching and learning cheaper and easier, not to mention more efficient, scalable and reliable.
Q. What is Envision Schools working on right now? Any interesting initiatives in the pipeline?
A. First and foremost, we are really committed to making sure we’re teaching our kids well – by ensuring that in addition to mastering key academic knowledge, they can also apply that knowledge to real-world problems and projects, assessments, which we think gets them prepared for college and life. It’s almost the end of the school year, and we’re going to be celebrating our seniors’ college acceptances soon, and sending them off to college in the fall. Many of them will be the first in their family to go to college. But for us, the work doesn’t stop there. We’re working with a new nonprofit called Beyond 12 to coach our graduates and track their progress while they’re in college, and we’re looking forward to using that feedback to refine our model so we can keep getting better, and make sure that each cohort of students that comes through Envision Schools enters college more and more prepared, and that this continues to be reflected in our college persistence rates.
We built Envision Schools to demonstrate that a redesigned system of public high schools could achieve transformational results for college success for students – especially those who will be the first in their family to go to college.  With the launch of our Center for College and Career Success (3CS), we plan to make good on the promise that charter schools will use their autonomy to innovate and that innovation will spread to the traditional public school system. We have begun working with several schools and school districts to help them adopt a version of our student assessment system, and we’re excited about developing tools and training that will ultimately benefit thousands more students in the Bay Area and across the country.
Q. You said earlier that there is a need for a performance assessment system to evaluate mastery based on evidence of performance. How do you meet this need?
A. We believe strongly that real learning happens when students master content but also the skills they need to actually apply that content successfully. That learning deepens further when they are able to show what they know, and reflect about their learning process and their own academic growth. At Envision, we assess for all three of these types of learning through our balanced assessment system: mastery of knowledge and skills, demonstration and application of knowledge, and metacognition (or “learning to learn”). What we’ve developed at Envision over the last 8 years is a comprehensive approach to assessment. For example, over their years at Envision, students build a portfolio of work that culminates in a dissertation-style “defense” where students are asked to demonstrate their mastery of knowledge and skills, to show their ability to apply this knowledge and skill, and to flex their metacognitive muscle. As we’ve grown from our original school site into a network of four schools, we’ve refined this model and developed rubrics and tools to help our teachers do this assessment consistently and well. Starting this summer, we’ll be sharing some of the elements of this model with other schools through our new Center for College & Career Success (3CS) that I mentioned earlier.
Q. What are some of the challenges for edupreneurs and innovators on the horizon?
A. I think we’re at a really interesting time in education reform. The budget crisis that’s affecting states is making it difficult for everyone. But in the midst of this, there seems to be some promising energy, particularly at the federal level, to do things differently and to direct funding toward things that work. Entrepreneurial organizations like Envision have been able to achieve some amazing results, and prove that low-income and minority kids can really achieve at a high level. Our work there isn’t done, and we need to make sure we’re setting our sights on college and career success, but we’re on the right path there. It seems as though there’s real interest from foundations, investors, and individuals to back this type of work, and it’s on us to deliver the outcomes for kids and push toward improving the system overall.

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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