October 18, 2019

Reasons for Optimism, Even at a Complex Moment in Education

By Transcend

My first job out of college was at an organization whose recruitment slogan was, “A place for optimists to change the world.” Its founder once said, “Studies show that pessimists are better than optimists at accurately predicting reality. But optimists are better than pessimists at altering reality.” Personally, I’ve always oriented more towards optimism than pessimism, but there is a lot that is deeply broken in our world, and I believe we have to confront that in a clear-eyed way. For this reason, I consider myself a “dissatisfied optimist.”

This has been a theme throughout my career – in the private sector, as a national leader at Teach For America, when serving on boards of charter schools and other education organizations, and in my current role as co-head of Transcend. In fact, when Aylon Samouha and I launched Transcend, we co-wrote a something of a founding manifesto with two of our founding Board members, Diane Tavenner and Stacey Childress. We called it, “Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic,” and we outlined the reasons why the mainstream design of school was failing to prepare young people for the demands of today and the opportunities of tomorrow. Several years later, as our organizations continued working toward addressing this problem, we reflected on the journey through writing a sequel called, “Still Dissatisfied, More Optimistic.” 

Today, it is a complex moment in American public education. Brilliant, committed educators and supporters of this work have labored tirelessly to expand and improve access and opportunities. So many communities across the country have made great progress in expanding educational access and quality and in combating opportunity gaps. A child born today in many communities in America has better educational options than ten or twenty years ago. So much can and should be learned from what is working. Yet in other cases, progress has been elusive: good things happen but then some change in the situation leads to backsliding. In far too many other situations, educational injustice persists, as students – especially young people of color and in under-resourced communities – are still being denied the opportunities they deserve. In all of these cases, the complexities and challenges have been greater than everyone involved anticipated. Our field is highly fractured, with well-intentioned actors – all of whom have vital nuggets of insight, in my opinion – diagnosing the problem differently from one another, defining progress differently, pulling schools in different directions, and sometimes questioning one another’s efforts. 

And yet, I believe this is a moment of tremendous possibility. At Transcend, we and our partners are re-examining what schooling can be, co-creating new designs, and working towards the day when all young people learn in environments that enable them to thrive in and ultimately transform the world. Grounded in that vision – while cognizant of the challenges and complexities of this work – I want to name several reasons why we can be more optimistic now more than ever:

  1. Students and families are increasingly naming the limits of the current design of school and articulating a vision for something more and different – they want and deserve rigor, deeper engagement, and more holistic experiences. 
  2. As a field, our understanding of equity and what it takes to close the opportunity gap in our educational system has deepened, with a more explicit and nuanced discourse about systemic racism, oppression, and injustice; more research on and examples of asset-based, trauma-responsive interventions; and more brilliant efforts to bring together equity and design. Further, actors across the field are increasingly respecting how critical it is for communities to set the local vision and drive local change efforts.
  3. There’s a stronger national consensus that schools need to nurture the whole child (e.g., in the “A Nation at Hope” report from the National Commission on Social, Emotional, & Academic Development), not only because this supports academic achievement but also because human potential is far greater than what’s encompassed in traditional academically tested domains.
  4. Relatedly, system leaders are beginning to embrace measures and accountability systems that reflect the need to assess in more holistic and nuanced ways, while still holding high standards. For example, the US Department of Education is supporting a pilot program that allows Georgia, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina to use non-traditional assessments of student progress.
  5. A growing number of funders, researchers, school leaders, and teachers are seeking to close the gap between learning science research and school practices to create environments that truly honor how young people best learn and develop, including the uniqueness of each learner. The science continues to advance, which only accelerates what becomes possible in supporting learners.
  6. More and more leaders from across the sector (teachers’ unions, district and charter leaders, for-profit and nonprofit executives) are beginning to rally around more ambitious, learner-centered visions, such as this one, articulated by the stakeholders of Education Reimagined.
  7. Most importantly, schools and educators around the country are not just talking about a new vision. They’re making it happen. Communities are increasingly igniting local design journeys, sharing their innovative models with each other, and taking on the kind of R&D that we believe propels schools to make the eight great leaps that transcend the traditional “one size fits all” school model. We see this happening across Transcend’s partners in district schools such as Van Ness Elementary in DC Public Schools and the Brooklyn STEAM Center, charters such as Intrinsic Schools and Ednovate, independent schools such as St. Benedict’s and the Forest School, rural systems such as Edgecombe County and Lindsay Unified, and even out-of-school models such as nXu. Importantly, educators themselves are playing greater roles as designers of innovation. 

None of this is easy, but all of it possible. And when times get hard, it’s important to reground in the tailwinds we can harness to advance progress towards more extraordinary, equitable learning environments for every child in every community. In the coming months, the Transcend team and our partners will be sharing stories related to all seven of these reasons for optimism.

By Transcend co-founder Jeff Wetzler


Transcend supports communities to create and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.

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Transcend is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit that operates nationally.