Scott Hartl is changing both what teachers teach and how they teach it, through the creation of free and open resources, including curricula, lesson plans, and video documentation drawn straight from the classroom.
The New Idea
Scott has set out to merge rigorous scholarship with an ethos of active citizenship, by distilling the best practices established by Expeditionary Learning’s network of 4,500 educators into clear principles and tools that can work at scale. Upon assuming the top leadership position at Expeditionary Learning in 2009, Scott set out to transform what had been a growing school network, known primarily within outdoor learning and character education circles, into a robust national learning laboratory capable of changing what teachers teach and how they teach it.
Scott sought to tear down the artificial wall between academic learning and what is widely termed "citizen education," believing that schools can and must have both rigorous academic standards and evaluation, and opportunities through which teachers and students can deepen their critical thinking, creativity, and moral development. Recognizing that without an effective means of measuring project-based learning and deeper thinking skills, educators and policymakers would continue to rely on standardized tests and comparative data points, he is working first to build a powerful evidence base and to demonstrate the value and rigor attached to real-world learning, through the launch of a new repository for student-driven projects. He is likewise developing an adaptable set of measurement tools and standards to assess whether or not students are mastering what have long been considered “soft skills.”
Yet he realized it is not enough to merely proclaim that academic learning could go hand-in-hand with investments in empathy and whole child development: teachers had to be equipped with the skills they needed to meet a more progressive set of standards, and to meaningfully engage students in their learning. Scott is thus working to capture the “secret sauce” behind Expeditionary Learning, creating a suite of curricular modules, instructional practices, student activities, and other materials that teachers can then adapt to their own needs. Finally, he is working to create new market demand by becoming the preeminent curriculum developer and provider of professional development training for teachers looking to meet the newly adopted Common Core Standards. Expeditionary Learning is now working with the state of New York to design curricula and training programs for teachers across the state—an endeavor that will reach several hundred thousand teachers over the course of the coming year—drawing on insights from its current network of 165 elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the country. As the only network of its kind to serve both district public schools and public charters and a range of rural, urban, low-income, and suburban settings, Expeditionary Learning is uniquely poised to change how educators everywhere conceive of their mission and approach.
In the decade since No Child Left Behind—the groundbreaking piece of legislation enacted in 2001, which placed a heavy emphasis on standardized test scores and measures of teacher accountability—the education landscape within the US has been marked by the rise of a variety of elite charter management organizations, focused on raising test scores among low-income students and historically underperforming schools. Organizations such as KIPP, Achievement First, Green Dot Public Schools, and others employed a "no excuses" model, using strategies such as expanded school days, data-tracking and rigorous accountability, and a heavy emphasis on math and reading comprehension to improve outcomes for under-served students. Among public district schools, the rise in standardized testing, combined with significant funding cuts to education, has resulted in increased class-time spent on test preparation in math and English at the expense of other academics subjects recess, arts education, and extracurricular activities.
Research has revealed, however, that such gains in test scores frequently come at the expense of "higher order thinking skills," related to critical thinking, self-management, resilience, and empathy, which are especially critical for career readiness. Students who perform well on tests and successfully enroll in college often struggle outside of the rigorously controlled environments found within most results-driven school environments, with the result that only 58% of students who start bachelor’s degrees at four-year colleges end up with a degree six years later. What's more, the emphasis on test scores has not resulted in significant performance gains across the education system at large: every year, 1.3 million students fail to graduate high school on time, and graduation rates for Hispanic and African American students persistently fall 20 percentage points or more behind those of white students or Asian Americans, which average 77% and 81% respectively.
The result has produced a polarizing divide between education leaders who focus relentlessly on academic results, and those who emphasize a "whole child" approach to student learning. Those who argue for greater investment in character development and creative instructional practices advocate for whole-scale changes to our education system, and a reduced emphasis on test scores. Schools that uphold both rigorous scholarship and "citizenship education" are for the most part independent, and therefore not subject to the same testing requirements as their public peers.
Moreover, best practices and lessons in effective pedagogy rarely spread beyond the doors of a one particular school or school network. The lack of collaboration among charter management organizations and the education networks best suited for innovation can be largely attributed two reasons. First, charter schools have been under massive attack from teachers' unions, district leaders, and other leading figures within the public education system since their inception, producing extreme levels of competition for what are seen as scarce resources. The second reason is a widespread belief among charter networks that producing better results demands that they closely control the learning environment and that those wishing to follow their lead uphold a high level of fidelity to their particular model.
While funders and policymakers are slowly beginning to recognize the need for evolving standards that place greater emphasis on non-cognitive skill development (i.e. the skill sets that influence academic performance such as perseverance and mindset) the debate has largely centered on "what" education should look like, rather than "how" educators can meet those standards. Pre-service training for teachers and teacher professional development largely hinges on traditional models, which place the teacher at the front of the room. To date, 45 states have adopted the Common Core Standards, a state-led effort begun in 2009 to establish clear learning goals and competencies for students across a range of ages. Yet despite their widespread adoption and the emphasis placed on real-world learning and career readiness, they lack sufficient training materials and resources to help teachers evolve their practices. What does exist frequently takes the form of one-time workshops and theory-based lesson planning developed by major textbook publishers, which fail to equip teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.
Upon assuming leadership of the organization in 2009, Scott set out to transform what had been seen as a school network, known primarily within outdoor learning and character education circles, into a robust learning laboratory capable of changing what teachers teach and how they teach it.
He set out first to tear down the artificial wall between academic learning and what is loosely termed "citizen education". Realizing that more schools were not the answer, he looked for ways to demonstrate that the model and practices that comprise it could be effectively applied anywhere, with the same results. Rather than grow the network, he therefore sought to improve consistency and quality across the portfolio, with a particular focus on improving performance among the network's public district schools, rather than its charters.
He invested immediately in data-gathering, turning what had once been an organization focused on implementing its design principles into one that was focused on achieving results for low-income students, using a core set of design principles. He further sought a way to legitimize the learning expeditions for which the network was known, and the quality of learning that they entailed.
At the core of the Expeditionary Learning model are a series of months-long, cross-curricular explorations of a particular subject area, culminating in projects designed for real-world audiences—videos, books, artwork, launched ventures—all conceived of and produced by students. Scott teamed up with Harvard's Graduate School of Education to produce a digital museum, providing tangible evidence that real rigor is best measured through student work, rather than test scores. Today, visitors can browse and download copies of the student work, which includes submissions from EL Schools and others outside of the network, by grade level or discipline, along with descriptions of how the project was conducted, what standards and learning outcomes were achieved, and what teachers can do to replicate the project design in their own classroom. In an education environment that prizes what can be measured, the resulting "Center of Student Work" has become an irrefutable evidence-base for the quality and rigor produced through Expeditionary Learning practices, and a living demonstration of what is possible when students and teachers alike are deeply engaged in the learning process.
In addition to improving quality and highlighting the rigor behind expeditions, Scott realized that challenging prevailing attitudes toward real-world learning would require new measurement tools that could both hold teachers accountable and identify areas for student improvement, in much the same way that standardized testing set out to do. Scott and his team are thus working to develop a new instrument capable of assessing the aspects of learning that have long been seen as unquantifiable: skills and attributes such as critical thinking, character, leadership, and empathy. In addition to measuring "what" students are learning, he, together with a team of educators and content experts, are looking at "how" students learn, assessing students' level of effort, preparation, and intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.
Having secured the performance metrics required to break into the national education discourse, Scott turned his attention to effecting widespread market disruption. One such opportunity arrived last year, thanks to the launch and nationwide adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Beginning with New York State, Expeditionary Learning is working to develop curricula to meet the standards, along with needed teacher professional development training. Rolling out across the state's 697 school districts, the curricula is comprised of 18 different modules designed to meet the literacy standards for grades 3, 4, and 5, and includes everything from lesson-planning and suggested instructional practices, to student assignments.
Traditionally, such curricula would be the purview of major textbook publishers, such as McGraw Hill or Pearson, which employ vast teams of staff to design content. By contrast, Scott is working with teachers within the Expeditionary Learning network to identify practices from the field, without placing the burden of the actual curriculum design on teachers' shoulders. New York's decision to go with Expeditionary Learning marks a powerful endorsement of the work, and Scott hopes to catalyze similar partnerships with states across the country. Over the next three years, he aims to develop exemplary curricula for all grades for national use, expanding into new subject areas as new standards are released.
Finally, he is working to digitize the vast wealth of materials, instructional guides, and core practices that comprise the Expeditionary Learning approach, making these resources available to teachers, students, and parents of every background. Teacher Commons will serve as an open-source, open-access professional learning environment through which educators can gain free access to the content now under development. There, educators can find subject-specific materials, complete with video demonstrations captured in real classrooms, or download the full compendium of core practices, lesson plans, and resources, covering five key learning dimensions: curriculum, instruction, assessment, culture & character, and leadership. Currently being piloted among EL’s 4,500 teachers, the platform will soon be launched publicly, and will include formal online courses through which teachers can gain access to the same kind of professional development as those in in New York state.
In the last two-and-a-half years, Scott has successfully Expeditionary Learning through a critical juncture, elevating it to its present position as a formidable player within today’s key philanthropic and education circles. He currently oversees an annual budget of roughly $10,000,000, which is projected to grow to more than $12,000,000 over the next three years. Since 2009, he has grown the percentage of the annual operating budget covered by earned fees from 45% to 65%, and aims to reach 75% by 2015, by offering professional development to districts. The organization currently serves 45,000 students through its network of 165 schools: numbers that are poised to grow exponentially thanks to the statewide initiative in New York, and partnerships like it.
Scott grew up an athlete, completing NOLS and Outward Bound by the time he was 18. Following his first semester in college, he set out to climb Mount McKinley, in what was to be his first expedition as a trip leader. After two months of intense preparation and nearly a month on the mountain, he made it to the summit, discovering in the process an awakened sense of purpose, capacity, and agency.
Following college, Scott became a full-time climber, living out of a van for several years in between climbing expeditions in the Himalayas. It was while serving as an Outward Bound instructor on a rafting trip that he met a man who was then superintendent of a district in Schenectady. Noticing Scott's innate talent for teaching, the superintendent convinced him to teach high school in his district, and eventually secured funding for him to pursue a graduate degree in education.
Expeditionary Learning was founded as a collaboration between the Harvard Outward Bound Center and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as a way to marry the core principles of outdoor learning together with the leading pedagogical techniques. It was one of 11 schools to win a competition hosted by New American Schools Design, enabling what was then just an idea to become a reality, and the organization formally launched in 1993. Having served as a model teacher during the proposal-writing period, Scott was hired as Expeditionary Learning’s first school coach.
Five years later, he founded the Harbor School, a new middle school in a rough neighborhood in Boston, built on Expeditionary Learning practices. His daughter was born on the same day that the school opened, and for the next six years, he tirelessly turned what began literally as a school without a building into one of the highest achieving schools within the city.
After spending time abroad with his family, he returned to Expeditionary Learning, and served as Northeast Regional Director, Director of Research and Evaluation and Director of Strategic Partnerships over the next several years, before finally taking over as President in 2009.