What makes a school ‘successful?’ High test scores, happy teachers, involved parents? Is it a private school, a charter school, a public school? In a rural or urban area? What makes a ‘successful’ teacher? Ivy-league educated, a Teach For America cadet, or years of experience? How do we fix America’s broken education system? Increase government funding, implement year-round schools, raise taxes?
These questions are challenging–if not impossible–to answer without a combative debate. But Todd Sutler, a New York City based teacher, is ready to take on the daunting task when he and his team embark on a nine month journey this September that will take them on a tour of 150 schools across all 50 states. Dubbed The Odyssey Initiative, the group will observe and interview K-8 teachers who have been identified by their peers as innovative and inspiring teachers. Along the way, they will record and document the methods and programs that are positively impacting American students on a public, interactive website. After the completion of the trip, Sutler and his team will open a charter school in Brooklyn in 2014- effectively putting into place the common best practices they saw emerge during the trip.
Will the new school in Brooklyn be ‘the perfect school,’ a model for how to create the best learning environment for American students? When PSFK spoke to Sutler about The Odyssey Initiative, he quickly admonished the ‘perfect’ moniker for the school, instead choosing to quote Bill Gates, ‘The status quo can be changed, but it takes outrage and good examples.’ Is The Odyssey Initiative so outrageous that it can disrupt the education system and change the the status quo by… listening to teachers? Which got us thinking, is the future of education, and the best way to solve the education crisis as simple as teachers learning from each other? We asked Todd to explain in greater detail the program’s lofty ambitions:
Tell us a little about the inspiration behind The Odyssey Initiative.
A few years ago, I started a consortium of progressive educators in NYC. Fifteen people from private, district and charter schools who wanted to learn what other like-minded teachers were doing In their classrooms. We frequently longed for time to visit each others’ schools and classrooms and agreed that every teacher should be given time to observe master teachers and successful schools in action. Fast forward to last fall, I published an op/ed about the education reform documentary Waiting for Superman and how it provided data to fuel our frustration with the education system, yet offered little in the solution department.
After the op/ed was well received, one friend asked me what I was going to do next. I didn’t have an answer, which didn’t sit right with me. So I thought for a while, and slowly began to consider turning our dreams of providing teachers with access to other master teachers into a reality.
Why the focus on teachers learning from other teachers? Don’t they know what they’re doing?
Employees in new industries typically participate in some form of apprenticeship and/or mentorship experience. New teachers typically get their 20-30 students (or more) and are left to sink or swim in a classroom with minimal mentorship or adult supervision. In the best performing countries in the world (Finland, Singapore and South Korea), teachers spend half as much time with their students, but receive up to five times as much professional development and ongoing training.
How will you measure common best practices?
Our observations will be formalized; we’re creating a common form that will include several requirements, different ‘buckets’ that every teacher will be observed on- but it won’t be traditional numerical measures like the teacher’s test scores; how are the kids engaging with the lesson, what’s the mood in the classroom, what kind of tools is the teaching using to reach the kids- these will be more along the line of what we’ll be observing. Even information about how the classroom is decorated can give us insight into what’s working to best foster a positive learning environment.
Why visit all 50 states? Isn’t it obvious that some states are performing better than others?
If you can showcase success in rural/struggling areas, you can really show people what’s working…there will be innovation in Alabama and Mississippi, not just in areas like New York City or Chicago. Ideally, we’d like to open up three schools- first in Brooklyn in 2014, followed by a school in a rural environment and one in upper/middle class suburbia. We want to be in all different pockets of learning to show how common education practices can be an equalizer.
How will teachers (and the general public) you don’t visit on your trip benefit from The Odyssey Initiative?
First, we’re documenting everything. Every observation (about 150 in total, 3-4 a week) will be recorded and made available on our website. After we observe a teacher in the classroom, we’re also going to interview them and ask them for their thoughts- the floor is theirs to use. We hope that some teachers will be willing to blog about the lessons we observe in their classrooms, and follow-up about the end of their lesson and how struggling children caught up. All of these observations will become a free and open resource to everyone- we want other teachers to observe the online lesson plans and tell us how they modified it to fit their own classrooms. We’re hoping to create a dialogue about what’s working- we think The Odyssey Initiative is an easy way to model how educators across the country can utilize the Internet to learn how challenges that they are facing are being solved elsewhere.
Since we are lucky enough to see these great schools and teachers in action, we feel a responsibility to present them to our fellow citizens and help demonstrate to society that many educators are strategic planners no different than business people and other professionals.
What is the future of education?
I think the future is increased attention to professional development and a focus on collaboration. There’s a great collective knowledge base among teachers in America, but right now, there isn’t an easy way for teachers in say, SC, to learn from teachers in NYC; our hope for The Odyssey Initiative is that it will start to bridge this gap and lead to more organizations focusing on professional development. We believe that an increased national awareness of the best practices and strategic planning of effective teachers will raise the quality of the discussion surrounding education policy as well as our level of achievement nationwide.
Thanks Todd! Visit The Odyssey Initiative here or watch this short video to learn more about their mission: