Designing Education

A podcast hosted by Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center.

Conversations with leaders in education from around the country on bold new ideas and research-based strategies for redesigning American education to more effectively engage all students and equip them for the challenges of today’s workplace and world.

Season 3, Episode 3

Diving Deep into the Four Components of a Student Success System

In the third episode of season three, Tara Madden, Chief Program Officer of Talent Development Secondary, joins Dr. Robert Balfanz to discuss the four essential components of a student success system: a focus on building relationships; holistic data and predictive indicators; a response system informed by students, teachers, and families; and a shared set of student-centered mindsets among adults and what it takes to provide all students with the supports and learning experiences they need to thrive in post-pandemic times.  Madden shares several examples of recent school visits and discusses what’s taking place, how they are designing student success systems, and their impact on agency, belonging, and connectedness.

Talent Development Secondary is one of nine partnering organizations that works with the GRAD Partnership. The coalition is a national initiative that partners with communities to implement high-quality student success systems so that schools are better equipped to address the scale and scope of post-pandemic student needs and graduate all students ready for the future. The GRAD Partnership works directly with schools, districts, and local community organizations to create the conditions needed to bring the use of evidence-based student success systems from a new practice to common practice.

Season 3, Episode 3    |    28:00 min

Season three of Designing Education Podcast series will focus on exploring student success systems, the next generation of early warning, on-track, and multi-tiered system of supports, which aim to integrate and increase the impact of existing student support efforts.

Designing Education Season 3 Trailer

Please help us spread the word by using the hashtag #DesigningEducation on social media!

Season Three

Providing Students the Support They Need in Postpandemic Times

Season 3, Episode 2    |    30min

In the second episode of season three, Patricia Balana, Managing Director of the GRAD Partnership, joins Dr. Robert Balfanz to discuss how and why nine organizations came together to form the GRAD Partnership. The coalition is a national initiative that partners with communities to implement high-quality student success systems so that schools are better equipped to address the scale and scope of postpandemic student needs and graduate all students ready for the future. The GRAD Partnership works directly with schools, districts, and local community organizations to create the conditions needed to bring the use of evidence-based student success systems from a new practice to common practice.

As part of the conversation, Patricia shares examples of their work to develop and spread student success systems. She also discusses the initial results of the GRAD Partnership’s efforts and how student success systems are reducing chronic absenteeism rates and course failures.

Building Success Systems for Students with
Learning Disabilities

Season 3, Episode 1    |    30min

In the first episode of our third season, Dr. Saashya Rodrigo, Principal Researcher from the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), joins Dr. Balfanz to discuss the work NCLD is doing to ensure that students with disabilities feel a strong sense of agency, belonging, and connectedness and receive the support they need. She explains NCLD’s role as one of nine organizing partners of the GRAD Partnership and the work the coalition is doing to design schools so they work for all students, including those with disabilities and learning differences. She also discusses the new survey NCLD will conduct this month to explore the experiences of young adults with learning disabilities who either dropped out of high school or considered dropping out but went on to graduate.

Season Two

A Place Where Everyone Wants to Be

Season 2, Episode 8    |    30min

In Season 2, Episode 8, Sofia Russo, Principal of High School for Media and Communications located in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City joins Robert Balfanz for a conversation about what is possible when school leaders, teachers, students, families and community members are given opportunities to engage in school redesign. With just a little support and structure, Media and Communications has instituted practices to incorporate wisdom from the perspectives of their full school community resulting in a school where everyone wants to be. As a result, learning and opportunities for post-secondary success expands.

Graduation Requirements Leading to a Pathway for Each Student

Season 2, Episode 7    |    30min

In Season 2, Episode 7  Graham Wood, Director of the Office of Graduate Success, at the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce joins Robert Balfanz for a conversation about how high school graduation requirements and the very design of high schools can be re-imagined so that all students graduate high school on a pathway to adult success.

The great American high school of the 20th century enabled more people than in any other nation in the world to obtain secondary education from 1920 to 1970. Standardization helped high schools scale secondary education around a common experience, that was recognizable, from high school to high school.

But the world is very different in 2023 than it was in 1970, and high schools, have a different role to play.  This requires quality and customization. Ohio is showing the way and we look forward to learning, what it learns.

Designing an Education System That Works for All Students

Season 2, Episode 6    |    36min

Celebrating its one-year anniversary, the National Partnership for Student Success (NPSS), a partnership between the U.S. Department of Education, AmeriCorps, and the Johns Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center, was launched following a call to action from the Biden-Harris Administration for more Americans to serve as tutors, mentors, college/career advisors, student success coaches, and integrated student support coordinators to provide young people with supportive learning environments and experiences that will support them to recover from the impacts of the pandemic and thrive.

In Season Two’s sixth episode, Cindy Marten, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education, joins Robert Balfanz for a conversation about how local innovation, K-12 and higher education collaboration, NPSS, and federal education policy all have key roles to play in enabling design of an education system that works for all students.

Reimagining Seat Time and the Traditional School Bell Schedule, Part 2

Season 2, Episode 5    |    27min

In this episode, Robert Balfanz continues the conversation with New Hampshire’s Extended Learning Opportunity Network’s Kerrie Alley-Violette and Sean Peschel, two on-the-ground educators working to make “learning anywhere, anytime” real.  

 At the time when the sources and locations of knowledge and training have multiplied exponentially, innovative efforts like New Hampshire’s ELO Network help break seat time requirements, drawing on the realization that learning is not determined by the amount of time a student spends in a classroom, but rather occurs both in school and through experiences outside of schools. What Kerrie and Sean’s groundbreaking work shows is that challenging seat time is being done—and thus that it can be done. 

Reimagining Seat Time and the Traditional School Bell Schedule, Part 1

Season 2, Episode 4    |    26min

When teams of educators, students, and community members across the nation work to redesign high schools, one thing that repeatedly stands in the way is the school schedule and the need to meet seat time requirements. There is no better example of how the 20th Century designed high school no longer works in the 21st century than seat time. It is based in the idea that how much you learn is determined by how long you spend sitting in a classroom and originated at the turn of the 20th century as it means to standardize student learning experiences.

A hundred years later, the standards and accountability of credit students needed to graduate remains largely the same, and this essentially leaves no flexibility in a student’s schedule for any form of experiential or out-of-school learning. At the time when the sources and location of knowledge and training have multiplied exponentially, it is the innovative efforts like New Hampshire’s Extended Learning Opportunity Network that helps to break the gridlock of seat time requirements.

In this episode, Robert Balfanz is joined by Kerrie Alley-Violette, ELO coordinator of the Sanborn Regional High School and president of the ELO Network, and Sean Peschel, ELO coordinator at Oyster River High School and vice president of the ELO Network to discuss the innovative work happening in New Hampshire.

Equalizing Opportunities to Learn

Season 2, Episode 3    |    36min

As a species, humans are smart, adaptive, and resilient. We all have the capacity to think, create, and contribute to society at a high level. What stands between this shared capacity and everyone realizing its full potential is the opportunity to learn. This is where human shortcomings come in … including greed, power, fear, racism, and othering. They play a role in the development of schools and education systems that are not only far from equal in the provision of opportunity to learn, but are too often designed in ways that undermine the agency, belonging, and connection we all need to thrive, especially for those furthest from opportunity.

In today’s episode Bob Balfanz is joined by Michael Wotorson, director of the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s National Opportunity to Learn Network, who has been at the forefront of efforts to organize and support community-driven efforts to push schools towards opportunity to learn for all.

Chronic Absenteeism and Keys to Reingaging Students

Season 2, Episode 2    |    44min

The evidence is clear. Students need to attend school on a regular basis to succeed. If the purpose of school is to help students learn and development, then being there is important.

Until quite recently, however, we did not regularly measure the extent to which the students enrolled in a school were attending on a regular basis. Until 2017 or so, the most common measure used to measure a school’s attendance was average daily attendance (ADA), or how of the many students enrolled in the school are present on the typical day. It turns out that this measure hides as much as it reveals. This is because it’s very possible for a school to have an ADA in the low 90’s, but still have 20% of its students chronically absent — missing ten percent (or about a month) or more of the school year.

Since the mid 2000’s, Hedy Chang and her organization, Attendance Works, has called attention to chronic absenteeism, its consequences and prevalence, and optimal solutions.

The Necessity of Supportive Relationships

Season 2, Episode 1    |    33min

As we kick off season two of the Designing Education podcast during National Mentoring Month, Bob Balfanz is joined by Tim Wills, Chief Impact Officer for MENTOR, the leading organization in the nation working to scale high-quality mentoring in and out of school.

Positive relationships enable trust, which enables cooperation, and collective and engaged effort. They also serve as a buffer to the impacts of trauma and life’s challenges. It is becoming more and more recognized that positive supportive relationships with adults are essential to school success. The pandemic drove home how important supportive relationships in schools between adults and students were to the wellbeing of all. Yet, middle and high schools have not been designed to support and enable strong adult-student relationships. Teachers often see 120 to 150 students a day, students interact with six to 10 or more adults every day for short periods of highly scripted time, which leaves little time or opportunity for students and teachers to get to know each other. As a result, everyone tends to interact with each other based on their role in the school. Thus, only about half of high school students report there is an adult at school who knows and cares about them as a person, with only about one third of students from historically underserved populations saying this. Those that said they had a supportive adult at school reported half the mental health challenges during the pandemic as those who did not. We can see that relationships really matter. They are not nice. They are necessary. So how do we close the relationship gap in schools? Tune in as we dig deep into this question.

Season One

The New ABCs: Drawing on Street and Institutional Data to Scale Effective Student Supports

Season 1, Episode 11    |    43min

Traditionally, schools have been designed around a set of standard practices and expectations. When students do not fully benefit from these practices or conform to the expectations, schools either add on supports or establish consequences to try to modify behaviors and outcomes.

Over the past 15 years, researchers, school officials, and school teams have developed an approach that pools the knowledge of teachers, counselors, students, and families to identify solutions to support students more proactively, using predictive indicators of important outcomes like high school graduation or college degree attainment. This approach has been called different things, including early warning intervention systems, on-track systems, or multi-tiered student support systems. Pioneers of this work now seek to further develop it in ways that incorporate recent learnings from the brain sciences and adolescent development to create more comprehensive, inclusive student success systems.

In the 11th and final episode of season one, Carla GayDirector of Innovation & Partnerships for the Gresham Barlow School District in Oregon, addresses some of the important elements needed to go deeper and provide better student support and school improvement initiatives.

A Six-State Collaboration Reimagines Today’s High School Experience

Season 1, Episode 10    |    44min

The public high school is a uniquely American invention, and our public high schools have played a powerful role in the development of our nation. The challenge is that in today’s world, a high school diploma alone is not enough to usher young people immediately into a middle-class, life-supporting existence. Further, public high schools must take all who walk in the door, regardless of prior motivations, learning experiences, and life circumstances, and find a way to graduate all of them ready for some sort of post-secondary education or training–a mission they are not currently designed to meet.

Over the past five years, a group of six states have been working with the Everyone Graduate Center at Johns Hopkins University on the Cross State High School Redesign Collaborative initiative. Many of these states are using the comprehensive school improvement provisions from the Federal Every Student Succeeds Act to organize the work. Dr. Sonja Robertson, Executive Director of School Improvement for the Mississippi Department of Education, has been part of this effort from the very beginning and joins Bob Balfanz to discuss the many things we’ve learned from this cross-collaborative effort.

Building an Ecosystem of Care

Season 1, Episode 9    |    44min

In this episode, Robert Balfanz is joined by Susanne Diggs-WilbornVice President for College Success for Achieve Atlanta. Our nation’s public education system has always sought to prepare and enable each generation to be ready to succeed in the world. To be on a pathway to adult success requires not only a high school diploma, but some postsecondary schooling or training beyond it. Yet, the supports we provide to students to make the transition from high school to college and be successful have not kept pace with the need. In part, this is because K-12 schooling and higher education were designed as two separate systems with very little connective tissue between them. This makes it easy to get lost or to be denied opportunity into this breach.

Achieve Atlanta is at the forefront of this work; in this episode, Dr. Diggs-Wilborn and Dr. Balfanz discuss ways to help make students into community members, by facilitating the shift from just being accepted to truly belonging.

Expanding the Village: School-Community Partnerships That Multiply Student Supports

Season 1, Episode 8    |    31min

In this episode, Ashley Seiler, Chief Partnership Officer at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, joins Robert Balfanz for a discussion about how BBBS created an ecosystem of over 100 community partners, three school districts, and 18 schools that serves over 10,000 students in a range of critical supports both in and out of school.

We often say it takes a village to raise a child. We don’t, however, organize our schools that way. The assumption is that everything the school needs is provided by teachers and staff, with little coordination or communication with out-of-school activities that students and families engage with after-school or on weekends. In many ways this puts too big a burden on schools and leaves too many community assets underutilized.

The result is students don’t get the full set of supports and experiences they need, school staff are exhausted doing the best they can without all the resources they need, and community organizations are often frustrated that they could be doing more, but don’t have a clear way to do so.

In eastern Missouri, a dedicated nonprofit partner with a listening ear helps coordinate a community-school ecosystem, offering large numbers of young people an integrated support framework rather than relying on ineffectual shift work.

Nobody Asked Me: A Campaign Illuminating the Voices & Experiences of Students and their Families

Season 1, Episode 7    |    34min

In this episode, Dr. Richard Lofton, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and leader of the Nobody Asked Me Campaign, joins Dr. Balfanz to discuss the Campaign and how it sheds light on the experiences of students and families in Baltimore City.

When we think about designing education to meet the needs of the 21st century and provide everyone a robust pathway to adult success, we typically draw on two sources: the adults involved in the current education system and our own experiences. Education is the one field where just about everybody considers themselves experts, because we all have a deep lived experience of going to school. However, relying on these can result in an education system that is much less dynamic than the world around it, and one that doesn’t even ask the students and families that are experiencing it firsthand. Yet they are the most informed observers of where new designs are needed, what they might be, and the challenges we need to address. This is particularly true for the communities and students for whom the current education system works the least: communities and students who live in areas where residential segregation, structural racism, and disinvestment have produced concentrated poverty in underfunded school systems.

It is at the intersection of place, history, and student voice that Dr. Lofton is doing an inventive work to ask those whom nobody has asked and connect their knowledge and insights with a growing coalition of community groups and policy makers to redesign the most broken aspects of our education system.


Season 1, Episode 6    |    38min

Throughout most of the twentieth century, high schools were seen as the end of formal public education. After high school, some students went to college, mainly those interested in the professions—medicine, law, architecture, engineering, and so on—but most went right to work or started a family. There were some vocational courses offered in high school, mainly because there was federal funding and it was often viewed as an outlet for students not perceived as academically inclined, but by and large, vocational education was not viewed as a means for students to develop and explore career interests or link what they learned in school to their desired futures.

Today more than 75% of good jobs, jobs that can support a family, require a high school diploma and additional post-secondary schooling or training.  Currently, though, about 30% of high school graduates attempt to go into the workforce. After high school, they want to work. It’s an honored family tradition and they want to get on with their lives. But by age 21, most find themselves working part-time jobs with periods of unemployment and not making enough to fully support themselves, let alone a family. They realize the world has in fact changed, and they now need to go back to school for a degree or additional training to expand their range of opportunities. But they’ve been out of school for several years. And so they struggle to succeed when they go back, and they often pick up debt along the way.

There must be a better way, a way for high schools to connect students with stable futures post-graduation, and we’re here to dig into how this can happen with Anne Stanton, President of the Linked Learning Alliance (CA), an organization which works with schools to help them integrate college preparation and career development to give students pathways to adult success. 


Season 1, Episode 5    |    30min

Farah Jimenez, President and CEO of the Philadelphia Education Fund, joins Robert Balfanz to explore the function of local education intermediaries and examine the roles they play in designing the education systems we need to enable all students to succeed.

One of the unique features of education in the United States is how decentralized and localized the decision-making is. This has the ability to be a source of creativity and flexibility, which are necessary for innovation, but can also be a source of stagnation since roles are constantly shifting.

This constant shift has given rise to another uniquely American institution: the local education intermediary. With long histories in their communities, these organizations often support the development of new approaches and ideas. In this podcast, Ms. Jimenez discusses ways that one such organization has supported the efforts of a large urban school district to develop a college-going culture and help young people develop viable plans for postsecondary success for nearly forty years.


Season 1, Episode 4    |    34min

In this episode, Dr. Jonathan MathisSenior VP of Education for Policy and Systems Change at City Year, explains how near-peer success coaches can help make schools more equitable and effective for all.

One reason why many low income and minority students do not have a strong pathway to adult success is that too many attend a subset of middle and high schools where a large number of students constantly face the challenges of poverty and discrimination—far more students than there are adults to support them. Shifting that ratio is essential for schools to provide all students pathways to adult success. For City Year, some of the answers lie in a new kind of student support, near-peer success coaches, whose presence can help transform schools to become more equitable and effective.


Season 1, Episode 3    |    29min

In this episode, Dr. Martha Mac Iver, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Center for Social Organization of Schools,  joins Dr. Balfanz to discuss her new book, “Continuous Improvement in High Schools.” The book offers practical guidance to high school leaders and teachers on using a continuous improvement approach to enable more students to succeed.

Those designing education systems that work for all students need to resist the temptation to latch onto silver bullets. Context and circumstances always matter, even when educational strategies and practices are evidence-based. In addition, the more we seek to design education systems that work for all, the more we will find ourselves on the knowledge frontier: needing to figure things out in real time, rather than just trying to implement proven practices with fidelity. Using improvement science and a continuous improvement approach can help schools navigate these challenges and avoid potential pitfalls.

THE BIG BLUR: Combining the End of High School with the Start of College

Season 1, Episode 2    |    39min

This is the second episode in a series of conversations with education thinkers from across the country. In this episode Dr. Balfanz is joined by Joel Vargas, Vice President of Programs at Jobs For the Future (JFF), a national nonprofit that drives change in the American workforce and education systems to achieve economic advancement for all.

It has become a common refrain during the last year and a half that we should not return to the pre-pandemic “normal,” but use the disruption to create a better education system moving forward. One big and bold idea from JFF involves reimagining the last two years of high school and first two years of college.

Recapturing Lost Credits

Season 1, Episode 1    |    32min

Nearly two years of pandemic-related disruptions have caused Many young people to miss out on significant amounts of learning and instruction. 

In this episode, Dr. Balfanz is joined by Educational Resource Strategies Chief Executive Officer Dr. Karen Hawley Miles and Senior Manager Eddie Branchaud to discuss credit recovery and the challenges that schools face as they help students get back on track. 

Hear about what Karen and Eddie have discovered as they look closely at the strategies schools across the country are using to help students catch up and thrive. 

Trailer: Designing Education with Robert Balfanz

Trailer    |    1min

Launching April 4, 2022, Designing Education is a podcast hosted by Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center.

In each episode, Dr. Balfanz will talk to an education leader with a bold new idea to reshape American education so that it works for all students. Together, we tackle some of education’s most pressing challenges and untapped opportunities.  Whether you’re a researcher, education advocate, teacher, school leader, district leader, or education reformer, we hope you’ll find this podcast series to be a source of new insight and inspiration.

And if you like the podcast, help us spread the word by using the hashtag #DesigningEducation on social media.