The Secret Sauce (#educon reflection)

I go to Educon for a lot of reasons. I love hearing about other schools. I grow from listening to smart people, and new perspectives. I see my Twitter friends and meet my Twitter heroes1. As I’ve grown, it’s become a weird Philadelphia-Teachers-Who-Haven’t-Quit festival, and I spent much of Educon 2016 wandering and chatting.

But, like nearly all of the out-of-towners, I go to peek inside Science Leadership Academy. I’m an unabashed fan of what they do. I’ve bought all the books2 and tried, as much as one can, to apply the principles in my room and, as I’ve grown, in my school. I usually leave frustrated. Laptop envy gnaws at my innards, or I slump my shoulders watching my peers coordinate with the biggest movers-and-shakers in Philly. And the next year I come back, hoping to find the magic words.

This year I was stationed in Larissa Pahomov’s presentation. It was a basic, no-nonsense review of the tools teachers at SLA use in daily practice. It was packed. This, we assumed, was the “Shazam” that made things tick.

So first came the Google Docs. Then some student group contracts. Then more Google Docs. And, by the third time Larissa said “Yes, it’s all on our website“, I was struck with revelation. None of these tools, in her (terrific) session were things I hadn’t seen before or used before. These were not weapons of the gods. Other than the $30k student management system, all of this stuff was within my capabilities.

There is no secret sauce. This school, like any other great institution, identified its values and intentionally built their organization to reflect those values, and they have done it for a decade.

I decided to start lifting weights in college3. I get a good number of freshmen boys asking how they can “get husky”? My answer: Lift a lot and eat right for 16 months. They scowl.

Writing this, I am more-than-a-little ashamed it took me so long to arrive here. How do we get better besides intentional practice? But the way I approached school was much closer to “THIS DAD HAD ONE WEIRD TRICK TO GET SHREDDED AND DOCTORS HATE HIM”.

This also applies to policy. Great Oaks Charter seeks to acquire a Philadelphia neighborhood school. Their solution? Tutors4. That’s what we’ve been missing? That’s the secret sauce?

I wrote my leadership team a follow up email. In short: I’m done with best practices or “go to ___ school and see what we can steal”. We create values and we work towards those values.  Anyone else selling anything else can take a hike.

I enjoyed Educon, I will certainly go again, and I will go knowing the secret is out.


  1. Guys, The Jose Vilson knows who I am. He. Knows. Who. I. Am. 

  2. you should, too 

  3. for us short and slow guys, the options are limited 

  4. and a hefty management fee