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State Policy to...Inspire?

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This post is by Jennifer Davis Poon, Director of the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

If you've been following this blog's collective journey into Learning Deeply, you've caught glimpses of the schools, educators, and empowered learners that embody deeper learning. All of these inspiring elements and actors exist within carefully concocted systems of education, but where does the policymaker fit into the picture? How can the policies that shape a system inspire innovations that lead to deeper learning?

Judging from popular education discourse, the terms "education policy" and "inspiration" aren't often coupled, unless to emphasize the negative. Critics point to policies they see as stifling local innovation and creativity, citing as examples such as overly prescriptive curricula; standardized testing in lieu of authentic deeper learning experiences; high stakes accountability; and inflexible funding streams. Critics fault such policies for leaving little room for imagination or creative risk.  

I was never more aware of education policy's repressive reputation than at this year's SXSWedu conference. In a "panelstorm" hosted by IDEO and the New York City Department of Education Office of Innovation, a large audience of educators, policymakers, and developers were encouraged to write empathetic "love letters" to one another in search of more effective collaboration. As the lone representative of policymakers in the room, I was the recipient of the educators' collective refrain: give us more credit, fewer mandates, more freedom to improvise, and believe that we care about our students, too.

Instead of focusing entirely on compliance, can state policies be constructed to inspire innovations in deeper learning? We at CCSSO think so. But if deeper learning requires a fundamental shift in the classroom, then an equally important shift is required of the way we approach education policymaking.

History readily explains the compliance-driven systems we have today. Noble industrial era ideals of efficiency and quality assurance led 20th century policymakers to build an education system described by John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davidson as a "push" system. In The Power of Pull, they define a "push" system as one that forecasts needs, deploys limited resources, and directs the cogs in the wheel to "do this, not that." Likewise, Sir Ken Robinson's popular characterization of the education system draws attention to the production-line mentality of the current model, suggesting that it was built for a different time based on a different philosophy than today's mission to ensure every child is college and career ready.

Wary of the outdated model, many have written that the current system's emphasis on compliance is ripe for disruption, vulnerable to modern pressures of unprecedented technological growth and the nearly unbridled flow of knowledge outside institutional walls. To adapt to these pressures, institutions - including the education system - increasingly must recognize that their impact no longer depends on maintaining an efficient "push" system of top-down mandates, but rather depends on constructing a "pull" system that, as Hagel, Brown, and Davidson put it, can effectively "identify and support trail-blazing, early-moving individuals and give them the support and empowerment they need to help accelerate institutional change."

So how do state policymakers create a "pull" system? Do they hand the reins to "trail-blazing" practitioners and sit back while transformation unfolds? Such an approach would likely only lead to chaos, or worse - stasis. Without some intervention, the current system reinforces schools to stay the same. Even schools with forward-thinking leaders aren't well equipped to sustain or scale innovation on their own (Tom Vander Ark provides a dozen reasons why not). Instead, the policymaker carries the responsibility for creating what Ronald Heifetz, in Leadership Without Easy Answers, calls a "holding environment": an arena for change in which one party holds the attention of another party and facilitates adaptive work. In other words, policymakers must use the influence and authority of their positions to create the conditions under which practitioners have the freedom to innovate, iterate, and - most importantly - have their most successful ideas catch on.

Pockets of "pull" systems that support locally-driven innovation have already emerged through some super-networks of schools, districts, and charter management organizations such as the Deeper Learning Network, Next Generation Learning Challenges, and the League of Innovative Schools, among others. But the ability to inspire locally-driven innovation across the "legacy system" more broadly hinges on the support from forward-thinking state leadership.

There are several ways that state policymakers can create environments to support, identify, and scale locally-led innovation, and many states, including those in the Council of Chief State School Officers' Innovation Lab Network (ILN), are already leading the way.

The Innovation Lab Network is a group of nine states whose education "chiefs" (the leaders of state education agencies) have embraced their role in creating a fundamentally different education system, one that is wrapped around the needs of every learner and that empowers local leaders and practitioners to innovate. While designated ILN schools and districts within these states design and deploy student-centered models to achieve deeper learning outcomes, state chiefs actively support these efforts by framing a common vision, removing policy barriers, encouraging local design work, and implementing structures for supporting and scaling local innovation.

Framing a common vision: Writing on creating a culture of innovation in the business sector, Soren Kaplan advises that "the worst thing a company can do is give 'innovation marching orders' without any guide posts." To guide the direction of innovation and define "toward what end," ILN chiefs have come together around a shared vision for system transformation. The vision, adapted by each state to meet its unique context, serves as a motivator for local innovation toward a shared mission, and clarifies the kinds of student outcomes that will define successful transformation.

Removing policy barriers: ILN states have demonstrated their support for cutting-edge districts and schools by taking important steps to eliminate policy barriers that inhibit local innovation. One of the most often-cited barriers to novel deeper learning practices is the common requirement that credit for coursework be defined and earned based on "seat time" (the hours students spend in the classroom). Bucking the rigid application of seat time as the defining characteristic of children's learning, New Hampshire and Iowa have removed seat time requirements, thus allowing districts and schools to experiment with multiple personalized pathways for students to earn credit for demonstrating their learning, regardless of how many hours it took, or whether their learning occurred in a traditional classroom or not. Wisconsin, while not completely abolishing seat time, recently published guidance on finding flexibility within the existing requirement, joining Ohio and a number of other states that provide similar opportunities for credit flexibility.

Encouraging local design work: In addition to removing barriers, some states have implemented structures that actively incentivize local innovation. Kentucky enacted legislation that allows districts to apply to receive District of Innovation status, which grants districts increased flexibility and opportunity to propose novel models of teaching and learning. The state is now seeking to expand the legislation to also permit locally-designed assessment and accountability systems. Meanwhile, New Hampshire is expanding on its current federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act waiver to allow districts to pilot more authentic performance-based assessments as part of a more balanced state system of assessments. California is also interested in supporting local influence over what "counts" in the accountability system and is engaging local stakeholders to guide the development of a new set of indicators for college and career readiness that align with a new flexible school funding system.

Implementing structures for supporting and scaling local innovation: Among the most critical steps a state can take to support local innovation are implementation supports such as structures for collaboration, educator development, research, and stakeholder engagement. Iowa, Ohio, and Oregon, are among several states that are creating networks of districts piloting competency-based education systems. These networks are designed to not only support pilot districts in adapting implementation to their unique contexts, but also inform the potential role of the state to help bring local innovation to scale. Wisconsin likewise supports a regional network of districts advancing personalized learning, and with help from a robust research strategy, is now considering how lessons learned from the region can influence other regions as well as state policy. Last but not least, Maine exemplifies a state that has responded to local innovation in ways that create big impact. An early foray into student-centered learning driven by the convictions of an initial collaboration of six districts grew organically into eight cohorts of like-minded districts that still meet regularly and often pool professional development funds to support and inspire one another. In 2012, state policymakers responded to the energy on the ground, passing legislation that altered state diploma requirements and paved the way for all districts to create more authentic, learner-centered instruction and assessment experiences for their students.

These examples are just the beginning, but they showcase important steps that state leaders are taking to inspire local design work and help spread ideas worth replicating. As states become increasingly involved in adaptive work, it is critical that they allow promising ideas to spread horizontally - from practitioner to practitioner and community to community - rather than risking the temptation to "push" one good idea across the state as if one size fits all. However, by providing guideposts, removing barriers, and enacting policies that enable and incentivize local innovation, state leaders can create the kinds of "pull" environments for institutional change that trail-blazing practitioners and leaders in schools and neighborhoods across the country so eagerly await.

Connect with Jennifer @JDPoon.

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