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Going Beyond Bubbles of Innovation: Building Collective Action

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This post is by Adriana Martinez, Innovation Lab Network Program Associate at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Most of us recognize that our traditional education system falls short and is failing our students--particularly students with disadvantages, such as young boys of color, children with special needs, children living in poverty, English language learners, and children in single family homes. So far, most efforts to reform and improve our education, such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), have fallen short. Many would argue that improvements to the current model--including new, higher standards embodied by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)--will ultimately fall short, too, because what we truly need is to redesign our education delivery mode. In response, many have taken up that challenge, including schools, districts, and states across the nation that are implementing innovative approaches to education that are student centered, personalized, and that create competency-based learning environments.

The challenge today is taking these models of student-centered education beyond localized bubbles of innovation so that all students have access to an education that allows them to maximize their potential. Leaders pursuing this path face many roadblocks: a polarized political landscape, policy structures built on traditional education systems, fragmented visions, limited capacity, and resistance to the unknown. Several trail-blazing schools, districts, and states have paved the way, but broader uptake remains challenge.

While we haven't found an easy answer for how to advance full systems on the path towards student-centered education or take successful innovations to scale, I believe part of the answer lies in creating intentional structures for collective action and collaboration. Our colleagues and our peers--educators, administrators, policymakers--comprise one of our most valuable resources, and by creating structures of collaboration and collective action we unleash their collective intelligence and pave a smoother road towards student-centered education. 

The concept of networked improvement communities provides a guide for establishing structures for collaboration, shared learning, and collective action. In a networked improvement community, participating institutions across related fields of expertise test new ideas and then apply them to varied settings to improve implementation and capacity within and across those institutions. In an ideal setting, networked improvement communities set strict guidelines for membership where participants commit to specific priorities and set clear and measureable targets. They engage in a rigorous process of using what is learned on the ground to understand the problems they want to address, and work collectively to map and test potential solutions.  While it is difficult to create these circumstances for education systems transformation at a large scale, given the decentralized and complex governance structures in education, we can apply some of these concepts to establish networks that bring key actors together around implementing and scaling innovative approaches to student-centered learning.rere

According to Tony Bryk and Louis Gomez, networked improvement communities operate under three domains of activity that contribute to the process of shared learning and collaboration: on-the-ground work, work within an institution, and work across institutions. In the context of education systems transformation at large, I propose we translate the approach into a focus on three overlapping spheres or structures for collaboration:

  1. Horizontal Structures--collaboration across states
  2. Vertical Structures--collaboration between the state and the local level
  3. Holistic Structures--collaboration among a variety of players at the local community level

Collaboration must happen at the local level within the schooling community, within states and at the national level across states. These three spheres cannot operate in isolation, particularly because education is complex and is impacted by many interconnected factors. Partners such as regional centers, think tanks, institutions of higher education, and non-profits can support and facilitate action across all levels.

  1. Horizontal structures--collaboration across states

States remain the most powerful actors in education policy. As such, they play an enormous role in advancing student-centered learning, not only within their borders but also across state boundaries. States can benefit from finding synergy with other states and learning from one another's experiences. Chief state school officers, state education agency staff, state board members, and legislators can look to their peers across state boundaries to learn about policy infrastructures that support student centered learning. This doesn't imply that a policy passed in one state should be copied and pasted in another. Rather, collaboration at this level extends beyond creating and sharing static resources. Networks of peers are essential because they animate best practices and lessons learned by providing access to people and their experiences as resources. This in turn builds a process of shared learning as states begin to ask new questions--oftentimes questions they didn't even know they had to ask.

The type of value-added learning that takes places during cross-state collaboration is most effective when it focuses on how to become more effective agents of change. When a policy was enacted, did we see the expected outcomes, or did the state encounter unforeseen consequences? Sometimes what policymakers write into code can be interpreted differently by school districts. In other cases, code is written but archaic regulations inhibit effective implementation. In many cases, policy changes, but practice doesn't. For example, according a recent state scan, twenty-nine states made the Carnegie unit optional, but in many of these states, school districts still opt to continue using it. In such situations, collaboration can help identify strategies that states can employ to incentivize districts to respond in a desired way, such as by moving beyond the Carnegie unit to implement competency-based learning. Another valuable aspect of cross-state collaboration is that collective learning can be regionalized or centered on specific issues relevant to states' contexts. For example, rural states with high poverty rates face unique circumstances that pose difficult problems such as declining enrollment and limited human resources. Exploring these issues within networks specific to these needs allows policymakers to have a clearer understanding of the arena, identify problems and gaps, and map potential solutions.

Collectively, states can also use their influence to exert pressures on federal policies such as ESEA reauthorization, waivers, Race to the Top Grants, and other investment funds. States can unite to build a collective voice in support of student centered learning, rallying partners such as think tanks and foundations to their cause and influencing federal policymakers. The Innovation Lab Network (ILN), for example, is a network of states working to create policy infrastructures that support and incent student centered learning. The network provides space for member states to share their lessons learned and facilitates conversations between states and federal policymakers on critical topics such as building accountability systems that support student-centered learning

2. Vertical structures--collaboration between states and the local level

Collective action and shared learning can also take on vertical structures that link pioneering work on the ground to state-level action. Here, collaboration happens between schools and districts and connects their work to state-level policymaking and supports. In the field, educators, principals, and superintendents are the key actors in charge of testing, contextualizing and implementing new ideas; engaging in creative problem solving; and interacting directly with students and their families. They are leading the way towards student centered education, but more importantly they are paving a path for others to follow. Their knowledge can be translated into resources such as case studies, guides, toolkits and best practices that will allow other schools to follow suit. Formal and informal networks (for example, the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning) can promote peer-to-peer learning, and capacity building, sharing ideas on topics affecting implementation such as professional development and stakeholder engagement.

Vertical collaborative structures also create a space for actors on the ground to carry the voice of students, practitioners, and the community to state leaders. By creating avenues that connect what is being learned at the local level to inform state action, states can be more responsive to local needs. Lessons from the field provide the critical knowledge that allows states to improve institutional capacity and promote continuous improvement. Working in partnership with leaders at the local level, states can identify action steps and strategies to support the implementation and scaling of innovative best practices. Sometimes this entails working with districts so that they understand the flexibilities written in state policy. For example, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction created a task force to explore the flexibilities available to districts around the Carnegie unit and seat time, and released a guide on how districts can best take advantage of those flexibilities to foster innovation. In other cases, districts need the state to revise restrictive regulatory procedures or pass legislation that provides greater flexibility to districts that meet a set of criteria, such as the Districts of Innovation in Kentucky or the Innovation Lab Network districts in Ohio. The critical component of vertical structures of collaboration is not just that they spread best practices among schools and districts, but that they create opportunities for the state to participate alongside local entities and become aligned with the energy and innovation taking place on the ground

3. Holistic structures--collaboration at the community level

The third sphere calls for collaboration among all stakeholders at the community level: students, teachers, principals, families, community-based organizations, local business, and other local actors. Teaching in a radically different way is a daunting task, but it's easier to take on the challenge with the support of colleagues. Collaboration among teachers and administrators--across grade levels and subject areas--can help foster a culture of trust and peer-to-peer learning. This type of environment creates safe spaces for colleagues to share challenges, successes, and new ideas. More importantly, it creates fertile ground for innovation and more opportunities for students to expand their horizons, especially when linked to community resources. Multi-disciplinary lessons can bridge subject areas and utilize project-based learning linked to opportunities provided by the community, such as internships with a local business, service projects with local non-profits, or science projects at a local museum.

Creating a culture of community-based collaboration also provides opportunities for educators to engage students and give them voice in their learning. Teachers not only can tailor their teaching to better suit students' unique learning styles, but they can work with students to plan projects that are relevant to their interests and experiences both inside and outside the classroom. So much of what impacts students happens outside the classroom that we truly need a holistic approach that encompasses a wide range of community actors. The entire community and its resources need to come together to create systems that support student learning.

Finally, we cannot overemphasize the importance of stakeholder engagement. This is important at all levels, but truly essential in local communities. Education impacts families, their children and their futures--they should have an active voice and role shaping our classrooms. Communities that feel disconnected often lead to disenfranchisement and fragmentation. An example of effective CCSS implementation serves as a clear illustration. While many states continue to face resistance to CCSS, usually from parents worried about the new assessment test scores, some states such as Kentucky have avoided this resistance through constant stakeholder engagement and a proactive communications campaign. In Jefferson County, the leadership team launched Raise the Bar Louisville, a partnership of business and community leaders educating parents and other stakeholders about the benefits and impact of CCSS. The importance of effective stakeholder engagement is especially true when educators are implementing innovative approaches and parents may feel that they are "experimenting on their children" or don't understand how a redesigned system benefits their children.

The path towards student-centered learning won't be easy and it won't be perfect, but we know that our current systems fail our students and our efforts at reforming them are falling short. It's our imperative to come together to transform education so that it maximizes the potential of our children and young adults so that they leave our classrooms ready to transition successfully into college and the workforces and thrive. Collaboration networks--across all levels of the education system--allow us to help us advance toward student-centered learning more quickly, efficiently and effectively. Fortunately, the rapid onset of technology has made collaboration across multiple levels is more possible than ever.

If you're looking to redesign your education system and you aren't actively involved in a network, you should explore what opportunities are available so that you can learn from others, avoid reinventing the wheel, and build relationships with peers who will help you move forward. Many networks, such as the ILN, the Deeper Learning Network, Next Generation Learning Challenges, or the Digital Promise League of Innovation, are taking on the challenge of creating these structures of collaboration. In addition, many states have invested in creating vertical structures of collaboration that can serve as a model for others. For example, Wisconsin works with the regional cooperative the [email protected] to facilitate its personalized learning initiative; New Hampshire established professional learning communities to support their educators as they shift to a competency-based education system; and Maine works with partners such as MCCL and the Maine Curriculum Leaders' Association (MCLA) to train educators on how develop performance assessments. But we can always do more and you can be part of that process. The most exciting part in taking part of a collective movement is that you, too, will become a resource to others and help the nation as a whole take student-centered learning to scale.

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