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How Better Engagement Can Support Innovation and Deeper Learning

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This post is by Joey Hunziker, Senior Associate with the Innovation Lab Network at CCSSO.

As a young arts professional in upstate New York, one of my largest projects was to build a new, innovative arts program with the high school where I once taught. I worked with a group of experienced teachers, high school principals, and a district leader to get this arts-integrated program off the ground in an effort to address persistently struggling students at risk of dropping out. There were many challenges associated with the shift in pedagogy, classroom management practices, and the overall "flow" of learning. Those shifts, unknown to 24-year-old me, were common in project-based learning environments. I helped and watched as experienced teachers, who for a collective 60 years of teaching had commanded their classrooms and created amazing learning environments for their students, re-learned how to teach in a collaborative, personalized way for students.

Ultimately, the program evolved into a programmatic approach--not a transformation in pedagogy--responding to the needs of the district and the state. In the face of several turnaround efforts, implementation of the new Common Core State Standards, and other school-level factors, the teachers and administrators had less time and fewer resources to devote to the program. Administrators steered professional development away from new teaching methods like the project-based learning approach of our program, and teachers prioritized their content area standards over collaboration across subject areas. What was once a promising new approach to learning, with the potential to shift practice for the rest of the school, was morphed into a less sustainable program in order to respond to the requirements and directions of those outside of the school.

This story is likely not surprising--the educational practices of the last decade or so were driven largely by the blueprint set forth under the 2001 authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Promising, innovative practices all across the country had to pass muster, and pass it quickly, in order to have a chance of surviving in schools that needed to prove proficiency for their populations of learners. One criticism of NCLB, on which I've written previously, was the a limited amount of community input on decision making that directly impacted schools, often curtailing innovative practices, closing schools, and deciding the fates of students and teachers at large.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, however, there is a chance--a responsibility, perhaps--for states to rewrite how they include communities and stakeholders in decisions to support innovative, personalized approaches to student learning and also to define a clear state-local role in decision-making. In my story above, the state wasn't the big, bad guy who intended to destroy our cool new approach to student learning. But because our work at the school level wasn't seen or understood by the state, and the district faced mounting pressure to show results for student proficiency and graduation rates, our work lacked the support it needed in order to persist during a stressful turnaround effort in the school. Imagine how different that story might have ended if we at the school level had better strategies and a clear pathway to share our work with those who made decisions, letting our experiences in the classroom inform the way state education agencies support schools and districts. There are, however, several examples of ways states are changing how they engage with local stakeholders in order to support local innovation in teaching and learning.

In Colorado, the state education agency over the past few years has worked to learn about promising practices in competency-based, deeper learning happening in local communities, and offered support to those districts and schools to share with and learn from others. In the video below, from a project titled Next State of Learning, we see the wonderful work of the St. Vrain Valley school district and the thoughtful, intentional work that went into building a relationship between the state and district.

The project highlights the work of a few states in CCSSO's Innovation Lab Network that are trying to scale innovative practices in learning by changing the ways the state education agencies support districts and schools. These are just a few examples from all across the country of new ways of working between state agencies and school districts. Gwyneth Paltrow might call this "conscious coupling" because of the intentional approach several states are taking to listen to and support their districts.

While there are many direct statements for improved, thoughtful stakeholder engagement in ESSA, it also makes sense that a state would prioritize it as a way to improve its technical assistance work and learn about and support innovative practice. The New Hampshire PACE Pilot (Performance Assessment of Competency Education) grew out of direct feedback from districts to the state education agency. Districts were interested in transforming their practices, moving towards a competency-based model of learning in which students would be assessed when ready, along with competencies that probed deeper levels of student knowledge and work study skills. What grew out of the conversations between the districts and the state was an initiative that has the power to transform teaching practice, state assessment, and student learning. Take a look for yourself.

 

With all of these examples of thoughtful approaches to stakeholder engagement for the sake of supporting new ways of learning, it's important to realize that stakeholder engagement is not a one-time deal. Engaging with districts and schools, and by contrast districts and schools engaging with the state, is an ongoing effort. The work should become a routine, signifying a shift in behavior that can build new connections between the state, local communities, and our districts to transform learning for our students.

I highlight the Next State of Learning project because it gives us a visual way to see how these relationships can change to cultivate better communication, collaboration, and shared learning. CCSSO, along with several partners and collaborators, recently released a support document for states to consider new ways of approaching stakeholder engagement. These resources together could help form some strategies and directions for states interested in connecting with their districts and communities in new ways to support innovations in teaching and learning.

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