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Learning About Vulnerability: My Summer of Deeper Learning

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This post is by Eliza Epstein, a Ph.D student at the University of Texas--Austin and Summer Fellow for CCSSO's Innovation Lab Network.

Grit. Resilience. If you spend any time in education policy circles, you're going to hear about how we need to build grit and resilience in students. But in my summer fellowship at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), I encountered another important, though less talked about, quality: vulnerability. A quality that should be explored and embraced by students and education leaders alike.

I came to our nation's capital as member of the Graduate Program in Public Policy at the Archer Center, the University of Texas's outpost on Pennsylvania Avenue. My family and I packed up seven suitcases and traded the heat and humidity of central Texas for the heat and humidity of "the swamp." In the days leading up to the start of work, I was concerned I wasn't equipped for the job I had accepted. A friend encouraged me, saying if I already knew how to do the job, it wasn't really worth doing. I wasn't sure I agreed, but it made me feel better. Enter vulnerability.

I was hired as a fellow to assist CCSSO in thinking through and strategizing the redesign of one of their initiatives, the Innovation Lab Network (ILN). Member states in the ILN are committed to preparing their students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that they need to be successful in college, careers, and life, and they receive support from CCSSO as they work to build and scale their efforts. I came to the ILN during the last phase of a year of stakeholder feedback about the direction and shape of the future of the ILN, and supported the ILN team in developing and collecting metrics about the work and needs of their member states. The redesign of the network was not addressing a deficiency, but reflecting a shift in thinking about what innovation is necessary to support all students. Innovation is a tricky word--it means different things to different people and is often used as a way to generate excitement about what are frequently traditional practices. It is often conflated with the use of technology as well. Under the new model of the ILN, states will continue to build and support programs for student-centered teaching and learning, but they will simultaneously seek to learn more about strategies by engaging in dialogue with peers and other stakeholders. Student-centered teaching and learning is grounded in a philosophy of shared learning between students and teachers, and this demands integrated systems to guide students on pathways from early learning, through K-12, and on to successful experiences with college and careers. It makes sense that a network of representatives from state education agencies working to develop these systems in their schools would take a similar approach in their own work. The new model is predicated on more reflection, more inquiry, and a commitment to equity and rigor.

During my fellowship, I created a needs assessment for the states, which was designed as a self-reflection tool to help state agencies identify and prioritize their goals for building personalized, competency-based pathways, as well as their capacity and resource needs. I wanted those completing the assessment to be vulnerable--to honestly share where they were, along with where they wanted to be, and to ask what they needed to get there.

Vulnerability crept in again as I developed the needs assessment. I have moderate experience with qualitative research, but had never worked in an organization like CCSSO, nor had I ever developed a needs assessment. I had to request meetings with colleagues and ask lots of questions. I was grateful I had landed in this situation--collaborating with a group of people who want to expand this type of practice in our nation's K-12 schools. But there is a balancing act when being vulnerable; how do you expose your blind spots and retain credibility? How much is too much to ask? How long do you spend learning? And what happens in the time you spend seeking the right answers?

In working directly with states through the needs assessment, I realized vulnerability isn't limited to new fellows like me. Nor should it be. In conversations with ILN states, leaders talked about the incredible accomplishments they had achieved. For example, in some states, each student is required to complete an individualized learning plan (ILP) to help them meet their goals. In other states, schools and districts have worked with their state agencies to develop competency-based assessment techniques, measuring students on their ability to demonstrate mastery of standards and the knowledge and skills needed for life. This work moves schooling beyond the standard of passing students to the next grade based on the amount of time they occupy a seat. There are schools where students are simultaneously completing high school and earning credit towards a career credential or a college degree.

But leaders also expressed concern about the reach of these programs and whether they were exacerbating inequity. One leader questioned whether the ILPs actually had meaning for the students or if they had just become a compliance exercise--another hoop students had to jump through. One leader talked about the way the districts facing the most challenges--those that are under scrutiny for low test scores--are frequently the most risk averse. They choose not to try personalized, competency-based approaches because there are few, if any, people telling them to take risks and stop to worrying about test scores. In these conversations, education leaders were interrogating the impact--both positive and negative--of changes in policy and practice that they deeply believe have great potential. They were asking questions about what they needed to know, who they needed to ask, and how they could make these programs more inclusive and meaningful. They were being open and honest about the challenges and unintended consequences that might need to be addressed. They were allowing themselves to be vulnerable.

Charting a Course Forward

What is particularly exciting about the transformation within the ILN network is that member states are critically thinking about the meaning of student experience. In planning strategies to implement or scale programs of personalized learning in their states, these leaders are asking about the best ways to implement these practices within their own contexts--personalized learning about personalized learning. When designing through-course and formative assessments that can drive student learning, they are formatively assessing their own progress to date and using that to shape further actions.  The shift from doing to inquiring, even while continuing to do, means unmooring oneself from credentialed authority. And it is potentially risky. Turnover can be rapid, particularly in this politically volatile climate. This can make it harder to be vulnerable, when you are already vulnerable.

This is why authentic and broad stakeholder engagement is an essential part of any learning journey. Students are the focus of all work in education and students need to have a voice in their own learning. If you want to know if a learning plan has meaning for a student, ask a student. Better yet, ask a lot of students. One state recently had questions about curriculum practices, so the state education agency polled its teachers to find out their experiences. Teachers, administrators, and school personnel have an important perspective to share in this work. Community foundations, advocacy groups, industry leaders, and civic organizations need to be invited into conversations about how students are supported in school and after graduation.

While grit and resilience are important, these traits also assume the onus is on the individual student to fix a problem. All too often that problem is with the education system as a whole and not the student. Instead, let's acknowledge our vulnerabilities in the system and work together to find solutions. In the new model of the ILN, states are committed to building a learning agenda around student-centered practices. They will work collaboratively alongside engaged stakeholders, while maintaining a focus on equity. They will be vulnerable and ask questions, they will learn and lead, and schools will be better places for students.

While we were in D.C., my son attended a daycare in a public school complex. Our last week in the city, registration was taking place in the cafeteria. There were families lined up, moms and dads with their arms around their children, some arriving at this campus for the first time. When families enroll in schools, they are placing their trust in the school and its professionals to do the right thing for their kids. That is vulnerability. Leaders, in turn, must be willing to be vulnerable, to ask questions, to learn, collaborate, and to fight for equitable, meaningful educational opportunities for students.




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