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Considering a Strategic Direction for Education Reform

This week, KnowledgeWorks director of strategic foresight engagement Katie King is taking over the guest blog. Before joining KnowledgeWorks, Katie worked as a consulting futurist and middle-school English teacher. This week, she'll be sketching possible futures for school reform, and helping readers make sense of a shifting landscape.

Though we cannot know for certain the future of education changemaking, we cannot wait and see before deciding how to take action. Doing so would mean that we had failed to leverage the potential of this unique moment in education changemaking.

Already, the nation's public education system is at risk. We face key questions about the impacts of our collective efforts to improve it:

  • Might the efforts, investments, and innovations of an expanding array of changemakers reflect or inspire new commitment to the promise of public education?
  • Or might the myriad perspectives on how to change the system, no matter how well-intentioned, undermine or further erode collective belief in public education, threatening the social fabric that the system helps uphold?

As we consider how to act at this unique moment, the strategic considerations below can help guide education stakeholders' choices.

Assess the motivation and vision of changemakers and potential partners. Changemakers are pursuing an abundance of differing visions for the future of education. Stakeholders have a responsibility to examine those visions critically before signing on to support them or acting to further them. Sometimes, access to resources or visibility can make opportunities and partnerships seem more appealing than they would otherwise be. As more and more changemakers appear on the scene, stakeholders should carefully assess how well aligned those changemakers' values and approaches are with theirs and with the needs of learners and communities.

Consider the ideal scope of change. Some changemakers approach their efforts by piloting one small innovation, with the hope that it can grow and achieve wider impact. Others pursue broader reforms from the start. Both approaches have fallen in and out of favor and have seen their share of successes and failures. Knowing that neither one is the right fit for every circumstance, stakeholders should consider what they want to achieve and use those goals and the unique dynamics of the place or effort to determine the best starting point.

Examine the sustainability of funding sources. Education funding is increasingly complex, with shifting federal, state, and local contributions and increased private participation. Given that the amounts and sources of resources have changed over time, stakeholders should assume that they will continue to change in the future. Developing plans that will enable education leaders to carry out their work effectively even if the funding environment changes, or if new priorities emerge, is a crucial step in ensuring that funding is sustainable and in safeguarding against the need to access resources that are out of line with an organization's or community's needs or values.

Review governance and decision-making structures. More and more players are seeking to have more say in education decisions. That shift creates opportunitiesincluding the potential for traditionally marginalized voices to have a seat at the tableand challengessuch as the potential for certain stakeholders to gain outsized power, or for personal agendas to come into play. Stakeholders should review how they currently make decisions, who gets to be involved, and what systems they have in place to ensure that governance processes serve all learners and society well.

Foster structures that enable collaboration and coordination. Whether education changemaking becomes more community-led, more networked, or more fragmented, intentional collaboration or coordination can support diverse stakeholder involvement and can help changemakers and leaders navigate a more complex education environment. However, current incentives and organizational structures are not always conducive to collaborative approaches. Because pursuing higher levels of coordination could withstand future changes and even ameliorate some future challenges, stakeholders would benefit from considering how they might adjust their current structures and lay the foundation for new ones.

Reflect on the current and ideal purposes of public education. Ultimately, all education changemaking aims to improve outcomes for young people and society. However, perceptions of what that looks like and how to achieve it can vary greatly, and answers about how to pursue desired aims are not always apparent. Increasing complexity, emerging societal challenges, and changing expectations of the role that education plays in society will require that education changemakers and other stakeholders be clear not only on what they want their individual organizations to achieve, but also what they believe the system overall should accomplish.

Whether or not we see ourselves as education changemakers, these strategic considerations illuminate the fact that the decisions we make in our everyday work matter to the future of education. Who we choose to partner with, how we pursue our aims, who we involve in those efforts, and what goals we set all affect not only the immediate education landscape, but also the overall trajectory of change.

Amid the uncertainty and shifting ground of today's education changemaking landscape, stakeholders have the opportunity to reflect on whether their current approaches are serving learners and society well, and how we all might use our efforts to fulfill the promise of American public education.

—Katie King

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