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The Future of Education Changemaking

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.

Those who want to improve the American public education system are facing a unique moment with an abundance of levers to drive change. Social, economic, and policy shifts are converging to open opportunities for new types of changemakers to gain influence, for established players to solidify or increase their pull, and for fundamental assumptions about education changemaking to shift.

More specifically, changing expectations of, and renewed discussion about, the purpose of education in a complex and fragmented society are increasing the urgency and motivation of many changemakers to pursue new approaches. At the same time, fluctuations in funding, ramped-up private investment, and new financial tools such as social impact bonds signal exploration into new ways to pay for programs that serve the public good. Finally, the Every Student Succeeds Act provides states and localities with increased flexibility in setting goals and designing interventions, which were once more tightly controlled by the federal government.

In this relatively open landscape, changemakers are pursuing new aims and approaches, and are influencing the overall trajectory of change in education reform. By examining the course we are currently on, and recognizing signals of change in the current landscape that point to alternative directions, stakeholders can develop strategies for influencing the future we will experience in ten years' time.

Today's changemaking landscape is characterized by a wide array of approaches, but a general lack of cohesion among them. In the absence of a significant shift, we can expect to see a future rich with ideas but absent concerted efforts for improving education. Results are likely to remain uneven if this trajectory continues. However, signals of change indicate possible shifts in who might dominate the education changemaking narrative, how changemakers might work together, and even whether education changemaking continues to be a national priority.

If education changemaking veers off its current track, there seem to be three potential shifts in course:

What if the communities most affected by educational inequity led education changemaking efforts with the support of other stakeholders? Communities that are facing the most extreme inequity—and are therefore the focus of most reform efforts—have been attracting more attention to their solutions and gaining more authority over what happens in their schools. For example, New York City's participatory budgeting process involves parents and other community members in deciding how public money is spent, and the San Diego Unified School District's School Climate Bill of Rights was adopted as a result of grassroots activism. These developments show that traditional decision makers are aware of the need for more representative leadership, and that communities are rejecting external narratives of reform.

What if changemakers rallied around a common vision for education? Current interest in cross-sector, multi-partner, collaborative efforts and a surge of energy in local and state government could lead to a shift toward the development of cohesive state-level or regional educational change agendas on which diverse stakeholders work together. Collective impact and collaborative funding models; commitments from governors to work on issues separate from the federal government; and education organizations such as the Remake Learning Network and Education Reimagined that are built on networked rather than hierarchical models exemplify this potential change in course.

What if decreased attention from external changemakers and fewer financial resources created a need for educators and communities to find and fund solutions on their own? The possible courses above all share a common assumption: that education changemaking will continue to be a major priority for those with the interest, resources, and ability to advance social and policy issues. However, a growing older population, climate change, increased philanthropic attention to political and governance issues, or any number of other challenges could attract attention away from education as a core focus area.

Throughout the week, I'll invite stakeholders to consider possible scenarios for the future of education changemaking, to reflect on how those scenarios might be relevant to their contexts, and to explore strategic considerations for shaping the future. However, even the changes occurring in the present raise important questions for stakeholders to explore as they consider their approaches to education changemaking:

  • What examples of the developments described above do you see in your region or context?
  • How might your organization or stakeholders operate in any of these four environments? Would any of them require a major shift in approach or focus?
  • What strategies or partners might equip your organization to meet its mission and support all learners, no matter which course emerged as being most prominent over the next decade?

In this unique moment, all stakeholders can play a role in shaping the future of education changemaking, starting with exploring what that future could be like.

To learn more about the shifts that are affecting education changemaking, see KnowledgeWorks' strategic foresight publication, "Shaping the Future of American Public Education: What's Next for Changemakers?" and our related infographic.

Katie King

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