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4 Scenarios for the Future of 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.

Looking at the current landscape of education changemaking, we can see that changes are underway. An abundance of disparate reform efforts, new types of collaborative networks, greater focus on community voice, and competing social issues all point to possible futures that might emerge.

The scenarios below, which are set in 2028, describe four possible futures for education changemaking in the U.S. They are meant to depict a range of specific possibilities for the future so that stakeholders can consider how change might occur, how they might operate in these types of circumstances, and how to engage in their own efforts given how the future might unfold. Following each scenario are questions meant to spark new ideas and conversation about how we might work to shape the future of learning.

Scenario 1: Investing in Islands of Innovation

Education changemaking is a hot business characterized by the influx of private resources and by an appetite for trying new solutions with little accompanying patience for results. Educators and external changemakers alike feel spurred on by the need for schools to find new tools, curriculum, and strategies to meet state-level accountability requirements, address continuing challenges, and keep up in a risk-tolerant and always shifting environment. Despite the energy, the status quo persists, fueling even more activity. In a landscape already awash with models and solutions, changemakers with a wide array of motivations fund, start, and employ an abundance of tools and initiatives—with mixed results and ongoing ethical dilemmas.

  • Can the pursuit of many diverse change efforts eventually influence the entire U.S. public education system, or at least a state's entire public education system? Should that be a primary aim of education innovation?
  • How might the public education system's role as a foundational civic institution shift in a more diversified landscape with an even wider range of visions, aims, and approaches than exists today?

Scenario 2: A Governor Galvanizes Ambitious Action

With more power and influence over education having shifted to the state level, an emboldened governor leads an "Education Moon Shot" that challenges education organizations and influencers to work together and make big, bold change in the state's schools. A few years into the effort, a network of groups has come together to create lasting change. Some people criticize the effort as being the next in a long line of ambitious, place-based education reforms that have failed to yield sustainable results. Others see opportunity for this collaborative effort to promote real transformation.

  • What are the barriers to, and opportunities for, creating collaborative networks and building collective commitment to public education? How might those barriers and opportunities differ across contexts?
  • What impacts, both positive and negative, might a widespread collective effort have on communities? What might it take for such an effort to be inclusive of learners, parents, and other community members?

Scenario 3: A Community Pursues Change on Its Own Terms

After years of being handed regulations and educational approaches over which they had little input, grassroots leaders are making change on their own terms. Their efforts to ensure that traditionally marginalized students receive truly equitable educational experiences have gained traction. Younger and more diverse than ever, a new generation of political and community leaders with lived experience of educational inequity is bringing educators, learners, parents, and other community members into decision-making processes. While resistance to this new power structure, along with persistent structural inequities, have kept this approach from being widely adopted, more inclusive practices have begun to work their way into the mainstream.

  • What might a school or district look like if it were led or designed by or with the learners and communities it served?
  • What approaches might changemakers who have not traditionally held institutional authority use to influence education? What approaches are working well today?

Scenario 4: Educators Bootstrap Solutions

Though the sharp increase in the number of adults over the age of 65 in the United States came as no surprise, the "silver tsunami" still shocked the nation's systems and refocused its priorities. Finding new health care and livability solutions for a larger population of older adults who are living longer has become the primary focus of philanthropists and social entrepreneurs, as well as of technology companies that are searching for untapped markets. After decades of having been supported by private resources, the education sector finds itself needing to rely on diminished public resources, hyper-local funders, and its own can-do spirit. In face of this reduced support, a new breed of education entrepreneurs has forged ahead on their own, finding opportunities and funding where they can in a strapped environment.

  • What might education stakeholders need to consider in regard to changing national priorities and their potential effects on public education?
  • What strategies might help make newer sources of funding, or their impacts, stable and long-term? How might funders and public education leaders collaborate to promote sustainability and evaluate potential trade-offs?

Each of these scenarios highlights a possible different course of education changemaking. When we each decide how we want to pursue our own education agendas, we are also contributing to a general trajectory of change that has the potential to influence the field for years to come.

Katie King

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