The school closures and related educational adaptions throughout the Covid-19 pandemic led to many calls for “re-imagining education,” but which changes in schools actually can be made right now? Which ones will be made in the future? To address these questions, IEN is launching a new series to track both what changes in schools and what does not in order to reveal the conditions and constraints that have to be addressed to transform education over the long term. The series is part of a long-term project exploring school improvement efforts and educational innovations in both developing and developed contexts. The series pursue issues my co-authors, Jordan Corson and Sarah Van den Berg, and I raised in The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin, 2021). The first post in the series comes from Larry Cuban, co-author with David Tyack of Tinkering Toward Utopia(Harvard University Press, 1995), who highlights how calls for ambitious educational reform already may be “downsized” as the realities of returning to school get closer — Thomas Hatch
The silence is deafening. Perhaps other observers have noted calls for major school reforms, I have not. The pandemic’s closure of public schools in March 2020 and the partial re-opening of schools in fall 2020 and full return to face-to-face instruction in winter 2021 have grabbed mainstream and social media attention. Especially for the rapid expansion of remote instruction and the Zoom marathon that all of us are running.
No reform agenda, however, have I seen for bettering the nation’s public schools. I have yet to detect any groundswell for altering the familiar school organization, Common Core Curriculum, and existing accountability measures already in place. There is much reform talk, of course:
Consider the words from a recent report of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights of the disparate effects of the pandemic on white and minority students:
[W]e have a rare moment as a country to take stock and to begin the hard work of building our schools back better and stronger—with the resolve necessary to ensure that our nation’s schools are defined not by disparities but by equity and opportunity for all students.
Or the head of a major administrators’ professional organization:
“There are a lot of positives that will happen because we’ve been forced into this uncomfortable situation,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the school superintendents association. “The reality is that this is going to change education forever.”
Talk is one thing, however, action another. Reform-driven policies have notably been absent from most of the 13,000 school districts spread across 50 states and territories during and after the pandemic, particularly when it comes to repairing inequities prior to and during the Covid-19 crisis.
Consider state and national testing. During the pandemic, the then U.S. Secretary of Education postponed the federally-required National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) until 2022. The current administration has called for standardized tests to be administered in the fall of 2021.
Apart from temporary suspension of nation and state tests, I have yet to hear of or read about any coalition of reformers offering concrete policies that can reduce the stark differences in funding and staffing schools in urban and suburban districts that have become, in a word, re-segregated. Progressive educators and their allies have surely called for such changes before, during, and after the pandemic’s closing of schools, but beyond exhortations, I have not noted an emerging coalition of school reformers at either the state and federal levels not only endorsing but also funding such efforts.
In fact, as Republicans have taken over most state legislatures–they now control 62 percent of them–, the appetite for funding schools and igniting school reform have shrunk considerably. Although conservative state legislators have called for more teaching of patriotism and less teaching about race, keeping schools as they are remains strong.
Progressive rhetoric for reducing inequalities in funding districts, ending disproportionate assignment of inexperienced teachers to high poverty, largely minority schools, and increasing “ambitious” teaching remains high in mainstream and social media but has yet to lead to substantial adoption of such policies, and most important their implementation in schools and classrooms.
Of course, lack of concrete reform-driven policies and their implementation does not mean that reforms begun prior to the pandemic and then put on hold have disappeared. Those reforms seeking the expansion of remote instruction have gained ground with the sudden switch from face-to-face to screens in March 2020. While surely distance learning now has a secure niche in a school district’s kit-bag of “solutions” to emergency closures, becoming more than an option for parents to choose is, well, doubtful (see here and here).
Remote instruction, then, is, by default, the coercive reform du jour. Yet frequent reports of test score decline and loss of academic skills especially among minority and poor students during the pandemic have yet to push the “pause” button on distance instruction as a choice for parents to have should they reject face-to-face instruction in school classrooms (see here and here).
With the spread of remote instruction as a school reform, what has thus far emerged from the pandemic emergency are not big-ticket, comprehensive overhaul of public schools aimed at reducing inequities among American children and youth but a shrunken version of what the past 18 months have offered.
And that is why I titled this post: Downsizing School Reform after the Pandemic.
This week, the Lead the Change (LtC) interview features a conversation with Chad R. Lochmiller, an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Indiana University Bloomington. His research examines issues related to educational leadership, with a particular focus on instructional leadership, continuous improvement, and strategic resource allocation. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website.
The Lead the Change series highlights promising research and practice and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change to spark conversation and collaboration. The LtC series is a product of the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association; Jennie Weiner, Chair; Olga O. Fellus, Program Chair; Corinne Brion, Secretary/Treasurer; Alexandra Lamb, Series Editor; Cynthia Wise, Social Media Coordinator
Lead the Change: The 2021 AERA theme was Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions.For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?
Chad Lochmiller: I think education scholars, particularly those who study educational change, have a moral obligation to use their research to identify and disrupt perpetual cycles of oppression, inequity, and injustice in educational organizations and practices. This obligation applies regardless of what we study or the methods we use. This isn’t always comfortable work for folks who look like me, a white, male academic, and it requires a conscious choice to focus on these issues. I’ll also be unequivocal in stating that, because of my identity, I have disproportionately benefitted from the inequitable structure of our society, its educational institutions, and our workplaces. I have benefitted because folks who look like me set up the system to reward similarity and disparage difference. This isn’t right. In our increasingly diverse society, it’s fundamentally wrong when scholars turn a blind eye toward the very system that perpetuates these cycles of inequity and has privileged their own academic rise.
This is true of public elementary and secondary schools in the United States, as well. I often recall the words of Ron Edmonds (1979), whose landmark work on schooling for students from low-income backgrounds prompted much of the debate about what constitutes an effective (and equitable) school. In his seminal work, he noted that “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us” and that “Whether or not we do it must fully depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far” (p. 23). Focusing on equity and orienting our scholarship toward issues that perpetuate injustice is a choice. It’s the choice for scholars, for journal reviewers and editors, for tenure reviewers, for hiring committees, and for institutions of higher education. It’s on all of us to take on these issues, but especially those of us who have benefitted disproportionately.
As Ron Edmunds said: “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us” and “Whether or not we do it must fully depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far”
Now, as I write this, I have to admit that I have not done enough to address equity issues in my own scholarship nor taken enough actions to promote equity through my research. It’s a weakness in my research and I own that weakness because of the choices that I made. It’s also something that I am working to address by choosing to situate my work with a stronger equity/justice frame. For instance, in work that I am starting on school district strategic planning, I am looking specifically at the ways districts frame equity issues as part of their overall strategy for organizational improvement. Coviello and DeMatthews (2021) just published a piece on the community-level engagement around district equity issues. I want to understand how districts prioritize equity as a strategic improvement goal and follow-up with these commitments through differential investments for historically under-served students. In other words, do they put their money where their mouth is when they say they’re investing in equity? There are clearly some districts who do. But there are also many who treat these issues like a politically convenient talking point that receives no sustained attention in their practice.
Finally, as an instructor, I also try to address these issues more focally in my classes. I teach Indiana University Bloomington’s school improvement course for pre-service administrators and have introduced research that addresses issues of culturally responsive school leadership, disproportionality, and other issues that are appropriately considered in broader conversations about district and school improvement. I’ve asked students to read Anjalé Welton’s (2013) work, “Even More Racially Isolated than Before: Problematizing the Vision for ‘Diversity’ in a Racially Mixed High School.” I use this piece to help my students see diversity as a strength from which to build their improvement efforts. This piece, along with others like it, has created some really impactful conversations in my courses. I’ve found that students are increasingly speaking about their commitment to take up difficult conversations in their schools, challenge issues related to racial diversity that confront their schools, and ultimately make the choice (as urged by Edmonds) that schools will serve all of their students.
LtC: Given some of your work focused on how new teacher evaluation policies shape principal practice and the types and scope of supports needed for them to effectively implement such policies, what are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?
CB: The adoption of new teacher evaluation policies throughout the Obama administration was the classic example of a well-intentioned policy that went terribly wrong. State policymakers who adopted the policies failed to consider the real-world impact of the policy on districts and schools. In this case, policymakers incorrectly assumed that leaders within system had the capacity to implement new evaluation practices without significantly increasing resources, providing adequate professional learning supports, or building new infrastructure to help manage data. Districts incorrectly assumed that principals had the capacity to manage new evaluation requirements without fundamentally reconsidering who should be involved in or responsible for the evaluation process. What became clear as this initiative wore on was that school leaders could handle ‘quick’ evaluations with relative ease but lacked the capacity to handle the required ‘comprehensive’ evaluations that were used with early career classroom teachers and a sample of teachers selected for review each year. As the number of teachers who required comprehensive evaluations increased, the evaluative burden simply grew too much for principals to handle. In sum, the system basically collapsed under its own weight (Lochmiller & Mancinelli, 2019).
If we step back and think about this as a broader policy issue, there are three major implications that we need to consider: First, education policy tends to be heavy on prescription, but light on incentives for change. Policymakers tend to state what will be required of educators with the hope that this is enough. They rarely offer the same kind of detail when specifying how educators will be supported, which we know is vital for the success of any change initiative. Policymakers, including district leaders, clearly need to think more holistically. They need to consider what systems will need to be built and/or which existing systems might need to be leveraged. Instead of introducing wholesale changes in education practice, as they attempted to in the case of evaluation, it behooves them to make more modest changes that are more strategically focused. For example, some of the work done by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in the Building Teacher Effectiveness Network (BTEN) is an excellent example of districts working collaboratively to make progressive enhancements in their practice.
“Education policy tends to be heavy on prescription but light on incentives for change.”
Second, when policy aims to address practice, we need to consider whether practitioners have the capacity to accept new responsibilities. When educators don’t have the capacity to accept a new responsibility, I think it creates a policy selection phenomenon that is detrimental to policy implementation and organizational change. Prior research has described this as ‘street-level bureaucracy’ (Weatherly & Lipsky, 1977), a phenomenon that characterizes how frontline policy implementers tend to make sense of policy requirements in ways that fit their local context. In my view, policy selection relates to how educators strategically ignore policies that pose too significant a burden for them to adopt in their practice. I think it relates to Down’s (1957) notion of policy ignorance, which speaks to the costs of educating oneself about a policy relative to the potential benefits that one might derive from doing so. Educators tend to ignore (or loosely implement) policies that they think will not contribute to improved practices or outcomes. This reflects their own understanding about what constitutes good practice, and it ultimately contributes to unevenness in the implementation of policies. I think this exacerbates some of the difficulties achieving coherence in the education system, which are still not well understood.
Finally, given the increasing need to capture, analyze, and report information in education, policymakers need to consider the information infrastructure that policy changes may require. As I learned by studying evaluation policy, absent consideration of the information infrastructure, we end up with Google Spreadsheets because many classroom teachers use technology that is familiar to them or already embedded within their practice. This makes understanding the effect of a policy more difficult and presents challenges to learn how to improve the policy over time. It also misses an important recognition – technology tools can be useful in guiding educator practice. Thus, if we want to change fundamental practices, it behooves policymakers to consider how technology can be used to streamline what information is deemed important and thus sensitize what practices educators attend to.
LtC: In some of your recent work, you find that content-specific leadership practices are important not only for instructional improvement in science and math but also as a means of enhancing distributed or shared leadership practices. Given your findings, what do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice to address these issues in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students alike?
CB: My interest in content-specific leadership (Lochmiller, 2015; 2016) started because I saw pre-service administrators struggling to evaluate classroom teachers in content areas with which they had no previous experience. I found that pre-service principals were especially hesitant to evaluate teachers in mathematics and science because they perceived these subjects were too complex to understand. Through my research, I’ve seen that principals often avoid these subjects by delegating supervisory responsibility to other members of their administrative teams or by offering generic feedback that attends to classroom conditions but does not really promote reflection that could contribute to changes in instructional practice. My work in this area seeks to identify tools, strategies, and other supports that help administrators engage in more productive supervisory conversations and/or to help them reconceptualize the leadership function in their schools to promote more attentive supervision in mathematics and science. This includes advocating to district leaders and policymakers to allow non-administrators to participate in peer evaluation as well as creating coaching structures in buildings that provide greater support to teachers in these subject areas. Certainly, this work is also motivated because of the vast inequities that we see in access to high-quality mathematics and science instruction as well as the differential outcomes that have been reported in mathematics and science for low-income students, students of color, students who are learning the English language, and students with disabilities. So, to my earlier point, this is one area of my work where I’ve been really intentional about making connections between my research and the (in)equities in schools.
“Educators need tools. They need models. They need processes that help them identify what changes need to be made and how these changes look once they are implemented.”
LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?
CB: My basic belief is that educators need tools. They need models. They need processes that help them identify what changes need to be made and how these changes look once they are implemented. One of the reasons that I’ve been so interested in improvement science (and Networked Improvement Communities) is that this model for improvement puts a great deal of power in the hands of educators to envision new practices, processes or structures that can fuel long-sought transformation. Improvement science is a form of disciplined inquiry that seeks to improve educational practices through the systematic application of small-scale tests of change. Networked Improvement Communities serve as social learning structure to guide largescale improvement activities focused on a common aim. In truth, I’m less interested in these ideas as an academic exercise than as a tool to help schools experiment with practices in ways that could potentially contribute to something better. I also think that this work is timely because of what we’ve experienced in the past year with COVID-19. When you take away the schoolhouse, you end up with students, teachers, instruction, and social networks. That’s the essence of schooling. So, I think it’s beneficial to explore improvement activities that marry these foundational qualities with a disciplined improvement process.
LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?
CB: I think we need to think about the field in two ways. In the short term, my sense is that we’re going to see a lot of research that describes the effects of COVID-19 on different practices in schools. This will likely point to COVID-19 as a significant disruption in educational organizations, an external force for change, a crisis that necessitated management by leaders and teachers, and insights about how schools used technology to facilitate rapid educational change given the uncertainty of the moment. I’d also hope to see some critical appraisals of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, students residing in rural communities, etc.
Once we get outside of this recovery period, I think the field is poised for some really exciting advances over the next several years. This period has taught us some important new ways of working, interacting, and organizing educational systems, including schools. These urge us to consider what schools and the school day look like, for whom this model works, and how this model might be amended to better serve students. I think this creates opportunities to raise important questions about inequities that the COVID era has made much more transparent. That’s where my excitement about the field comes from – we are living in a unique moment where we might be able to revisit our long-held conceptions of educational change so that they better reflect the diverse society that we live in. We might actually be able to make education systems work better for the students who attend them.
Coviello, J., & DeMatthews, D. E. (2021). Knowing your audience: Understanding urban superintendent’s process of framing equitable change. Journal of Educational Administration, online first. https://doi.org/10.1108/JEA-07-2020-0164
Down, A. (1957). An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.
Edmonds, R. (1979). Effective schools for the urban poor. Educational leadership, 37(1), 15-24.
Lochmiller, C. R. (2015). Exploring principal leadership for math and science. Journal of School Leadership, 25(1), 24-53.
Lochmiller, C. R. (2016). Examining administrators’ instructional feedback to high school math and science teachers. Educational Administration Quarterly, 52(1), 75-109.
Lochmiller, C. R., & Mancinelli, J. L. (2019). Principals’ instructional leadership under statewide teacher evaluation reform. International Journal of Educational Management, 33(4), 629-643.
Weatherley, R., & Lipsky, M. (1977). Street-level bureaucrats and institutional innovation: Implementing special education reform. Harvard Educational Review, 47(2), 171–197.
Welton, A. (2013). Even more racially isolated than before: Problematizing the vision for “diversity” in a racially mixed high school. Teachers College Record, 115(11), 1-42.
In their new edited book Educational Equity: Pathways to Success (Routledge, 2021), Christopher Chapman and Mel Ainscow and their colleagues, report the findings of an eight-year programme of research carried out in Scotland to find ways of promoting equity. In advance of the publication on July 15th, wespoke with Ainscow and Chapman about how the book came together and some of what they have learned in the process. Ainscow is Professor in Education at the University of Glasgow and Chapman is Professor in Education and Chair in Educational Policy and Practice at the University of Glasgow and Director of Policy Scotland. For more on Ainscow and Chapman’s work, see our conversation with them about their previous book with Mark Hadfield Changing Education Systems.
IEN: Why this book, why now?
Ainscow & Chapman:Educational Equity: Pathways to Success builds on our earlier work on the improvement of education systems. In this book we describe and analyse what happened over an eight-year period when a team of researchers from the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the University of Glasgow worked within the Scottish education system to find ways of promoting greater equity. The accounts we present are unusual, if not unique, in that they involved an engagement at all levels of the system, from the offices of government ministers and officials, through to those involved in classroom activities and the many others who have a stake in the work of schools. Another unusual feature of the book is that, although individual chapters are written by particular groups of authors, it develops a single overall argument. This was achieved by intensive cooperation between members of the team, a process that included mutual reading of draft texts and occasional meetings to agree the ideas to be presented. All of this was built on a tradition of partnership working at the University of Glasgow that has grown over many years.
IEN: What’s the agenda?
A&C: Educational Equity: Pathways to Successfocuses on the types of concerns facing schools and education systems across the world on a daily basis as they try to ensure the progress of all of their students. More specifically, it addresses the following questions:
What can be done to promote equity within education systems?
What are the barriers to progress?
How might these barriers be overcome?
With this agenda as our focus, the book presents a series of recommendations as to the actions that are needed in order to find pathways for promoting equity within education systems. We also examine the sorts of barriers that make it difficult to put these ideas into practice.
Our intention is that the information generated in relation to this agenda will be relevant internationally. With this in mind, extensive use is made of detailed accounts of practice to illustrate the argument. In this way, our aim is to make the ideas we present meaningful and relevant to a wide audience of readers, including, senior staff in schools, policy makers at the national and district levels, and post-graduate students who are focusing on using research to analyse educational improvement. Whilst the text has a strong emphasis on practice and policy, it will also be relevant to those in the research community who are focused on the improvement of schools and education systems. With this in mind, strong links are made with evidence from international research.
IEN: What did you learn in working on this book that you didn’t know before?
A&C: The research was carried out in Scotland during a time of intensive efforts to improve the national education system. Building on the much-quoted adage, ‘the best way to understand an organisation is by trying to change it’, our analysis of these experiences led us to conclude that there is massive untapped potential within Scottish schools and their communities that can be mobilised to address the challenge of equity. It also describes how local pathways can be created in order to make use of this potential. The book shows how university researchers can contribute to the development of such initiatives. In particular, it illustrates the kind of relationships that have to be created amongst practitioners, policymakers and academic researchers for this to happen. Where this works, it can lead to the development of new, context-specific knowledge that can support change processes.
successful educational change requires the coming together of different perspectives in a process of social learning and knowledge creation within particular settings
In these contexts, we saw our role as being that of ‘engaged researchers’. This involved us in stimulating professional dialogues, within relationships that were concerned with the joint production of knowledge. In this way, our aim was to make direct contributions in the field, whilst at the same time drawing lessons that will have wider implications. All of this leads us to argue that successful educational change requires the coming together of different perspectives in a process of social learning and knowledge creation within particular settings. Researchers who get involved in such processes must expect to face many difficulties and dilemmas. Consequently, they have to develop new skills in creating collaborative partnerships that cross borders between actors who have different professional experiences. They also need to mobilise personal support in dealing with the pressures this involves. Hence the value of working as a team.
IEN: What’s happened since you completed the book?
A&C: As we write, further significant barriers exist within education systems across the world in relation to the continuing impact of the coronavirus pandemic. We argue that these new challenges point to the need for an even greater emphasis on the sorts of approaches presented in our book. There has therefore never have been a more important time for people to get together in order to ensure high quality educational opportunities for all children and young people. With this in mind, members of our team are currently working with colleagues in various parts of Scotland and in a number of other countries to take this thinking forward. We are particularly excited by a new project we are carrying out in the city of Dundee. Known as Every Dundee Learner Matters, the initiative involves a two-year strategy to improve the quality of education for all children and young people. This builds on the established reputation of Dundee as a hub of innovation and creativity. This led it to be recognised as a UNESCO City of Design the first in the United Kingdom to be awarded the honour, which puts it in the company of Berlin, Beijing, Buenos Aires and Montreal.
The guiding vision is of a high performing system that is at the forefront of developments to find more effective ways of ensuring the progress of all students, particularly those whose progress is a cause for concern. Central to this vision is a system that is driven collectively by school leaders and involves practitioners at all levels in taking shared responsibility for improving the quality of education across the city. Using a design-based implementation research approach, the strategy is guided by a series of design features based on lessons that emerged from the research described in the new book. Underpinning these features is a significant adjustment in the way that decisions are made regarding efforts to promote educational change. This approach has significant implications for the roles of local authority staff. It requires them to adjust their ways of working in response to the development of improvement strategies that are led from within schools. Specifically, their task will be to monitor and challenge schools in relation to the agreed goals of collaborative activities, whilst senior staff within schools share responsibility for the overall management of improvement efforts.
Local authorities task will be to monitor and challenge schools in relation to the agreed goals of collaborative activities, whilst senior staff within schools share responsibility for the overall management of improvement efforts.
IEN: What’s your hope for the future and what do you hope this book will contribute to it?
A&C: As we take our work forward – in Scotland and other parts of the world – the impact of the pandemic continues to be a major concern. At the same time, we are conscious that schools have demonstrated remarkable flexibility in response to these unprecedented challenges. This has meant that they have had to find different ways of carrying out their core business of teaching and learning. At the same time, many schools have developed new ways of working with other agencies in supporting families and local communities. The logical implication of these developments is that much of the best expertise regarding ways of providing support in the new context lies amongst practitioners. Therefore, in moving forward with the recovery of education systems, use must be made of this largely untapped knowledge through the sorts of collaborative processes reported in this book. If this thinking is to be implemented, however, there are significant implications for national policies. Put simply, there is a need to foster greater flexibility at the local level in order that practitioners and other stakeholders have the space to analyse their particular circumstances and determine priorities accordingly. This means that policy makers must recognise that the details of policy implementation are not amenable to central regulation. Rather, these should be dealt with by those who are close to and, therefore, in a better position to understand local contexts and develop pathways to success.
Strong school leadership impacts student outcomes, and this relationship is more important during a crisis. School leadership training can be cost-effective if it is delivered using best practices. However, there are limited programs focused on working with school leaders in lower and middle income countries (LMICs). As a result, the evidence base on this issue is sparse relative to the central role that school leaders play in a school’s functioning.
My organization, Global School Leaders (GSL), aims to play a catalytic role in developing evidence on school leadership in LMICs. In order to do this, we have been scaling school leadership training programs while strengthening our monitoring, evaluation, and research systems to contribute to the larger ecosystem of learning on this issue. We have worked with over 3,500 school leaders, impacting approximately 920,000 students. Our primary countries of focus are India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Kenya. During COVID, we have expanded to work in Peru, the Philippines, Uganda and Nigeria.
Why survey school leaders?
In 2020, we conducted a thorough review of the evidence on school leadership in LMICs. One of the key questions that emerged from that review is: “What are the key leadership practices that impact student learning for students from marginalized backgrounds?”
In order to deepen our understanding of this question, we have developed a set of High-Leverage Leadership Actions (HLLA) that synthesizes key leadership practices identified by our review and our experience training school leaders. We then developed a consultative process with a group of 10 education leadership researchers, our Academic Advisory Council, whose work is rooted in LMICs, to further refine this list.
These focus areas are not intended to be a complete framework of practices for school leaders. Instead, they serve as actions that 1) impact student outcomes and teacher performance 2) are trainable 3) are relevant across contexts. The six High-Leverage Leadership Actions we have identified are:
Create a positive school culture that reflects high expectations
Build teacher skill through observation & feedback
Understand effective teaching practices
Set school goals, create plans, and monitor progress
Promote teacher leadership
Disrupt inequitable patterns
In order to understand the quality of school leader practice in HLLA areas and the amount of time school leaders give to HLLA areas, we developed a set of school leader, teacher, and student surveys.
We piloted this survey toward the end of 2020 with our partners from India, Kenya, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Each of our four partners identified one school leader training program that started in early 2020. From this group of 180 schools, we randomly selected 10 schools from each partner. From each selected school, we surveyed the school leader, 5 teachers, and 20 students in grades 5 or 8. Our sample was thus 40 school leaders, 200 teachers, and 200 students. We ended up collecting data from 34 School Leaders, 116 teachers, and 145 students. The biggest gap in data collection was that our India partner was unable to collect teacher or student data.
What did you learn from the survey?
Overall, three findings from the study stood out:
1. The belief that all students can learn, and that teachers are critical in this process, is not universal.
In our sample survey, we saw that the percentage of teachers who believe that “all students can learn” is lower than the percentage of school leaders who believe the same. While 74% of our school leaders believe that all students can learn regardless of familial background or educational experience, only 48% of teachers agree.
While 74% of our school leaders believe that all students can learn regardless of familial background or educational experience, only 48% of teachers agree.
2. School leaders are providing teachers with limited opportunities to grow professionally.
Less than 40% of teachers reported receiving monthly short observations of at least 5 minutes from their school leader. Further, only 12% of school leaders reported conducting monthly observations of 30 or more minutes. Less than 50% of teachers reported their school leaders doing monthly in-service activities related to improving teacher skills and only 16% of teachers stated that they had opportunities to learn from their colleagues.
Less than 50% of teachers reported their school leaders doing monthly in-service activities related to improving teacher skills
3. School leaders use little data for decision making.
In our sample, less than 20% of school leaders reported using learning data to make curriculum changes, and only around 25% reported using data to incentivize teachers. Even though student absenteeism was identified by both teachers and parents as the biggest hurdle to student learning in their schools, only 62% of school leaders reported tracking student attendance. While almost all the school leaders reported having a school improvement plan that included student learning targets, in a majority of cases, these are not updated or reviewed regularly.
Less than 20% of school leaders reported using learning data to make curriculum changes, and only around 25% reported using data to incentivize teachers
Moving forward, we plan to conduct yearly follow up with this group of schools to see how their practice changes over time. We also will continue to test and refine our understanding of key actions leaders need to perform to impact students and improve our ability to measure these actions. We believe that understanding the detailed actions and choices school leaders make can have a substantial and sustained impact over the quality of education students receive.
In part 2 of this interview, Abe Fernandez discusses some of the key steps in creating community schools, describes their efforts to address key issues like chronic absence, and goes on to talk about work on collective impact more broadly. In the first part, Fernandez shared the story of his own educational experiences, explains the evolution of the community schools’ approach of the National Center for Community Schools, and discusses critical issues, like chronic absence. Fernandez is Vice President for Collective Impact and Director at Children’s Aid.Children’s Aid is one of the oldest and largest nonprofits serving young people in New York City. Established in New York City over 165 years ago, Children’s Aid addresses all kinds of issues related to children and youth, including early childhood, schooling, and foster care.This interview follows up on an earlier post on the evolution of work on collective impact in New York City.
IEN: What does it look like when you first go into a school or community? What are the first steps?
AF: It’s really important to have a quick win right away. In our first community school, we parked a medical van in front of the school twice a week as a way to tell the community something different is going on here. It showed that we were already providing a direct service to families that they weren’t getting the week before.
We’ve also found that leveraging after school programming can be another quick win. For one thing, no one questions anymore whether or not we need out-of-school time programming. Helping with after school programming creates a wonderful opportunity to start building relationships with the principal, with the other adults in the building, and with families and with kids. It may be that what a particular school community needs is really hardcore mental health support, for example, but I’m not sure that you want to start trying to build relationships talking about hardcore mental health. We also find that lots of engagement makes a big difference too. In our first community school we paid for a neon sign to be put above the parent room announcing parents were welcome there, and we made sure that the coffee was hot. Just creating an opportunity for parents to get together and talk, with no agenda, allowed to them talk about their concerns as well as what they were proud of in their school. That really makes a difference. You want to build enough trust so that people can get to know each other a little bit better, and then they can start thinking about what the next wave of work needs to look like. There is a saying in the world of collective impact that this work moves at the speed of trust. That’s incredibly true even if you have all the resources and all the right partners. If you haven’t built trust, it’s going to be really hard to move forward.
There is a saying in the world of collective impact that this work moves at the speed of trust. That’s incredibly true even if you have all the resources and all the right partners. If you haven’t built trust, it’s going to be really hard to move forward.
IEN: How can you help connect the school and afterschool?
AF: We often say we’re not trying to recreate the school day in the afternoon. They each have their purposes, and we want to them to have different looks, and we want to honor each other’s work. But I think there should be some consistent themes and threads and values and cultural elements that are ever present and that can help form a bridge between different elements. For example, in one school, during the day they were using PBIS – Positive Behavior Interventions and Support. But then at three o’clock everyone stops doing it. And one of our partners said, “Why are you stopping? It’s the same kids, same building. Let’s keep that going.” That to me was another win.
IEN: When you’ve had the opportunity to design a community school and a community school building from the “ground up”, what does it look like?
AF: Let me answer that by telling a story. When one of my sons was five or six, he was at school and wasn’t feeling well, so I had to go pick him up. When I walked into the building, there was a sign that said no parents beyond this point. So one answer is: don’t do that in terms of design. Instead, imagine if you walked in and there was a neon sign that was very welcoming and made it clear to parents that you do belong here. This space is for you. The design needs to make it clear that the community is invited in. But at the same time, I don’t think every service a student needs has to be inside of a school. Yes, there’s some convenience in that, but putting everything inside a school’s four walls can lessen the engagement with the outside. There has to be a balance. That means it’s not solely about the design of the school itself; you also need to think about how all the key functions are fulfilled in a community in general. How do we break down the silos between agencies and distribute services throughout the community in ways that are less siloed?
It’s not solely about the design of the school itself; you also need to think about how all the key functions are fulfilled in a community in general. How do we break down the silos between agencies and distribute services throughout the community in ways that are less siloed?
IEN: Along with your work on community schools, you’ve also been very involved in bringing community organizations and schools together in initiatives to increase collective impact. Can you tell us about the work in the Bronx on collective impact and chronic absenteeism?
AF: As I mentioned, we saw pretty high rates of chronic absence in our community, and, at first, our approach was to bring as many of those stakeholders as possible together in one room just to understand what chronic absence is. Average daily attendance is something that most people understand. It’s really useful if you want to figure out how much lunch to buy or how many chairs, you need. But it doesn’t tell you how often each individual student is absent. For example, in New York City, around 2008, there was a report that came out from the Center for New York City Affairs that found that K-5 attendance overall was about 92% which sounds pretty good. That same year 90,000 students missed a month or more school. You could have a school that has a 90% average daily attendance while 30% of the students are chronically absent. So we helped the schools, the principals, the parent coordinators, and community partners to understand those numbers. Although they thought they were doing fine, they got their data and they could not believe what they were seeing. When we could, we encouraged schools to go beyond the numbers and look at the names of that students that were absent. That just completely changed the conversation, and the schools started making plans for how they could help certain students.
In this work, information, and having data at people’s fingertips, is really important, but too often, data has been used as a hammer, particularly in schools and the nonprofit sector. We try to help people use data as a flashlight. How can we use data at the front end, not just at the back end? How does it inform our planning? How does it support improvement, not just tell us how many kids are reaching a particular benchmark?
Too often, data has been used as a hammer, particularly in schools and the nonprofit sector. We try to help people use data as a flashlight. How can use data at the front end, not just at the back end? How does it inform our planning? How does it support improvement?
Beyond providing access to information, we try to bring together multiple stakeholders to look at data together. We found that the schools that had a more representative group of people, including the school nurse, a community partner, parents, teachers, and the principal, looking at data on chronic absence had a much much more engaged conversation. These conversations led many of those schools to go back and rethink their Attendance Teams so that the principal wasn’t the only one responsible for addressing the problem. They began to break down the problem, starting with the universal things that support every student: How do we create a culture of attendance in our building? What signs are on the wall. What are we talking about during assembly? How do we let families know that attendance is important?
Then what are we doing to support those students who are chronically absent – the 40 kids who’ve missed 10% of the school year? For that, many schools ended up using what’s called success mentoring where you identify adults in the building who work with each student every day; someone to check in with them and to say I’m so glad you’re here, just building a relationship with them. And if the student is out, their mentor is the one calling home, not a secretary or a robo-call saying your child was absent. They call to see if everything’s okay, asking that question “Can we help you?” that changes that relationship between the school and that family.
Then there’s the most intensive support for the students who have missed the most, maybe 10 days in a row, or they were absent for more than 50 days the previous year. For those students, mentoring is probably not going to be the answer. It might help, but it probably will not resolve what is probably a much, much larger issue. In these cases, it’s really important that connect these students to a social worker and other kinds of supports as soon as possible so more complicated issues can get addressed.
By breaking the problems down and developing multiple strategies, we saw some huge changes in some of our school. One school, PS 42, reduced their chronic absence percentage by double digits in just two years. All this showed that chronic absence is one of those few numbers in schools where you can actually make improvements almost instantly, and then everyone realizes, “Oh my God, we can actually make a difference here.” It just takes getting a little bit more organized, getting more targeted around data, and bringing more eyeballs to the work.
Of course, the progress is uneven, and not all schools have seen those kinds of results. So that raises the question of what’s preventing those schools that aren’t making it? What’s the difference between the school that reduced chronic absences and the one that didn’t? School leadership really matters, that’s number one. Two, sometimes school leaders really get it, but they don’t have the capacity to make it work. They just don’t have the help or they can’t figure out how to get the data just organized for that meeting.
But now there’s been some really exciting work in New York City. New Visions for Public Schools has developed a tool and a dashboard that makes it easier for schools to look at their data. I went to a school about a couple of years ago and I sat in on their attendance team meeting to look at their data with them, and they pulled out what looked like an old phone book, which basically had a report for every single kid. Who’s going to look through 500 pieces of paper to figure out what’s going on here? With the new data system, instead of having a stack of papers, you can create heat maps that use colors like red, yellow, green to look at subpopulations of kids, and to help identify who’s chronically absent. So hopefully tools like this will help those leaders who get it but haven’t had enough support. I think this is where the principals of the community schools have an advantage. They have a built-in partner and a dedicated person whose job it is to wake up every morning to do this kind of work and that makes a huge difference. We found that in our 61 schools 20 of them are community schools and it’s those 20 that saw the most improvements in chronic absence.
IEN: Given all the resources and support that community partners can bring, why has there been some resistance? Why wouldn’t all principals want to lead community schools?
AF: First let me clarify that I think there are there are plenty of schools that have tons of partners in them. What we’ve seen is that the principal might be saying yes to the resources, but they’re saying no to the shared leadership that comes with community schools. I would argue that the only thing that’s worse than not having enough resources is having too many that are uncoordinated. It’s what we call random acts of programming. I’m sure anyone who’s walked into schools has seen this. You walk into the school, and there’s tons of activity, but it is complete chaos. So when we go into a building, we look to see if they’ve invested in the coordination of all these partners: Who is doing what, for whom and for what purpose? Is it any good? Is anyone better off?
One of the hardest parts of this work is helping people to think of it as a strategy, not a program. And the problem with programs is that they are predefined, with a beginning, middle and end, and you know what the inputs are and what the outputs are going to be. But a strategy needs to be different by design. It has to be adaptive. For us, the core components of that strategy begin with making sure that kids are at the center of every conversation. Typically, when that doesn’t happen, we make really bad decisions. But it’s also important to recognize that kids are parts of family systems. So there’s no way to educate kids without also understanding who their families are. They are not just the recipients of support, they are also the providers of support, and we need to partner with them in that capacity. Then we need to recognize that families are part of communities, so what’s the relationship between the school and the community?
One of the hardest parts of this work is helping people to think of it as a strategy, not a program…But a strategy needs to be different by design. It has to be adaptive.
But we’ve also recognized that the instructional program is a core part of the work. Back in the 90’s, in our work at Children’s Aid, we never talked about instruction. We’d say, “that’s the school’s job.” We saw our job as providing what we called “wraparound services.” I hate that term because it makes it sound like those are secondary, nice, but not necessary, and now I think that’s not right. So now we say, “look, even though we’re not the ones delivering the core instructional program, it is part of the approach; it’s part of the strategy. Even if you have a wonderful parent’s program and great parent engagement and an awesome school-based health center, if the teaching stinks, it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to make the difference that you want to make. We need to have high quality instruction. Full stop.
But we also see expanded learning opportunities as an important part of the strategy; before school, after school, weekends, summer, all of that creates the opportunities for kids to learn. As part of expanding the kinds of learning activities you do with kids, you’re also expanding who is doing the teaching. It’s not only certified teachers. You can have college students, alumni of the school, families, you name it. Artists can be a part of the teaching as well. And then as a foundation for all that, there are these comprehensive support services that remove barriers to learning – making sure there’s some counseling and removing those barriers so kids are actually ready to learn when they’re in school.
There are many schools that may do a lot of these same things, but what makes a school a community school is the way all these services and supports are connected and coordinated. There’s a system in place so that if there’s a teacher who recognizes that a student is struggling, there’s a mechanism for that teacher to let the right people know what’s going on; there’s a feedback loop back so the teacher can get information about how to support that student and how to engage the family in that conversation. There’s also a way to learn from that teacher’s experience and to develop a broader response if that’s necessary. If you find out the fourth grade math scores are dropping, you can look at how the after school program can build on what’s happening in the fourth grade classrooms and create opportunities for students to practice those skills and apply them in ways that may be a little bit more engaging. There’s a conversation that’s going on between that program and the school day. And the social worker, someone, who understands children’s development, can be tapped to help other people in the building create a safe environment for all kids. It’s the connection points that are really critical.
If I’m talking to a group of principals who are not totally feeling this yet, I might ask “Do you want to do all that work by yourself?”, and they often say, “no way.” I ask them to imagine that they had some sort of a dedicated capacity, someone who will work on the same side of the desk with the principal to find the partners and supports to meet those needs. Then they start to come around a little bit. But all of this hinges on a principal who is willing to share data, share time, share control, and share authority. They have to want to do these things. I think it’s a real paradox of the US system that we have designed a system that makes the principal absolutely crucial and makes the position completely unsustainable. It’s very hard to do that job. Obviously, some people manage it, but it’s not clear that we could have a system succeed on a broader level if this is what’s required of principal; yet it’s not clear how to change that system without relying on that principal.
I think it’s a real paradox of the US system that we have designed a system that makes the principal absolutely crucial and makes the position completely unsustainable
IEN: Have you seen anything in your work that can help us think about how to bring people together with different views, particularly with different educational views?
AF: I think there are people who have pretty strong opinions who have not been in a school for a very time and that’s partly why I think the more we can find opportunities to invite people in to actually see what’s happening in schools – to see how challenging it is educate children – we can start a conversation. If we can get more people to really interact with those who are doing work in schools and help everyone better understand what the challenges are, I think we can at least create an environment where we can try some things out. We’re hoping that work can change the culture a bit because we’ve been conditioned to want to prove what works. We want to find that silver bullet curriculum, the silver bullet framework, the teaching tool that works no matter what the weather condition is. But instead, and this goes back to using the data more as a flashlight than a hammer, we need to focus on improving things and developing a much more adaptive way of thinking.
It turns out that what works in one school actually may not work in this other school, so the people in each environment have to figure it out. It’s not a recipe – the process is the program, and it’s a process that depends on the engagement with the local community because figuring it out is a team sport. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to position schools as belonging to the community.
This week, IEN shares the first part of an interview with Abe Fernandez about what he’s learned through his work on community schools, community organizing and collective impact in New York City. Fernandez is Vice President for Collective Impact and Director, National Center for Community Schools, Children’s Aid. Children’s Aid is one of the oldest and largest nonprofits serving young people in New York City. Established in New York City over 165 years ago, Children’s Aid addresses all kinds of issues related to children and youth, including early childhood, schooling, and foster care. This interview follows up on an earlier post on the evolution of work on collective impact in New York City. Part 1 of the conversation begins with Fernandez sharing the story of his own educational experiences and continues with a description and reflections on Children’s Aid’s community schools approach and their work on issues like chronic absence. Next week, in Part 2, Fernandez discusses some of the key steps in creating community schools and goes on to talk about work on collective impact more broadly
IEN: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved in Children’s Aid and started working on community schools and collective impact?
Abe Fernandez: My story is that I grew up in the Bronx, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. They came to this country hoping that education would be their ticket to prosperity, which I think is still a pretty typical story for many immigrants. I have a lot of belief in the system that we have all built together, although it is flawed. But there’s a real perception that it can lead to some real opportunities, and I have to say I was really lucky. I was lucky born to a family with parents who were really working hard – despite all the barriers around language and culture that they and other immigrants faced – to navigate through a pretty challenging system. I had the good fortune of going to an elementary school that had teachers who saw something in me and my twin brother, and they helped create pathways that allowed us to find opportunities in that school. And then I got really lucky in fifth grade, and I was introduced to a program called Prep for Prep. That’s a program which, as I look back on it now, is problematic in some ways (as detailed in a New Yorker article by a program alum). Essentially, the program creams really high performing kids out of the public school system and deposits them into private schools and the independent school system.
Despite the challenges around that approach, it created some real opportunity for me, and I ended up going to a very elite independent school in New York City, Riverdale Country Day School, and then on to Brown University. At Brown, I got involved in a program that’s still going on today, the Breakthrough Collaborative. It’s a program that has a dual mission of getting younger kids into competitive high schools and encouraging really smart high school and college students to get involved in teaching. They’ve had a pretty good track record, with large percentages of their college students choosing to do at least a year of teaching after doing that program.
The program started at my high school when I was there, and after I went to Brown I participated in the program, and I went back every summer to teach at Riverdale. When I graduated from Brown, there was actually an opening at Riverdale to run the program there, and they brought me in to run it. As a result, I had this incredible opportunity to jump into the nonprofit world at the same time that I was learning how to become a teacher. I realized as I was working at Riverdale that I was in an extraordinary environment to learn how to teach because we had tons of resources. I taught middle school math, and I had maybe 13 kids in the classroom, all incredibly motivated kids, with parents who were incredibly engaged, and it was just a great. What a great way to learn the craft of teaching! But I remember thinking at the time, there’s something wrong about this. How could it be that only a small selection of New York City children get this kind of experience? So after a number of years of running that program and teaching in that environment, I wanted to be closer to the communities and the kids where I grew up. That led me to join Union Settlement in East Harlem. There, I ran a number of programs that were based inside public housing, and we worked with kids as young as two all the way through 24 year olds. That was a real shift for me. I got to really understand some of the issues that I knew from my own background, butI got to know them more professionally and to see the systems that were responsible for some of the challenges that young people and families face. After working there for a few years, I realized that I missed being engaged in education. We were doing great work, but it focused more on hunger and other kinds of issues. I didn’t have the access to what was happening in school where these kids spent most of their time. I found myself wanting to bridge those two parts of my experience, and that’s why I took a job at Children’s Aid, where I’ve been for the last 16 years, working primarily on Community Schools and now collective impact.
IEN: Can you tell us about your work on community schools?
AF:Community schools bring together all kinds of resources that we think kids and families need. They address everything including early childhood education, school-based health, adult education, you name it. The idea is to bring all these partners and programs together in a really coherent way to meet the comprehensive needs of kids and families. Children’s Aid was involved in helping to develop and support community schools long before I got there in the early 1990s. Right away, we had a lot of people from other places who wanted to learn about the approach. They wanted to come kick the tires, talk to principals, talk to us. But we found that they would go back to their home communities and say “Okay, we’re totally inspired, but we’re totally confused. Now what do we do?” We wanted to meet that need and build the capacity to help teams of people to go back to their communities, get to know their local context, and figure out some next steps. That’s what we’ve doing for the last 25 years through our National Center. Over the past 20 years, we’ve worked on almost every major community schools initiative across the US.
IEN: How has your work on community schools developed and what have you learned in the process?
AF:Children’s Aid started their work on community schools in the 1990’s in Washington Heights, in Northern Manhattan, with about five or six schools. Those schools were part of a wave of new schools that were established in New York City, and these schools were actually brand new schools, with facilities designed and built with the idea that they would be community schools. We had the opportunity to think about where to put a school based health center, the community school director’s office, or a parents’ room.
When we expanded the work into the Bronx in the early 2000’s, we didn’t have that luxury. We had to turn existing schools into community schools. We found ourselves working with schools that were completely overcrowded, and we couldn’t just displace a classroom to put in a health center or something. Instead of creating new school buildings, we ended up creating a kind of “campus” of community schools. We worked with four or five schools in one area and in the middle of them we built a health center. Later we put social workers and then an early childhood center into the building.
Although this campus grew out of convenience and practicality, creating this partnership of four or five different schools gave us an opportunity to work in the community in a different way. In the process, we started working on a whole set of issues that we as Children’s Aid didn’t have enough expertise or capacity to really do anything about. Instead of concentrating on how to get all the services in the community into schools, we started to imagine what could happen if we got all the partners in the community to work together on issues that went beyond any one school. We thought about issues like making sure all kids are healthy, all kids are ready for school, and all kids are graduating high school ready for college and career; and, if we’re developing a vision of supporting children from “cradle through college and career,” we can’t be the ones doing all the work ourselves. Instead, we took on this new role as a kind of “backbone” organization. We’re convening all the partners that work in a community to develop a common results framework with some shared goals and with some indicators that will tell us all how things are moving forward at the neighborhood level. Part of that backbone role also includes basic things like just making sure that the PowerPoint is up, the coffee is hot, and the notes are being taken the meetings, but, overall, the work is being done by the community. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past five or six years in the South Bronx, playing this facilitating role.
Instead of concentrating on how to get all the services in the community into schools, we started to imagine what could happen if we got all the partners in the community to work together on issues that went beyond any one school
We’re not going to walk away from community schools or stop providing services, but this has what’s expanded into what’s now being called our collective impact approach. We’re getting many, many partners to work together, looking at the same data together; we’re all coming up with a shared vision for what, what could look different, and then collectively working toward that new vision. As we continue to develop this work, we’re also hoping that the City will pay attention and begin to devote its resources to collective impact, just as they did for community schools.
IEN: What were some of the challenges that you encountered as your work with community schools developed, and how did you address those challenges?
AF:The biggest challenge is that the mindset needs to change. Right now, people tend to think categorically about schools: we believe that school is where students receive curriculum and instruction. Even though this notion that schools can be more than that makes sense, it’s really hard for people to think beyond the current paradigm. I think that mindset manifests itself in different ways. Take attendance for example, which is something many community schools have focused on. In New York City, for all grades K through 12, about 25% of students are chronically absent, which means that they’ve missed about a month or more of school; and in the schools in the South Bronx where we’ve been working, we found that it’s closer to 40 or 50%. Why are these students absent? One is health. In fact, the South Bronx has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma anywhere in the world (a documentary, Asthma Alley, chronicles the issues in the South Bronx). If you have lots of asthma in your community, kids are going to be sick, and they’re not going to go to school. But that’s not the only issue. In some cases, kids have to stay home to care for their siblings; some high school students might have jobs or other responsibilities; some kids are homeless. What program solves all these problems? It doesn’t exist. There have to be a number of different partners working together, which is why looking into chronic absence can help people to change their mindset and to explore community schools. People start to see all these factors at play for why kids are missing school, and they begin to realize schools cannot address this problem by themselves. They have to bring in more partners and more resources and find a way to coordinate everything.
Looking into chronic absence can help people to change their mindset and to explore community schools. People start to see all these factors at play for why kids are missing school, and they begin to realize schools cannot address this problem by themselves. They have to bring in more partners and more resources and find a way to coordinate everything.
But schools are not built to think that way, and they often take a much narrower approach. Here in New York City, there is a mandate that every school must have an attendance team. If you listen to some of the conversations in those teams, it sounds like “Okay, who was absent this week? How many kids have hit the threshold for being chronically absent? Did we send the letter? Did we make the phone call?” They check the items off a list. It’s a compliance driven approach. That’s different from a problem-solving approach. In a problem-solving approach, we look at the data, and that can get you thinking about who’s sitting around the table because we need more voices to interpret the data. Once we understand what the issues are, then we have to think about who’s going to help us create a plan and implement the intervention? That requires other people to be involved. All of that requires that shift in mindset. It’s an approach that helps to get at the stories behind the numbers, to help schools understand what’s happening for students and their families, so they aren’t just “rubbernecking” and saying “Isn’t that terrible.” It puts schools in a position to do something about the issues their students are facing. It is a lot to ask schools beyond what’s already a very challenging set of responsibilities, but if you add more partners to the mix, we can begin to share those responsibilities. That shift in in attitude is critical, but frankly, not every school leader is interested in doing it that way. There are some leaders though, who see the challenges and want to open up their doors and bring other voices in; look at that information and collectively problem solve; and share in some of the responsibility for work on these issues together.
Another critical challenge is that there is nothing you can do without principal leadership. It’s the linchpin, but if there are problems with a principal, it can be really hard to replace them. We’ve seen how, in the same building, you can have two different leaders with completely different outcomes. The challenge for us as a capacity building organization is that we still have not figured out how to implant a vision inside of a principal just by showing them PowerPoints or giving them books. A lot comes down to conversation and building trust. The most effective tool we have is other principals who get it, so creating networks of learning among the principals has helped quite a bit. The good news is that in the very beginning, people just wanted to build one community school, and now we’re seeing people who want to build systems of community schools. One of the really nice features of that is that you can start building these networks.
A lot of times the communities that are drawn to doing this work, tend to have populations that have higher rates of poverty, higher rates of tons of issues, and the schools in those communities tend to have less experienced teachers and less experienced principals. We’re asking them to work on a very high level, and many of them just haven’t had the chance to develop their own skills as school leaders, let alone as community school leaders. It’s a hard sell for some. On the flip side, we’ve come across principals who said this has been my vision from the minute I walked into my first classroom. I didn’t know it had a name, but I’m so glad that I can now join this community of people who work in this way. We have to find ways to build this way of working and these opportunities earlier into the careers of teachers and principals.
IEN: Given these challenges, how do you get started? How do you figure out who to work with?
AF:When it comes to New York City, we have identified particular neighborhoods where the data tells us we need to do something right away. And those places have changed over the years. When Children’s Aid started this work, the work was on the northern parts of the Upper East Side, which today looks very different. It doesn’t really need community schools the way it once did. As a result, we moved the work into the Bronx, and we’ve been there for about 20 years. The work starts with thinking about what’s the community we want to work in? And then it’s finding those people who have a real desire to work differently; that bring a sense of curiosity and have a feeling that things really should be different; who know that they can be doing things with partners, but they might not know how to do that quite yet. It does help quite a bit to have some top down support. There are some communities around the country where there’s a really inspired superintendent, who’s been willing to think about how to create the environment for their principals to want to do this work. Other times we find it is a really strong community partner that has had a relationship with a school and has already built some trust, but maybe they’ve realized they’ve been doing programs in the school for decades and have not seen the outcomes that they wanted to see. They come knocking on our door wondering how to better integrate their work with the other work going on in schools.
IEN: You said you’ve transitioned a bit from focusing on working with one school at a time and are now thinking more about a “hub and spokes” model. How does that work?
AF: We’re still doing both really. We often say community schools is not a program. It’s a strategy. It’s made up of many different programs and depending on what the needs are in that community, they’re all going to look different. We also don’t say it’s a model because the actual mechanics of how you’re going to move forward really needs to be worked through locally. Figuring out what your needs are and how are you going to meet them is actually part of the work. You can’t just implement a list of steps someone gave you. There are some benchmarks and some tools we want to use, but you want to engage local stakeholders in that process.
In some communities, you might start with a school. For example, they might have a YMCA attached to the building with a pool and many things you might want. But it’s totally disconnected. In that case, we’re going to find ways to connect those two and bring other folks into that space. In another community, we might find a school with a clinic or hospital across the street, and then we’ll find ways to bring those people together. It really depends community by community.
More recently, we’ve also been thinking about economies of scale. For example, in New York City you have 10 schools all working in one neighborhood, and they might all figure out that many of their students have asthma. Instead of having 10 different conversations with 10 different principals you can try to create one conversation between these schools and two or three partners to meet those needs. That ends up being a much, much more efficient way to work. It’s more likely to attract a partner because you’re talking about a scale that actually makes sense for them and chances are it’s much more sustainable.
IEN: What has been happening in schools in South Africa since the pandemic began?
Brahm Fleisch: One of the standout characteristics of South African education is the extreme inequality. The pandemic has exacerbated it. Elite private and middle-class schools in the public sector (about 10-15%) rapidly moved online. And while there were concerns about the quality of teaching and learning taking place online, most middle-class children were able to return to some form of schooling routine. This was not the case for most working-class and rural children, the overwhelming majority of whom are Black. Given the high cost of data, and the limited digital infrastructure in schools serving the majority of children, the evidence suggests that most of these children had very little schooling in 2020. This has continued into 2021. Even when schools serving poor and working-class children started reopened in August last year, many attended less than half the number of days they would have had had there been “normal” schooling. The majority of schoolchildren have experienced substantial learning loss.
Even when schools serving poor and working-class children started reopened in August last year, many attended less than half the number of days they would have had had there been “normal” schooling.
IEN: What has worked?
BF: South Africa has a national curriculum, most often referred to as the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS). The government strategy last year was to “streamline” the curriculum, that is, cut the number of topics or themes to be covered in each of the respective subjects, assuming that the curriculum content that was missed would be covered in later grades. The problems with the curriculum streamlining approach is that it assumes that children have acquired the core basic knowledge and skills. At least for the early grades, the evidence suggests that the proportion of children able to read fluently in either their home language and/or in English (the language of schooling for the majority from Grade 4 onward) has dropped dramatically. If majority of children haven’t learnt to read or lost the skill of reading, streamlining is not going to help. While there is clearly a serious problem with government strategy, two important developments need to be highlighted. First, the national education department facilitated the development of a dedicated TV channel to make lessons in the high-stakes subjects available for all secondary school learners. Unlike using the internet, which has serious financial limitations, nearly all parts of South Africa have access to public broadcasting and is a relatively low-cost way to reach poor and rural communities. Second, after the first major period of lockdown, the schools were required (by a court interdict) to provide school feeding even when the schools were formally closed. Without doubt, ensuring that children received a daily meal benefited the majority of South African children.
IEN: What has surprised you?
BF: No one could have predicted how popular the institution of the school actually is with the vast majority of children, their parents and the wider community. Much of the work of university researchers had been focused on documenting the major inadequacies of schools. In particular, the research had focused on both the overall low levels of learning taking place and the gap between children at the top and bottom of the income distribution. What was never fully appreciated is that despite the major weaknesses of the school system, children and their parents really missed the routines, rhythms and rituals of schooling. And while some school types did emerge such as the pod schools (small private classes of between 5 and 10 children of different ages mostly working online in a common space), it is hard to say if the new model will endure beyond the pandemic. These ‘schools’ fitted somewhere between home schooling and small private schools. While pod schools emerged in an ad hoc fashion to address the needs of children and parents, given the choice most children and their parents appear to be shifting back to more traditional school models.
IEN: What have you learned?
BF: As suggested above, there have been two clear learnings from the pandemic. First, absence from face-to-face schooling for a prolonged period disproportionately negatively impacts poor and working-class children. Although schools tend to reproduce inequality, the absence of schooling in conventional school buildings accentuated this inequality. The second insight suggest the deep cultural resonance of the archaic 19th century institutional form. All the talk about 21st Century skills and personalized learning appeared to signal a potential revolution in how we organize education. If anything, Covid-19 has surfaced the enduring popularity of the standard structure of the egg-crate/factory school model.
No one could have predicted how popular the institution of the school actually is with the vast majority of children, their parents and the wider community…If anything, Covid-19 has surfaced the enduring popularity of the standard structure of the egg-crate/factory school model.
IEN: What’s next — what are you working on now?
BF: In the Global South, in systems such as those of South Asia (and South Africa), the challenge is to shift focus from curriculum compliance towards teaching at the right level. For these education systems that placed an emphasis on the syllabus or schemes of work, rethinking what teachers do in classroom with children who may be years behind curriculum expectations is going to be very challenging. For example, middle school teachers are going to be forced to confront a growing majority of children who cannot read for meaning or do basic mathematics. Simply doing the same, or even a slimmed down version of the national curriculum is likely to make things worse rather than better. Real thinking needs to go into teaching basic skills further and further up the system.
Rather than a catalyst of radical reform of the institution called the school, the hope for the future must focus on better teaching system-wide.
IEN: What’s your hope for the future?
BF: Rather than a catalyst of radical reform of the institution called the school, the hope for the future must focus on better teaching system-wide. We need greater effort on how we can mobilize the resources of the state better, unleash the creative energy of teachers as an organized profession, excite parents and students in diverse communities towards the task of incremental but sustainable improvement of teaching and learning.
IEN:Why this focus on professional learning networks, why now?
Chris Brown/Cindy Poortman: The focus on the power of collaborative learning of educators has been growing for years: both within and across schools. We call the variety of groups who engage in collaborative learning with others outside of their everyday community of practice to improve educational outcomes, Professional Learning Networks (PLNs (e.g. see Networks for Learning)). PLNs are associated with effective professional development and ultimately improved outcomes for students. At the same time, their success depends heavily on the way in which PLN processes are guided: with research reporting both promising and disappointing results. Moreover, research into PLN effectiveness is methodologically challenging. Many have studied networks and communities before us, and we aim to build further on their important work, having ourselves been involved in projects about Research Learning Communities and -Networks, Data Teams, Teacher Design Teams and cross-school Professional Learning Communities. We notice that schools in many different countries are motivated to participate in networks more than ever, while there is still much to learn in this area. Having mapped out what we think are the main areas that need further investigation, we are excited to work together with schools, partner organizations, and other scholars to further discover how PLNs can be most beneficial for educators and their students.
PLNs are associated with effective professional development and ultimately improved outcomes for students. At the same time, their success depends heavily on the way in which PLN processes are guided
IEN:What did you learn in working on this special issue that you didn’t know before?
CB/CP: Many factors influence PLN processes including collaboration, shared focus on student learning, reflective dialogue, and leadership. Even if PLN participants successfully collaborate and learn together within their group, they still need to successfully share and refine the knowledge developed within the PLN with other colleagues in their ‘home’ schools (as well as other institutions). Only then, will they be able to achieve the ambitious goals of school and system improvement. What’s more, they need to do this in such a way that their colleagues can incorporate this knowledge into their educational practice as experts. We call the process of creating, sharing and applying knowledge, knowledge mobilization(KMb). In our experience with schools, we noticed that PLN members often find it hard to communicate with colleagues outside their PLN about approaches and outcomes. At the same time, school leaders sometimes report they should have done more to support networking between PLNs and their member schools. This is why we were very happy to work with our ICSEI PLN network colleagues on this special issue.
And we have learned a lot. For instance, the paper from Livia Jesacher-Roessler addresses how and whether PLN-participants see themselves as knowledge mobilizers, but also explores how individual and organizational knowledge mobilization is linked to institutional change. It shows that much more is needed from the school as a whole than simply the participation of individuals in a PLN, who are sometimes not even aware of their role in mobilizing knowledge. The paper by Leyton Schnellert and Deborah Butler shows how inviting co-teaching partners into a PLN to engage in collaborative inquiry and engaging in cycles of inquiry with a co-teaching partner is helpful in this respect. The paper by Miriam Mason & David Galloway shows how evidence of student improvement can support further development of PLNs, while also emphasizing the value of a contextual approach. The findings of Joelle Rodway and her colleagues show the importance of both direct and indirect interactions for understanding knowledge brokerage, as well as the importance of different types of relationships (e.g., including both sharing information and giving advice). Those with formal roles are not always the ones most effectively brokering knowledge.
…much more is needed from the school as a whole than simply the participation of individuals in a PLN, who are sometimes not even aware of their role in mobilizing knowledge
Particularly significant post-pandemic, Pierre Tulowitzki’s paper addresses levers and barriers to success of a PLN that takes the form of a blended learning program, showing the importance of both informal and professional communication in this context. The combination of in-person with online meetings was essential. Although some of the other papers emphasized the importance of context, this paper shows how participants transferred models or concepts from other countries to their local context, after careful considerations of required adaptations and experimentation. And with a specific type of PLN, namely Research-Practice Partnerships (RPPs) on the rise, Stephen MacGregor’s paper discusses co-production: shifting the research paradigm so that researchers and stakeholders co-lead research activities, and collectively apply their expertise, knowledge and skills within a team. Design, implementation and reporting on measurement tools for evaluating co-production would benefit from researchers engaging more openly and critically with psychometric and pragmatic considerations for a better understanding of the impact of co-production. Finally, Amanda Datnow’s commentary highlights a number of interesting areas for further development. For example, the extent to which PLNs contribute to achieving social justice goals, and the emotional aspects of PLNs.
IEN: What’s happened since you completed the special issue and what’s next?
CB/CP: It’s been busy for all of us! To provide just a few examples, first, both of us were invited to sit on the New South Wales (NSW) Curriculum Reform Teacher Engagement Advisory Group. We are advising on NSW’s teacher engagement model for teacher expert networks. We are also contributing to (video)lectures for the related blended learning program. Despite the distance, we truly enjoy being involved in this exciting and important work. In March a project run by Livia Jesacher-Roessler funded by the province of Tyrol started to unpack many of the issues she discusses in her paper: in particular, how different institutional logics of different professions impact on both PLNs and knowledge mobilization. Along with Stephen MacGregor we will also be working with What Works in Children’s Social Care to run a Research Learning Communities intervention for Looked After Children in England. With this iteration of the RLC programme, the team will be working with Subject Leads and Designated Teachers from at least 120 schools. The focus will be specific areas related to maths and English that virtual school heads and designated teachers feel are beneficial to improving key primary school outcomes for this vulnerable group. As series editors of the Emerald PLN book series, we are also looking forward to forthcoming books in the series, including a volume by Mason and Galloway on PLNs in Sub-Saharan Africa.
IEN: What’s your hope for the future and what do you hope your work on professional learning networks will contribute to it?
CB/CP: Since we started collaborating within the ICSEI PLN network, we have developed a research agenda for areas we think would benefit from further work, with input from network members and building further on their studies. In the book Networks for Learning, Alan Daly and Louise Stoll’s chapter helped us identify conceptual, methodological and impact challenges which were starting points for this research agenda. After several conceptual pieces, such as a systematic review on reflective professional inquiry, we are eager to advance to more empirical studies, also applying more innovative methodologies (e.g. using text mining and machine learning for analysis purposes and/or using data from blended learning PLNs). At the same time, we are looking forward to sharing practical guidelines with educators in a forthcoming handbook based on what is already known about effective PLN work so far. Of perhaps most importance, however, is that while learning outcomes are key, students’ wellbeing and issues of equity should be central to all of our PLN work (as Leyton Schnellert and Sara Florence Davidson describe in this blog post). So we are pleased to see both educators and scholars, such as our special issue discussant Amanda Datnow, advancing the field towards impact for children in this area.
This months’ Lead the Change interview features Dr. Jennifer Karnopp discussing her work on how reform efforts are impacted by the socio-political context of the schools and communities in which they are implemented. Karnopp is a former teacher and school leader who will join the Department of Educational Leadership in the College of Education at San Diego State University in the Fall of 2021.
Lead the Change: The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions.
For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?
Jennifer Karnopp: Educational change means many different things to different people. Even among members of the Educational Change SIG, you will find many different opinions regarding the who, what, where, why and how of educational change. At the same time, we are now at a point in history where both the systemic nature of racism in the United States and throughout the world and its negative consequences are undeniable. Inequities in the educational system and the need for deep, systemic change is clear. This places scholars of educational change in a position of responsibility to focus attention on this pressing issue and support the change process through multiple avenues—through our scholarship, through advocacy efforts, and by working directly with schools and communities to realize change goals. I believe that faculty also have an obligation to address the issue of systemic racism and other forms of institutional oppression in their roles as teachers and mentors. This includes looking critically at course content and program structures to surface and address any issues of bias including across program, course, and content access; in the topics that are given primacy in the space; in the perspectives promoted through course readings; and in how discussion topics are framed and encouraged. My thinking in this area is influenced by the concept of rightful presence, as described by Calabrese, Barton and Tan (2020).
“Inequities in the educational system and the need for deep, systemic change is clear. This places scholars of educational change in a position of responsibility to focus attention on this pressing issue.”
For me personally, over this past year I have thought deeply about my own role as an educational change researcher—have I been a change agent, an advocate, an ally, or an observer? Is that enough? As a result, I have done what many in the field are now doing. I am listening more, educating myself on the history of race in America and the institutional racism that is the legacy of this history through the work of Ibram Kendi (2016) and Isabel Wilkerson (2020). Community Engaged Leadership for Social Justice (DeMathews, 2020) is another excellent resource focused on school leadership. I am thinking differently about my own approach to the study of educational change. I have always recognized that schools are embedded within communities and that this influences change efforts, but I now have a deeper appreciation for how the history of a community is interwoven with the present and that this history and the current reality both need to be understood when studying the implementation of a localized school reform. My research has always explored relationships in reform, but, in the past, I have focused on who is engaged in change implementation. Over this past year, I have become more interested in who is left out of reform-related decision making and why.
I am now collaborating with a colleague on a new research project, the first since completing my dissertation. This new project examines the implementation of culturally responsive teaching practices in a district undergoing a demographic shift. In many ways, the research design is similar to that of my dissertation, “Structures and relationships: A mixed-methods study exploring the flow of knowledge entitled “Structures and relationships: A mixed-methods study exploring the flow of knowledge relating to a recent initiative in one rural school district” which focused on how educators in one rural school district utilized organizational structures and social relationships to access and share knowledge about new instructional practices related to a recent change initiative. However, in this new project I am excited to integrate some of the take-aways from this past year of self-reflection.
Specifically, three details make this project a step towards my being a more active participant in the dismantling of systemic racism in schools. First, the change of focus is one intended to reduce racial inequities in schooling within a district. Second, as a part of understanding the study context, I am looking beyond district practices and digging into the history of the community with an eye towards issues of race. Third, our research design pushes us to look beyond the actions and attitudes of those active in the implementation of this reform and attend to those whose voices are not included in the planning and/or implementation. Taken together, I am hopeful that these design elements will result in research that deepens understandings of change processes designed to address issues of equity that is rich in context-specific details. Such details are important for informing the work of future change agents as they consider strategies for their local context, and also for researchers, as it can provided critical clues as to how variations in context influence outcomes.
LtC: In your dissertation you highlight how teachers’ relationships and interactions with colleagues shaped their understanding and enactment of reform initiatives. What would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and use of organizational theory?
JK: Before pursuing my PhD, I was a classroom teacher and a school principal. I knew from experience that while instructional coaches, professional development, and other resources are helpful for learning about new initiatives, educators rely heavily on one another to make sense of how to actually implement these changes in their classrooms. While there is research that examines how organizational routines support change and how educators support one another, my dissertation contributed new understandings of how school routines and informal relationships interact to impact change implementation. This was an area identified by Penuel, et al. (2010) as in need of further exploration. I found that the way that principals utilized school roles and routines impacted opportunities for informal interactions among educators, and educators developed informal, yet consistent, patterns of interactions that served as informal knowledge-building structures that these educators relied upon to make sense of new classroom practices (Karnopp, forthcoming).
From a theory perspective, I utilized knowledge creation theory (Nonaka, 1994) and structuration theory (Giddens, 1984) to create a framework for understanding organizational learning in schools. While knowledge creation theory explains how educators utilize interaction spaces to discuss and make sense of new ideas until they become a part of the fabric of the organization, structuration theory explains how knowledge creation spaces emerge or fall into disuse. To date, I have not found any empirical studies that bring these two theories into conversation with one another. In this way, I believe my work contributes to the scholarship on organizational change.
I think the field of Educational Change can learn a few lessons from this work. First, organizational structures, such as resources, roles and routines work in conjunction with positive collegial relationships among educators to support changes in educator practice. While resources and routines are important, it is equally important that educators have access to knowledgeable individuals whom they trust and the time and space to have conversations for gaining knowledge of and engaging in sensemaking about new practices. School leaders should recognize that the choices they make regarding the allocation of resources, classroom assignments and school schedules shapes the opportunities educators have to interact with one another. These interactions can influence the depth and breadth of reform implementation, and so it is important to ensure that choices regarding these routine structures align with reform goals. This may be particularly important in under-resourced districts where formal supports, such as instructional coaches, structured communities of inquiry and embedded professional development may be sparse.
LtC: Some of your recent work looks to better articulate the nature of systemic reform into vision and action. What implications might such work have for policy/practice interactions with colleagues and students in the field and/or for educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students?
JK: Systemic reform requires two components—a clear vision of change and a plan of action that provides a path for attaining the vision. This articulation of vision and action benefits from the integration of both top-down and bottom-up approaches to the change process. Top down elements effectively promote a vision, provide incentives and resources and remove barriers. However, bottom-up approaches facilitate the development of a shared vision, bring in diverse voices, address local needs and increase buy-in. Integrating the two encourages and facilitates systemic change in a way that addresses the needs and leverages the assets of the local community context (Reigeluth & Karnopp, 2020). Practically speaking, approaching change in this way takes time. While an initial idea, or vision for change may start with a core group of leaders, change agents need to bring in a broad range of stakeholders and think carefully about the structures they will utilize to broaden, organize, facilitate and communicate the work. This includes providing the time and space for conversations to happen. From a policy perspective, flexibility is key to allow for the variations in vision and action that are likely to result from stakeholder attention to local needs. Schools will need financial resources to support the work of systemic change, and policies that serve as barriers to change, such as those that rely on standardized testing for accountability need to be removed and rethought.
“Systemic reform requires two components—a clear vision of change and a plan of action.”
LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?
JK: Schools are incredibly complex systems, which is, in part, why so many change efforts struggle. I believe reform that takes a systemic approach is most impactful and sustainable, but the successful implementation of complex systems-level change continues to be a challenge. To realize systemic change, school leaders need a clear vision that is supported by thoughtfully aligned strategic action. Those in the field of Educational Change can support individuals and groups through the change process by stepping into the role of guide or facilitator, not to direct or dictate the details of change implementation, but to help schools and communities to identify their own change goals and navigate the process. As researchers, we bring knowledge of best practices based on current evidence, as well as knowledge of the inquiry process. We are well positioned to use these skills and knowledge to support local efforts to develop context-specific visions and action plans for change. Collaborative structures, such as research-practice partnerships hold promise as effective ways for educational change researchers to work side-by-side with schools and districts to support their change goals while also contributing to scholarly understandings of change processes. In terms of teaching, faculty might also provide support by developing local capacity through courses that teach future school leaders about effective, collaborative change strategies such as design thinking or improvement science.
“Reform that takes a systemic approach is most impactful and sustainable.”
In my work, I see formal network structures and improvement science as having a lot of potential to support local efforts to enact systemic change. The process provides a structure that promotes collaborative and inclusive inquiry as schools work towards their vision. The formal network element provides an organizational structure to facilitate interactions, collect data, monitor progress and strategically scale successful strategies, while the collaborative inquiry process facilitates the positive, professional interactions that are so important to educators’ enactment of new practices. Such networked structures have the potential to not only facilitate communication and collaboration among educators, researchers and other stakeholders to address problems of practice, but also to support reform implementation across a district or region by informing practice and supporting policy advocacy (Karnopp, 2020; Lochmiller & Karnopp, 2020).
What really excites me about networked improvement communities is the sense of empowerment educators develop through their engagement in the process. It is a very different approach to reform than teachers are accustomed in that these communities center, value and leverage their expertise and daily classroom practice. This sense of empowerment may be helpful for encouraging buy-in and sustaining the hard work of system change. Looking forward, those in the field might explore how information gained through structured collaborative inquiry approaches could not only inform implementation, but also galvanize stakeholders at the district and state levels to develop sustainable practices, policies and implementation guidelines that are sensitive to variations in local context.
LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?
JK: There is a lot to be excited about in the field of educational change. We often think in terms of student outcomes when it comes to visions for change. Moving forward, I think issues of equity will further shape and refine how we define positive student outcomes and subsequently, our visions for change. In terms of implementation, the body of literature exploring social relationships in the context of educational change has made, and I believe will continue to make important contributions to our understandings of implementation processes. This work provides a valuable socio-cultural perspective that challenges those in the field to attend more closely to local context in the study of reforms, including the lived experiences of teachers. As we gain greater understanding of the role and nature of relationships in reform, I anticipate future research in this area to expand beyond descriptive studies to explore how social network analysis of educator information and advice interactions may serve as an indicator of change readiness, as a tool to inform school change implementation, and/or to evaluate the depth and breadth of reform uptake. In regards to educational change research broadly, I believe that future research will examine more deeply the complexity of change—how the community, educators and formal organizational structures interact and influence reform efforts. I hope that there will be increased attention to whose voices are included and left out of change efforts.
DeMatthews, D.E. (2018). Community Engaged Leadership for Social Justice: A Critical Approach in Urban Schools (1st ed.). Routledge.
Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Berkeley. University of California Press.
Karnopp, J.R. (under review). Hidden Structures: How roles, routines and relationships interact to support a knowledge network.
Karnopp, J. R. (2020). Ties that bind: Knowledge movement and tie formation in a regional principal’s learning network. Voices in Reform. 3(1), 55-76.
Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the beginning: the definitive history of racist ideas in America. New York: Nation Books.
Lochmiller, C.M. and Karnopp, J.R. (2020). Initiating a Network’s Renewal: Charting the Development of Reading Recovery’s Networked Improvement Community. Journal of Reading Recovery. Spring 2020, 27-34.
Nonaka, I. (1994). A dynamic theory of organizational knowledge creation. Organization Science, 5(1), 14-37.
Penuel, W.R., Riel, M., Joshi, A., Pearlman, L., Kim, C.M., & Frank, K.A. (2010). The alignment of the informal and formal organizational supports for reform: Implications for improving teaching in schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 46(1), 57-95.
Reigeluth, C.M., and Karnopp, J.R. (2020) Vision and Action: Two sides of the coin for systemic change in education systems. TechTrends. doi.org/10.1007s11528-020-00528-x
Wilkerson, I. (2020). Caste: the origins of our discontents. First edition. New York: Random House.
ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung Kim, Graduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.
In the second part of this conversation between Yinuo Li, founder of the ETU School, and Thomas Hatch, Li reflects on the challenges and opportunities she encountered in launching a new school in China. Li, a biologist by training and formerly a Partner at McKinsey and then Director of the China Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, established the first ETU school in Beijing in 2016. In part one of this conversation she talks about what it took to create ETU initially.
Thomas Hatch: Was there one thing that was part of your initial vision that you really wanted to see in the ETU school that you couldn’t make work for some reason?
Yinuo Li: That’s a difficult question. I think what the school has done has already gone far beyond where I thought we could do. Although there have been lots of difficulties, if you talk to anybody who is paying attention to education today in China, a lot of them have heard about ETU. They would see us as a pioneer and trailblazer, so I’m actually very thankful for that. As I said at the beginning of this interview, I realized that a lot of the problems you have to run a school are not within the school or within your own effort. I think education is the place where social anxieties and social issues are concentrated. They are all reflected in the school, because school is where the future of the society lies. Every parent who sends their kids here has this huge vision of where the kids could be. That’s why even though we’re doing, quote unquote, a “private school,” you have to recognize your work takes place in the context of the larger public system. As a result, you have to be an advocate; you have to talk about what you are doing and why, without expecting any revenue from it. If anything, those activities take a toll on your resources, but you have to have your teachers talk about your school to people who are not your parents. I think that’s absolutely necessary.
A lot of the problems you have running a school are not within the school or within your own effort. I think education is the place where social anxieties and social issues are concentrated. They are all reflected in the school, because school is where the future of the society lies.
My deepest envy is of Finland. In 2018 I went to Finland three times — three times – it was like I was just intoxicated. But if you go there, you realize there isn’t magic there. You think, “Okay, this is how things should be.” Their teacher’s colleges have an 8% admission rate, so you get the best students to be a teacher to begin with. And teachers make a good living because the entire state is a welfare state so you don’t have to be an investment banker to be successful. You can be a teacher and have a higher level of respect. Then there’s so much equity in the system that the best school is the school next door, so you don’t have to spend that much money.
When I went to Finland, the image I had is that we’re gardeners, that teachers are responsible for growing these little plants. But then I realized that the most important thing for a plant to grow is the sunshine; it’s the water; it’s the soil; it’s not my gardening skill. Of course, my gardening skills have to be okay — you can’t go around messing things up – but that’s not the essential part of it. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. And, oftentimes, when the sunshine, soil and air isn’t there, you have to find different ways of growing. If you’re in the desert, and all you see all around you are cactus, you think “Oh I’ve got to grow cactus too, otherwise I can’t win.” It becomes this vicious cycle. But if you don’t want your kids to be a cactus, what do you do? Instead of saying, “Okay, this is a desert. I’m just going to grow a cactus,” the only thing you can do is try to create this oasis in the desert. Then you’ll realize making this oasis is a huge task. You have to get water from thousands of miles away. You have to deal with sand storms, all that. But once you have this tiny little oasis, things will just grow. You don’t have to spend time picking the seeds and then massaging the seeds. The seed will just grow. I think that’s the problem right now. Most people are trying to at least pretend there’s been a lot of effort massaging the seed. But I realized that’s just completely wrong. That’s how I came to the point I mentioned in the beginning about fear. We’re growing cactus because everybody is fearful. It seems like the best way is to grow another cactus, but that doesn’t make you happy. It doesn’t make the world better. It just seems to be the easiest and best way to deal with it.
In China, basically, I’m trying to do a little mini-Finland, and I do a lot of parent education because if there are more people who are awakened then they will see you are not their enemy. Of course, as a school, you will have a lot of operational issues. For example, if you move, parents will complain. “I just signed my lease. You have to pay me back for the lease.” But what I said when that happened is “I feel bad; but you have to realize this is not my fault. It’s the collective cost we are paying because this is a desert.” One year we had to move, and we’d spent 5 million RMB renovating it, and we were only able to use it for a year because all these other issues and we had to give it up. I was like, “where do I go to ask for the money back?” You collectively have to shoulder a lot of the social costs. You have to have an ecosystem view. You have to understand that although this is a hard path you take, this is the only path. Otherwise, the only winning strategy is to become a spiky cactus. I think that’s the path that most people have taken which makes the environment so much worse. So you have to have a view of putting yourself in the public domain although you’re not in a public role, and you have to understand that can be hard and painful, but I think it’s the right way to do things.
In China, basically, I’m trying to do a little mini-Finland, and I do a lot of parent education because if there are more people who are awakened then they will see you are not their enemy.
TH: With the growth in new schools and the private and international school sector in China how do you both stand out from those other schools and make sure that there are middle schools and high schools that your students can go to? And relatedly, given this attention to the wider environment and conditions, how do you deal with things like the Gaokao (the high stakes National College Entrance Examination exam system in China) that may help to contribute to the fears that you’ve been talking about? (For more on the Gaokao and recent efforts to reform it see IEN’s “New Gaokao in Zhejiang China: Carrying on with Challenges”)
YL: On a practical level, we have a middle school now as well that we started this year. We have grade six and seven, and we’ll probably have grade eight soon. High school, it’s on the horizon, but we’ll decide later if we want to do it or not. In terms of test prep, I think it is important. You have to prepare; you have to do drills; it’s a part of education that is about hard work. That’s why even in China, I don’t call ETU an innovative school. It’s not an innovation. It’s a normal school going back to what kids need at a certain age. But for college prep, I think the interesting example is from the Affiliated High School of Peking University. It’s a four-year public high school in China and they’re actually quite liberal. I know the head of school, and he’s been there for more than thirty years. His philosophy is that for the first three years, we do the right thing, and the last year, if we need to go to the Gaokao, we’ll take the last year and do a test prep year, and we’ll prep the hell out of it. And then they do pretty well. His whole point is that just because test prep is important, it doesn’t mean you have to start doing it since grade one. It’s all about how you balance it, and it doesn’t mean you drop it either. I really agree with that. Even in the US, you prepare for the SAT’s. In your professional life, if you want to be a CPA or go to business school or whatever, there’s a test you have to take. The test itself isn’t bad, but that shouldn’t dominate or guide your education. That’s the problem. I’m not against test prep, but I think it should be a confined time when you know where you’re going.
On the other hand, the other narrative in China is “how do you compete with somebody who’s been test prepping for 12 years and you only do one year?” I think this narrative is based on a false understanding of education. I graduated from a top high school, and if I were to test prep, nobody could compete with me. I was the first in my class in high school from the most competitive province. But I became good not because I did twelve years of test prep, but because at the end of the day, I don’t hate learning. I like learning. As I look back I realize maybe the biggest gift got from my family is a growth or development mindset, but, of course, back then, there was no theory to describe that. If you look at people who are successful in history, there are some common traits, and it’s not because they have done twelve years of test prep. I think this is the biggest misunderstanding. It’s reducing education to something very superficial and tactical. The reason there is a huge market for it is because when you are talking about something tactical you can sell things. I can sell you things to help you prep for math or whatever. The more granular you become, the easier it is to make products. Then you have to prep for fifth grade math and for seventh grade English, and you end up buying 10 products. There is a market logic behind it. But you have to understand how learning happens. Learning doesn’t happen through this granular collection of credits. Learning happens because you’re intrinsically motivated, and you have the ability to learn; you have cognitive ability; you have been protected; you have the psychological security, and all those very basic things. But those things don’t make money. I can’t say “Hey, you buy this course, you’ll have psychological security and health.” No, it’s much easier to pay for fifth-grade math. There are all kinds of things that are being sold, but at the end of day, is anybody getting happier or better, or becoming a better learner because of that? Very few. I think testing is fine, but the most important thing is to keep your passion and curiosity for learning.
There are all kinds of things that are being sold, but at the end of day, is anybody getting happier or better, or becoming a better learner because of that? Very few. I think testing is fine, but the most important thing is to keep your passion and curiosity for learning.
TH:What’s one piece of advice you have for other people who might like to start a school?
YL: This is probably true for starting anything, but I think the most important things for starting a school are your vision and belief. Visions and beliefs inspire people, and once people get inspired everybody can become dynamite; everybody is a volcano. ETU became sort of an icon and oftentimes people would come and say, “Hey, I want to have an ETU in our city. What do you need? Do you need money? Do you need a license? Do you need people? I said, “I don’t need any of that. I just need somebody who’s committed to do it.” If you have somebody who’s committed to it, you should not underestimate the level of resources they can come up with from nothing. That’s how I feel because I really started with nothing. People would say you have to work with an investor or you have to have a real-estate company behind you. But sometimes when you have all those things it actually becomes a barrier, a burden, rather than a resource. Again, if you explore the underlying psychology, it’s because of fear. You’re thinking, “Okay, this is something so difficult I need to hold on to something that’s certain, like if you give me money, I can start.” But that could just vanish. The money can be taken away. The investor could walk away. But if you’re committed to something, different things will show up to help you, from nowhere. Money can show up from places you don’t expect. But belief and vision are hard to come by because the toughest negotiation you have is not with your partners, it’s with yourself.
I think the most important things for starting a school are your vision and belief. Visions and beliefs inspire people, and once people get inspired everybody can become dynamite; everybody is a volcano.
Sometimes I’m jealous of this generation. You have a lot of dreams that might seem crazy but you hold on to them. Don’t give up easily. Many of them will fail, but you will learn from them. Our school has gone through so many crises. We had to move, there were parents who wanted to boycott because we had to move again, and I remember we had this debate one time when we were looking for a different venue for the school. We felt that the new venue could be much better, but there was a risk in communicating this to parents. The debate was about what was more important the venue or the parents? We came to a point where we realized, if the parents still want to follow what we do, it really doesn’t matter where we are. But if we give up our beliefs for the venue, the venue might look nice today, but it might look like nothing tomorrow. You have to continue to negotiate with yourself or you will forget. You will get captured by different things, and you are faced with those things on a daily basis. So you have to keep negotiating, and you can’t give up.