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Beyond any one school: Abe Fernandez on the development of community schools and collective impact in New York City (Part 1)

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.  

            So in New York City, we now have 22 community school partnerships, but we never thought it would go systemic the way it has in Oakland and Chicago. We were also really pleasantly surprised in 2014 when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to make community schools a big part of his agenda here in New York City. Now, New York City has one of the largest Community School initiatives anywhere, and the infrastructure for community schools that has been built here is pretty exciting.

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.

Brahm Fleisch on South African education during the pandemic

What predictable problems and unexpected surprises have emerged in schools in South Africa during the pandemic? This week IEN interviews Brahm Fleisch to gain his perspective on the school closures that began in March of 2020 and the resumption of in-person schooling, for some students, in August. Fleisch is a professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the School of Education, University of Witwatersrand. Fleisch has written extensively about the challenges and opportunities for improving schooling in South Africa. That work includes the development of the Early Grade Reading Study and examinations of what it may take to establish a New Infrastructure for Learning that strengthens foundational learning and the instructional core.   

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.  

The Power of Professional Learning Networks

What are professional learning networks? What do we know about them? This week, IEN features reflections from an international group of researchers on what they learned about Professional Learning Networks (PLN’s) through their work on a special issue of the Journal of Professional Capital and Community. Led by Special Issue Editors Cindy Poortman and Chris Brown, the post draws from the efforts of a network of researchers from the International Congress on School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) and describes key points from the special issue and how work on PLN’s might develop in the future.

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.

Change agents, advocates, allies or observers? Jennifer Karnopp reflects on the field of educational change

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.

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 KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.

Everyone is a volcano: Yinuo Li On What It Takes To Create A New School (Part 2)

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.

ETU students and parents at the school’s opening ceremony at the Forbidden City

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.

Beyond Fear: Yinuo Li On What It Takes To Create New Schools (Part 1)

Dr. Yinuo Li, co-founder of the ETU School, talks with Thomas Hatch about her experiences starting new schools in both China and the US. A biologist by training and a formerly a Partner at McKinsey and then Director of the China Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Li established the ETU school in Beijing in 2016. Since that time, ETU has opened campuses in Guangzhou and in Palo Alto, CA. The first part of this two-part conversation focuses on what it took to get ETU started; in the second part Li reflects on the opportunities and challenges for launching new schools and offers advice for other new school founders.

Thomas Hatch: When I talk with the founders of new schools, I often begin the conversation by asking about the initial problem or issue that motivated their work, but you’ve already written about that in Reimagining Schools in a Hyperconnected World for WISE. In that article, you highlighted concerns about unprepared students, anxious parents, stressed-out teachers and isolated schools and then you described your vision for addressing those issues. How did you develop that vision and what were the first steps you took to put it in place?

Yinuo Li: I think there was definitely a sense of naiveté when I started ETU. If you’re not ignorant or naïve enough, I don’t think you would embark on something like this, as you’ll find out later. But I think the major trigger started when I was at McKinsey. I had been there for over ten years and when we were recruiting top notch graduates I found that most of them, like many graduates, were not in a place of clarity. In fact, most graduates are in a place of complete lack of clarity, even if they’ve graduate from the most privileged programs and schools.  There seems to be a big gap where people have a lot of fantasies, and they think “well, I graduated from Harvard or Columbia or Tsinghua University in China, I’m done I’m set for life.” No, you’re not.

I think that was the initial trigger, and then later on, my experience also evolved. When I started the school, the direct reason was my own children because I was moving our family from California back to Beijing. My eldest was six, and he was starting first grade in China. I was the Founder of the school, and I could see all the problems, but I was primarily focused on how we could build a curriculum to “fix it.” Particularly at that time there was a big divide in China between international education and public education. It seemed like everybody had to be on one track or the other from very early on, and if you fall in between the tracks, you’re in no man’s land. I think that’s very toxic so I wanted to find a middle track. It shouldn’t have to be one or the other, if you focus on the right thing, it should be good enough. So creating that “middle track” was the first vision. But then the vision evolved as I started to realize that a school is much more complicated than that. It’s much more than curriculum. It’s really about how you support everybody in the system – the teachers, the staff, all your stakeholders outside the school.

Before March 2016, I would never have thought of myself as having any connection to the word ‘education’ in a professional sense…(but) Something happened that spring. On the surface, it was triggered by my eldest son’s time to start primary school, and our family’s move from California to Beijing. However, these two pivotal moments awakened something in me, helping me to see the links between many of my random and seemingly irrelevant experiences with education and making them suddenly relevant. This random list of experiences includes my own memories as a student, ten years working at McKinsey, recruiting and training college graduates, supporting career development for youth, three years as a minor social influencer (my husband and I have a WeChat blog with 700K followers), receiving multiple inquiries from young people confused about the future and, of course, my experience as a mother.

Yinuo Li, from  Reimagining Schools in a Hyperconnected World

Developing all those systems was the second stage. Now we have a lot of systems: we have a curricular system for the kids; we have the teacher professional development system; we have systems for parents and community support. The third stage, which is where I think I am now, is that I’m realizing that there are so many problems in education that are rooted in one thing and that is our inability to face our fears when faced with uncertainty. Of course, the future is all about uncertainty, and school is almost the collective reflector of all the fears in a society about the future. It’s only when you have a way of engaging with teachers, parents and all your stakeholders in a conversation to face those fears that you actually can get a real awakening.  If you have that, many things can follow. You can have a system that’s more oriented towards children rather than one focused on addressing those adult fears. If you look at most elite schools, the hidden message is “as long as you pay this much money, as long as you join my club, your kids will be fine.” I just think that’s the wrong way of approaching it. If anything, it’s creating more problems than solving them.

Instead, we have to confront those fears because they reflect the very basic nature of human beings. And schools are manifestation of those fears which is really sad. It’s all hidden though so you can talk about project-based learning or whatever, and those are innocent concepts on their own, but they are being packaged into a fear-based system, as if your kids don’t have project-based learning, they’re doomed. I think that’s the problem. if you don’t address that fundamental issue, then all the good concepts and practices will end up being another tool to exaggerate those fears.

There are so many problems in education that are rooted in one thing and that is our inability to face our fears when faced with uncertainty… It’s only when you have a way of engaging with teachers, parents and all your stakeholders in a conversation to face those fears that you actually can get a real awakening.

I think that’s where we are now. At the end of the day, as you start to understand the work of all those educational pioneers and how they were thinking about education, you realize many  of them actually go directly at that fear, to the root. Because if you don’t address it, all this fancy stuff on the surface is only exacerbating the problem. That’s where I am on a heart level. Of course, the school is still the school, but these are the different phases of how I’ve been thinking about the school.

TH: That gives a wonderful sense of the evolution of your thinking, but can you take us back to the beginning, and some of the basics? How did you get started, find other parents, and make sure that the vision wasn’t just your vision, but that it was a vision that was shared with that initial group?

YL: It really started with a WeChat blog that my husband and I started in 2014. I think by the time we want to do a school, we had about half a million followers. When we started writing, it had nothing to do with education. At that time, I was a partner at McKinsey and there were a lot of questions about typical women’s leadership problems like how do you balance everything and all that. I built up a followership, and although I didn’t really know it at the time, many of them were parents. That became an advantage as we had a big pool of potential parents when we started doing the school.

Of course, the biggest headache in China, much more than US, is the licensing, but again we we’re very lucky because there was a public school that had been asked to take over another poorly performing public school that didn’t have a lot of students. The school that was taking over was interested in renting some empty classrooms. It was almost like a godsend that they didn’t have enough students. They had three classrooms to rent and they already had the proper license. So that’s how we got started the first year. However, because it’s s public school, in Year 2 the school said that they needed the classrooms because they were expanding and we had to move.  In fact, we’ve moved five times since then. At that moment, you think “Wow, this is a huge headache. Where do I find the space?”  You have to communicate with the parents and tell them we’re moving again which is really hard because there are many families who moved so they could be near the school. And Beijing is a huge city so it’s not like you can just drive five minutes to another location. But that’s how we got things off the ground; that’s the initial phase of the story.

I still remember it was April 1, April Fools Day 2016, we put out this article. Basically, the title was “Are you also troubled by education?” I wrote down all the things I was seeing, and I said, “Hey, by the way, I wanted to start a school.”  I said, “we want to start with 30 students and five teachers. If you’re interested, here is how you apply, this is the email address.” That article, in one day, probably got 200,000 views, and it was pretty widely circulated. I still remember we got about 800 emails. I was blown away. I didn’t realize how common these concerns were and how much it would resonate with people who are reading it. We got over 100 applications for teachers and about 200 families said they were interested. So that’s how we started. We got teaches from there, and we got the first round of families from there.

TH: What aspects of your curriculum were you able to put in place in that first year?  Was it primarily the Chinese curriculum mixed with a little bit of project-based learning?  How much could you really get going?

YL: In that first year, we actually got a lot going on. As I look back, the first two or three years were excellent because we were able to integrate almost everything. I’ll give you one example, in the spring we did a garden project – planting tomatoes and cucumbers and beans and stuff. That project went through the entire semester because you can do so many things with it. Upfront, you can test the seeds; you can observe the weather; you can see the rainfall; and then there are so many things you can design. Kids were putting in different seeds in different solutions with different levels of acidity, and then they had this entire observation project, both in Chinese and English, where they could write down notes and draw. Towards the end of the semester, after the harvest, we designed a project with a student-run restaurant. Since there were not as many people looking over us, the teachers could just take the students to the supermarket or to visit restaurants to figure out why some have better business than others. The kids would come up with solutions like, ”Oh, because they have music,” or “they have uniforms,” and all that. And then, of course, they had to run the restaurant. They needed to figure out the menu.  They had to figure out how much to charge, and they ended up asking for tips and then they had to figure out how to politely ask for tips. A lot of fun things! So in the first year it was almost a fully integrated curriculum. But now, because we were licensed two years ago, there are more inspections and compliance and all that.  That includes some control at the micro level, like how much time you have to spend on math and Chinese. Still, we’re trying to do as much as we can, but compared to the first year there is much less flexibility.

TH: That gives us a good sense of how you started with the curriculum, but where did the funding come from?

YL: Well, the funding, that’s another story! There were two things. One is that original WeChat article reached some of the people who were concerned about education. One of them was an investor of herself, and she found me through the grapevine and a series of connections. And she donated 4 million RMB (about $600,000 USD). I was very thankful for that, but it’s not enough for hiring and everything else. The second thing is that for WeChat accounts like ours, typically people would put up advertisements to make some money. We never did that, but we have a pretty solid set of followers, so I said, “Okay, I’m going to create an online community,” and I charged a fee of 2000 RMB a year (about $305 USD), and said it would max out at 1000 people. I had no idea how it would go, but then it actually sold out in one day, and I said “Wow! That’s 2 million RMB right there.” We did it two more times, so I got 6 million RMB, and I remember it just felt surreal. But it meant that there were a lot of people who wanted to join, so that 6 million RMB became our startup funds.

But, to be honest, even today, we’re not making money. We’re not breaking even.  Fortunately, there are many investors who are interested in us and investing. However, I still slowly realized that the best model for us would have been something like a charter school, because right now in China, most of your spending goes to facilities. That’s why there are a lot of real estate companies who are interested in investing. For many, it’s a way for them to raise the price of their property around the school. Frankly, that might not be bad. As long as they leave me alone. But they don’t leave you alone either, because they want to package your school to attract a certain buyer. They have an agenda. So financially, things have been a struggle. We’re still afloat, but from the beginning, I turned down a lot of those so-called investors with easy money. In hindsight, that was a good choice. So, even today, although there are more restrictions, none of them are enforced by the investors.  Those come from the external public environment, and we can still get lot done. So that’s the real story. But, frankly, if you can pay for my real estate, if you can pay for the salary for the teachers and all that, I don’t have to charge anything. I would rather make the school free. But you can’t. You don’t have such a model in China.

– Part 2 to come next week…

Thirteen insights into teacher wellbeing and mental health in England

Just in time for Teacher Appreciation Week, this week’s post describes the key results from a study of teachers’ wellbeing in England. The post comes from John Jerrim, Professor of Education and Social Statistics at the Institute of Education, University College London, and it was published originally on the UCL Institute of Education Blog

With my colleagues Becky Allen and Sam Sims, I have published a major new analysis of teacher mental health and wellbeing in England. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, it is the culmination of two years of work and is, we believe, the most comprehensive analysis on this issue to date. In this blogpost, we’ll take you through a whistle-stop tour of some of our results.

1. Teachers in England are more likely to perceive their job as causing them stress – and having a negative impact upon their mental health – than teachers in other countries

In spring 2018, teachers in more than 40 countries were asked whether they felt their job caused them stress and had a negative impact upon their mental health. As the chart below illustrates, teachers in England were very clear in their views. Lower-secondary teachers in this country were more likely to say that their job had a negative impact upon their mental wellbeing than teachers in almost any other country. (Results for primary teachers produced a similar finding – albeit compared to a smaller number of other countries). Teachers in England clearly believe that their job – in certain ways – has a negative effect upon their wellbeing.

2. Teachers in England do not have lower levels of wellbeing than demographically similar individuals working in other professions.

It has previously been claimed that teachers have lower levels of wellbeing than other occupational groups. Our analysis dispels this myth – see the chart below. Once demographic background characteristics of individuals have been controlled for – e.g. gender – teachers in England actually have similar levels of (un)happiness and anxiety as other professional workers.

3. Like those working in other professions, there has been a recent rise in the percentage of teachers reporting mental health problems…

Over the last decade, there has been a notable rise in the percentage of teachers reporting a long-lasting mental health problem – see the chart below. This, however, is also true for other professional workers, such as accountants, nurses and human resource workers. It is therefore not a phenomenon that is specific to teaching, and hence seems unlikely to be related to teachers’ jobs. Indeed, our report reveals that there has been little change in the proportion of teachers who suggest depression has been caused or aggravated by their job.

4. …but this could just be due to an increase in reporting of mental health problems (rather than a decline in teacher wellbeing per se).

One potential explanation for the finding presented in the chart above is that it is due to increased reporting of mental health problems – both among teachers and society as a whole. The chart below may provide some support for this point of view. Over the period that reported mental health problems of teachers increased we have found the percentage of teachers reporting low levels of personal wellbeing has remained broadly flat. In other words, despite more teachers reporting a long-lasting mental health problem between 2011 and 2018, there has not been a similar systematic increase in anxiety, unhappiness, dissatisfaction with life and feelings of low self-worth.

5. There is no specific half-term where teachers feel particularly anxious or unhappy (…they are particularly happy in the summer, though!).

We all have ups and downs in our wellbeing. But we previously knew very little about how the feelings of teachers varied over the course of the academic year. Are teachers particularly anxious and unhappy at certain times? As the next chart demonstrates, we found little clear evidence that feelings of anxiety or unhappiness are especially likely to occur in any given half-term. Although there seems to be quite a large amount of week-on-week fluctuation (quite possibly due to our limited sample size) there seems little evidence of a systematic pattern by school term. The only exception is that – surprise, surprise – teachers seem to be happier and less anxious during the summer holiday.

6. There is no evidence that becoming a teacher is associated with a decline in mental health.

When someone decides to become a teacher – with the heavy workload and new experiences that entails – does wellbeing start to plummet? The answer – as demonstrated by the chart below – is no. Recently qualified teachers actually have similar levels of mental wellbeing at age 26 to when they were age 17 (before they became teachers). This pattern is also similar to other professional groups. Consistent with our interpretation of the second chart in this blogpost, this result suggests that deciding to become a teacher is unlikely to lead to a decline in wellbeing and mental health.

7. Middle-aged teachers who quit do not have better mental health and are not more happy generally (despite being slightly happier at work)

There is also little evidence that middle-aged teachers who quit for alternative employment experience much change in their general wellbeing and overall mental health. As the table below illustrates, although those middle-aged teachers who quit teaching report being slightly happier at work, this does not translate into lower levels of anxiety or depression, and is not associated with greater levels of happiness in life overall. In other words, for those who are considering leaving the teaching profession, the grass may not be that much greener on the other side.

8. Teachers’ working hours have been broadly stable since the early 1990s.

Workload and working hours have become a key education policy issue in England over the last few years, in part stimulated by results from the TALIS 2013 study which suggested that teachers in England work longer hours than teachers in most other countries. However, it does not seem that teachers are now working much longer hours than historical averages. Indeed, as the next chart reveals, there has been relatively little variation in the average working hours of teachers since the early 1990s. There is, of course, an important caveat to this finding. It is possible that workload has increased while working hours have remained stable – with teachers required to cram more work into the same amount of time – or for more tasks to build up and remain incomplete.

9. It is time spent upon marking and lesson planning that really causes teachers stress in the workplace.

When it comes to the link between working hours and workload stress, it is clear that not all tasks are equal – see the table below.

Looking across English-speaking countries, we find that each additional hour teachers spend on marking and lesson planning is strongly associated with an increase in their workload stress. The same is not true, however, for time spent on professional development and time spent actually teaching. Increasing working time spent on these areas are either associated with a decrease in workload stress or only weakly associated with an increase workload stress. For policymakers and senior leaders the message is clear. If you want to reduce the workload stress of teachers, it is these auxiliary tasks (often done in the evening, at weekends or during holidays) that need to be tackled.

10. Countries with extensive accountability systems are slightly more likely to have teachers who feel stressed from being held accountable for pupil achievement.

Outside of workload, the other great evil often associated with low levels of teacher wellbeing is high-stakes accountability. Unfortunately, little high-quality quantitative evidence exists on how such accountability systems really impact on the mental health of teachers. What we do know from our report is that countries with more school accountability do have teachers who are (slightly) more stressed by this aspect of their job. Now, as I have said previously, we need to be careful with such cross-national comparisons. And, of course, correlation does not equal causation. So we might ask: in England, do we have the right balance between quality assurance of schools and ensuring that this does not stress teaching staff out? But at the same time, we should keep in mind that the relationship between accountability and teacher wellbeing is not that strong – and is certainly not deterministic.

11. Teachers feel more stressed about accountability when their colleagues do as well (but, surprisingly, not really when their headteacher does).

One thing we have learned about teacher stress induced by accountability is that it seems to some extent to cluster within specific schools. A form of ‘emotional contagion’, as it were. Teachers in over 40 countries were asked to rate how stressed they were about accountability in the TALIS 2018 study – “not at all”, “to some extent”, “quite a bit”, or “a lot”.[1] For every one category increase in colleagues’ stress levels – from “quite a bit” to “a lot”, say – there was a 16 percentage point increase in the proportion of teachers saying that they felt “quite a bit” or “a lot” of accountability-related stress themselves. Interestingly, though, we find only a weak relationship between whether headteachers feel stressed by accountability and the stress reported by their teaching staff. This may suggest that, in general, headteachers do a good job in not projecting their worries about accountability on to their staff.

12. Supportive leadership and manageable workloads appear more important than other factors when controlling workplace stress levels.

What can schools do to reduce workplace stress? In our project, we looked at how workplace stress (as well as job satisfaction and teacher retention) is related to five separate aspects of teachers’ working environments. When it comes to workplace stress, two of these working conditions stood out – see the table below. First, having teachers who feel their workload is manageable is strongly associated with a reduction in their stress levels. The second is having a supportive leadership team in place. These factors were much more important than collaboration with colleagues, lesson preparation and school discipline when it came to teacher wellbeing in the workplace.

13. Lockdown did not seem to reduce teachers’ workplace wellbeing or lead them to suffer from greater levels of work-related anxiety

The Covid-19 crisis has, of course, turned teachers’ (and everyone else’s) lives upside down. Although most of the data we use in our report comes from the pre-Covid era, we were able to investigate how the wellbeing of teachers may have changed during the early stages of the pandemic. As the chart below reveals, teachers’ work-related anxiety actually declined during lockdown. Moreover, our report reveals how lockdown did not seem to impact upon teacher wellbeing overall. Headteachers, however, did suffer from some period of high-stress, particularly just before school lockdown was announced and when school reopening was announced.

The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit

Notes: The findings relate to around 131,000 teachers in lower-secondary schools.

Want to Make Education More Innovative? Let’s Invest in R&D

This week IEN shares a post from Jeff Wetzler, a co-founder of Transcend and Transcend senior fellow Sujata Bhatt. This post, originally published in EdSurge, was written for a US audience but the international parallels are clear. As Bhatt and Wetzler explain: “With the COVID-19 pandemic, education systems around the globe have awakened to the urgent need to redesign schools to become more relevant and equitable. Innovation is no longer an optional pathway; it needs to be fundamental to how schools and systems operate. We need to redesign our teaching and learning infrastructure to embrace and meet local needs. Doing so means growing local community capacity to reinvent how students experience learning, and redesigning regional and national systems to support innovation at the local level. This piece was written specifically to describe what schools in the US could do to support R&D by using funding for schools made available by the passage of American Rescue Plan Act in March, but the approaches outlined here can readily be applied in all kinds of systems in the US and around the globe. In the past the federal government of the United States has created large funding programs like the School Improvement Grants (SIG) referred to in the article, and they have had little impact because they did not focus on growing the innovation R&D capacity of systems. In this piece, we ask, How might education systems respond differently this time?”

In 2019, the United States spent 2.8 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on Research and Development (R&D). R&D is our nation’s engine of innovation. It put that smartphone in your hand, that solar panel on your roof, and that COVID-19 vaccine in your arm. R&D unquestionably makes our lives better.

“[O]ur education system needs to innovate to make it more equitable, agile, relevant and responsive.”

At a basic level, R&D is the set of activities an organization undertakes to innovate—using research techniques to solve problems or learn new things. During the crises of 2020-21, we clearly saw that our education system needs to innovate to make it more equitable, agile, relevant and responsive. We learned that education conditions are intensely local; they vary dramatically in each and every community, limiting the usefulness of one-size-fits-all solutions. We also saw many communities embracing local innovation because they had to.

The Community-Based Innovation Opportunity

Over the next few months, the Federal Government is infusing $122.8 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding into our education system. This unprecedented investment offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redesign our teaching and learning infrastructure from the ground up by empowering local school communities to innovate.

Why local communities? During the pandemic, systems, schools, teachers, families and students began innovating to make different kinds of education possible. Perea Elementary in Memphis, for example redesigned how parents, teachers, and children support each other in virtual, in-person, and hybrid settings.

Contrary to the prevalent narrative of learning pods as the province of privilege, Edgecombe County Schools in North Carolina created learning pods for students without wifi access. The Oglala District, serving indigenous Lakota families in South Dakota, designed the Lakota Oyate Homeschool Coop to meet the needs of children who were disengaged and worried about both cultural and physical safety. This inventive renaissance needs to be supported and sustained. As these examples show, we learned that families and students want greater involvement, including the opportunity to infuse cultural values and traditions into what has been a one-size-fits-all model of schooling. We also know from previous funding programs like School Improvement Grants (SIG) that large infusions of federal funds can be less than successful if states, districts and schools do not work in collaboration to grow conditions for innovation at the local level. Why not bring these learnings and agents for change together to grow capacity for school communities to lead their own innovation journeys?

What if we—each state, each regional agency, each district, each school—were to commit to spending even just 2.8 percent of our ESSER funding to catalyze deep, broad, local, community-based innovation? What if we used this tiny percentage of our massive federal windfall to reinvent our education system by building strong local conditions, particularly the capacity of each and every school to apply evidence-based approaches to reinventing teaching and learning?

It starts with a small step: take evidence-based methods and models that we know work now, and seed and sustain them in local contexts so they can take root, grow, and spread.

With this small investment, we could leapfrog our nation’s PK-12 system from our current inequitable industrial era learning model to equitable, 21st century learning—and thereby create an education sector that is prepared to be flexible, agile, and resilient when the next crisis comes along. It starts with a small step: take evidence-based methods and models that we know work now, and seed and sustain them in local contexts so they can take root, grow, and spread.

How Might States, Regions, and Districts Develop and Support Local School Communities’ Innovation Capacity?

Below are two powerful, locally empowering strategies that states, regional service centers, and districts could use to focus their 2.8 percent R&D Reinvention investments:


Invest in capacity for community-based redesign and evidence-based efforts with long-term impact.

  1. A Local Reinvention Team in Every School: Invest in teachers, families, parents and students to form teams that can design and prototype learning experiences that are customized to create equitable, responsive, 21st century schools. When schools reopen, they face inimitable challenges in redesigning learning for students who return from a year of crises with varying strengths, skills, knowledge and needs. The focus, pace and sequence of learning, as well as the resources and supports provided, need to be tailored to each learner’s identity, prior knowledge, development, way of learning and life experiences—which requires designing new types of learning experiences collectively and coherently—not classroom by individual classroom. This is deep, creative, team-based innovation requiring listening, passion and energy while driving collaboratively towards a defined mission. Districts and states could resource (via Title I or II funds, or a separate Innovation fund) participation in these reinvention teams, which would develop innovation capacity for educators, families and students.
  2. Access to an Innovation Specialist: Invest in giving school reinvention teams temporary (2-3 years) access to innovation specialists explicitly tasked with growing local capacity to own and carry on the work. Innovation is not a haphazard process; R&D entails methods rigor, and expertise. These methods and mindsets are not widespread in the pre-K-12 sector, and they need to be. Innovation specialists who have expertise in these methods could be explicitly tasked with growing reinvention teams’ capacity to design and run rigorous R&D pilots so that over time the school community has the skills, methods and confidence to develop a transformational school design unsupported by coaches.
  3. Create system-level Innovation Funds that enable schools to access and adapt innovative models: Support school communities in investing in and implementing high-quality, evidence-based learning models that are equitable and responsive to the demands and opportunities of the 21st century.

“Every school needs to reinvent itself to support diverse learners survive and thrive in complex environments. However, the experiences need not be created and recreated by scratch in each and every school.

Every school needs to reinvent itself to support diverse learners survive and thrive in complex environments. However, the experiences need not be created and recreated by scratch in each and every school. School reinvention teams and communities should be able to adapt and adopt models developed elsewhere, particularly ones that are equitable, rigorous and evidence-based (and codified in the model libraries described below). To do so requires funding to pay for the models and for the innovation specialists who support the initial adaption process.


  1. Invest in regional and state-wide reinvention capacity-building structures.Innovation Connectivity: Invest in leadership relationships and development by convening groups of school and systems leaders who are actively engaged in reinvention so that leadership capacity grows and knowledge may be shared across those networked groups. Innovation requires a different type of leadership; one that builds opportunities and guardrails rather than managing top-down compliance. Systems leaders need support in growing their capacity to lead innovation this way, and they need to be connected to others because innovation spreads through networks. These networks of innovative leaders need to be resourced and built. Launching, supporting and sustaining innovation networks across schools within districts and across districts within a region and state would be a valuable use of funds.
  2. Model Libraries: Invest in documenting innovative learning experiences and models via video and design blueprints, as well as funding regional and national “libraries” and platforms that allow systems and schools to borrow from each others’ experiences and models, thereby accelerating the spread of reinvention.

There are inspiring bright spots across the country that can supply others with inspiration and tangible approaches to implement. These innovative models are centered on equity, effective learning and human flourishing, so that all young people not only maximize their own potential but also see, confront and tackle society’s greatest challenges. Documenting evidence-based models that other communities can borrow and adapt, rather than reinventing the wheel each time, saves time and money.

It is impossible to forecast all of the crises, ruptures, and even opportunities that lie ahead. Imagine if each school, each district, each state chose to spend a mere 2.8 percent of their ESSER funds to proactively build capacity and infrastructure for this unknown future. These proven strategies have the power to yield an unprecedented return on investment for our children.

— Jeff Wetzler & Sujata Bhatt

Pracademics, Transformational Professional Learning, and Educational Change: A Conversation with Deborah Netolicky

In this week’s post, Dr. Deborah Netolicky (@debsnet) discusses her work as a pracademic scholar practioner in the latest Lead the Change interview from the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. Netolicky is currently Head of Teaching and Learning at St Mark’s Anglican Community School, Honorary Research Associate at Murdoch University, Chair of a local primary school board, and recent recipient of both the 2021 AERA Educational Change SIG Emerging Scholar Award and the 2021 Michael Fullan Emerging Scholar Award. Netolicky blogs at and is author of Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools and editor of Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Democracy, and co-editor of Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education. A pdf of the fully formatted interview will be available on the LtC website.

Lead the Change (Ltc): 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?

Deborah Netolicky: The rhetoric of education policy the world over is about the common good and quality, equitable outcomes for all. In Australia, we had the Melbourne Declaration (Barr et al., 2008) and now the Mparntwe Declaration (Education Council, 2019). Both declare an education goal of excellence and equity for all young people, and the building of a democratic, equitable, just, culturally diverse society that values Australia’s Indigenous cultures. Australia likes to imagine itself as a multicultural melting pot of inclusive diversity, yet, as in many countries, our rhetoric and our imagined national identity fall well short of our reality. As Suraiya Hameed, Marnee Shay, and Jodie Miller (Hameed et al., forthcoming) note, the concept of excellence in education for Indigenous students has been greatly under-theorised and requires a strengths-based rather than a deficit perspective. Racism, sexism, classism, religious discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, ableism, and the reverberations of our colonial past, persist. Inequities remain. Educational change is too often a political ball bounced back and forth, with governments making decisions based on short term political cycles and winning election votes, rather than on holding the line on sustained improvement for all.

Part of ‘accepting educational responsibility’ is working from a foundation of citizenship grounded in a shared moral purpose. Citizen-scholars and citizen-practitioners engage deeply with education committed to excellence, equity, and opportunity for all. We must not ignore the reverberations of past oppressions and the echoes of past violence in our current world. If we are to address the intensifying challenges that face society, education, and individuals, education scholars and practitioners need to make the implicit explicit, deeply interrogating systems, structures, policies, pedagogies, practices, and our own beliefs, behaviours, and language. Scholars, practitioners, and pracademic scholar-practitioners need to engage with, and provide safe spaces for, education debates, including, and especially, those that are uncomfortable and awkward, and that require us to examine our own motivations, biases, and privilege. As many authors argue in the forthcoming edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Equity, Democracy, and Inclusion (Netolicky, forthcoming), positive educational change requires challenging and providing alternatives to Western (that is, White, masculine, materialist, hetero) norms and paradigms.

Decolonisation—deconstructing dominant ideologies and dismantling educational structures—is not enough. What is needed is not just the breaking down of systems of power and privilege, but also the building up of what we would like to exist in its place. This means including, embracing, and investing in Indigenous, culturally diverse, and culturally marginalised ways of knowing, being, teaching, and leading in education. We need these ways of knowing and doing to understand and apply inclusive policies and practices that serve all those in our communities, especially the most vulnerable.

“What is needed is not just the breaking down of systems of power and privilege, but also the building up of what we would like to exist in its place.”

LtC: Much of your work is informed by your positionality as a “pracademic” and the special understandings and experiences that come as a result. What would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience sitting in this specific space?

DN: Much of my scholarly work has involved looking at education, educational change, professional learning, and educational leadership through the lens of identity (e.g., Netolicky, 2017, 2019, 2020a). I have defined identity as the “situated, ongoing process through which we make sense of ourselves, to ourselves and to others” (Netolicky, 2020d, p.19). Examining education through the lens of identity allows us to remain focused on education as a human endeavour, wrestling with multiplicities, complexities, and tensions. In our forthcoming chapter, Claire Golledge and I (Netolicky & Golledge, forthcoming) advocate for what we call a wayfinding approach to school leadership that balances intuition with strategy, improvisation with systematisation, empathy with policy, the individual with the whole. This approach, and awareness of the multiple tensions navigated constantly by those working in schools, could be considered and engaged with by those in the field of educational change.

In the book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools (Netolicky, 2020d), I utilise my positionality as boundary spanning teacher-leader-researcher who works to bridge the gap between research and practice. The structure of the book mirrors the ways I bring a practice lens to scholarship, and a research lens to my daily work enacting theory into practice. In our upcoming Journal of Professional Capital and Community Special Issue—‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’—Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, and I (Hollweck et al., forthcoming) explore the identities, spaces, and tensions of what can be called pracademia. The multipart identities and multiplicitous spaces of pracademia involve simultaneous active engagement in education scholarship and practice.

Democratic educational change benefits from those operating in different educational spaces and also those operating between and across various educational arenas and communities. The pracademic whose day job is in the world of practice is free from the metrics and pressures of academia, free to engage in scholarship in some ways on their own terms, but also often in or beyond the margins of the academe. The pracademic whose day job is in a university is active in the practice of school-based education through working amongst and alongside practitioners, immersed in the work of school contexts, and engaging in scholarship ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ or ‘of’ those in schools. Often the in-between spaces involve unpaid bridging, sharing, and collaborating work.

Identity work—of pracademics, practitioners, or academics—can be part of scholarship that is a political act, edging from the margins of the academe towards the centre, in which we challenge ourselves to do “writing that matters – to us, to our communities, to our nations, to social justice, to the greater good” (Netolicky, 2017, p.101). Education theory and practice are always intertwined, but embracing the concept of pracademia in educational change is about intentionally embracing nexus and community. It is about co-creating a collective space shared by teachers, school leaders, scholars, policymakers, political advisors, and community members. It is about working within and across education spaces, and working together.

LtC: In some of your recent work regarding the future of education in a Post-COVID world, you speak to both the possibilities for a return to some practices and change for others. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students alike to create, as you say, reform for good?    

DN: Injustices and deficiencies in our education and social systems are being revealed during the pandemic. Often multiple and intersecting disparities such as racial, gendered, socioeconomic, and cultural inequities became evident in, for example: the significantly increased risk to women’s employment and livelihoods compared to men’s; and the increased risk of mortality from COVID-19 of Indigenous Australians, ethnic minority groups in the UK, and Black Americans, as compared to their White counterparts. The pandemic also accelerated educational change, forcing innovation and introspection in education (Netolicky, 2020b). The person—child, student, teacher, leader—has come into sharper focus. Care and collaboration rose to the top of the priority list in education (Doucet et al., 2020), as did increasingly flexible ‘whole-person’ approaches to judging student success and providing student pathways for future success. What has receded is a focus on standardised testing as education systems are forced to reflect on how the apparent success of education is measured, and negative impacts of cultures of competition, surveillance, and hyperaccountabilities. While tertiary entrance examinations went ahead in Australia in 2020, alternate admissions pathways were also introduced by Universities. These include calculation of a predicted Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) based on students’ Year 11 results, and a Special Tertiary Admissions Test available to all students including those studying vocational pathways at school. In the UK, examinations (GCSE, A-Level, Scottish Highers, and Scottish Advanced Highers) were cancelled in 2020 and 2021, replaced with aggregated teacher-assessed grades that currently form the basis of UCAS applications. US universities have varying admissions policies, but most are currently ‘test-optional’ for a year or more (some permanently), meaning applicants do not have to sit the SAT or ACT standardised college admissions test. Rather, US applicants are submitting portfolios of achievements, employment, and community involvement to demonstrate their readiness for university. Universities leading flexible admissions criteria and processes (including portfolio entry, virtual tours, and online interviews) may help to change the focus of schools towards preparing students for beyond school, rather than on succeeding in examinations at the end of school. These increasing flexibilities may also go some way to democratising the university admissions process for marginalised groups.

“The pandemic also accelerated educational change, forcing innovation and introspection in education.”

During periods of remote learning, educators asked themselves: (1) What is it that we’ve missed during remote education that we want to bring back to schooling and education?; and (2) What is it that has been removed that we do not want to return to? (Netolicky, 2020c). Underpinning these questions are what we—those of us working, teaching, and leading each day in schools and universities—have come to realise are paramount: health and wellbeing, the importance of learning for all students regardless of circumstance, meaningful work, community, connectedness, adaptability, and resilience. We learned that governments, education systems, and schools need strong, clear leadership that can respond to crises with immediacy while considering the long-term view and the needs of the specific community. We learned that technologies can support teaching, learning, collaborating, and developing student autonomy, but cannot replace the connection, engagement, and learning that is possible when we are face to face. We learned that schools are more than places of learning. They are sites of community, relationships, society, values, and care. They also serve the practical, economic function of looking after children while parents go to work.

“We learned that schools are more than places of learning. They are sites of community, relationships, society, values, and care.”

Teachers have missed seeing students in person, and the complex and important non-verbal communication of the classroom, in which the teacher can ‘read the room’, see how each young person is approaching the day and the lesson, re-engage a disengaged student, or re-teach a concept to those who aren’t getting it. Students have missed school as a place where they see their friends and their teachers. What we would benefit from continuing to develop are:

  • Curricula in which students are active agents;
  • Use of a range of technologies to enhance learning, collaboration, and communication, and to empower students in their learning;
  • The declining focus on high-stakes testing and cultures of competition between schools and education systems, replacing this with a focus on multiple pathways to success and flexible alternatives that address the needs of students and their families; and
  • Providing trust, support, and resourcing to the teaching profession so that educators can get on with the complex work of serving their communities.

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?    

DN: Transformational professional learning— “learning that shifts beliefs, and thereby behaviours, of professionals” (Netolicky, 2020d, p.18)—has the capacity to support schools and school systems to successfully propel fruitful educational change. I argue (Netolicky, 2020d) for professional learning for those working in schools that:

  • Is targeted and ongoing;
  • Is driven by educational (not corporate or political) agendas;
  • Considers identity and humanity, providing high support and high challenge; 
  • Offers voice, choice, and agency to the adult learner; 
  • Pays close attention to context, culture, and relationships, avoiding one-size-fits-most models; 
  • Enables collaboration that is rigorous, purposeful, sometimes uncomfortable, and allows respectful disagreement; 
  • Broadens our definition of professional learning beyond courses or conferences; and  
  • Invests time, money, and resources in the learning of teachers and school leaders. 

Those in the field of educational change can support practitioners through teacher training, partnerships, sharing their scholarship broadly, and supporting practitioners undertaking post-graduate study. In my literature class, we are currently studying Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and discussing the ways in which this 1985 novel continues to resonate with modern readers, dealing as it does with inequities; misuse of power to protect the needs of a few; unjust class structures; oppression due to gender, sexuality, race, and class; and reduction of individual freedoms with increased government control in the name of a ‘greater good’ (something we have experienced during the pandemic). One of the characters talks about the intention of the novel’s distressing dystopian reality as intended to be “better” but notes that “better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.” We need education that is good for all, not just good for some. It is imperative that we continue to consider the very purpose of education, and how we invest in what we value. I often talk in my workplace about changing culture and building trust ‘one conversation at a time’. We all have a responsibility to change education for the better for all students, one conversation, policy, study, action, paper, citation, webinar, social media post, at a time. Scholars can ensure that they are speaking not only to one another, but to communities, governments, and education professionals. We can communicate our scholarly work through accessible channels (such as open access, and popular, online, or social media) so that it is available to those working in schools.

Those working with, and alongside, schools and school systems can do so with an understanding of the realities of the lived experiences of school-based educators, including: intensification of workload; increasing job complexity; and escalating emotional stresses resulting from family and social issues impacting students such as violence, financial difficulties, discrimination, and mental health. We can resist the short termism of fast policy change that follows election cycles, in which politicians present education policy quick fixes or simplistic solutions to win votes, rather than playing the long game of education. We can all advocate for sustained educational change focused on common good and long-term improvements. We can challenge deficit media narratives around teaching and schools when they are accused of ‘failing’ or ‘falling behind’ and instead work to instil trust in, offer alternate narratives of, and engage in scholarship that shares the voices and complexities of, the teaching and school leadership profession.

“We can all advocate for sustained educational change focused on common good and long-term improvements.”

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

DN: One exciting thing I see happening in the field of educational change is the global, networked approach fortified and amplified by the pandemic. Collaboration—local, national, and global collaboration that is meaningful, transparent, productive, and focused on the shared moral purpose of the greater good for all—is key to a positive future. Now, more than ever, we are talking, researching, and working together, across societies, countries, systems, sectors, and fields, to co-design solutions to injustice, inequity, and discriminatory structures and practices.

An ongoing development in educational change and other fields is an increasing diversity of voices, perspectives, and representations. As Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson, and I noted (Netolicky et al., 2019), and as is evident in my experience as editor of two books aiming to share diverse perspectives, this is not easy to achieve. It is often those with important perspectives to offer—from a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, genders, sexualities, classes, belief systems, and (dis)abilities—who are least able to contribute, for a range of complex reasons. It remains important for all scholars, educational leaders, and organisers of conferences and events, to consider who is cited, who is invited, and who is excluded, and to pursue the ongoing work of diversity and inclusion. We need to ask ourselves what behaviours and language we accept without challenge. We need to speak against microaggressions in our own professional and personal contexts. We need to consider how measurements of educational ‘excellence’ might perpetuate discrimination, favouring some and disadvantaging others. What do our measures measure, and what do our methods of research reinforce?

We need to seek out and seek to understand Indigenous and non-Western knowledges, ways of knowing, theories, and theorists. Including diverse cultural positions and approaches to research moves from problematising and othering cultural minorities, to expanding perspectives and the current knowledge base (Shay, 2019). What is exciting is the increasing valuing, reclaiming, and development of Indigenous research methodologies. Australian examples include Melitta Hogarth’s Indigenous Critical Discourse Analysis (Hogarth, 2017, 2018) and Marnee Shay’s Collaborative Yarning Methodology (Shay, 2019). Drawing simultaneously on Indigenous and Western methodologies—learning, working, and researching at ‘the interface’ (Ryder et al., 2020)—can challenge societal norms (Hogarth, 2017) and lead to innovation, the formation of new knowledge, and the development of culturally safe methodologies (Ryder et al., 2020). It is this work at the boundary, the interface, or the nexus that offers possibilities, as it means not binary thinking but both/and thinking in which new spaces, communities, and knowledges are formed, that can move educational change forward, while honouring and acknowledging its past.


Barr, A., Gillard, J., Firth, V., Scrymgour, M., Welford, R., Lomax-Smith, J., Bartlett, D., Pike, B., & Constable, E. (2008). Melbourne declaration on educational goals for young Australians. Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs.

Doucet, A., Netolicky, D., Timmers, K., & Tuscano, F. J. (2020). Thinking about Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic: An Independent Report on Approaches to Distance Learning During COVID19 School Closures. Education International & UNESCO.

Education Council. (2019). Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. Carlton South, Victoria: Education Services Australia.

Hameed, S., Shay, M., & Miller, J. (forthcoming). “Deadly leadership” in the pursuit of Indigenous education excellence. In D. M. Netolicky (Ed.), Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.

Hogarth, M. (2017). Speaking back to the deficit discourses: A theoretical and methodological approach. The Australian Educational Researcher44(1), 21-34.

Hogarth, M. D. (2018). Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy. (Doctoral dissertation, Queensland University of Technology).

Hollweck, T., Campbell, P., & Netolicky, D.  M. (forthcoming). Defining and exploring pracademia: Identity, community, and engagement. Journal of Professional Capital and Community.

Netolicky, D. M. (2017). Cyborgs, desiring-machines, bodies without organs, and Westworld: Interrogating academic writing and scholarly identityKOME 5(1), pp. 91-103.

Netolicky, D. M. (2019). Elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking. In D. M. Netolicky, J. Andrews, & C. Paterson (Eds.) Flip the System Australia: What matters in education. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020a). Being, becoming and questioning the school leader: An autoethnographic exploration of a woman in the middle. In R. Niesche & A. Heffernan (Eds.) Theorising Identity and Subjectivity in Educational Leadership Research, pp. 111-125. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020b). Leading from Disruption to ‘Next Normal’ in Education. In Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Thoughts and Responses from Education’s Frontline During COVID-19 (e-book). World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in partnership with Salzburg Global Seminar.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020c). School leadership during a pandemic: Navigating tensionsJournal of Professional Capital and Community, 5(3/4), 391-395.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020d). Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (Ed.). (forthcoming). Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M., Andrews, J., & Paterson, C. (Eds.). (2019). Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M., & Golledge, C. (forthcoming). Wayfinding: Navigating complexity for sustainable school leadership. In D. M. Netolicky (Ed.), Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.

Ryder, C., Mackean, T., Coombs, J., Williams, H., Hunter, K., Holland, A. J. A., & Ivers, R. Q. (2020). Indigenous research methodology – weaving a research interface. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 23(3), 255-267. 

Shay, M. (2019). Extending the yarning yarn: collaborative yarning methodology for ethical Indigenist education research. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 1-9.

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 KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.

Who and What Counts in Education? A Conversation with Jordan Corson

This week IEN shares an interview with Jordan Corson that focuses on his work on learning with transnational youth inside and outside schools. Corson is an Assistant Professor of Education and an affiliated faculty member of immigration studies at Stockton University. He is a co-author with Thomas Hatch and Sarah Gerth van den Berg of The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin, 2021). This post is the first in an occasional series that features the work of early career scholars. The series grows out of a collaboration (#EdIntColl) between IEN, ARC (Atlantic Rim Collaboratory), ICSEI (International Congress For School Effectiveness And Improvement), and the Educational Change SIG (Special Interest Group) of AERA (American Educational Research Association).

IEN: What’s the key problem or issue that you’ve been working on? 

Jordan Corson: In this early part of my career, I’ve really been focused on critically engaging questions of who and what counts in education. Interrogating problems of marginalization, my work aims to challenge dominant understandings of inclusion, reform, and of education itself. Exploring these issues has taken on a number of forms, but has so far largely focused on two research projects. First, I studied with people living and working in a neighborhood and marketplace in Mexico City called Tepito. When I was first living in Mexico, I heard a lot about this neighborhood that “didn’t have education yet.” People in Tepito may have varying levels of schooling, but they’re constantly engaged in complex educational practices in their everyday lives. Spending a lot of time in Tepito ultimately led to an ethnographic and historical project about educational life in the neighborhood.

An image of Tepito

In a similar vein, my dissertation project looked at the everyday lives of immigrant youth in a newcomer school in New York City. Even in the culturally and linguistically affirmative space of their school, one designed specifically to support immigrant students, the youth with whom I worked had become labeled “at-risk” of dropping out.

In these projects, I aimed to challenge the deficit narratives around educatedness and labels like being “at-risk.” Working ethnographically, I looked at rigorous intellectual work taking place in everyday life, be it practices of translaguaging, navigating the city, taking on family and professional responsibilities, or just hanging out and sharing ideas with each other. But, showing educational life as something already present was just a starting point.  Although scholars like Shirley Brice Heath and Kris Gutierrez have been working to challenge schooling’s monopoly on education, the problem here is that, at the risk of creating an overgeneralization, these kinds of “non-formal” educational practices are still not taken seriously. Something like afterschool clubs or extracurriculars might be seen as important (though supplementary) education, but that still misses so much in everyday life. One example I always love to share is the albur, a kind of wordplay or double entendre that people practice in playful conversation in Tepito. There’s no school or program, no training to learn how to do this, but it takes serious intellect and creativity to engage in the back and forth of albureando. In educational research, that’s just not seen as serious knowledge or a necessary skill. Similarly the youth with whom I worked in New York City were only seen as educated when they succeeded in formal educational processes. I never wanted to attack public schools that are already under constant attack, but this returns to my initial question of engaging educators and policymakers on issues of who and what counts in education.

A sign hanging in the newcomer school

IEN: What did you learn about it? 

JC: Beyond any other lesson, what I’ve really learned is that as researchers, we’re so often limiting our scope and our work. Questions of educational change are largely just looking to keep “tinkering toward utopia” as if the ultimate goal is to achieve Horace Mann’s dream of universal schooling. Youth labeled “at-risk” in schools may want education reform or policy change, but they’re certainly not sitting around waiting for policymakers or anyone else. They are pushing for changes on the ground, through things like demands for immigrant rights. Moreover, they’re also doing their own thing. They’re engaging in educational work that is useful to their everyday lives. They’re taking up rigorous ideas and feeling successful in doing so. And, they’re collectively participating in education (both formal and non-formal) that they find joyful and pleasurable. What that says to me is that we need more educational research that goes beyond figuring out ways to better school kids. Educational research and educational discourses in general are dominated by these twin concerns for inclusion in schools and academic success. I don’t want to abandon those aims or suggest schools should accept the marginalization that many students face, but there are many more educational questions out there. It’s about listening to what is already happening and respecting kids’ collective autonomy. My job as a researcher and educator who wants to change education is not to figure out how to improve inclusion mechanisms. It’s not a matter of reform. Instead, it’s about exploring how kids who are already equal, and who verify that equality through everyday intellectual work, have been marked as “at-risk” or “failing,” even in inclusive and affirmative educational environments. From there, it’s about thinking about inventive, playful ways for researchers to work on undoing all the unequal conditions we’ve made.

It’s about exploring how kids who are already equal, and who verify that equality through everyday intellectual work, have been marked as “at-risk” or “failing,” even in inclusive and affirmative educational environments

IEN: What are the implications for policy/practice? 

JC: I think the biggest implication here is that policy, practice, and even schooling itself need to be restricted. The kids with whom I worked already had jobs, family responsibilities, and all kinds of commitments. As kids struggled, teachers rightly wanted to help. But, that so often meant adding in tutoring, afterschool, and other supports on top of everything else. Simultaneously, educational life outside of the school is getting smaller and smaller. At one point during fieldwork for my dissertation, some of the participants and I were at a museum. A docent was guiding us around, offering really cool details and information about the works we encountered. At one point, she asked us to all sit around a painting and started asking people to raise their hands and share ideas. It suddenly hit me, we were just back in school. The logics and expectations governing school have spread out so far, they’re encroaching on all parts of life. Simultaneously, though, there are obviously standardizing and normative forces encroaching on schools. I want to be careful here and reiterate that I think school is a wonderful place and schools should absolutely be searching out ways to welcome students and help them succeed. But, school is just one educational site among many. And, it’s a place where so much happens beyond academic success. Most of my fieldwork took place outside of schools, but some of the best stuff I observed in classrooms were teachers conspiring with students to subvert and navigate things like state tests. There were also some really beautiful moments when teachers stepped back and let the wild joyfulness of education take over. Beyond any kind of culturally responsive teaching, teachers here let a borderless curriculum rooted in students’ lived realities take over. It wasn’t drawing on interests and identities to help them read but just letting students explore and enact their own educational pursuits. Sometimes, that might be seen as academically useful from a schooling perspective. Two of the participants in the project loved performing translanguaged raps in front of their class. There were also some fantastic collective actions like the kids starting a gender and sexuality alliance. But, it also involved students sitting back, texting, and messing around on their phones. I don’t want to idealize it (there were a few pretty chaotic moments) or ignore ongoing oppressions and exclusions that these kids face, but these moments opened up some amazing possibilities for collective planning and routes that work against policy and practice that sought to govern their lives.

Educational life outside of the school is getting smaller and smaller… The logics and expectations governing school have spread out so far, they’re encroaching on all parts of life

IEN: What resources, tools, readings, helped you carry out your work?

JC: I don’t want to refer to research participants as resources, but the work was only possible thanks to their ideas, activities, and hospitality. It’s been hard to keep in touch since the project concluded, particularly during COVID, but their intellectual generosity is truly what made this work. One of the greatest resources for the participants and I was always New York City. The subway, parks, wandering the streets in the middle of summer. The place just oozes with educational potential. At the same time, beyond any IRB protocol, I always wanted to center mutual care and safety. Resources around things like know your rights were really helpful.

In terms of readings, I keep a number of books with me throughout writing. Leigh Patel’s Youth Held at the Border uses youth narratives to challenge the labels used to confine and exclude immigrant youth. The book balances intimate storytelling with a thorough critique of structural issues surrounding immigration in the United States. Whenever I feel a sense of futility creeping in, I turn to Saidiya Hartman’s work as well as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons. This kind of writing shows the creative and productive possibilities of rigorous academic work. It offers both the dominating ways that people are governed and controlled and the many strategies people take up to resist that kind of governance. Moten and Harney also show how intellectual labor comes from all over, be it be chatting on the front porch or on the factory floor at work. Furthermore, they really flip the script and show how educational institutions like universities so often act to regulate thought and codify knowledge. Finally, Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster illustrated how equality is not simply some future possibility towards which we work but a starting point.

Of course, as lonely as writing can be, colleagues and mentors have always been great resources for bouncing ideas off of, sharing readings, or reining me in. I guess when it comes down to it, I’ve been a very small part of these research projects.

IEN: What’s next for your work? What problems and issues are you/will you be working on? What are your hopes for that work – what do you envision for the future?

JC: I’m just starting out as a professor, so what’s next for my work is a lot of learning how to live within and balance the varying demands of academic life. That certainly means supporting a lot of first gen folks as they become teachers. Trying to stay true to my research focus, I’ve tried to balance supporting the development of their craft with some critical questions regarding the privatized, credentialing nature of things like the edTPA.

From these research projects, I’ve been preparing manuscripts for journals and beginning the process of converting my dissertation into a book. I hope and know both the work in Tepito and the dissertation project will be with me for some time, so it’s a bit difficult to think of what’s next beyond trying to share that work. I do know the demands of academia have so far suggested I be the sole author of something like a dissertation. Going forward, I want to seek out more collaborative research that builds on collective knowledge.

Which is a more radical view of the future of schools? Is it a world with AI everywhere and floating desks? Or, is it a world in which equality is a fundamental principle applied to everyone that enters the school?

Looking ahead, one project about which I’m increasingly interested is the role of the future in education. When I started teaching last year, I inherited a class called Schools of the Future. In building the syllabus, I found a lot of institutional projections and probabilities of what schools would be like in the future, including lots of images of limitless technology. On the first day of class, I asked everyone to find or create a media image of what schools might look like in 25 years. I asked everyone to really push at the boundaries of possibility, thinking about the wildest images of schools of the future. The most common vision we came up with seemed to be like an episode of the Jetsons. In order to consider the future, we’ve also been looking at a lot of images of the past. How have schools been constructed (and why) and how have they changed over time and place? One example we looked at was some of the education work of the Black Panther Party. As we looked at the actual curriculum and explored some of the pedagogy, there wasn’t anything all that futuristic about it. In some ways, it involves some recitation and rote learning. But, that leads to a question of which is a more radical view of the future of schools? Is it a world with AI everywhere and floating desks? Or, is it a world in which equality is a fundamental principle applied to everyone that enters the school? These questions, once more, return to this fundamental issue of who and what counts in education. But, any kind of new project is somewhat down the line. For now, I’m just really happy to continue writing and working with some awesome students who I still haven’t met face to face.