HundrED 2019 Innovation Summit

Just as we did last year, we’re checking in on the HundrED summit, which was held last week in Helsinki. As the organization describes, “the HundrED Innovation Summit is a 3-day, high profile invitation-only celebration of the world’s most inspiring education innovations – with talks, workshops and discussions.” The summit also introduces the HundrED 2020 Global Collection, 100 inspiring and innovative organizations that HundrED believes is changing the face of K-12 education around the globe. In this post, we highlight a few of these organizations from the list and share a couple of IEN posts on organizations featured in the list.

Anji Play (China)

Anji Play is a curriculum and approach to early education developed by Ms. Cheng Xueqin for the public early childhood programs of Anji County, Zhejiang Province, China. In the past five years, the Anji Play curriculum, approach and philosophy have become the focus of pilot and demonstration programs in the United States, Europe and Africa. The Anji Play curriculum and play materials have been adopted at the province level in Zhejiang (soon bringing Anji Play to two million more children), and Anji Play is being practiced in public early childhood programs in all of China’s 34 provinces and administrative regions. In recent months, Anji Play has become a focus of Ministry of Education efforts to expand universal access to public early education in China.

BRAC Humanitarian Play Labs (Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh)

Humanitarian Play Labs bring BRAC’s signature low cost, high quality play-based learning model to the humanitarian context of the largest refugee settlement in the world in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. They integrate playful learning with child protection, psychosocial support, and linkages to critical services; incorporate relevant cultural traditions; and engage both Rohingya and host communities. (United States) is an initiative that provides comprehensive, age-appropriate, and medically-accurate sexual health videos for adolescents ages 10-14, along with resources for educators and parents. As of September 2019 our videos have received 28 million views on our YouTube channel since was launched in September of 2016. AMAZE has also been launched in South Africa and Latin America.

The Educate! Model (Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya)

Educate! prepares youth in Africa with the skills to succeed in today’s economy. We tackle youth unemployment by partnering with schools and governments to reform what schools teach and how they teach it so that students in Africa have the skills to attain further education, overcome gender inequities, start businesses, get jobs, and drive development in their communities.

IEN Posts On Organizations in the Global Collection:

  • Our 2-part piece on Speed School from December, 2018
  • Our post on THINK Global School from earlier this year

A conversation with Yiwen Wang about the Rise of Private Schooling in Guiyang, China

This week’s post features a conversation with Yiwen Wang, author of Educational Privatization in China: A Case Study, recently published by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) at Teachers College, Columbia University. Samuel Abrams, Director of NCSPE, explains that “In focusing on one middle school, Wang, a native of Guiyang who recently completed a master’s degree in education policy at Teachers College, illustrates the evolution and process of private provision of education in a country where private education barely existed a generation ago.” In this interview, Wang describes how her own experiences growing up in China contributed to her interest in researching private schooling, what she learned through her research, and some of the key issues she sees for private schools in China in the future.


IEN: How did you get interested in private education in China?

Yiwen Wang: The school that this case study focuses on is in my hometown of Guiyang, Guizhou Province, China. 10-20 years ago, the best quality schools in Guiyang were public schools. But in recent years, the good schools that people talked about have undergone great changes. Now, everyone is trying to get into private primary and secondary schools. Moreover, I also noticed that many of my teachers in the past have left the stable working environment of public secondary schools and chose to join private schools to teach. Why do private schools rise? Why do teachers make such career choices? What is the government’s attitude towards private education? What stage is private education now undergoing in Guiyang? I got curious about these issues.


IEN: How does what you found in this case study compare to education in other schools (Private or public) in China?

Wang: Most of the research on private schools in China has focused on Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Guangdong, and other economically and educationally developed cities or coastal areas. Few scholars have turned their eyes to the central and western regions. Yet in these regions, too, more and more private schools are emerging and changing the local educational ecology. In focusing on Guiyang, capital of the southwestern province of Guizhou, this study concerns a relatively underdeveloped area of China. In Guiyang, private schools have nevertheless rapidly multiplied over the past decade, taking many teachers from public schools and attracting a large number of students. But while new schools are born every year, there are also many private schools that are dying amidst market competition.

The Mei Jia International School that is concerned about in this case study is such a school that is struggling in the fierce competition. As a school without a strong background from a prestigious university, it faces problems such as high teacher turnover rate and difficulties in enrolling students. No one knows whether it will become a survivor or a sacrifice of private education in Guiyang. In order to survive, Mei Jia is trying various methods, such as discussed in my working paper:

“With the support of the government and the desire of families for the best opportunity for their children, many prestigious universities in developed regions have also come to Guiyang to establish affiliated secondary schools. This migration of outside competition has at once intensified the exam culture and placed greater pressure on local private schools to enroll students and attract teachers. Mei Jia, in response to this competition, chose to join the No.3 Experimental High School Group. More and more small and medium-sized private schools are likewise teaming up with other schools, setting up school groups, or offering preferential admission to students in each other’s schools.”


IEN: What did you learn about education in China from this study that you did not know before?

Wang: I used to think that the rise of private education in Guiyang was mainly due to the growing demand for education accompanying the improvement of economic conditions. But in the course of this study, I found that in addition to the growing educational demands, the rise of private education is also closely related to the government’s transformation of public and private education policies as I discussed in this case study:

“According to government regulations, if students choose to attend a public school, they can only enter the school designated by the government according to their household address. However, at that time, these [public] schools also conducted their own entrance examinations to enroll cross-regional students with good scores as ‘transient students.’ These students could study in the name of auditing, and an auditing fee would be charged by the school on a semester basis. This process was permitted by the government until 2004.

“The termination of this process coincided with the establishment of many private schools. These schools have since taken away many excellent teachers from these key middle schools, some of whom went on to assume leadership positions at these private schools.”

“…the government advocates equal education, public schools can only accept students classified by household address; as noted, since 2004, they have been barred from selecting students by exam scores. The government has focused its effort on popularizing the nine-year compulsory education and guaranteeing education for the children of migrant workers who come from rural areas to work in cities. Yet the government has focused less on improving the quality of teaching in public schools.”

“…On the other hand, the government has provided strong support to private schools in terms of school land use. The government subsidizes private schools through substantial discounts on property leases.”

These changes in policy have made the past decade a golden period for the growth of private education in Guiyang. And through this study, I began to get a better understanding of the reasons for the change in the educational landscape in my hometown.


IEN: What’s next for private schooling in China? What are the issues that are being discussed?

Wang: China’s private education still presents regional differences. More and more internationally renowned schools and innovative schools are entering developed regions such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. In 2019, the famous British private school Harrow School announced that it will establish a campus in Shenzhen. The Avenues: The World School and Whittle School & Studios also started enrolling students in Shenzhen in September this year. Many private schools in these areas have adopted international education systems, such as Cambridge A-level, IB, and the Waldorf Education System. Students in these schools usually choose to earn higher degrees overseas.

However, when we look at China’s central and western regions, that is, economically underdeveloped regions, such as Guiyang, we find a completely different picture. Guiyang’s private education is still centered on China’s middle and high school entrance examination system and is guided by test scores. Many private schools attract students not through the internationally renowned school background, but the endorsement of famous Chinese universities.

But no matter what kind of regional differences exist, private education can be described as in full swing in today’s China, showing the growth and change in educational needs of Chinese families as their economic conditions improve. But there are also concerns. Most notably, public school faculty and high-income students have flowed to private schools. The uneven distribution of educational resources may lead to more difficult class movements and an expansion of the income gap.



“Changing Education Systems”: A Conversation with Mel Ainscow, Christopher Chapman, and Mark Hadfield

In Changing Education Systems: A Research-Based Approach, authors Mel Ainscow, Christopher Chapman, and Mark Hadfieldshare some of the key lessons from their collective experience working to improve education in England, Scotland, and Wales. In advance of the November publication, we spoke with them about how the book came together and some of what they have learned in the process 

Why this book, why now?
In this new book we reflect on our experiences over the last 20 years or so of trying to use research to promote equity within education systems. This included our involvement in three large-scale improvement initiatives in the United Kingdom: City Challenge in London and Greater Manchester; the Scottish Attainment Challenge (also see this IEN post); and Schools Challenge Cymru in Wales. We also draw on a series of other place-based developments in various parts of the world.

These experiences lead us to argue that the belief that research can simply be applied to practice and have direct effects in the field is naive, even though it is still held by some researchers, who seem surprised or even dismayed that their work is not immediately adopted.

We also challenge the current emphasis – in our own country and internationally – on ‘what works’. This is based on the idea that policy-makers and practitioners are there to ‘deliver’ practices that have been designed and evaluated by researchers. It has created a situation that favours simple, short-term, single-issue interventions and encourages a narrowly classroom-focused approach – even though barriers to learning originating beyond the school gates are known to be even more influential in shaping outcomes.

Most worrying for us, the “what works” approach defines teachers as ‘deliverers’ of the ideas of others, rather than as professionals trusted to develop practices that suit particular contexts and groups of learners. All of this despite evidence from the OECD which suggests that countries where teachers believe their profession is valued show higher levels of equity in relation to learning outcomes. 

What did you learn in working on this book that you didn’t know before?
Over the years, we came to the view that education systems will only be able to use research effectively if steps are taken to overcome locally specific social, political and cultural barriers. This has implications for policy-makers, practitioners and, indeed, for those of us working in the world of academic research. It also reminds us that teachers are themselves policy makers. That is to say, the most crucial factor is the willingness of teachers to adapt their practices in response to the requirements of the changes that are proposed.

Bearing all of this in mind, within the book we propose a way of thinking about system change that offers opportunities to make use of research processes and findings. In summary, this involves a series of interconnected propositions that point to a need for:

  • A shared understanding of overall purposes. Given that change requires coordinated efforts across the different levels of an education system, an agreed and clear purpose is an essential condition.
  • On-going contextual analysis of a system’s existing capacity for improvement. This has to be capable of providing a deep analysis of the barriers that are limiting progress. At the same time, it should identify areas of promising practice, drawing out key learning and applying this to the development of the necessary human and social capital to support system level improvement efforts.
  • Brokerage that crosses professional and social boundaries, within schools and across networks. This is in order to increase exposure to various sources of expertise and innovative practice.
  • The development of capacity for leadership at all levels of a system. This must be capable of leading collaborative learning within and between schools, and with the wider community.
  • The creation of a strong political mandate at the national and local levels. This is necessary in order to develop the conditions within the education system that are supportive of collaborative local action.

Since effective change requires coordinated efforts at all levels of an education system, the use of these propositions has implications for the various key stakeholders within education systems. In particular, it requires teachers, especially those in senior positions, to see themselves as having a wider responsibility for all children and young people, not just those that attend their own schools; it means that those who administer district school systems have to adjust their priorities and ways of working in response to improvement efforts that are led from within schools; and it requires that what schools do must be aligned in a coherent strategy with the efforts of other local players – employers, community groups, universities, public services and so on.

In the book, we also illustrate how the different roles and socio-cultural contexts of policy-makers/practitioners and academics create a complex set of power relations, which have to be factored into the process of introducing ideas from research. This reveals how those who work in the field derive their power from being primary actors: they can cause things to happen or to cease to happen in a way that is denied to academics. Meanwhile, researchers derive their power from standing at a distance: they can problematise the actions of practitioners and policy-makers.

At their most productive, these power relationships lead to dialogue in which the academics’ views are informed by the realities of practice, and practitioners’ views change in response to ‘outsider’ critique. At their least productive, however, academics mistake their distant position for superiority, and claim moral and intellectual authority over practitioners; while practitioners dismiss academics as being unworldly and resist their critiques. Managing these relationships is crucial to the success of attempts to use research knowledge to guide the improvement of policy and practice in the field.

What’s happened in these contexts since you wrote the book?
The extent of the legacy in the various developments we report in the book varies considerably. Progress in London continues to be impressive, although debates continue regarding what factors have contributed to all of this, as we describe in the book ( The Scottish Attainment Challenge remains a key policy within the Government’s reform programme. In the case of Greater Manchester, we have recent empirical evidence of the continuing impact of its legacy seven years later, most strikingly in terms of partnerships and networks, and system level coordination. Currently, all of this is being taken forward by the Greater Manchester Education and Employability Board established by the ten partner local authorities that Mel chairs.

 What’s next — what are you all working on or what do you hope will happen in these contexts?
We are continuing to refine our thinking through our involvement in further system development initiatives in the UK and internationally. Chris is acting as consultant to a further phase of the Scottish Attainment challenge and various other related national reform initiative. Through his work as a consultant to UNESCO and the Organization of American States, Mel is supporting developments internationally. Most recently this has involved government-led national initiatives to promote inclusion and equity in Colombia and Oman that are informed by the thinking presented in the book.

What do you hope those working in other parts of the world will take away from your experiences?
Given the emphasis we place on the importance of contextual analysis, we believe that the ‘way of thinking’ presented in the book is relevant  to other parts of the world. Furthermore, our recommendations seem particularly pertinent at a time when many countries are seeking to address issues related to inclusion and equity raised by the UNESCO Education 2030 Framework for Action, Indeed, these recommendations have been incorporated into a recent UNESCO guidance document that is now being used internationally.

Meanwhile, the sorts of barriers that we describe in the book continue to impact on efforts to use research knowledge to guide educational change in both the developed and developing world. The implication is that changes have to be made in the way education systems operate in order to create the organizational conditions within which new thinking based on research can be accommodated. Without this, even the most sophisticated ideas and strategies are likely to be ignored or dismissed.

The accounts of our involvement in the projects described in the book point to the nature of the conditions that need to be encouraged. They also illustrate the relationships that have to be created amongst practitioners, policymakers and academic researchers. By and large, these are not based on a technical-rational process through which research-based knowledge is presented to practitioners in the hope that this will then be used to guide decision-making and action. Rather, they involve a rather messy social learning process, within which researcher expertise and perspectives are brought together with the knowledge of colleagues in the field. Where this works, it can lead to the development of new, context-specific knowledge that can support change processes.

The implication is that successful change requires the coming together of different perspectives and experiences in a process of social learning and knowledge creation within particular settings. Researchers who get involved in such processes must expect to face many difficulties and dilemmas. Consequently, they have to develop new skills in creating collaborative partnerships that cross borders between actors who have different professional experiences. They also need to mobilise personal support in dealing with the pressures this involves.



LEAD THE CHANGE SERIES Q & A with Dr. Christina L. Dobbs

Christina L. Dobbs is an Assistant Professor in English Education in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. Her research interests include academic language development and teachers’ understandings of language, the argumentative writing of students, and professional development for secondary content teachers around disciplinary literacy. She has authored a variety of publications on these topics in journals such as Reading Research Quarterly, the Journal of School Leadership, Professional Development in Education, and Reading and Writing among others, following the completion of her doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of Disciplinary Literacy Inquiry and Instruction and Investigating Disciplinary Literacy, has served as the Manuscripts Editor for the Harvard Educational Review, and has edited a volume titled Humanizing Education: Critical Alternatives to Reform. She serves as a reviewer of young adult fiction for The Horn Book Magazine and has served as a consultant to the New York City Department of Education, Cambridge Public Schools, Boston Public Schools, and Brookline Public Schools among others. She is a former high school teacher in Houston, Texas, as well as a literacy coach and reading specialist.

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. Dobbs discusses her work on building teacher capacity through context specific and collaborative professional development efforts. As Dr. Dobbs puts it:

I think my most consistent and nagging challenge in my work has to do with where
we situate expertise in schools, and this impacts how policy is made, both generally and locally. Students have expertise, communities have expertise, teachers have expertise. And in a world where we want higher achievement for students, we make mistakes when we don’t look across stakeholders and their varied expertise when making decisions. So as a researcher, I think of myself as bringing expertise about research and methods to the table, and the research is often quite difficult for teachers to access without a university stakeholder. But I rely on teachers, students, community members and school leaders to bring the expertise needed to bring about change. They bring expertise about the specific context, the community, various disciplines, and invaluable historical knowledge. To truly bring about change, this expertise has to be combined in real partnerships. For example, the project discussed above contained teams of teachers from an array of content areas. I remember in a session early in the project with the science team, we were discussing using non-fiction text features to better comprehend informational text. So, the team leader and a chemistry teacher and I were talking about their textbook. She walked us through a number of the text features in the chapter we were analyzing, pointing out which diagrams were important to understanding the material and which were designed merely to brighten pages or generate interest. Without her chemistry training and my team’s comprehension knowledge, the team would not have come to build a protocol for reading in chemistry to better orient students to their books. It took all of us to truly grapple with the literacy skills needed in a chemistry context.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently, Lead the Change has also interviewed Kristin Kew and Osnat Fellus.

 (Not) Reforming again and again and again?

Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens, we have to keep going back and begin again.” – Andre Gide

This epigraph begins Larry Cuban’s paper “Reforming again, again, and again,” published in 1990.  As various reforms have re-appeared, Cuban extended his analysis again (“High School Reform Again, Again, and Again”) and again (“Fixing Schools Again and Again”).  Cuban speculates that this reform recycling is not a problem we can solve, it’s a condition created by the institutional and political realities that we continually have to deal with.

Just as it is possible to predict that reform initiatives will return again and again, it is also possible to predict – even before these initiatives are implemented – some of the factors that will make it difficult for the initiatives to take hold and to achieve their goals. The efforts to transform teacher evaluation that took off with the Obama administration’s Race To The Top initiative in 2009 provide a recent case in point.

Those policies made their way into the news again this past week thanks to a report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. The  press release (“States Bid Hasty Retreat from Their Own Attempts to Overhaul Educator Evaluation”) and coverage highlights the ways in which states teacher evaluation policies appear to be retreating (“Most States Have Walked Back Tough Teacher-Evaluation Policies”, Education Week; “ No Thanks, Obama: 9 States No Longer Require Test Scores Be Used To Judge Teachers,” Chalkbeat).  Although these developments are newsworthy they come as no surprise. Previous reports have noted problems with the design and execution of recent efforts to transform teacher evaluation, and even those who have noted some positive outcomes have highlighted implementation challenges as well.

Building on Cuban’s work with his colleague David Tyack in Tinkering Toward Utopia  and further analyses by David Cohen and Jal Mehta in “Why reform sometimes succeed”, my colleagues and I have been looking at some of the reasons that so many policies and reform initiatives fail to produce the fundamental changes in schools and classrooms that they seek. In a nutshell, this work suggests that too often the goals, capacity demands, and values of reform proposals do not match the common needs, existing capabilities, and dominant values in the schools and districts they are supposed to help.

Admittedly, this is a simple heuristic, but it provides one quick way to anticipate some implementation challenges and to explain how reform initiatives evolve. Although this example is drawn from the US, the basic approach to identifying the challenges of improvement and implementation can be applied in many settings outside the US as well.


Is there a fit between reform proposals and the needs, capabilities and values “on the ground”?

 Asking a succinct set of questions provides one quick way to gauge the “fit” between reform proposals and the conditions in the schools and communities where those proposals are supposed to be implemented:

  • How widely shared is the “problem” that the initiative is supposed to address?
  • What has to change for the initiative to take hold in schools and classrooms to have an impact?
  • To what extent do teachers, administrators and schools have the capabilities they need to make the changes?
  • How likely is it that the key ideas and practices of the initiative will be consistent with socio-cultural, technological, political, and economic trends in the larger society?


What’s the problem the initiative is designed to solve and who has “it”?

When problems are widely shared by many of the stakeholders involved, initiatives that address those problems are more likely to be seen as necessary and worth pursuing – a key indicator of whether those “on the ground” are likely to do what the initiative requires.  

In the case of the teacher evaluation reforms, proposals for changing evaluation procedures grew along with concerns that the emphases on accountability and teacher quality in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 were not yielding the desired improvements in outcomes in reading and mathematics (which was also predictable even before NCLB passed into law but that’s a different blog post…). Those concerns came together with increasing interest in looking at growth in student learning through “value-added” measurement approaches and with the observation popularized by the New Teacher Project’s report on “The Widget Effect” that almost all teachers were given satisfactory evaluation ratings.

For whom was the system of teacher evaluation a problem? Policymakers, funders, and some administrators seized upon teacher evaluation as a critical problem. These “policy elites”, however, are those primarily engaged with managing the education system; but “fixing” teacher evaluation did not appear to be at the top of the list of concerns for many teachers, parents, and students, or for major stakeholder groups like teachers’ unions. As a consequence, considerable resistance should have been expected.


What has to change? To what extent do teachers, principals, and schools have the capabilities to make the changes?

The more complicated and demanding the changes are, the more difficult they will be to put in place.  Simply put, the likelihood of implementing a policy or improvement initiative effectively drops the more steps and the more convoluted the plan; the more time, money, resources, and people involved; and the more that everyday behaviors and beliefs have to change.

At a basic level, the “logic” of the teacher evaluation reforms seemed fairly straightforward:

If we create better estimates of teacher quality and create more stringent evaluation systems…

…. Then education leaders can provide better feedback to teachers, remove ineffective teachers, reward more effective teachers…

… And student learning/outcomes will improve

However, by unpacking exactly what has to happen for these results to be achieved, the complications and predictable difficulties quickly become apparent.  Among the issues:

  • New instruments have to be created, criteria agreed upon, new observation & assessments deployed, and trainings developed
  • Principals/observers have to have time for training and to carry out observations/assessments
  • Principals and other observers have to be able to give meaningful feedback,
  •  Teachers need to be able to change their instruction in ways that yields measurable improvements on available assessments of student performance

Of course, these developments are supposed to take place in every single school and district covered by the new policy, and, at the school and classroom level, these new procedures, observation criteria, and feedback mechanisms have to be developed for every teacher, at every level, in every subject.

In addition to highlighting the enormity of the task, this analysis also makes visible critical practical and logistical issues. In this case, for example, the new evaluation procedures are supposed to be based to a large extent on measuring growth of student learning on standardized tests. Yet, the policy is also supposed to apply to the many teachers who do not teach “tested subjects” and for whom standardized tests are not adequate for assessing student learning and development.

But even if all the logistical and practical problems are addressed, to be effective, the policy still requires administrators and teachers to develop new skills and knowledge: Administrators have to improve their ability to observe instruction and to provide meaningful feedback (in many different subjects/levels); Teachers have to know how to use that feedback to make appropriate changes in their instruction that lead to improved performance on available measures. Further, even if administrators were able to put in place new evaluation procedures and develop the capabilities to deploy them, using the results to sanction or reward individual teachers conflicts with the prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and norms of behavior in many schools.

(Among others, Michael McShane draws on Pressman & Wildasky’s 1984 book Implementation to highlight the issues related to reform complexity; David Cohen, Jim Spillane, and Don Peurach have written extensively about the need to develop a much stronger “infrastructure” to support the development of educator’s knowledge and skills and to improve instruction across classrooms and schools; and Rick Hess cites James Q. Wilson’s work to stress the difficulty in counteracting local incentives and prevailing institutional cultures.)


How do the proposed changes fit with the values, trends, developments at the time?

Changes proposed that reflect enduring values as well as the socio-cultural, political, technological, and economic trends can take off in concert with other developments in society.  Conversely, conflicts over basic values and shifts in trends can also mean that support and public opinion may wane relatively quickly before changes have time to take root.

In this case, the teacher evaluation policies evolved as conflicting trends were emerging. On the one hand, the new approaches to teacher evaluation fit with long-standing concerns about the efficiency of education as well as with the development of new technologies, new approaches to data use, and interest in performance accountability among leaders in business, government and other fields. On the other hand, those policies also had to be implemented in a context where concerns about academic pressure and the extent of testing were growing among many parents and educators and where advocates for local control of education were becoming more concerned and more vocal about their opposition to the development of the Common Core Learning Standards.


What would you predict?

This quick survey provides one view of the challenges faced by efforts to change teacher evaluations:

  • A lack of a shared problem
  • Requirements for massive, complex, and coordinated changes at every level of the education system
  • Demands for the development of new knowledge, skills, attitudes and norms of behavior
  • In a context of conflicting trends and values

Under these circumstances, the prognosis for effective implementation was never good.  Of course, the hope was that the new policies could kick-start or set in motion many of the desired changes that could encourage the kinds of interactions between administrators and teachers that would improve student learning. Given the challenges laid out here, the fact that some aspects of teacher evaluations across the US appear to have changed could be seen as remarkable. In fact, the NCTQ report makes clear that states and districts did respond to the policies.  In particular, many more states are now requiring multiple observations of some or all teachers and more than half of all states now require that all teachers get annual summative feedback.

However, the NCTQ report also explains that elements of the policy critical to the basic logic are falling by the wayside. Ten states have dropped requirements for using “objective evidence of student learning” (though 2 states have added such a requirement), and “No fewer than 30 states have recently withdrawn at least one of the evaluation reforms that they adopted during a flurry of national activity between 2009 and 2015.” The Education Week coverage also notes that states like New Mexico have rolled back tough accountability provisions. New Mexico had instituted a student-growth score that accounted for 50% of a teacher’s overall rating but has since dropped that requirement after “more than a quarter of the state’s teachers were labeled as ‘minimally effective’ or ‘ineffective.’ Educators (including highly rated teachers) hated the system, with some burning their evaluations in protest in front of the state education department’s headquarters.”

Notably, this analysis also highlights that the policies were largely indirect: The were esigned to develop an elaborate apparatus to measure teacher’s performance – with the hope that those changes would eventually affect instruction. Yet there was relatively limited investment in figuring out specifically what teachers could do to improve and the kind of feedback and support that would make those improvements possible. Under these circumstances, one could anticipate that many districts and schools would make some effort to introduce new observation and evaluation procedures, but that those new procedures would be grafted onto old ones, shedding the most complicated and controversial propositions in the process (providing another example of what Tyack and Cuban describe as a process of “schools changing reforms”).

The lesson from all this is not for the advocates to lament this rollback or the critics to revel in it.  Nor is it to abandon ambitious visions for rethinking and transforming the school system we have because the work that needs to be done is difficult or controversial.  The point is to use our knowledge and understanding of why changing schools is so difficult so that we can design improvement initiatives that take the predictable stumbling blocks into account.  It means building common understanding of the key problems that need to be addressed, coming to terms with the concrete changes that have to be made in classrooms and schools, and building the capacity to make those changes over time.


–Thomas Hatch

Imagination Lab Schools and the Future of Learning: An interview with Chris Bezsylko

In this week’s post, IEN talks with Christopher Bezsylko, the founding head of Imagination Lab School (ILS) a TK (transitional kindergarten) though 8th grade private school about to begin its second year in Palo Alto, California. Imagination Lab School asks students to “Know yourself as a learner; Find & exercise your voice; Seek multiple perspectives; and Take meaningful action.”

Bezsylko spoke to us this past spring during the US-China Education Forum, organized by the Columbia-Teachers College Chinese Students’ Association. In previous posts, we talked with Wen Chen about newly opened Moonshot Academy and with Joann McPike about the origins and work of Think Global School.


How did Imagination Lab School get started?

Christopher Bezsylko: Some who know our background like to say that we’re a phoenix story, because we started out of the ashes of another school closure. We were part of the Alt School Network, and our school was going well, but Alt School decided to focus more on its technology platform and they shut down several of their schools, including the one that I was leading in Silicon Valley. After that happened, many of our families felt that we had more work to do, and we wanted to figure out how to keep it going. At that point it was my third year in Silicon Valley, and I’d been thinking about the culture of innovation and the culture of collaboration that’s infused so many industries here. I’d been exploring what work is going to look like and what the community is going to look like in the next ten years, and, in terms of my own professional journey, I wasn’t ready to go back to a regular school. This idea of creating a new space for learning is energizing, and there is definitely a demand for it. I had a great team of educators that were with me, and I wanted to keep a cohort of us together and keep doing this good work.

So we met with a lot of different people. We had investors who knew about my history, and they offered money, but there were also a lot of strings to go with that money. Some wanted the school to be for-profit, and they wanted to control the board.  I’ve never said “No” to two million dollars before in my life, but I had to do it. That was not what I was interested in doing. We had also developed a lot of connections, particularly among the families that had been part of the school. Even some of the families that had already decided to send their children to other schools still believed in us, and they supported us financially. Then we partnered with ETU Education (a growing network of schools with campuses in China and network partners in other parts of the world). That partnership helped to give us some support and bandwidth behind the scenes, like IT support and technology support, as well as support for professional development. That partnership grew out of the fact that I’d met the founder of ETU, Yinuo Li a few years earlier when she was a parent in our previous school. So that was a great coincidence. She had moved back to Beijing and started a school there. We just stayed in touch. She was a good friend of one of the parents who became our board chair. Yinuo heard about what we were trying to do, and she wanted to help us maintain control of our vision. She came to us and said “Hey, you know, we can chip in a little bit of money and help you grow.” We both wanted to have a global school, and so the idea of exploring how we could do that from two very different parts of the world was really exciting. So with the support of our parents, we established an independent, not-for-profit private school in California.

What are three features of the school that are helping bring your vision to life?

CB: First and foremost, our promise is empowering each learner be their best self.  It’s about knowing who I am, finding and exercising my voice, understanding multiple perspectives, and taking meaningful action.  The second feature of our school is what we call community connections. A school isn’t just a set of walls and the people inside. We embrace learning that happens outside of school, and we seek out opportunities to regularly interact with the broader community. I like to say it’s not just being in the community but being of the community. It’s about making explicit, deliberate connections with the community. The last feature is impact. It’s about empowering every member of our community to take meaningful action, action that has a positive impact on others.

It’s also about connecting with other people and organizations around the really amazing work in education that is happening across the globe. Our partnership with ETU is an example of that.  We’re doing a lot of work focused on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and sharing it with them; and they’ve developed a communication platform between home and school, and we’re piloting that here as well.  We’ve also developed a student exchange program where students from each school spend a month visiting the other school. In 2018-19 we had students and teachers from ETU spend a month with us, and we look forward to growing that exchange program this year. In addition, this summer several of our team members visited schools in Beijing and led workshops there focused on problem-based learning and socio-emotional development, and I led workshops on the future of school and learning.

You just got started last year, but is there something you already know you need to change or adjust as you move into your second year?

CB: We are constantly learning with and from our students and families, so there are plenty of changes ahead. I would say the biggest things that we’re really pushing on right now is what does the fourth part of our promise to “Take action” mean?  We are looking beyond having a student complete a project to having a student who really goes out in the world and applies the knowledge, skills, and habits we are cultivating in a way that has impact in their personal lives, in their family, and in their communities. We’re realizing our kids are deeply engaged and deeply motivated, but we weren’t really hitting that fourth part of taking action as deeply as we believe we can. So really challenging them to think about “what’s the thing we’re going to do?” Whether it’s a personal commitment, and we publish it on our social media, or whether you’re going to go home and take an inventory of waste items in your trash can, and write a letter to your parents about the change you want to make at home. What’s a small impact that you can have? I think the first time around we started off with “What are the global changes that we can make?” But those are too big, even for me. So now it’s much more about what’s the local impact I can have?

Do you have other examples like the home inventory where you said this is more of what we had in mind?

CB: We have a rolling drop off. Kids just come in when they can, and they do a series of choice activities. We have one young man who is almost always the first student at school. He’s been coming in since the climate change unit with Starbucks cups and straws every day. So the head of our STEAM program sat down with him, and she pulled up the commitment that he made which was about reducing pollution in the oceans. He looked at it, and they talked about it, and said “Hey, how many days?” They looked at the calendar, and he realized it had been thirteen days. “How many cups have you brought? How many straws have you got? What’s your commitment?” Of course, this is a third grader who probably forgot his commitment because that’s what third graders do. Then she asked him a few questions, and he ended up bringing the letter home and said: “Hey, mom and dad, I need you to help me meet my commitment. I need your support and reminders so I don’t keep buying these things.” For us it’s one of the tools and resources that the child needs to keep his commitment. And this was a simple example, but it’s powerful in that we are trying to incorporate that learning at home as well. And so the parents are going to get this letter from the child, not from me as the head of school, not from a teacher. This is directly connected to something their child did at school.

Do you know how the parents responded?

CB: The response has been very positive. Our families value the strong relationships we form with them and their children, they value the authentic learning and the community connections, and they share many stories of learning that their children brought home. For example, during our end of the year investigation into Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible Production and Consumption, students across the grades explored the questions, “Where does our food come from?” and “How do our food choices impact our community?” As part of their learning, students in grades 2-5 created garden proposals which detailed how they could grow their own food at home. Students conducted interviews, did research, analyzed prices, created budgets, drew plans, and created prototypes of their garden spaces. As we were getting ready for our learning exhibition we started receiving videos from students which showcased the actual gardens they built at home. Some families were exchanging seeds and others were planning to share their harvest. There was a deep impact here where all members of our community were active and engaged learners.

Just for the basic facts: how many kids do you have now?

CB: This year we have sixteen students from TK, a transitional kindergarten, through fifth grade. We’ll add a grade level every year. We have two mixed age groups right now and we will evolve to five mixed age groups from TK-8.

You have worked in a number of different educational institutions, and you’ve been doing this work for a while. As you think of other people who are trying to create their own learning experiences or schools, what are some things you think might be helpful for them to hear about?

CB: For me, the biggest one is finding that “Why?” Knowing your “Why?” is the thing that drives you. In the first year, I spent a lot of my time focused on marketing, development, and operations because we are a small school without a lot of staff. I wear lots of hats and that means that I don’t get to spend as much time as I want every day sitting down with the teachers, learning with and from them. But when I make those sacrifices I remind myself why am I doing it. Because there are definitely hard days and dark days. But it really is about knowing why we are doing this work and why our work is important.

A short film from InformationMatrix TV provides another glimpse of Imagination Lab School


LEAD THE CHANGE SERIES Q & A with Michael K. Barbour

Michael K. Barbour is Associate Professor of Instructional Design for the College of Education and Health Sciences at Touro University California. He has been involved with K-12 distance, online, and blended learning for almost two decades as a researcher, evaluator, teacher, course designer and administrator. Michael’s research has focused on the effective design, delivery, and support of K-12 distance, online, and blended learning, particularly for students located in rural jurisdictions. This focus includes how regulation, governance and policy can impact effective distance, online, and blended learning environments. This has resulted in invitations to testify before House and Senate committees in several states, as well as consulting for Ministries of Education across Canada and in New Zealand. Michael completed his Ph.D. in Instructional Technology at the University of Georgia.

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. Barbour discusses his work exploring distance learning and its role in educational change. As he puts it:

I would hope that the field [of educational change] begins to expand its awareness and reach. Two years from now, or five years from now, I would hope that I would be able to point to specific theories or models of change – and be able to describe how I had used or seen them used in specific contexts within the K-12 distance, online, and blended learning environment. In my personal case, hopefully the exercise of participating in this interview will provide some impetus for me to become more aware of this field. But even from the standpoint of a field as a whole, educational change needs to be seen within various educational disciplines – not just educational instructional technology – in much the same way that educational psychology the seen as a guiding or overarching lens for everything that we do. As for what might excite me about the field, based on my limited knowledge… It would probably have to be the potential the field has to engage with folks like myself, who are largely ignorant of the specifics of the discipline, to be able to apply various aspects of the field in a more informed and systematic fashion. Essentially for educational change to exist in much the same way that models of instructional design or systems for program and product evaluation have become inherently embedded, almost to the point that they’ve become second nature, to research and researchers in most educational and instructional technology disciplines. I believe there would be great potential for folks in the field of educational and instructional technology to be able to rhyme off models of educational change in the same way they can rhyme off different models of instructional design.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently, Lead the Change has also interviewed Kristin Kew and Osnat Fellus.