Tag Archives: Educational Leadership

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…

Climate strikes by school children, which erupted in 2019, continue

This week IEN re-posts a blog from the team at the GEM report that looks at the leading role that youth continue to play addressing the global climate emergency. The post provides a follow-up to IEN’s roundup of the decade from 2010-2020 that highlighted a series of stories on youth activism

In the middle of the pandemic, the world’s youth has not lost its focus on the planet’s biggest challenge. School children in Germany are setting up a political party, Klimaliste, standing in local elections. The party has policies aimed at ensuring the Paris agreement climate pledges are not breached. It’s also born out of annoyance at support that the Green party is giving to the local car industry rather than to renewable energy. After years of environmental activism and little change, it seems children’s anger may be the most important and effective campaign for climate action.

As many of the communities most affected by climate change are in low- and middle-income countries, it is unsurprising that climate justice activism by children emerged there. In Latin America, Belizean Madison Pearl Edwards and Ecuadorian Nina Gualinga have stood against threats to biodiversity from climate change and fossil fuel industries since ages 9 and 8. Established in 2006, the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change links the issue with sustainable development, including poverty reduction, and allows youth activists across the continent to share ideas, strategies and lessons.

Government failure to curb carbon emissions, long after the damaging impact on future generations has been established, is the basis of constitutional lawsuits by youth in Europe and in countries elsewhere, including Canada, Colombia, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Uganda and the United States.

Although the recent spotlight on Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg arguably reflects media bias towards Western stories, there is a compelling logic to climate activism in the form of school strikes. One week in September 2019 saw the largest climate mobilization in history, with some 7.6 million taking to the streets. Greta reached her 131st week of school strikes this month. Her strikes inspired the birth of a youth movement, Fridays For Future, whose next day of action is on March 18th, entitled #NoMoreEmptyPromises. Their website details an impressive database of school strikes per country per month. No region is left untouched.

Even though school closures have put a dampener on some of these organised movements this past year, youth activists have found alternative movements. When the COP-20 was postponed, for instance, youth organisations set up their own “Mock COP“, a two-week virtual meeting with dozens of delegates from 140 countries, to show what they would do if they were in charge.

Image: Victoria Pickering

While built on scientific consensus, schoolchildren’s leading role on climate is justified. Younger generations will be more exposed than political decision makers to climate change’s long-term impact. Behind the school strikes is the fact that today’s schooling, devised and provided by adults, will be irrelevant if tomorrow’s planet is uninhabitable. “What will we do with all this development if we are not going to have a future?” asked Ridhima Pandey, who, aged nine, filed a lawsuit against the Indian government in 2017 for failing to take action against climate change.

Education has immediate benefits, but from a capability perspective, which values individual agency, it can also deliver on the promise of greater future capability. Older generations undermine this promise by claiming a bright future through education while destroying its very possibility.

What is certain is that students are more likely to engage in politics with well-designed civics education and an open learning environment that supports discussion of controversial topics and allows students to hear and express differing opinions. A study of 35 countries showed that openness in classroom discussion led to an increase in the intention to participate in politics. Note the peaceful nature of protests by school children as well. The 2016 GEM Report showed that, across 106 countries, people with higher levels of education were more likely to engage in non-violent protests.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that teachers have supported school boycotts. An Education International resolution encouraged affiliates to ‘stand in full solidarity with all students striking or protesting against climate change’ and schools ‘not to take action against students’. Schools for Climate Action argues that schools and educators have legal child protection mandates, and inaction on climate change amounts to child neglect. Academics have set up petitions as well, each signed by well over 1000 in support of school strikes for climate.

It is a shame that children are being forced to miss days of school in order to wake adults up to their wrongdoings. But a wake up call is certainly needed. We stand with teachers and academics in saying that this is a peaceful, and justified movement we should support.

What Type of Education Do We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict? The Getting Unstuck Podcast Episodes #149/150

This week, IEN features an episode of the Getting Unstuck podcast in which hosts Jeff Ikler and Kirsten Richert talk with Thomas Hatch about his new book with Jordan Corson and Sarah Gerth van den Berg, The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin, 2021). The wide-ranging conversation addressed a number of topics from the book including why reform efforts so often fail and what we can do to create the conditions to make real improvements in schools right now and to build the foundation for transforming schooling over the long term. As Ikler and Richert put it in their own book, Shifting: How School Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change (Corwin, 2021), these are steps that can help to get education “unstuck.”  Audio is available for both the full interview and an abridged version.

In a blog post on the conversation, Ikler highlighted several key ideas from the conversation:

What kind of education do we need?

 “We have to recognize that there are going to be aspects of the future that are unpredictable; we’re just not going to know exactly what’s expected or required. And so the idea that we could somehow agree now on what we think the world is going to be like 20 or 30 or 50 years from now is not realistic or adequate to guide our education system. So my point in the book is, let’s recognize that fact and prepare our students to be flexible and adaptable, so that they can adjust to the circumstances.”

“We have to improve the schools we have, but at the same time, we have to transform the education system so that we’re supporting the development of all students.”

Should we improve the schools we have now or transform the system?

 “We can and we have to improve the schools that we have right now. But that can’t be at the expense of doing the hard, long-term work on transforming the education system over time. And I think too often, we’re caught between choosing one or the other. It’s like either we can improve the schools we have, or we can start over and have this disruptive new education system. And the reality is, we have to do both. We have to improve the schools we have, but at the same time, we have to transform the education system so that we’re supporting the development of all those students, particularly those who’ve been disadvantaged by the system for so long.”

What can we do to improve schools and transform the system?

 “Find those environments where more powerful approaches to teaching and learning can take root find to take advantage of those conditions there rather than trying to power over the entire school and the entire school system and make everything different and changed in a short period of time.”

Power and Its Effects on Educational Change: The Lead the Change Interview with Steven Courtney

This week, IEN features the latest Lead the Change (LtC) interview with Dr Steven J. Courtney, a Senior Lecturer and the Education Research Coordinator at the Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester, UK. He is co-convenor (with Ruth McGinity) of the research interest group Critical Education Policy and Leadership (CEPaLS) and an editor of the journal Critical Studies in Education. A pdf of the fully formatted interview will be available on the LtC website.

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?

Steven Courtney: Oppressive systems cannot be dismantled until they are understood. Thus, we, as educational-change scholars, need to contribute descriptive, explanatory, and analytical illumination to national and international conversations, debates and policies, and to point the way to actions that will make a positive difference to the oppressed. This question highlights the consequences of giving insufficient thought to how power functions in education. We need to be clear that power relations are reproduced through education practices, structures, and cultures: these privilege some people and marginalise others, predominantly according to structural features such as race and gender. No educational change is neutral in this respect: all will either reproduce or alter these relations, and so educational-change scholars need above all to examine change in this context.

“We need to be clear that power relations are reproduced through education practices, structures, and cultures.”

Focusing on power and its effects, on context and empowerment rather than, for instance, on the supposed effectiveness or efficiency of any given intervention, is what makes me a critical scholar (see Smyth, 1989) — I discuss this in more detail in the introduction to a major new textbook (Courtney et al., 2021). My early, pre-doctoral research, for instance, focused on school inspection in England – this is a policy mechanism that appeals explicitly to school improvement, particularly for the most disadvantaged, yet can have a range of damaging effects on, inter alia, school leaders’ identities and careers (Courtney, 2012, 2016). The school inspectorate, Ofsted, was created in 1992 as a means of operationalising school choice in England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different quality-assurance processes). Schools are ranked overall and in specified areas. These areas have changed over the years, but a focus on teaching, learning, leadership, and management has endured. Schools are ranked either “outstanding”, “good”, “requires improvement” or “inadequate”. The reports are publicly available and are intended to provide parents with the necessary information to choose rationally between schools. Through school-inspection policy, parents are constructed as consumers in a market. What interests me about school inspection is its potential to illuminate the tensions between structure – here, hyper-accountability – and school professionals’ agency and identity.

My PhD dissertation (Courtney, 2015) was recognised by AERA Division A, and in it, I argued that the long-standing policy of school-type diversification in England was predicated on conceptualising children as having fixed abilities and hierarchising provision accordingly. The mechanism — school choice — is legitimated through its appeal to the superficially neutral notion of the market, but this conceals the profoundly neoconservative primary objective of keeping children in their place, or social reproduction. I have written about this more recently with more explicit focus on how this relies on eugenics thinking (Jones et al., 2021), where socio-economic advantage is seen as deriving from genomic advantage, and is therefore hereditary. School systems in such an ideological landscape tend to privilege children’s classification over their social mobility; the aim is to provide an education appropriate to their potential, which is conceived as fixed and variously limited. When analysed systemically, these “limits” tend to rise with the children’s socio-economic capital, suggesting they are not limits after all but rather shaped by access to resources. This landscape, and the contemporary emphasis on corporatised leadership, constructs a certain kind of ideal school leader, who knows that, to gain status, they need to build an empire through acquisitions and mergers, adhere to private-sector, entrepreneurial values and methods and privilege the standards agenda. Perhaps more troubling they must also accept the fiction outlined above that children’s limitations are inscribed into their bodies, evidenced, for example, as accent, deportment, health and taste, and are thus discernible and educationally actionable.

My later empirical research has focused on education privatisation, particularly on multi-academy trusts (MATs), which are more-or-less homologous to CMOs in the USA (e.g., see Courtney & McGinity, 2020). Grouping more individual academies (charter schools) into MATs has been depicted in policy as an important educational change that will operationalise school autonomy — a key shibboleth of the Right — but Ruth McGinity and I conclude that MATs actually operationalise education depoliticisation, where the state transfers responsibility for decisions concerning education to (1) private, or corporatised institutions; (2) families (which is a form of privatisation); and (3) the caprices of fate. This shift in responsibility for policy formulation, rationale and enactment happens through the structure – here, MATs — but also through the language used in schools and in government. Inevitably, we see these effects playing out in how school leaders see themselves and in what they think they ought to be doing. For instance, Ruth and I noted that the MAT leaders we observed and interviewed spent a lot of time trying to work out what the MAT’s distinctive purpose and values were. The idea did not occur to them that, in a public-school structure, these do not necessarily have to be distinctive; common education values can be established at national level through public policymaking that is politically engaged and so is democratically legitimated. These MAT leaders are enculturated in an education market where branding is key and requires a USP, and where education values and objectives are delegated to them by the state, as arms-length parastatal organisations.  Any educational change has to be realised in the context of a clear understanding of how things presently are: illuminating this for the field is my main contribution. 

“Any educational change has to be realised in the context of a clear understanding of how things presently are”

LtC: Given some of your work challenging neoliberal reform efforts as well as how and leadership has been conceptualized (i.e., the “grammar” of schools) and thus enacted in schools, what would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?  

SC: The learning goes both ways, believe me: I owe a great deal to outstanding critical field-leaders such as Helen Gunter, Michael Apple, John Smyth, Gary Anderson, Pat Thomson, Jill Blackmore, Stephen Ball, Tanya Fitzgerald and Trevor Gale.

One of the main contributions that these scholars have made to my thinking, and which I pass on to the field, concerns the importance of theory, theorizing and conceptualizing in education (Courtney et al., 2018). Scholars can best explain and illuminate if they make good use of appropriate thinking tools – throughout my career, I have drawn on Bourdieu, Arendt, Foucault, and Queer Theory. All have helped me to re-frame my research in ways that bring a new and useful perspective. For instance, as Fenwick English (2016) has written in this series, ‘Bourdieu’s work underscores how vastly more complex real change is and why most of what we think of today as change is largely tinkering at the edges of what exists’. My own work with Bourdieu supports this analysis, demonstrating how leaders’ identities are invested in particular educational arrangements that make countervailing change unthinkable (Courtney, 2017).

Thinking about educational change in this way was one of the motivations for me to explore with Bryan Mann in the article to which you refer (Courtney & Mann, 2020), why it is apparently so challenging to achieve lasting change. The problem was articulated by Tyack and Tobin (1994) as concerning a ‘grammar of schooling’, comprising features such as teaching knowledge through subjects and age grading. Bryan and I argue that if we are to take seriously Tyack and Tobin’s assertion that the grammar of schooling consists in structures that organise meaning, then we need to discount the examples they produced: these, we suggest, are the product of organising structures and not the structures themselves. Following this logic, two consequences arise. First, the actual grammar of schooling comprises four overarching discourses: industrialism; welfarism; neoliberalism and neoconservatism – it is these discourses that organise meaning in education (and indeed, society). Second, the reified products of those grammars, which include the features identified by Tyack and Tobin (1994), require a new name. We call them lexical features, since they express and reveal the underlying grammar, and use them to explain the interplay of durable and more transient features of the education systems in the USA and England.

An important consequence of conceptualising change in this way is that it becomes clear that grammatical change is highly unlikely without state support. This means that changes achieved by individual actors, including school leaders, are most likely going to remain lexical. This runs counter to the prevailing direction of much school-improvement and educational-change literature, which holds the school leader as key to systemic change. Bryan and I would argue, in fact, that this is simply a belief that itself reflects the current neoliberal grammar, which fetishises the individual.

“The school leader as key to systemic change… is simply a belief that itself reflects the current neoliberal grammar, which fetishises the individual.”

LtC: In some of your recent work, you speak to the ways neoliberal policies and discourses (e.g., “getting the right people on the bus”) can serve to de-professionalize and dehumanize teachers. Such work has implications for how we engage in real and lasting change in schools as well as the type of institutions we wish schools to be. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice to address these issues in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students alike?

SC: In “Get off my bus!”, Helen Gunter and I (Courtney & Gunter, 2015) draw on Hannah Arendt to problematise a suite of leadership practices and dispositions constructed as ‘transformational’, ‘strong’ and admirably ‘relentless’, using Collins’ (2001) business-oriented bus metaphor about effective leadership. We argue that Arendt’s four-part definition of totalitarianism enables understanding of such leadership practices and identities in high-stakes, performative audit cultures such as those contemporarily privileged in neoliberal regimes like education. These four features are ideology (the standards agenda); total terror (the real risk of dismissal); the destruction of human bonds (reducing teachers to data points through audit and dismissing them); and bureaucracy (concealing these radical practices through banal administrative “re-structures” and everyday surveillance). Importantly, all the school leaders I interviewed engaged in these practices and all thought they were doing important educational-change work that was sanctioned by the state and justified by raised student-attainment scores. And they were right. But the human consequences were either unheeded, never recognised, or unacknowledged.

School leadership has been atomised purposively, with school leaders in England encouraged first to act individually to gain advantage for their school in the market, and now in clusters through MATs. Calling this MAT-located practice ‘system leadership’ conceals the way it rarely extends beyond the MAT. What is needed is a structure to encourage local praxis that takes into account its systemic and human impacts. The General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) has helped work towards this objective in that nation: it helped draw up the Teacher Standards there, for example and so has a direct, important role in shaping the profession. Its English counterpart, The Chartered College of Teaching (https://chartered.college/), is the latest in a series of attempts to provide an independent voice for teachers there, and whilst it is perhaps too early to talk confidently about its impact, it seems to be making a good start.

Focusing on the systemic, re-professionalising and human will require a shift in thinking away from a focus on the entrepreneurial, individualised educational leader as primary change agent. Entrepreneurial leaders accept personal responsibility for fixing structural issues, and so they are popular with policy makers. The schools where such leaders thrive are de-professionalising, because corporate entrepreneurialism is not educative (Courtney, 2020). The two concepts have become purposively conflated through policy over many years in several nation states, including the USA (Saltman & Means, 2021).

LtC: Educational Change requires 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?    

SC: The field of Educational Change neither exists to champion all change, nor is its function to instrumentalise professionals in schools as reform achievers. Some reforms and reform agendas are harmful, as has been demonstrated by, for example, Ravitch (2014) and Gorski & Zenkov (2014). I have written about how technology has been used to intensify privatisation in US schools, taking the examples of cyber charters and predictive analytics using big data (Courtney, 2018). These are ‘difficult transformations’ that are legitimated through being labeled examples of ‘modernisation.’ As a result, there is moral as well as substantive pressure for teachers and leaders to get on board. I think embracing this approach would be a mistake, and borders on collusion with those who seek to further deprofessionalise educators.

The most useful way for those in the field of Educational Change to support professionals is to provide thinking tools and context to help them work out what enacting this change might mean; where in the wider scheme of national or global education reform it sits; what its conceptual antecedents are; and its likely impact on minoritised groups and individuals. In understanding educational change in this way, I have been greatly helped by important critical work by Blackmore and McNae (2021). They outline the differences between functional, interpretive and critical approaches to understanding school change. Briefly, functional approaches assume a more-or-less direct causal relationship between an intervention and student outcomes; interpretive approaches foreground contextualised experiences of change; and critical approaches ask who benefits, who loses, and how the socio-political informs sense-making concerning the change. Only once this thinking occurs should the focus of the practitioner move to how best to engage agentically in the change process, if at all. Here, the Educational-Change field is not short of intellectual resources.

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

SC: I find it exciting that the field of Educational Change is increasingly welcoming insights from the critical part of the field, where the focus is on power, ethics and inequity. This seems to me to be appropriate as the field moves to a richer understanding of what needs to change in education. For instance, going back to your opening question, I note and welcome your framing of this fundamental problem as an often-insufficient handling of diversity, as stereotyping and cultural disdain. All these speak to the work that the critical field is doing in, for example, race (Watson, 2020), gender (Fuller, 2013) and sexual identity (Courtney, 2014). These are helpful in the way in which they prompt thinking about the inequitable effects of power on the change process itself, and on groups of people who are involved in the change. It is very good news for the field that educational change is no longer reducible to a tick list of de-contextualised factors that actors deemed key – often the organisational leader – ought to implement (see Blackmore and McNae, 2021, for more on this).

We need to take care not to lose sight of the importance of a well-funded public education system that is fair for all and whose values are educative rather than corporate.”

So that’s the field. Concerning the educational change that is happening right now in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I am less optimistic than those who see it as potentially paradigm shifting (e.g., Watson, 2020). It may well be that, but it is also an opportunity for those whom Bourdieu (1990) might have characterised as being virtuoso players of the game, who are in a position to change its rules to suit them. There is a reason that capitalism often favours disruptors and by extension, disruption: the notion of privatisation by disaster is well established (Fontdevila et al., 2017; Jabbar, 2015). We need to take care not to lose sight of the importance of a well-funded public education system that is fair for all and whose values are educative rather than corporate (Gunter & Courtney, 2020). 

References

Blackmore, J., & McNae, R. (2021). Educational reform and leading school change. In S. J. Courtney, H. M. Gunter, R. Niesche, & T. Trujillo (Eds.), Understanding Educational Leadership: Critical Perspectives and Approaches (pp. 237–252). Bloomsbury.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Polity Press.

Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap … and others don’t. Collins Business.

Courtney, S. J. (2014). Inadvertently queer school leadership amongst lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) school leaders. Organization, 21(3), 383–399. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350508413519762

Courtney, S. J. (2015). Investigating Schoo Leadership at a Time of System Diversity, Competition and Flux. University of Manchester.

Courtney, S. J. (2016). Post-panopticism and school inspection in England. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37(4), 623–642. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2014.965806

Courtney, S. J. (2017). Corporatising school leadership through hysteresis. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38(7), 1054–1067. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2016.1245131

Courtney, S. J. (2018). Privatising educational leadership through technology in the Trumpian era. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 50(1), 23–31. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220620.2017.1395826

Courtney, S. J. (2020). Why you should reject entrepreneurial leadership. In J. S. Brooks & A. Heffernan (Eds.), The School Leadership Survival Guide: What to Do when Things Go Wrong, How to Learn from Mistakes and Why You Should Prepare for the Worst (pp. 409–421). nformation Age Publishing.

Courtney, S. J. (2012). Ofsted’s revised school inspection framework: Experiences and implications. In BERA (Ed.), British Educational Research Association. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/216133.pdf

Courtney, S. J., & Gunter, H. M. (2015). Get off my bus! School leaders, vision work and the elimination of teachers. International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice, 18(4), 395–417. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603124.2014.992476

Courtney, S. J., Gunter, H. M., Niesche, R., & Trujillo, T. (2021). Introduction: Critical scholarship and educational leadership. In S. J. Courtney, H. M. Gunter, R. Niesche, & T. Trujillo (Eds.), Understanding Educational Leadership: Critical Perspectives and Approaches (pp. 1–11). Bloomsbury.

Courtney, S. J., & Mann, B. (2020). Thinking with ‘lexical’ features to reconceptualize the ‘grammar’ of schooling: Shifting the focus from school to society. Journal of Educational Change, 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10833-020-09400-4

Courtney, S. J., & McGinity, R. (2020). System leadership as depoliticisation: Reconceptualising educational leadership in a new multi-academy trust. Educational Management, Administration and Leadership. https://doi.org/10.1177/1741143220962101

Courtney, S. J., McGinity, R., & Gunter, H. M. (2018). Educational leadership: Theorising professional practice in neoliberal times (S. J. Courtney, R. McGinity, & H. M. Gunter (Eds.)). Routledge.

English, F. W. (2016). Lead the Change Series: Q&A with Fenwick W. English. In Lead the Change (Issue 61, pp. 1–4). AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group. https://www.aera.net/Portals/38/docs/SIGs/SIG155/61 _Fenwick English .pdf?ver=2016-09-10-130624-330

Fontdevila, C., Verger, A., & Zancajo, A. (2017). Taking advantage of catastrophes: Education privatisation reforms in contexts of emergency. In Private Schools and School Choice in Compulsory Education (pp. 223–244). Springer.

Fuller, K. (2013). Gender, Identity and Educational Leadership. A&C Black. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=SnEsAQAAQBAJ&pgis=1

Gorski, P. C., & Zenkov, K. (Eds.). (2014). The Big Lies of School Reform. Routledge.

Gunter, H. M., & Courtney, S. J. (2020). A new public educative leadership? Management in Education, 1–5. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1177/0892020620942506

Jabbar, H. (2015). ‘Drenched in the past:’ The evolution of market-oriented reforms in New Orleans. Journal of Education Policy, June, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2015.1047409

Jones, S., Courtney, S. J., & Gunter, H. M. (2021). Leading in a genetics-informed education market. In S. J. Courtney, H. M. Gunter, R. Niesche, & T. Trujillo (Eds.), Understanding Educational Leadership: Critical Perspectives and Approaches (pp. 355–369). Bloomsbury.

Ravitch, D. (2014). Hoaxes in educational policy. The Teacher Educator, 49(3), 153–165. https://doi.org/10.1080/08878730.2014.916959

Saltman, K. J., & Means, A. J. (2021). Corporatization and educational leadership. In S. J. Courtney, H. M. Gunter, R. Niesche, & T. Trujillo (Eds.), Understanding Educational Leadership: Critical Perspectives and Approaches (pp. 339–354). Bloomsbury.

Smyth, J. (Ed.). (1989). Critical Perspectives on Educational Leadership. The Falmer Press.

Tyack, D., & Tobin, W. (1994). The “grammar” of schooling: Why has it been so hard to change? American Educational Research Journal, 31(3), 453–479. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312031003453

Watson, T. N. (2020). Lead the Change Series: Q&A with Terri N. Watson. In Lead the Change (Issue 105, pp. 1–7). AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group. https://www.aera.net/Portals/38/docs/SIGs/SIG155/105_%20Lead%20the%20Change_TW_April%202020.pdf?ver=2020-04-25-112409-497

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.

A Beginner’s Mind: Remembering Richard Elmore

This week, Santiago Rincón-Gallardo reflects on the passing of his good friend and mentor Richard Elmore. Rincón-Gallardo (@SRinconGallardo) is an education consultant, chief research officer at Michael Fullan’s consulting team, and author of Liberating Learning: Educational Change as Social Movement.

Richard Elmore died peacefully and unexpectedly the night of February 9, 2021.  I’ve found myself crying over the past couple weeks remembering Richard’s presence in my life as a mentor, a beloved teacher, and a dear friend. I get teary eyed each time I read over the outpouring of beautiful stories and messages shared in the online memorial site created by his family, and learning more about the powerful presence he had in the lives of so many – family, students, colleagues, and friends. Among the things treasured by those whose lives Richard touched are his sharp intellect, his generous heart, his contagious laughter, his profound respect for and belief in young people, and (especially in his later years) his growing irreverence for the schooling systems that constrain them.

Richard learns geometry from his tutor, Maricruz, a 13-year-old girl from Santa Rosa, Mexico

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye once said “People don’t pass away./They die/ and then they stay.” There are many ways in which we can expect Richard to stay with us over decades to come.

Richard’s thinking has and will remain crucial as a reference to those seeking to understand how and under what conditions powerful learning can – and most often doesn’t – happen in schools, in school systems, and beyond. Some of Richard’s key contributions to the field that have stood, and will no doubt continue to stand the test of time include:

Richard’s thinking has and will remain crucial as a reference to those seeking to understand how and under what conditions powerful learning can – and most often doesn’t – happen in schools, in school systems, and beyond.

  • Positioning the instructional core as the basic unit that our efforts as educators, teachers, school and system leaders should aim to transform fundamentally: “the problems of the system are the problems of the smallest unit”; “if it’s not in the instructional core, it’s not there”; “the real accountability is in the tasks students are asked to do”;
  • Proposing a “backward-mapping” logic to examine, plan, and carry out education improvement work (starting from what you want to cause and moving gradually from the inside out to adapt the practices, systems and cultures surrounding it as change is underway);
  • The notion that no amount of external pressure on schools will work in the absence of internal accountability (shared responsibility for improvement within the school) or reciprocal accountability (the responsibility of the system to invest the necessary resources and develop the necessary capacity of educators and leaders to produce the expected results) – “if you push an atomized, incoherent organization with an external accountability system, it will only become more incoherent.”  
  • His more recent exploration of ‘outlier’ groups and organizations that are nurturing and unleashing powerful learning among young people and children (NuVu, Beijing Academy in China, Redes de Tutoría in Mexico).  
  • His dire and sharp critique of the multiple ways in which schooling – the very institution intended to develop our young people’s ability and joy to learn – is getting in the way of powerful learning.  (“A major lesson we have learned from attainment-driven models of schooling is that it is possible to disable human beings as learners by convincing them that they do not have the capability to manage their own learning”).

The list goes on, but I don’t intend here to cover the whole range of Richard’s intellectual and public legacy (a more detailed account of his outstanding public service and academic trajectory can be found in this post from the Harvard Graduate School of Education). I will instead share a more personal account of Richard as an example of a Beginner´s Mind, to illustrate how he stands out in the sea of internationally renowned education experts.

Richard knew a lot about schools, school reform, and education policy. And I mean A LOT. For many, students and colleagues alike, his mere presence was intimidating for this very reason. But much more prominent than what he knew was his disposition to learn: his openness to find surprise in the familiar and his willingness – almost eagerness – to put his own thinking to the test.  I remember him telling me in one of our shared times in Mexico, with his loud, contagious laughter, how funny it was for him to find that people that organized a series of his talks in South America were shocked to find that he had learned a few new things in the ten previous years. His book I Used to Think… Now I Think is a beautiful collection of essays where prominent education thinkers are asked to describe some of the most important ways that their thinking has changed over the years. About the book, Richard remarked “It strikes me as ironic that in a field nominally devoted to the development of capacities to learn, there is so little evidence of what those who do the work have actually learned in their careers.”

Richard remarked “It strikes me as ironic that in a field nominally devoted to the development of capacities to learn, there is so little evidence of what those who do the work have actually learned in their careers.”

Richard’s openness to finding surprise in the familiar is beautifully demonstrated in his habit of visiting classrooms one day every week. This habit, established after decades of studying education reform and policy, became an almost religious practice that opened Richard’s mind to the everyday realities of classroom practice and gave him an unmatched sensitivity and profound understanding of teaching and learning, and the many ways in which education policies with lofty intentions almost invariably miss the mark of affecting the instructional core in any substantive way.  

It was Richard’s Beginner’s Mind that led him to accept my invitation to visit Mexico in 2010 to learn about tutoría (the pedagogical practice at the core of the Learning Community Project, also known as Redes de Tutoría). He endured an early morning flight and a ride of over 100 kilometers of bumpy, dusty roads to get to a remote rural community in the State of Zacatecas. Once there, he accepted the invitation of Maricruz, a 13-year-old girl from Santa Rosa to learn geometry with her support as a tutor. He was struck by her confidence and joy as a learner and a teacher, an experience that moved him (and all of us who had the privilege of being in Santa Rosa that day) to tears. It was Richard Beginner’s Mind that saw and named the Learning Community Project as a social movement, an insight that provoked in me what I can only describe as an intellectual awakening. It crystalized and integrated several ideas that had until then felt scattered and disorganized. This insight, a seemingly small side-comment in the vast extension of Richard’s thinking, is now foundational to my thinking and work on educational change.     

I don’t know of another academic that is as openly willing – even eager – to prove himself wrong – as Richard was. You can see this in his writing and his public speaking. His book Restructuring in the Classroom with Penelope Peterson and Sarah McCartney is an account of the disintegration of his faith in school restructuring as a strategy for instructional change. Here, he outlines that new school structures do not produce, as he initially believed, the changes in culture required to enhance the learning experience of children in classrooms.  In his commentary paper “‘Getting to Scale’… It Seemed like a Good Idea at the Time” he reflects back on key flaws of his thinking 20 years earlier, articulated in his classic article “Getting to Scale with Good Educational Practice.” In his last interview Richard talked about Instructional Rounds, a practice that he developed with colleagues at Harvard. He said it struck a chord with many school and district leaders, and that it helped them reconnect with their purpose, that it stimulated a lot of action and excitement. But – and here comes the punch line – he came to learn that “there was really not much relationship between satisfaction and impact.”

As the Buddhist tradition suggests, in a Beginner’s Mind lie the keys to a happier life and a healthier connection to others and the world – much needed features of the more conscious lives and the more humane world that we can build.

Richard died in the midst of a profound global crisis, in times where nothing less than the human project is at stake. In the world that we’re leaving behind, many academics have been revered for and built their identities around all they know. Richard’s conscious decision to maintain a Beginner’s Mind even at the pinnacle of his academic stardom shines as a bright light in a dark sea. I hope many of us will find in his example the courage to cultivate a Beginner’s Mind: to engage – as he invited us in his last podcast – in learning to do things we are fully incompetent to do; to be open to the awe of seeing the familiar in a new light; and to welcome with open arms the times when our dearest certainties are proven wrong. As the Buddhist tradition suggests, in a Beginner’s Mind lie the keys to a happier life and a healthier connection to others and the world – much needed features of the more conscious lives and the more humane world that we can build.

In his last years, in addition to taking on painting, Richard brought the attention of his Beginner’s Mind to the future of learning: the latest findings of the neuroscience of learning, the potential role of architectural design to represent and enable diverse models of learning; and the work of outliers in the learning world. His excitement about the future of learning however, grew in a way inversely proportional to his faith in schools and school systems. Richard grew increasingly skeptical about the prospect of schools and school systems becoming effective vehicles to protect and cultivate the extraordinary learning minds of our young people. He grew highly discouraged and impatient with how, to the contrary, compulsory schooling crushes the natural curiosity and joy to learn in children and youth. The last time I saw him in person, during a short visit to Boston, he told me he was working on a book of his latest thinking – one that, he confided to me with a playful smile, would likely upset many people.  

Richard left a huge question for us to tackle: Will schools and school systems figure out a way to move away from schooling and cultivate powerful learning instead?

Richard left a huge question for us to tackle: Will schools and school systems figure out a way to move away from schooling and cultivate powerful learning instead? His answer today would be a resounding ‘No’. I hope we’ll be able to prove him wrong on this one. I can picture him, with his Beginner’s Mind, laughing out loud with joy when we do.

#RememberingRichardElmore

Resilience, Oppression & Liberation: A Conversation with Anna Nelson

This week, IEN shares the latest edition of the Doctoral Corner Q & A from the AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group. This week’s Q & A features Anna Nelson, LCSW. Nelson is a College Assistant Professor with New Mexico State University (NMSU) School of Social Work and a Ph.D. Candidate in Educational Leadership and Administration at NMSU. From 2010- 2016, she served as Executive Director of the New Mexico Forum for Youth in Community, a statewide network intermediary that promoted racial, health, academic and economic justice for all youth statewide. The fully formatted interview can be found on the LtC website.

LtC:  What inspired you to study educational change?

Anna Nelson: As a Critical Race Scholar and doctoral student in Educational Leadership, a licensed social worker since 2003, and a social work educator for more than a decade, my trajectory in educational change stems from my own lived experiences with education and my professional experiences as an educator and social worker. Consistently thematic in these experiences is an ever-present dichotomy. Where the potential exists for education to bolster resilience, inspire liberation and offer opportunity, the stark reality is that education is oppressive for many Black, Indigenous and Students of Color (BISOC). As a cisgender, mixed Woman of Color, I experienced school as a safe space where my mind, body and spirit were nourished. In serving BISOC, however, I regularly witness educational marginalization, punitive disciplinary actions and disparate pedagogical practices waged against them. This, coupled with the understanding of my educational privilege, edifies my mission to promote deep, socially just and liberatory educational transformation.

LtC: What and/or who inspires you in the field? Why?

AN: Seminal authors who inspired me are many, including Anzaldúa (1987; 1990), Crenshaw (1989), Constance-Huggins (2012), Delgado and Stefancic (2012), Freire (1970; 1974; 2005), hooks (1994), Ladson-Billings (1998), and Solórzano and Delgado Bernal (2001). These authors deepen my critical analysis and perspectives on education transformation and provide language to contextualize BISOC’s educational experiences. However, one distinguishes herself for me as both inspirational and transformative, and she is Tara Yosso (2005).

In 2005, Yosso authored Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion on Community Cultural Wealth. This article made my heart sing because, in a revolutionary way, it challenges cultural deficit narratives in education while simultaneously uplifting vast funds of knowledge, cultural capital and community cultural wealth BISOC possess. I see my students in Yosso’s (2005) words. I see hope in resistant capital, or the ability to speak truth to power and maintain one’s values and beliefs in the face of oppression (Yosso, 2005). I routinely witness aspirational capital, or the ability to maintain ones hopes and dreams even during adversity (Yosso, 2005), permeating the lived experiences of BISOC. BISOC’s brilliant expression of navigational capital, or the ability to successfully maneuver through systems and institutions that weren’t designed for or by Communities of Color (Yosso, 2005), is profound. Finally, BISOCs’ manifestations of familial capital, or the cultural funds of knowledge grown from language, collective history, memory and intuition shared across generations (Yosso, 2005) serve as a powerful foundation to combat cultural deficit narratives in education. I see these sources of cultural capital because Yosso (2005) gave me words to name them and taught me how to identify and honor them in BISOC.

LtC: What do you believe to be the biggest challenge for educational change and what would be a first step to address this challenge?

AN: While education is widely accepted as a human right (United Nations, 1948), the sociopolitical era in which we exist underscores deep civil unrest and profound differences in educational attainment, divided by perceived street race (López, et al., 2018), gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and myriad points of identity (Crenshaw, 1989). Indeed, as Jones (2000; 2002) puts it, this reflects a lifetime of lived experiences apart from one another. To me, this is the grand challenge for education in 2021 and beyond, the need to urgently adopt antiracist, culturally humble (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998) and sustainable (Paris & Alim, 2017) curricular, pedagogical, and educational leadership practices that promote liberatory social justice and true equity in education.

Angela Davis (1983) calls us to action by stating, “It is not enough to be nonracist, we must be antiracist.” It is not sufficient to strive to be nonracist in our own actions and beliefs. As educators and educational leaders, we are compelled to radically acknowledge the disparities in academic outcomes and opportunities for BISOC and commit to taking action against policies, practices and paradigms that give rise to these disparities. This action begins within us through the consistent practice of cultural humility (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998).

“It is not sufficient to strive to be nonracist in our own actions and beliefs.”

Widely adopted by social workers and public health practitioners, cultural humility is an emerging practice in education. It requires of us a deep commitment to life-long learning and critical self-reflectivity, recognizing and challenging power imbalances between ourselves, students and communities, and holding systems and institutions accountable. We begin a sustainable practice of cultural humility when we regularly ask ourselves, “What were my perceptions of and how did I interact with students, colleagues and community members who have identities different from my own? How did I contribute to, or detract from, social justice and equity today?” and, “What can I do differently to promote social justice and equity in my work tomorrow?” We practice cultural humility when we critically analyze our curricula, pedagogy, and organizational policies for access, representation and equity. We are culturally humble allies when we interrupt and confront implicit biases and microaggressions. We humbly stand in allyship when we leverage privilege by creating pathways for power and action for our students. These actions create a foundation for culturally sustainable practices, or those that honor cultural capital, resilience and resistance among our students and promote liberatory social justice and equity as integral to education.

“We practice cultural humility when we critically analyze our curricula, pedagogy, and organizational policies for access, representation and equity.”

LtC: What are some new areas of inquiry and/or directions you think the field should be headed?

AN: Despite “unprecedented levels of cultural, linguistic, ethnic, racial and gender school diversity” (Santamaria & Santamaria, 2016, p. 1), cultural deficit narratives in academe and disparities in access and outcomes for BISOC persist in the United States. Combined with cumulative traumatic impact of racism and other oppression, these structures produce a trifecta of social injustice for BISOC in higher education. One crucial direction the field of education must consider with urgency is adopting antiracist policies and practices that uplift the cultural capital and resilience of BISOC, while systematically dismantling those that lead to academic inequities for BISOC.

With the dual purposes of igniting critical discourse within educational change and providing a framework for analyzing higher education contexts, institutional policies and practices that may either perpetuate injustice or uplift the immense cultural wealth possessed by BISOC, Critical Trauma Theory (CTT) (Nelson, 2019; 2020a; 2020b; 2020c; Nelson, Kew & Castro, 2020) is one solution to persistent educational disparities for BISOC. CTT is a microtheoretical perspective within Critical Race Theory that attends to the impact of cultural, cumulative and collective oppression-based trauma experienced by many BISOC, often in education contexts, while simultaneously uplifting vast funds of knowledge, resilience and cultural capital they possess (Nelson, 2019; 2020a; 2020b; 2020c; Nelson, et al., 2020).

Attending to the intersectional identities each of us possess, CTT offers the first unified definition of oppression-based trauma as:

Oppression-based trauma is exposure to and lived experiences of personally-mediated, institutional and structural forms of oppression (Jones, 2000) through symbolic, emotional, verbal, physical, sexual, economic and environmental manifestations, across one’s lifespan. Oppression-based trauma exposure includes but is not limited to linguicism, racism, colorism, nationalism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, islamophobia, colonization, political, historical and intergenerational trauma, and acts of oppression because of one’s documentation, immigration-,  refugee-, or former incarceration status.

Advised by this definition are CTT’s five key tenets. First, CTT calls educators and educational leaders to radically acknowledge that oppression-centered structural and institutional barriers to education access exist for BISOC and other decentered identities (Crenshaw, 1989; Delgado & Stefancic, 2017; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Solórzano & Yosso, 2001; Yosso, 2005). Second, this acknowledgement must also hold to account that exposure to oppression and subsequent risk for trauma is ever-present (Goodwin, 2014; Jordan, et al., 2014; Kucharska, 2018; & Nadal, 2018), where nascent literature links trauma with restricted academic outcomes (Arnekrans, et al., 2018; Bernat, et al., 1998; Cantrell, 2016; Jolley, 2017; Jordan et al., 2014; & Walker, 2016). Third, CTT contends that oppression-based trauma is cumulative, cultural and collective, thereby requiring its own critical micro-theoretical perspective that delineates it from individual trauma to address oppression-based trauma in educational contexts. Fourth, centrality of experiential knowledge evidences the existing presence of students’ posttraumatic growth, healing, resilience and resistance in the face of oppression (Yosso, 2005). Fifth and finally, because of the prevalence of oppression-based trauma and its detrimental impact on academic success for college students, CTT is a vital socially-just micro-theoretical addition to CRT that educators and educational leaders must consider applying to their work. 

CTT is promising in its practical application, offering educational leaders and educators tools and skills necessary for transforming their educational settings into antiracist/oppressive, culturally safe environments for BISOC to thrive. Recently I had the honor of presenting a CTT-guided series for one community college in New Mexico committed to implementing CTT campus-wide. This series culminated in my presentation of the Applied Critical Trauma Theory (ACTT)-Guided Assessment Tool which measures self- reports of personal, professional and institutional adoption of CTT-guided strategies, including a campus equity walk (Nelson, 2021). Further CTT application will be discussed in an April, 2021, paper presentation entitled Riotous Research: A Critical Trauma Theory to uplift the language of those unheard- Black, Indigenous and Social Work Students of Color.

I am humbled by this opportunity to participate in AERA’s Educational Change Special Interest Group Doctoral Corner and hopeful CTT will be one resource among many that inspires collective transformation in education systems nationally.

References

Anzaldúa, G.E. (1987, 1999). Borderlands/La Frontera: The new Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books.

Anzaldúa, G.E. (1990). Haciendo caras, una entrada. In G. Anzaldúa (ed.), Making face, making soul/Haciendo caras: Creative and critical perspectives by feminists or color. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.

Arnekrans, A.K., Calmes, S.A., Laux, J.M., Roseman, C.P., Piazza, N.J., Reynolds, J.L., Harmening, D., & Scott, H.L. (2018). College students’ experiences of childhood developmental traumatic stress: Resilience, first-year academic performance, and substance use. Journal of College Counseling, 21(1), 2-14.  https://doi.org/10.1002/jocc.12083 

Bernat, J.A., Ronfeldt, H.M., Calhoun, K.S., & Arias, I. (1998). Prevalence of traumatic events and peritraumatic predictors of posttraumatic stress symptoms in a nonclinical sample of college students. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 11(4), 645-664. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9870219/

Cantrell, A.M. (2016). Understanding posttraumatic stress and academic achievement: Exploring attentional control, self-efficacy and coping among college students. Masters Theses and Specialist Projects. Paper 1618.  http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/theses/1618

Constance-Huggins, M. (2012). Critical Race Theory in social work education: A framework for addressing racial disparities. Critical Social Work, 13(2). https://ojs.uwindsor.ca/index.php/csw/article/download/5861/4834?inline=1

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139-167.  https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf

Davis, A.Y. (1983). Women, race and class. Vintage. ISBN: 9780394713519

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2012). Critical Race Theory: An introduction (2nd ed). New York, NY: New York University Press. ISBN: 987-93-81406-64-9

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc.

Freire, P. (1974). Education for critical consciousness. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters from those who dare teach. Westview Press.

Goodwin, E.I. (2014). The long-term effects of homophobia-related trauma for LGB men and women. Counselor Education Master’s Thesis.  http://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/edc_theses/160

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

Jones, C.P. (2000). Levels of racism: A theoretical framework and a gardener’s tale. American Journal of Public Health, 90, 1212-1215. https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.90.8.1212

Jones, C.P. (2002). Confronting institutional racism. Phylon, 50(1/2), 7-22. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4149999

Jordan, C.E., Combs, J.L., & Smith, G.T. (2014). An exploration of sexual victimization and academic performance among college women. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 15(3), 191-200. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1524838014520637.

Kucharska, J. (2018). Cumulative trauma, gender discrimination and mental health in women: Mediating role of self-esteem. Journal of Mental Health, 27(5), 416-423.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29260963/

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998) Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7-24.

López, N., Vargas, E.D., Juarez, M., Cacari-Stone, L., & Bettez, S. (2018). What’s your “street race”? Leveraging multidimensional measures of race and intersectionality for examining physical and mental health status among Latinxs. Sociology, Race and Ethnicity, 4(1), 49-66. doi: 10.1177/2332649217708798

Nadal, K. L. (2018). Concise guides on trauma care series. Microaggressions and traumatic stress: Theory, research, and clinical treatment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0000073-000 

Nelson, A. (2019, December). An introduction to Critical Trauma Theory and its relationship to substance use disorders in Latinx Communities [Webinar]. National Latino Behavioral Health Association.

Nelson, A. (2020a, January). Practical tools to implement critical allyship and Radical self-care in our service delivery to Latinx communities [Webinar]. National Latino Behavioral Health Association.

Nelson, A. (2020b, September 15). Applying theory to the work: Bridging panel concepts to practice through decolonization and antiracism [Panel Presentation]. National Hispanic and Latino Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network, National Latino Behavioral Health Association, and U.S. Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, The Intersection of Acculturation, Assimilation and Substance Use Disorders in the Latinx Community: A Virtual Learning Community.

Nelson, A. (2020c, October 2). Conveying Mattering in online contexts for Black, Indigenous and Students of Color (BISOC) and first-generation college attendees. New Mexico State University Faculty Spotlight Series. https://nmsu.instructuremedia.com/embed/526cf0cb-c4dc-4794-8e7b-e0a274de2b2f

Nelson, A. N., Kew, K. L. & Castro, E. (2020, Apr 17 – 21). Applied Critical Trauma Theory to Enhance Resilience and Success for College Students with Oppression-Based Trauma [Roundtable Session]. AERA Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA. http://tinyurl.com/v4ce9gw (Conference Canceled)

Nelson, A.N. (2021a, January 29). Critical Trauma Theory Series: Applied Critical Trauma Theory (ACTT)-Guided Assessment Tool [Webinar]. San Juan Community College.

Nelson, A.N. (2021b). Riotous research: A Critical Trauma Theory to uplift the language of those unheard- Black, Indigenous and Social Work Students of Color [Paper Session]. Social Work, White Supremacy, and Racial Justice: Reckoning with our History, Interrogating the Present, and Reimagining Our Future. Compendium pending publication.

Paris, D., & Alim, H.S. (Eds.). (2017). Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world. Teachers College Press. ISBN: 978-0-8077-5833-5

Santamaría, L.J., & Santamaría, A.P. (2016). Toward culturally sustaining leadership: Innovation beyond ‘school improvement’ promoting equity in diverse contexts. Education Sciences, 6(33).  https://www.mdpi.com/2227-7102/6/4/33

Solórzano, D.G., & Delgado Bernal, D. (2001). Examining transformational resistance through a Critical Race and LatCrit theory and framework: Chicana and Chicano students in an urban context. Urban Education, 36, 308-342. http://uex.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/36/3/308

Solórzano, D.G., & Yosso, T.J. (2001). Critical race and LatCrit theory and method: Counter-storytelling. Qualitative Studies in Education, 14(4), 471-495.  http://www.sjsu.edu/people/marcos.pizarro/courses/8021/s1/SolorzanoYosso2001.pdf

Tervalon, M., & Murray-Garcia, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: A critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 9(2), 117-25. Retrieved from https://melanietervalon.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/CulturalHumility_Tervalon-and-Murray-Garcia-Article.pdf

United Nations. (1948). Universal declaration of human rights: Article 26. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

Walker, L. (2015) Trauma, environmental stressors, and the African American college student: Research, practice and the HBCUs. Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. https://cmsi.gse.upenn.edu/sites/default/files/Walker%20Research%20Brief%20%28final%29.pdf

Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91. doi: 10.1080/1361332052000341006

From Learning Loss to Learning to Read: High Leverage Strategies for School Improvement

This week IEN shares a post drawn from IEN founder Thomas Hatch’s new book with Jordan Corson and Sarah van den Berg, The Education We Need For A Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin 2021). An edited version of this post was published originally at: https://corwin-connect.com/

Along with the devastation of the coronavirus outbreak and widespread school closures come hopes for reimagining schools as they reopen. These hopes for the future, however, rest on making the concrete improvements in schools that we know we can make today.

Despite the enormity of the challenges and the massive race and income-based inequities in society and schools that the coronavirus exposed – again – the pandemic has also made visible the fact that many communities already have the capacity to address at least some of these challenges. In New York City, in the first month of the school closure, the Department of Education worked with businesses like Apple and Microsoft to provide almost 500,000 computers and iPads to students who needed them. Across the US and around the world, even with limited digital infrastructure, communities are opening up hotspots for public use, equipping buses with Wi-Fi (and sometimes solar power), and pursuing other innovative ways of getting students online. Given the existing possibilities, one commissioner for the US Federal Communications Commission testified that the connectivity gap could be closed “virtually overnight.” If it can be done, then it should be done. No need to wait any longer.

Getting students connected to the Internet is no panacea for educational challenges, however, particularly in many parts of the developing world, where almost half of all students don’t have a computer at home and over 40 percent lack access to the internet. We also know that even with Internet access and online opportunities, significant improvements in students’ learning depend on developing more powerful instructional practices and providing better support for educators. Nonetheless, the responses to the coronavirus show that we have the capacity to address some inequitable learning opportunities, and we can take these steps right now by responding to high-leverage problems.

High-Leverage Problems

My colleagues in the New Jersey Network of Superintendents and I argue that those efforts can begin by developing a coordinated response to what I call high-leverage problems:

  • High-leverage problems concentrate on issues widely recognized as central to the development of more equitable educational opportunities and outcomes.
  • They present opportunities for visible improvements in relatively short periods of time.
  • They establish a foundation for long-term, sustained, systemic efforts that improve teaching and learning.

Addressing high-leverage problems depends on developing a keen sense of what matters to people and what matters in an organization. It requires careful analysis of multiple problems and continuous reflection on the process of addressing them. It relies on a powerful repertoire of strategies that meet the specific demands of different situations and on developing new practices and resources when necessary. All together, these steps can lead to the “quick wins” that help propel organizational and social changes in many sectors.

#Learningloss & Learning to Read

Take the critical concern for the “learning loss” likely to be created by the massive disruptions to schooling that so many children around the world are experiencing. That term – now almost a one-word hashtag – actually obscures a host of challenges that have to be unpacked to be addressed productively. First, different children experience learning loss to different degrees; they may experience it in some academic areas and not others; learning loss may also be affected by experiences of trauma and the stresses and socio-emotional challenges that come with the pandemic; it may result from inaccessibility to online learning and school support services including free meals and counseling; and it may stem a loss of relationships with peers and teachers, disengagement with school, and prolonged absences from learning in person or online. Such a litany of problems can make any first step seem inadequate and pointless. Nonetheless, breaking down a high leverage problem like learning to read yields a coordinated series of strategies that many communities already have the capacity to pursue:

  1. Make books by authors from a variety of backgrounds freely accessible.
  2. Find children with vision problems and provide them with glasses.
  3. Develop and understanding of why some children are chronically absent from school/online learning and support regular attendance.
  4. Identify children who are struggling to learn to read and provide targeted interventions.

The logic is simple: when children have access to books, when they can see, when they’re in school, and when they receive targeted support if they’re struggling, they’re much more likely to learn to read.

The logic is simple: when children have access to books, when they can see, when they’re in school, and when they receive targeted support if they’re struggling, they’re much more likely to learn to read.

Even in countries like the United States, children in high-poverty areas have a much harder time getting books than their peers in middle-income areas, but a number of programs (including one sponsored by the country singer Dolly Parton) have taken advantage of book vending machines, doctor’s offices, and other mechanisms to address this issue. Organizations like EmbraceRace and the Jane Addams Peace Association post lists of books by authors from different racial and cultural backgrounds so that there’s no excuse not to provide all children with access to materials that reflect their heritage.

 Of course, making books and print materials available in a variety of languages, by authors from a range of backgrounds, is just one step. Children still need to be able to read those books once they get those books into their hands. Nonetheless, 25 percent of school-aged children in the United States have undiagnosed eye problems that inhibit their ability to read, and one in three children haven’t had their vision tested in the past two years (if at all); but relatively low-cost programs to test students’ vision and get glasses to those who need them do exist. In the developing world, it may be complicated to create a supply chain that makes print materials readily available and ensures every child who needs glasses gets a pair, but it can be done.

We know that chronic absences from school have a devastating effect on children’s learning and have a disproportionate impact on students in communities of color, but that knowledge has also led to the development of a number of successful strategies for helping many children to get to and stay in school. Despite the re-emergence of the “reading wars” over the best approach to teach reading, there are a number of well-established strategies and supports that many teachers and schools are already using that target the specific needs of at least some of the students who experience difficulties in learning to read when they are in school.

Improve Schools and Transform Education

These first steps may not reach every student right away, and any initial success has to be followed by developing educational activities that foster more advanced skills and a broader set of developmental needs – an even more challenging proposition. Ultimately, addressing these challenges will depend on truly reimagining schooling, and, reconceptualizing notions like “learning loss” that ignore the mile-wide and inch-deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for students to catch up once they’re left behind.

We need to reimagine schooling, reconceptualizing notions like “learning loss” that ignore the mile-wide and inch-deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for students to catch up once they’re left behind

In short, the pandemic itself will not change schools:  Nothing will change in schools unless we change it. Yet the strategies to provide glasses, to address chronic absences, and to provide targeted support in reading can lead to real improvements in schools – even in the midst of a pandemic – if we choose to dedicate the time, resources and commitment to put them into practice on a wide basis.  We can take these critical steps to make the schools we have more efficient, more equitable and more effective today and to lay the groundwork for transforming education as a whole in the future.

On Leadership, Strategy, and Equity: The Lead the Change Interview with Isobel Stevenson

This week, IEN features the Lead the Change (LTC) interview with Isobel Stevenson. Stevenson works for the Connecticut Center for School Change, a nonprofit organization that supports school districts in their organizational improvement efforts. She is co-author, with Jennie Weiner, of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes and writes The Coaching Letter, a newsletter supporting the work of coaches and leaders in education.  A pdf of the fully formatted interview will be available on the LtC website.

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?

 Isobel Stevenson: My day job, so to speak, is in an organization that has equity in education as its mission, so this is an issue that I spend a lot of time working on and thinking about. My contact with school and district leaders (including coaches, department heads, and so on) tells me that they have already got the message that the system generates and perpetuates inequities. They are looking for ways to do something about it. But a lot of what is available to them is still at the problem-identification level. And for sure, having good data, completing an equity audit (Skrla, Scheurich, & Garcia, 2004), identifying the inequities that exist and seeing them for what they are–all those are essential. But even when you know the problem, the “now what?” can remain elusive.

Much of the attention being paid to equity at the moment is in the form of books that discuss why race is hard to talk about, how our personal biases show up in our work, etc. See, for example, White Fragility (DiAngelo, 2018), Unconscious Bias in Schools (Benson & Fiarman, 2020), How to be an Anti-Racist (Kendi, 2019). These are all great books, and you have to start somewhere, but many educational leaders seem to have gotten the impression that engaging in this kind of work is what it means to “do equity work”. I think there are other aspects of “doing equity” that, if not red herrings, are overstated in their importance. By which I mean, it’s not that they are not important, it is that they are not, by themselves, long enough levers to bring about meaningful change. I would include in this category: “relationships”, “SEL” (currently the single most overused and under-specified construct in education), and “trauma-informed Text Box: “How can we re-introduce the idea that in addition cultural relevance, intellectual challenge and academic press are also crucial?”instruction.”

If I have one big complaint, it is that programs in educational change are not paying enough attention to instruction–or they do so in a lopsided way. We use terms like culturally-responsive or culturally-relevant, but these are only one part of the picture. A culturally relevant curriculum that does not expose students to grade-level tasks is missing the mark, but “rigor” has become a tainted concept, and we don’t seem to talk about teacher expectations any more. How can we re-introduce the idea that in addition cultural relevance, intellectual challenge and academic press are also crucial?

“How can we re-introduce the idea that in addition to cultural relevance, intellectual challenge and academic press are also crucial?”

The irony here is that we have research going back a long way that shows that teachers cannot think their way out of their biases–not because they are bad people, but because they are human, and the whole point of implicit bias is that it is implicit. The question then becomes how can we construct policies and practices, for instruction and other aspects of education, that are not dependent on educators overcoming their biases in order to improve opportunities, experiences and outcomes for all students? Specifically, in my experience, organizing for equity means consciousness-raising for educators (by reading books like Unconscious Bias in Schools (Benson & Fiarman, 2020), for example) SO THAT they understand, and agree with, the need for them to alter their teaching practices to increase BOTH the challenge AND the support that traditionally marginalized students receive. Paul Gorski, Zaretta Hammond, and Matthew Kay all provide guidance on how to do that.

LtC: Given your focus on strategic planning to enhance school performance and equity opportunities and outcomes, what would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?  

IS: A lack of strategic thinking can lead educators to make choices based on un-tested thinking, including but not limited to:

  1. Believing that because another district appears to have had success with a program, it should be adopted in our district.
  2. Proposing solutions without thinking through what the problem is (this tendency is compounded by the temptation to talk about solutions as if they were problems, as in “the problem is we don’t have enough counselors.”)
  3. Adopting a program/approach/ initiative without a tough conversation about the capacity needed to implement it.
  4. Thinking that the answer is professional learning for teachers; the answer is never just professional learning for teachers.
  5. Believing that writing something in a plan means that it will happen.
  6. Believing that having a vision or adopting ambitious goals has power other than inspiration; it is, at best, the starting point for coherence.
  7. Thinking that filling out a template for a school improvement plan or a district strategic plan is the same thing as being strategic.
  8. Making assumptions that everyone in the organization is clear about what the organization’s strategy is (in fact, most teachers in most districts don’t know what the district is focused on).
  9. Making assumptions that everyone in the organization is clear on their role (coaches, for example, are often decidedly unclear on what they are supposed to be coaching towards).

Leaders need a strong conceptual framework for strategic planning, so that they don’t fall into these traps. They also need tools for strategic planning, but, above all, they should deploy these tools thoughtfully, not replace one set of compliance activities for another. Obviously, I think the antidote is, at least in part, that educational leaders should read my new book with Dr. Jennie Weiner, The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Practices;but Being Strategic : Plan for Success; Out-Think Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change by Erika Anderson is also really great.

“Leaders should deploy these tools thoughtfully, not replace one set of compliance activities for another.”

Both books emphasize process over product. They provide a big-picture methodology involving building a bridge from what is to what is desired. Obviously, that sounds simple and straightforward, but implementing the process well is actually quite challenging, and so they contain a lot of guidance for how to go about it.

LtC: In your recent work, you make the case that strategic planning can be an important tool for continuous improvement but requires a principled framework of equity, logic, capacity, and coherence to facilitate such change. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice in response to this argument? 

IS: There are many areas where I see policy under-utilized, and many where it is wielded clumsily. For example, many districts have created policies around the creation of strategic plans that are more about compliance to external mandates and/or the format of the plan than about the substance of the plan relative to the needs of the district.  I understand the desire for accountability around the practice of planning, but putting so much emphasis on a product–and, more than that, a product in a specified format–makes the creation of the product a rather onerous task. For example, we have seen templates that require the inclusion of a root cause analysis, or pages of data. I don’t see that as helpful, and simply reinforces a couple of things: the message that planning is a compliance activity; district and schools’ priorities are only loosely coupled; schools get to choose how and when to pursue equity.

At the same time, districts choose not to wield their power when it comes to policy that perpetuates inequity. I don’t understand why districts don’t have stronger equity-related policies around, for example, placement in advanced courses, discipline, grading, and high-quality instruction.

Capacity building is neglected at a policy level. Sometimes it seems to me that a realistic conversation about capacity becomes impossible, because it can be construed as a lack of faith in the mission. Educators who ask difficult questions about capacity fear that they will be labeled as “negative”, “resistant”, or “nay-sayers.” There is a lot of work to be done on psychological safety in education.

To change these patterns, you have to think of policy as part of strategy, rather than separate from it, which is how it’s often treated. School boards are often involved in the creation of the strategic plan, but they seem to see themselves as separate from it, as though it is a mechanism for them to delegate the work rather than direct the work.

Text Box: “Collaboration and support in transformation requires psychological safety.”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?

IS: In addition to my training and experience in educational leadership and change management, I also have training and experience in coaching, and that has been completely invaluable. So, I’m going to answer this question by highlighting how my coaching background shines a light on the question of supporting educators facing difficult challenges, in the hope that I can inspire others to investigate how interpersonal, as well as organizational, theory and practice can be helpful:

  1. Collaboration and support in transformation requires psychological safety. Without it, leaders will simply not be granted access to information they need in order to improve their strategy, and subordinates will carry the impression that their leaders are more interested in hearing good news than in providing support. Psychological safety means seeing failure as data and not lack of commitment; it means not judging the quality of decisions by their results; it means not reacting to good news as much as not reacting to bad. Amy Edmondson’s (2018) The Fearless Organization is essential reading, as is Meghan Tschannen-Moran’s (2014) Trust Matters.
  2. I often work with educational leaders who know what they ought to do, but don’t do it. When pressed, they tend to use explanations that indicate that they don’t think that the required action (let’s say, a challenging conversation) will actually make a difference; but I suspect that even though they are expressing their doubts as what Bandura (1977) would call an outcome expectation, they actually don’t have confidence in their ability to perform the action. Leaders of educational change need skills, and developing them requires guidance, coaching, and practice.
  3. A universal complaint of educators is that they don’t get enough feedback; this is particularly true of leaders in challenging situations. There are two parts to this. First, educational leaders need conceptual frameworks to formulate feedback (see, for example, Hattie & Timperley, 2007), and practice in developing the skill of engaging in feedback conversations. Let’s say that’s the formal version of feedback. But second, they need to understand how to harvest feedback from the environment, because it is actually all around them, and how to solicit feedback that is useful to them. Let’s call that the informal type of feedback. And educators need practice in receiving feedback, which they almost never get.

“Collaboration and support in transformation requires psychological safety.”

There’s a line in Execution (Bossidy, Charan & Burck, 2011) about how the conversation is the smallest unit of change, and I think there is an essential truth in that. Educational leaders tend to think of coaching as a soft skill separate from the hard skills of developing strategy and decision making, but I think that’s a mistake. A lot of the methodology of strategic planning is exactly parallel to the scaffolding of strategic thinking that is the essence of coaching.  I think that educational leaders would benefit enormously from formal training in coaching; it would improve their support for individuals and groups, help them benefit from coaching and supervision, as well as giving them the skills to have strategic conversations.

It’s not just about coaching, of course. In our book, The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders, we talk about principals and superintendents being clear on their role in putting equity first while supporting teachers, and about building capacity, which is also a form of support. We also talk about coherence–which is all about clarity and shared understanding–which is a much-underestimated form of support; there are so many educators who would feel much less stressed and much more supported if they only felt that they were on the same page as senior leaders regarding what the focus was and who was supposed to be doing what. That’s a big part of our book.

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

IS: This is a watershed moment. The pandemic has been a disaster for millions of children, but it has also shone a light on inequity in a way that nothing else has come close to doing since Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (1991) was published. My unscientific reading of social media tells me that there is a deep divide between educators who want nothing so badly as going back to what they had before the schools shut down in March, and those who want to reinvent schools based on what the pandemic has made apparent: that schools are not meeting the needs of all students. My greatest hope is that this conversation does not become a head-to-head competition, but rather a strategic conversation: a process for agreeing on a shared vision based on equity for all students and generating a strategic plan to reach that vision that isn’t a performative exercise, but makes sense, is realistic, and devotes adequate resources to the mission. I am optimistic.

References

Andersen, E. (2009). Being Strategic: Plan for Success; Out-think Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change. St. Martin’s Press.

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84(2), 191.

Benson, T. A., & Fiarman, S. E. (2020). Unconscious bias in schools: A developmental approach to exploring race and racism. Harvard Education Press.

Bossidy, L., Charan, R., & Burck, C. (2011). Execution: The discipline of getting things done. Random House.

DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press

.Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons.

Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. One world.

Kozol, J. (1991) Savage inequalities. Crown.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2014). Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools. John Wiley & Sons.

Skrla, L., Scheurich, K.J., Garcia, J., & Nolly, G. (2004). Equity audits: A practical leadership tool for developing equitable and excellent schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 40 (1), 133-161.

Stevenson, I., & Weiner, J. M. (2020). The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes. Routledge.

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.

What Will the Biden Administration Do in Education? Looking Ahead at Education Policy in the US in 2021 (Updated)

1/24/21

This past Wednesday, IEN shared a roundup of articles (below) that looked at what many anticipated the new Biden administration might do in education. It didn’t take long to find out:

In inaugural address, Biden says it is possible to teach children ‘in safe schools’, Louis Freedberg, EdSurge

On His First Day in White House, Biden Dissolves Trump’s 1776 Commission on U.S. History, Kevin Mahnken, The74

Biden Revokes Trump’s ‘Patriotic Education’ Order, Will Shield DACA, Andrew Ujifusa, Education Week

Biden Launches New Strategy to Combat COVID-19, Reopen Schools, Evie Blad, Education Week

Biden promises guidance, vaccines to get schools open, though familiar challenges loom, Matt Barnum & Kaylan Belsha

Linda Darling-Hammond and Ted Mitchell on what President Biden will do for education, Podcast, EdSurge

https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/biden-to-revoke-trumps-patriotic-education-order-shield-daca-on-first-day-as-president/2021/01?utm_source=nl&utm_medium=eml&utm_campaign=eu&M=59842604&U=2704344&UUID=29b05a6a00f3b0bfb76e975de146a39e

1/20/21

Last week, IEN focused on stories describing how educators were responding to the insurrection at the US Capitol. This week, with the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, we’ve collected headlines and links for a number of stories that center on what many expect to be a dramatic shift in US education policy. Some of the stories look back, assessing the tenure of Betsy Devos; many look ahead to examine what Miguel Cardona and the new administration might do; and a few look at the roles that Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray and others have played and may play in education policy moving forward.  

The wreckage Betsy DeVos leaves behind, Editorial Board, New York Times

Delay, dismantle, resist: DeVos leaves a legacy like no other Education Secretary, Nicole Gaudiano & Caitlin Emma, Politico

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos observes a classroom setting at the Phoenix International Academy in Phoenix. | AP Photo/Matt York

Little Legacy on Higher Ed for Betsy Devos — Except Controversy, Kery Murakami, Inside Higher Ed

As Betsy DeVos steps down, critics hope it is time to put the public back in public education, Liz Willen, Hechinger Report

As DeVos exits, where does education go next?, Stephanie Hanes, Christian Science Monitor

The Biden administration must commit in the first 100 days to building education policies with community, not for it, Khalilah Harris, the74

How Biden’s Education Department will tackle pandemic and Trump-era policies, Candice Norwood, PBS NewsHour

New year’s resolutions for those moving into the U.S. Department of Ed., Rick Hess, Education Week

Rebuilding America’s schools: The new Secretary of Education will need to prioritize both access and breadth of skills, Elias Blinkoff & Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Brookings Institution

In 2008, the NEA demanded a limited federal role in education. Its policy wish list for 2021 is very different, Mike Antonucci, the74

Who Is Miguel Cardona? Education Secretary Pick Has Roots in Classroom, Evie Blad & Andrew Ujifusa, Education Week

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https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/who-is-miguel-cardona-education-secretary-pick-has-roots-in-classroom-principals-office/2021/01

What to know about Miguel Cardona, Biden’s pick for Education Secretary, Emily Tate, Jeffrey R. Young, Rebecca Koenig, Stephen Noonoo & Tony Wan, EdSurge

Cardona a deft pick for Ed Secretary at a time when political fights should be secondary to the disaster facing millions of students, Andy Rotherham, the74

How Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona works with Teachers, Rachel M. Cohen, The American Prospect

What Biden’s Pick for Ed. Secretary Discussed with Disability Rights Advocates, Evie Blad, Education Week

Cardona’s Role in Connecticut’s Complex School Desegregation Efforts Becomes Focus: Will He Give Integration a National Platform as Ed Secretary?, Mark Keierleber, the74

For the Second Time In Less Than Two Years, Miguel Cardona is Set to Prove Himself on a Much Larger Stage. Is He Ready for the ‘Political Headwinds’ He’d Face as U.S. Education Secretary?, Linda Jacobson, The74

Miguel Cardona, Biden’s pick for Education Secretary, stares down a long to-do list, Lauren Camera, US News & World Report

5 big questions facing Miguel Cardona, Biden’s pick for Education Secretary, Matt Barnum, Chalkbeat

How Cardona could uplift immigrant students and English language learners as Education Secretary, Mark Keierleber, The74

San Diego superintendent will bring years of teaching to deputy education secretary post, Louis Freedberg, EdSource

With Alexander’s Exit, Divided Senate Loses Quiet Champion of Bipartisan Approach to Ed Policy, Linda Jacobson, the74

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Patty Murray Set to Lead Senate Education Committee After Democratic Wins in Georgia, Andrew Ujifusa, Education Week

With Senate in Democrats’ Hands, Attention Turns to Ed Committee Leadership, Cardona Confirmation, Linda Jacobson, the74

  • Thomas Hatch