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Investing in Learning

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

Structuring Education Funds to Innovate Out of the Pandemic and into a Brighter Future for All Learners

By Gene Wilhoit and Jennifer Poon


In times of crisis, effective leaders constantly assess the situation, gathering as much information as they can on damage incurred, advancements made, and where to funnel resources. This notion surfaces in the Biden administration’s recent statement on annual state assessments, citing the importance of “using student learning data to enable states, school districts, and schools to target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs.”

At the same time as we affirm the urgency of collecting robust, trustworthy information about how learners are faring so that resources can be marshalled in response to need, we grow increasingly curious about better ways to both gather and respond to data. While annual standardized assessments have value in monitoring school and district performance, progress, and equal opportunities in normal years, the pandemic has left us increasingly aware that the kinds of information captured by state tests are incomplete (or worse, biased). Other forms of data - especially locally-sourced information on student learning, engagement, well-being, and opportunity to learn - are needed to complete the picture and guide response. Indeed, in education and other complex systems, better decision-making and responsiveness to needs comes from improved situational awareness followed by actions tailored to context.

We believe this desire for more coherent and responsive systems is fueling calls for Congress and the U.S. Department of Education to invest in pandemic relief right alongside innovation in assessments and accountability (to the tune of $100 million according to state education leaders at Chiefs for Change). Similarly, C!E and others are in conversations with federal, state, and local leadership examining how federal relief funding including American Rescue Plan or CARES dollars might be leveraged in ways that lay groundwork for more resilient education systems built on balanced systems of assessment and shared accountability with local communities (see the Colorado story in the sidebar for one example). In each case, as our colleague Paul Leather notes, giving permission to innovate new systems isn’t enough; funding is an essential enabler because system leaders can’t make use of policy flexibilities if they don’t have adequate resources to engage them.

One thing we’re learning in our equity-seeking work with state and local leaders: it is folly to think that we can create more coherent and responsive systems through the hierarchically-driven processes that are most comfortable to bureaucracies. Instead, we are learning that the kind of situational awareness that enables contextualized, equity-seeking decisions is achieved through elevating learning and wisdom coming from the perspectives of diverse stakeholders – especially families and those most marginalized by the current system – who have direct witness to its impacts. We described such an approach last fall as we issued an Invitation to a New Path Forward: Seeking Equity Together Through Assessment and Accountability. In this invitation, we suggest neither a top-down roll-out of “innovation” nor a full pendulum swing to total local control (and its inherent challenges to ensuring equity); instead, we describe a different kind of collaborative partnership between state and local stakeholders where each have important sets of roles to play.

Consider New Mexico as an example. In 2018, a lawsuit demonstrated significant disparities in educational services provided to students across the state. The state supreme court ordered the state to act immediately to ensure instruction is adequate and tailored to students’ unique linguistic and cultural needs. Interestingly, whereas state leaders could have doubled-down on current assessment accountability levers in their response, they instead embraced the necessity of state assessment and accountability redesign to dismantle New Mexico’s inherently racist system and replace it with one that honors and enriches students’ cultural and linguistic strengths. Further, instead of top-down construction and “roll out” of a new system, they opened the way for an extensive community-led effort that has potential to rectify the compact between the education system and the communities it serves (see sidebar).

We believe that an equity-seeking, learning-based approach to innovation not only holds the promise of producing more meaningful outcomes for children but also enhances the probability of greater results from federal and state investments in education and creates longer-term sustainability and ownership by those who must deliver on these outcomes. We see relevance to the design of federal legislation (and/or the structuring of new state and local funds to support innovation) in the following ways:

  1. Invest with a learning orientation. In place of traditional tools like Requests for Information or Requests for Proposals, innovation investments can invite applications through a Request for Learning (RFL), which values the generation of learning as an outcome in its own right. An RFL can push the boundaries of learning by asking applicants to establish hypotheses to drive innovation and improvement around intractable, perennial problems to which answers aren’t already known. It sets expectations for grantees to possess a “learning orientation,” empowering them to share openly about what they are learning as it applies toward both local context and collective goals in the field. These small changes on paper communicate a greater shift of power dynamics in grantmaking by valuing grantees’ creative generation of solutions rather than assuming the grant-maker has already defined the problem and all its plausible solutions. Also, an RFL signals the value of continuous learning by anticipating setbacks and, instead of punishing grantees for them, requiring grantees to iterate and share what they learn along the way (see Assessment for Learning Project in the second below).

  2. Invest in the creation of learning communities oriented around a shared learning agenda. One-off investments to individual grantees produces individual pockets of innovation, but knitting grantees in a learning community helps ensure that insights uncovered by each grantee both enrich the work of other grantees (thus compounding return on investment) and contribute to key questions challenging the field at large. Moreover, learning communities support scaling through grantee-to-grantee approximation (see, for example, the Hawaii and New Hampshire story in the sidebar) and processes to fold-in increasing numbers of communities, districts, or regions through phased expansion. But, while learning communities can grow organically, they also require dedicated support and facilitation. Funding streams need to resource these learning processes directly.

  3. Expand eligibility to include non-profit intermediaries. Federal education funds historically require state education agencies to serve as the primary applicants. However, SEAs often do not have sufficient bandwidth, capacity, or trusting relationships necessary to carry out innovation work in the way we have described. We have noted that non-profit intermediaries and partners with existing relationships with states and districts can often more readily serve as the connective tissue for this work. They may be more primed to get to work without requiring a time-consuming planning grant, and they are more likely to have the expertise needed to facilitate learning communities driven by a learning agenda. Federal funding programs can still require state education agencies to be meaningfully engaged as partners, but expanding grant eligibility to well-connected intermediaries has potential to streamline expenditures and accelerate the work.

  4. Constrain processes, not ideas. How grantees will undertake their work is equally if not more important than what work they are doing. It is important that federal and state innovation funds avoid paternalistic assumptions about what kinds of innovations are a best fit for local context. Instead, funds can be designed to prioritize inclusive, equity-seeking processes that more authentically engage stakeholders and surface solutions that meet both local and global needs. Some examples of equity-seeking tenets emerging from our work include expecting applicants to form unusually diverse coalitions including both state and local stakeholders and to engage parents and community members early in the process (not just after direction and strategy have been set) as co-creators and co-producers of innovation (not just as survey respondents or token focus group members but as collaborators; see Colorado example in the sidebar).

Engaging families and communities to co-create solutions is not quick work, but we believe it is better work, more sustainable work, and the only way of working that successfully navigates a system through complex times. We also note that some gains can be achieved quickly by modeling equity-seeking, community-engaged processes on smaller scales, such as involving communities directly in the design and implementation of CARES-funded recovery initiatives like revamped summer school offerings or high-dose tutoring. Practicing new patterns of partnership within local communities can help build the relationships, habits, and mindsets needed to pursue more systemwide equity-seeking transformation.

Even so, we urge federal and state leaders to learn from local work and repattern their approaches, too -- because how innovation is structured and funded at federal and state levels will continue to entrain behaviors throughout the system. If we aspire to innovate systems of assessment and accountability that are more coherent and responsive to local needs and context, we must invite unusually deep, diverse, and authentic partnerships with families and communities within each state.



More than just theoretical concepts, our suggestions for structuring investments in learning are informed by real examples emerging in states that participate in our learning communities. We share a few examples here:

New Mexico: Broadening the Notion of Equity Work In New Mexico’s story, we see the broadening equity work from identifying achievement gaps to deeper, community-led efforts to redesign systems to reflect the diverse visions and cultures represented in communities across the state.

In 2018, after a lawsuit demonstrated that the State of New Mexico was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide all students - especially Native American and English language learners - the services needed to become college and career ready, the state was directed to provide adequate resources and ensure instruction is tailored to students’ unique linguistic and cultural needs. Importantly, as New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart responded to this ruling, the state embraced the necessity of state assessment and accountability redesign in dismantling New Mexico’s inherently racist system and replacing it with one that honors and enriches students’ cultural and linguistic strengths.

State leaders in New Mexico could have followed a typical top-down approach to defining new outcomes for students and designing systems that assess progress and hold districts accountable for results. But what sets the New Mexico story apart is its extensive community-engaged approach to creating a Graduate Profile that articulates the “knowledge, skills, and attitudes a high school graduate needs to succeed in college, career, and life,” along with a Launch Pad describing the kinds of educational experiences that would support student development along the Graduate Profile. Because it is more locally-owned, the effort has potential to reorient and strengthen the compact between education systems and the communities they serve.

Now with philanthropic support, Future Focused Education, a statewide intermediary in partnership with both the New Mexico Public Education Department and local districts and communities, is supporting a learning network of local communities that are developing capstone projects through which students can demonstrate the Graduate Profile competencies in ways that are reflective of local context, culture, and values.

Colorado: System Transformation Through Community Design Teams Colorado’s story shows the impact that occurs when educational innovation is valued as integral to pandemic recovery, and when community partnership and diversity, equity, and inclusion take center stage.

In September 2020, Governor Polis announced a $32 million Response, Innovation, and Student Equity (RISE) fund to “support high-needs school districts, charter schools, and public institutions of higher education in creating sustainable innovations to improve student learning, close equity gaps, and enhance operational efficiency for pre-K-12 through higher education.” The fund leveraged the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund -- a part of CARES Act aid -- to invite applications that support student-focused learning models for high-need student populations.

This dual investment in relief and innovation is interesting in its own right, but what takes Colorado’s story to the next level is the community-embedded approach that several districts are taking towards this and other aligned work. Facilitated in part by an intermediary organization, the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI), several Colorado districts have been shifting their understanding of what it means to enact equity-seeking work. While many districts came from a starting place of wanting to close achievement gaps, CEI and others have supported reflective processes through which several district leaders now identify the importance of including students and families on the very teams that design innovations. In the words of CEI’s Samantha Olson, “formation of a ‘community design team’ centered on equity not only gives life to the data but allows families and students to participate in the identification of solutions and how we would evaluate those solutions. This creates better relationships, greater ownership of action, rethinking of roles relative to one another, and ultimately leads to better prototypes and solutions.”

This shift toward inclusive, equity-seeking, locally-led processes to education transformation has not only led to more promising community-owned applications to the RISE grant program but is also improving the quality of work across Colorado’s change initiatives. Similar impacts can be seen in the Homegrown Talent Initiative (HTI), a philanthropically funded statewide initiative that “supports regional cohorts of communities to create homegrown, career-connected learning experiences for K-12 students aligned to the needs and aspirations of their local economies.” A mid-year report an external evaluator found that "those who did deep, authentic empathy building produced the strongest implementation plans,” and that “communities with consistent and meaningful student participation, especially in developing Graduate Profiles, saw greater satisfaction with the finished products as well as a belief that they would create change.”

Hawaii and New Hampshire: Unusual Partners in Learning The friendship story of Hawaii and New Hampshire provides a case study of how two systems an ocean apart can directly benefit from shared learning in a deliberately facilitated learning community. Separately, education leaders in each state were engaged in creating statewide definitions of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that students need to be ready for college, career, and life. For New Hampshire, this resulted in the statewide adoption of Work Study Practices (WSP) that each district could adapt and implement according to local context and values. For Hawaii, a deeply community-engaged effort lead to the creation of the Nā Hopena A‘o, abbreviated HĀ, a culturally-relevant framework articulating Hawaii’s vision for college, career, and community readiness.

Education leaders from both Hawaii and New Hampshire routinely convened through the Assessment for Learning Project (ALP) where they learned about each others’ frameworks. More importantly, through exchanges facilitated by the ALP learning community, Hawaii and New Hampshire leaders began to notice both similarities and important differences in their processes, especially with regard to implementation.

In particular, the New Hampshire team took notice of Hawaii team’s approach to community engagement. The Hawaii team began their community engagement by invitation, not mandate, and “brought together educators, students, families, community members and elders to co-create their community’s vision for the purpose of education, supported by the six elements of HĀ.” New Hampshire’s intermediary organization, the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, was doing important work to help districts build capacity as they contextualize and implement Work Study Practices, but this work was occurring after the vision and intentions for WSP had already been set.

New Hampshire studied Hawaii’s inclusive, equity-seeking process and approximated it according to their own context. As a result they created their own “What is Our Why” project, a student-led initiative that convenes educators and citizens within local communities to co-create shared meaning as they work to define and operationalize local versions of the WSP. The resulting impact has been greater local ownership and depth of WSP implementation which has “felt profound to everyone involved.”

Assessment for Learning Project: Grantmaking for Learning The story of the Assessment for Learning Project (ALP) demonstrates how a novel approach to grantmaking -- grantmaking for learning -- can cultivate new structures and behaviors that impact not just individual project outcomes but the advancement of an entire field.

On a mission to build the field of “assessment for learning,” in 2015 the Center for Innovation in Education and Next Generation Learning Challenges launched ALP, a grantmaking initiative backed by philanthropic support. Rather than reaching for standard grantmaking processes such as Requests for Proposals, traditional implementation plans, and grant reporting, ALP distinguished both its purpose and processes by orienting around learning as a desired outcome alongside more typical notions of “results.” This led the designers of ALP to take several steps uncommon in grantmaking, such as: issuing a Request for Learning (RFL, not a standard RFP) requiring that grantees possess a “learning orientation” and share openly about what they are learning as it applies toward collective goals; orienting and organizing grantees’ individual projects along a field-facing learning agenda; supporting shared learning through a facilitated learning community; valuing missteps for the learning iteration that follows rather than punishing grantees for falling short of original plans; and requiring grantees to report on their projects not through typical reports to funders but through public exhibitions of learning.

ALP’s unique process and some of its direct impacts have been detailed in an evaluation by Social Policy Research Associates, Lessons From the Assessment for Learning Project: Strategies for Building an Authentic Learning Community. Observable impacts included greater innovation stemming from a culture perceived by grantees as “safe” for risk-taking; elevation of atypical players into roles of leadership and teaching; growth in the depth and range of social networks representing the advancement of “assessment for learning “as a field; and greater local relevance and ownership of the work due to stronger relationships and collaboration between grantees and students, families, and educators.


March 2021

By Gene Wilhoit & Jennifer Poon, with gratitude to Tony Monfiletto, Samantha Olson, Jonathan Vander Els, and our colleagues at the Center for Innovation in Education for their valuable input.


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