Toiling in the Vineyard: State-Level Educational Intermediary Organizations in the Covid Era
Updated: Jul 2
From Scaling Up to Scaling Across:
French winemakers use the term terroir to describe the unique characteristics that place bestows on each varietal… The word itself means something like “a sense of place,” which emerges from the unique qualities of soil, climate, and topography. Just ask any Napa winemaker who’s ever tried to imitate a Burgundy or Chianti, and they’ll tell you: Cultivate the same grapes, use the same techniques, follow the same timing—and your wine is guaranteed to taste nothing like the original.
Modern winemakers have learned to embrace the notion of scaling across…Scaling across happens when people create something locally and inspire others who carry the idea home and develop it in their own way.
Walk Out Walk On,
Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, 2011
For the last five years, we at the Center for Innovation in Education, C!E, have observed the development of state level intermediary organizations arising within and across multiple states. Not necessarily a new phenomenon, however, one that has become increasingly critical to change efforts in state ecosystems as they seek to make transformative change in their educational system design.
Although there are many consequential differences in mission and purpose of these intermediary organizations, they share a set of common tenets, some of which I will speak to here, some of which will need to wait for fuller emergence. Right now, we are seeing the following ideas and constructs arising and connecting across the group:
1. Emergence of the Intermediary Role in State Ecosystems: There is a growing need at both the state and local level to move and support the nexus between state policy and local practice closer to the instructional core, including conversations around assessment and accountability.
2. Intermediaries can play powerful equity-seeking leadership roles. They have learning dispositions towards authentic local issues related to structures and policies, and so they are positioned to see inequity within and across contexts, and they foster enough trust with and among local partners that frank questions about race and social class can be pursued as an ongoing strand of the work. This role provides a check within the larger system, which in turn allows for new ways of thinking about accountability.
3. Fostering Connections at Multiple Levels: Intermediaries work in relationship with other state and local entities and individuals to support emerging work within the state and localities.
4. A Place-Based Approach to Problems: Intermediaries are sensitive and responsive to local contexts. They assume deep study and redesign will be required for a good idea to be taken from one place to another. As intermediaries act more and more through embedded work within localities, they are positioned to honor the power of locally emergent solutions, as opposed to imposed approaches from outside. The consultancy nature of intermediary work allows for approximation and customization of efforts deeply rooted in community culture.
5. Systemic Standardization Becomes More Dubious: As a more place based approach emerges, there is no one size that fits all in any part of the system, including assessment and accountability. Standardized and top down approaches to assessment and accountability have actually served to bind, if not hamstring the efforts to drive innovation in state and local educational systems over the last 30 years.
6. The Intermediary Role is Growing: Each intermediary we work with has seen a change and expansion in their roles as they respond to context changes with agility, unconstrained by institutional restraints. COVID-19 has accelerated this phenomenon. Many intermediaries have seen their service area grow beyond their state lines as their networking behavior has brought local systems together across state lines. As a group, this learning community of intermediaries is beginning to show signs of becoming their own system of influence.
The Colorado Education Initiative, CEI, is one such intermediary, having been in existence for 10 years. CEI defines itself as an entity that, “holds a unique place in Colorado’s education landscape that allows us to make connections, move mindsets, spur possibilities, and drive system-level transformation to get the most promising practices off the ground and into classrooms.” They support individual educators, schools, districts, networks of schools. They sometimes partner with the State Education Agency in soliciting input from the field or offering training and technical assistance. They are also sometimes called upon by those in the political sphere to weigh in on proposed policy and practice relationships. Their range extends from one day convening state assessment and accountability forums for educational leaders to providing on-going technical assistance and professional development to a network of districts each seeking to implement their version of a portrait of a graduate, to elevating concerns they hear from local leaders about things like gaps in broadband access and how they impact remote learning opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
CEI is not alone, The New Hampshire Learning Initiative was created as an entity to provide supports to NH school districts interested in implementing innovative practice, or the Learning Policy Institute in California, begun as a policy and research organization by Linda Darling-Hammond, and has helped to create and grow the California Performance Assessment Collaborative across a number of large and medium sized districts in the Golden State. Then there is Future Focused Education in New Mexico, which started as an organization designing and developing a network of small innovative high schools in Albuquerque and now has reached further to support assessment practices across the state. The Center for Collaborative Education (CCE), serves as an intermediary to the Massachusetts Consortium of Educational Improvement and Assessment. The Office of Innovation for Education (OIE) at the University of Arkansas supports innovative work in schools across the state in close concert with the Arkansas Department of Education Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, ADE DESE. These are several more examples of organizations that fill similar roles in their states. The Virginia Commonwealth Learning Partnership, a recent start up in the last year with one intrepid long-time Virginia educator, Gena Keller, has helped to create an inter-linking set of state level collaborations with several other organizations in the Commonwealth. Each of these intermediaries has a unique place in their state’s educational constellation, and they are learning from one another what there is to learn across the larger firmament.
...the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible…
This is good news for those of us intent on changing the world and creating a positive future. Rather than worry about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections. We don’t need to convince large numbers of people to change; instead, we need to connect with kindred spirits. Through these relationships, we will develop the new knowledge, practices, courage, and commitment that lead to broad-based change.
But networks aren’t the whole story. As networks grow and transform into active, working communities of practice, we discover how life truly changes, which is through emergence. When separate, local efforts connect with each other as networks then strengthen as communities of practice, suddenly and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of scale. This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals. It isn’t that they were hidden; they simply didn’t exist until the system emerges. They are properties of the system, not the individual, but once there, individuals possess them. And the system that emerges always possesses greater power and influence than is possible through planned, incremental change. Emergence is how life creates radical change and takes things to scale.
Using Emergence to Take Social Innovation to Scale,
Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, 2006
Intermediaries often take on the role of agents of change, but new leaders of these organizations are now working as capacity-building partners more within a school or district’s unique local contexts. CEI supports individual High School and District modeling of solutions to the Colorado requirements for high school graduation, based on a state menu of options. Some CO districts choose to develop Portfolio Defense systems, others Capstone projects, still others multi-pronged efforts that include ACT, College Board, and Performance Assessments. In each case, CEI acts as a consulting partner supporting local community engagement, staff input, and local design thinking to support statewide accomplish their change efforts over time in ways that are not just congruent with but reflective of local community principles and expectations. As these local practitioners arise, and learn from one another, a new local/state system of both assessment and accountability begins to emerge. The stance of the intermediary in this situation is to facilitate learning, collaboration and then see what systemic changes emerge from it, rather than to drive a top down agenda across the state.
As local, regional, or state level intermediaries mature, they will often begin to reach beyond their locality, still assisting local schools and districts to build opportunities based on scaling across. CCE has also assisted District and NEA leaders in Jefferson County, Kentucky as they considered the implementation of micro-credentials to support educator development. Operating within the context of the District’s digital backpack initiative, CCE has helped local leaders as they sought to frame the micro-credentials as voluntary, within a system of district mandated digital backpacks for every student. Future Focused Education now supports networks of schools and communities across New Mexico and is currently reaching out to Tennessee, although they began as a small network of schools developed by the organization in Albuquerque. The Learning Policy Institute, having constructed a California Performance Assessment Consortium with other CA partners made up of some of the largest districts in the Golden State, is now advising Hawaii as they seek to do the same in a unique, single district state with several islands, multiple localities, and a rich, indigenous culture.
A Place-Based Approach to Problems:
“…Yet somehow the uniqueness of place regularly breaks through. When we know a place intimately, we experience its aliveness in many dimensions. We are connected to its past and its present, to the people who live there today and those who have passed through before, to its native ecology and that which has been added or destroyed, to the structures that have been built upon its ground and those that have crumbled back into the earth.
Each place is an interdependent web of relationships, which is why you can start anywhere. There is no right place to start. It is only when we are inside a system that we begin to know its dynamics. And even then, we can never predict how that system will respond to our efforts. It is only after we disturb the system that we can see its interconnections and what our next work can be…”
Wheatley, Frieze. 2011
Working with local partners in emergent practices, these intermediaries are learning how to trust and respect the perspectives of local leaders and stakeholders in new ways. These leaders understand that a singular state or federal model of assessment or accountability may not be meeting the needs of students, or parents, or leaders in a given local community. The lack of relevance, the disconnect from local mores and culture of these state level systems are too great. They also understand that a single particular model of practice decided on at the state capital will not scale down in reliable and replicable ways. Rather, they seek to help leaders beg, borrow, and steal designs from other systems and then adapt them in ways that meet their particular concerns, based on their knowledge of their learning practices, their data, and their theories of action.
By embedding within the community, and forming networks of educators and communities of practice across schools and districts, these leaders are attempting to learn about what can and will emerge, what new approaches that systems can take on, yet still learning from one another, across states and the nation. For example, Future Focused Education in New Mexico supports a district Network that allows for each school leadership team to define for themselves local models of schooling, and associated ways of assessing student learning that are connected to community culture and expectations, in conjunction with the New Mexico Public Education Department, NMPED. The idea that local communities might develop unique local systems of assessment and accountability in response to state expectations, but be networked with other districts and schools for both implementation and improvement, has long been discussed but has previously been seen as impractical or difficult to manage from the state agency perspective. However, with the support of an intermediary, this more nuanced approach becomes more feasible. Progress with this design is being watched closely by other intermediaries. It is a strong example of how both intermediaries and state agency partners are changing how they lead to be more equity-seeking.
And now, suddenly, in the COVID-19 era and within the aftermath of the last eight minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd’s life, so much has changed. What does it mean to be place-based, in these times? What had once been physical community connections are now limited to virtual spaces. Distance is no longer defined by miles from point A to point B, but to levels of intimacy and common understanding that can occur in virtual gatherings, 1:1 meetups, or days and nights of marches in protest. As we consider the tragic murders of Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others, there is a profound lack of trust in institutions large and small. For those that are closely held, like our public schools, and far, like our State Departments of Education. Elements of society that were originally created to protect us and have been under question for some time are now starkly suspect, even those as seemingly simple as school accountability and state tests in public education. In this new reality, as Rob Bilott reflected as he considered the results of his career-long attempts to uncover efforts to hide community poisoning by big business in Dark Waters, “They want us to think that they protect us, but it’s not true. We protect us.”
What have we learned in the last several weeks? One thing that we have realized deeply is that accountability in many cases is intensely personal and is best kept local. Based on what some of our partners have heard when surveying families, there are parents in a variety of situations finding it hard to even consider letting their children return to the school house, or to consider approaching the learning opportunities that exist outside of the family circle. One intermediary leader shared with us that parents in their community are asking themselves and one another things like, “how can we ever return to what was?” They are learning again to trust, questioning all that had been accepted until recently, and asking, “what can we rely on when we don’t have faith in our institutions?”
A New System of Influence?
Meanwhile, during this same period, the intermediary leaders have Zoomed together regularly, considering all of these issues, and their many roles and constellations of dilemmas together. While they network, there is no expectation that they will seek full or even necessarily common understandings, many times they only wish to be heard as they reflect on their circumstances. Nor do they seek to replicate each other’s work. There is at first, growing relationships, and then later, a developing common understanding of standing together as they consider challenges. There is trust within the circle of sharing, and there is admiration for individual voices. One emerging tenet which has magnified in the time of COVID and the growing fundamental meaning and reality of systemic racism is the need to courageously seek equitable opportunity for each child, collapsing every barrier to this end within their communities and their states. They realize that this is a moment where trust and authenticity is connected in many ways only to relationships and local community. At the same time, they realize that there continues to be a need for connective tissue, when so much previously held to be true is either tearing and flying apart or simply no longer relevant.
The cycle of learning for us all is spinning so quickly, the need for agility and perspective is so critical. As we all build new lines of connections to one another and to our respective new realities of teaching and learning, including new ways to hold one another accountable, we will be curious to see if there will become what Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze have called a new system of influence that will challenge the old ways of being, particularly in terms of educational federal/state accountability. These intermediary leaders tell us that their communities long for such a change, there is an ache for a new way forward. They find themselves joining with others with similar interests. There is a sense that a door is now open, that emergence is possible, that a movement could begin.