Leading with Learning: COVID Series

C!E has always believed that learning, partnership and responsiveness were key characteristics of effective education leaders and systems.  We have learned more in the last two years about HOW leaders driven by a sharp stance on systemic inequity learn, partner and respond.  COVID has brought even more stark contrast to patterns we see among types of leaders and the core behaviors of other adults in the education systems they serve. 


Our initial response to COVID has been to open and facilitate dialogue among people in different seats: families, learners, educators, system leaders, non-profit intermediaries, and policymakers about what is happening and what they are feeling. We have been listening long enough to begin sharing insights.  But we also plan to continue to  listen and learn over the next several months.  We hope to elevate themes from these conversations to inform the regional and national processes of re-envisioning the future of schooling.  In this series we ask: which ideas, insights and perspectives should determine the core characteristics of post-COVID equity seeking school systems.

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In our recent letter to education system leaders we shared insights gleaned from our longstanding collaboration with some of the nation’s leading equity seeking and innovative education leaders. In that letter, we encouraged our colleagues to be realistic about the limits of traditional expertise in addressing an unprecedented situation of this magnitude and to examine with great honesty and humility what the crisis is illuminating about the nature and performance of our existing systems.

We are writing to governors, lawmakers and education chiefs because we recognize that there are roles that only you can play in helping local education systems respond to the immediate COVID crisis WHILE planning for the longer-term. Each of you has the opportunity to determine how to make CARES dollars available, and to determine which state programs should expand, contract or work differently in the coming years. This presents you with an important set of levers that you may pull as you lead your state toward a more equitable and innovative future.

We believe that one of the greatest long-term risks of the COVID era is that a desire to return to “normal” as quickly as possible may also tempt us to return to policies and practices that can contribute to system stability but also continue to reinforce inequity. Given all that COVID has surfaced about both the flaws and incredible strengths of our systems, it is incumbent upon us all to examine and learn about all the ways our systems impacts students, families and communities so that we may do better at engaging and serving them.

We offer 3 strategies common to our nation’s most effective equity seeking and innovative education leaders to consider as you make policy & funding decisions.

  1. Equity seeking leaders work to make trust reciprocal. They signal trust in local capacity and are able to act as both a trustworthy supporter and critical partner. They surface and share stories of local success and are willing to ask and be asked hard questions.

  2. Equity seeking leaders rely on deep partnerships to distribute the power that it is safe and appropriate to distribute. In this time, some decisions about public safety need to come from a governor or mayor. But other powers, like deciding whose voices and experiences should drive the design of school this fall, are probably better distributed to locals and supported by the state.

  3. Equity seeking leaders ensure that public investments result in public impact and understand that different forms of impact are measured differently. Sometimes impact is measured well by counting the number of meals or computers distributed. However, when local innovations are generating solutions, impact is better measured by evaluating the volume and quality of new knowledge generated and shared with others all across the state.

We believe that policies that foster knowledge generation are different from policies that seek to expand distinct capacity of use of specific tools.  For those who wish to go deeper, the C!E System Transformation Policy Framework describes our learning to date regarding the design of innovation policies or RFPs. Continuing below, we offer 4 specific ideas illustrating what it may look like to enact these strategies while making funding and policy decisions related to COVID. 1. Clearly, it is essential to understand and respond to the financial realities of local districts and their pronounced and immediate needs, such as increased food service production or new technologies and internet access. But, we take the position that responding only to those immediate needs does not do enough to encourage the local innovation and shared learning that is essential to schools becoming more, rather than less, equitable after COVID.

2. Identify the learning agenda that matters most for your state. If you haven’t already, do some efficient but wide reaching needs assessment with both families and LEAs from across your state to surface those problems that are commonly experienced and for which there are no apparent or feasible solutions.

  • For many of us, our learning agenda will relate to seeking new and much better ways to take on the inequity that exists in terms of who has access to powerful learning.  See the C!E Organizational Declaration for our full stance on systemic inequity and how systems become equity-seeking. 

  • For many of us, our learning agenda will relate to how to make school finance more equitable in a time of reduced resources.See the C!E writing on the topic of school finance for possible inspiration.

  • Another possible learning agenda may focus on new ways of honoring and working with the new found agency of both learners and families. See one of our projects called The Assessment for Learning Project, which has been building a field and tools and resources regarding the role assessment can play in fostering learner self-efficacy and agency.

  • Another possible learning agenda may relate to school and district accountability. Given that most state testing plans were interrupted by COVID, you may wish to invite conversations about other ways to think about accountability. See the C!E paper on assessment and accountability for ideas.

3. Offer unrestricted funds to local systems that wish to learn something that contributes to your statewide learning agenda. See the C!E System Transformation Policy Framework for ideas about how to structure such policies. Here are a few examples of the parameters that may support a learning agenda while giving locals true innovation permission as they devise COVID response plans:

  • If part of your learning agenda relates to how severely underrepresented some family voices have been in your state, you may wish to require formal partnership from a newly formed or expanded family centered group that represents the least well served families in each local context.

  • If part of your learning agenda relates to readiness of high school graduates for the workforce needs you anticipate in the next 24 months you may wish to require that LEAs apply with a coalition of local employers and give those employers a clear continued leadership role in the effort proposed. You may also wish to require coordination with the regional plans for Perkins dollars.

  • If part of your learning agenda is how to drive meaningful collaboration among public systems, you may wish to require that at the local level 3 or more agencies apply in collaboration.

4. Align education dollars with other priorities to amplify impact

  • If you are concerned that small businesses in your state were left behind when the first wave of PPP dollars ran out, perhaps place contracting guidelines on RFPs or policies such that companies fully managed within your state, or with fewer than a certain number of employees, or who already demonstrate partnership with local education systems be given preference in contracting for whatever supports teams identify in their projects.

  • If you are concerned about disproportionate harm that has befallen your aging population, consider incentives for projects that reconnect young people with elders once it is safe to do so.

We believe carefully constructed Innovation policies can help states achieve both necessary, immediate relief and more lasting impact from their COVID recovery investments if shared inquiry with communities is an integral part of helping schools and districts thrive. Essentially, we believe such partnerships are fundamental to interrupting long standing inequities and establishing a culture of innovation that is constantly pursuing a healthy and prosperous future for all.

We also believe we still have a lot to learn, and we want to hear your feedback about ideas presented here. And more generally, If you have insights or questions you wish to share, please email us to follow up at gretchen@leadingwithlearning.org. Gene Wilhoit and Gretchen Morgan

Download and read the Policy and Funding PDF here.

COVID Policy Funding Letterpdf

Updated: May 13

Sometimes, the systems that create inequity don’t know their own faces. As leaders seeking greater equity from within and outside of systems, we have to find opportunities to tell the system about itself. Since the onset of COVID-19, I have been lucky enough to be a part of a group of parents and school staff working to make sure that our most traditionally marginalized families get the support they need during this difficult time. We have raised money, distributed basic needs, connected families to the internet, and advocated on housing issues. Throughout this process, we have been asking ourselves: What can we learn from families about systemic failures and inequities, and their potential solutions? How might we bring this learning, and our families themselves, to partner with the district to create more equitable systems?

I have learned so much from my teammate, Michelle, a Black middle-class mom who has cultivated relationships with many of our families who live in low-income housing developments. At a meeting with folks from the district to share what we had learned, Michelle was able to list off numerous painful stories of people who were left hanging by the system. At some point, though, I could feel myself getting uncomfortable. Through the video windows of our COVID-era connection, I felt like I could see the defensiveness setting in, could almost see them mentally listing all the ways the district had already responded to our critiques. In order to sustain a sense of partnership, I intervened, summarizing the themes from our feedback, and pivoted to ideas for shared action. At the end of the call, the district folks suggested a follow up call in order to continue working together. It felt like a success.

It was only after the call that I wondered if Michelle felt like her stories and ways of being were devalued by my actions. My time working in school districts had certainly driven home the fact that central offices operate according to white, middle-class norms. In order to get things done, did I force us to operate according to norms that valued agendas over stories? In pursuit of partnership, had I forgotten to ask, “partnership on whose terms?” As an Asian-American male who has also sometimes chafed against those norms, it pains me to say that I had done both.

My primary concern was making sure that our team had an opportunity to debrief, thinking that if we were going to be about equity, we had to reckon with inequitable dynamics between each other. As a Black woman who also identifies as middle-class, Michelle shared that she was used to walking between white and Black ways of being, between agenda-driven and story-driven spaces. I would have been fine with sorting that out with her and the rest of our parent group, but it was Michelle who challenged us to remember that the system itself also needs to learn, to be disturbed. And it was Michelle that came up with the idea of essentially staging an apology at our follow up call, for me to acknowledge the dynamic that played out. This was a way for us to demonstrate what it looks like to become a bigger us, learning and growing together.

Sometimes you have to tell the system about itself.

Michelle was willing to make our learning public to the system and run the risk of their confusion and disequilibrium. It was an extraordinary act of generosity. This act made me see that if the learning does not help individuals AND the system grow, then we become complicit in the systems that have failed our families, just as surely as those who designed the system to uphold inequity. We become a book club, not change agents.

This work with the district helped me understand more deeply why we at the Center for Innovation in Education wrote this declaration, and why it matters now more than ever. We needed to make our learning about root causes public, to encourage ourselves and the system to take a hard look at why the educational system falls short for so many Black, Latinx, Native American and low-income students. We needed it to help us launch learning that holds us all accountable for empathizing deeply with the experience, history and wisdom of our most marginalized communities.

COVID-19 has shown us what happens when those with privilege and power continue to drive conversations about what is best for society. Who gets economic relief, who must go to work, and who gets to learn all show us that it is all too easy to ignore historical and structural reasons for inequity. As an organization, C!E needs the Declaration to keep those reasons in the foreground of our work. We need the Declaration to ensure that when we bring the communities we have traditionally marginalized to the table, we are ready to hear them in the ways they wish to be heard, with the stories they need to tell.

We are distributing our declaration now, hoping it offers a lens to make meaning of what we see, hear and feel in the COVID era. We welcome dialogue about how this declaration affects how you make sense of what is going on in your context. We are curious about how equity, and inequity, is playing out in your communities, how you are learning about these issues, and how you are making sense of their root causes. Feel free to comment on the blog, or email me at Doannie@leadingwithlearning.org.

A series of upcoming blog posts will share examples of how we and our partners see these ideas playing out in specific local contexts as communities continue to respond to urgent issues and plan for the fall and beyond.

Download a PDF of Doannie's blog post here.

Equity Seeking Partnership Letter

Download C!E's Declaration of Intent here.

C!E Declaration of Intent 5.2020pdf

© 2020 Center for Innovation in Education

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