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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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When I worked at the Colorado Department of Education, Paul Leather, then the Deputy Commissioner for NH and happily now my colleague here at C!E taught me something critical to operating as an agentic and hopeful human while being employed by a state education agency. This was that while it is easy to feel like WHAT you do is entirely directed by others, such as the board, legislature, or governor, there is actually tremendous room in terms of HOW you do your work. And, that is good news because how you do your work actually has a significant impact on what educators out in the field do with the programs you have been told to operate.

This principle – that how we work IS the work – has taken root at the center of our strategy at C!E. We believe, like adrienne maree brown, Margaret Wheatley and others, that like it or not, the manner in which humans interact with one another on an individual level ends up shaping the behavior of the system as a whole. Which also means that, by changing their personal interactions (HOW they work with others) people can affect change that ripples outward to transform the broader system. Infection metaphors aren’t as fun in 2022 as they used to be, but I will just go ahead and say that in all of our work, we see that such individual changes in habits and behavior are, in fact, catchy.

We see this “contagion” of new ways of interacting in the place-based work we lead in partnership with system leaders in Vermont and Kentucky, and we see it at both the local and state levels. Facilitating place-based radically inclusive co-creation has become a core practice at C!E because we see that it provides such consistent opportunities for people with different and deeply invested interests in public education to practice new habits of working together. We can facilitate families, students on the margins, teachers, community members and school system leaders in being inclusive, practicing empathy, co-creating solutions to what they each see as essential problems, and determining how they will continue to operate with reciprocity when the initial collaboration is done.

We also see this phenomenon inside of learning communities that welcome people from across places into shared topical inquiry. One such community that we have had the pleasure of stewarding for the past several years is the Assessment for Learning Project (ALP) community. And we were additionally fortunate this past year to have some help from Hallie Preskill, formerly of FSG, to help us reflect on changes in our stewardship of that community over time, how that is both similar to and distinct from how we facilitate other communities like the Interstate Learning Community (ILC). We also made connections between what we are learning from our lived experiences stewarding learning communities and some of the great frameworks and insights of mentors and colleagues that have shaped our work again and again: Cynefin framework regarding complexity, the six circle model about systems change, The Art of the Gathering about how to welcome collaboration (Parker), emergent strategy (brown) and Walk Out Walk On (Wheatley and Frieze) about facilitating equitable emergence.

The result of this reflection and the expert guidance from Hallie is the following set of learning community stewardship principles of practice. We are sharing the principles of practice in hopes of expanding the dialogue about the design and facilitation moves that promote a change in HOW we work with one another. We do not profess to have the principles “right,” in fact we assume that no one set of principles can be “right” for all communities. We are using these principles written this way as we design the next two years of ALP learning community stewardship with our partners Envision Learning. We will learn more about them as we use them with members of that community, and we hope some of you might be interested in sharing your principles of community stewardship with us and that a few more of you might test these principles and tell us what you learn. As we continue to test these ideas, we will also continue to share stories that help illustrate what it looks like to strive to, manage to, and also fall short of enacting these principles.

If you are interested in getting nerdy about principles of learning community stewardship, or want to share a story about similar approaches, shoot me a quick note at

And if you want to connect with a large and diverse national network of educators pursuing assessment for learning, agency and belonging -- follow this link to let us know a bit about you and the ways in which you might like to connect with the ALP community this year.



C!E Draft Principles of Practice for Stewardship of The Assessment for Learning Community

First a note about what principles of practice of any variety aim to do. We chose the construct of principles of practice because they are specific enough to inspire practice, but also not so pointed as to seem inflexible or unadaptable. As Michael Q. Patton (Principles-Focused Evaluation, 2018) has written, good principles:

  • Provide direction but not detailed prescription

  • Require judgment in application

  • Are grounded in values about what matters

  • Inform choices at forks in the road

  • Point to consequences, outcomes, and impacts

  • Are based on evidence about how to be effective

  • Have opposites that point in a contrary direction

  • Can be evaluated for both process (implementation) and results

  • Must be interpreted and applied contextually and situationally

  • Are the rudder for navigating complex dynamic systems

  • Are evaluable. That is, they can be the primary subjects for evaluation.

These principles guide our design and facilitation of the ALP community, and also establish a basis for developmental evaluation. We will share more about the evaluation utility as we test it with the ALP community this year. There are six high level principles of practice, each of which is further elaborated on with bullets outlining specific activities aligned with that principle.

Principle #1: Lead with learning

  • Develop a shared learning agenda to make the charge of the learning community and a learning disposition clear from the start.

  • Develop structures that connect individual learning to shared learning (e.g. request for learning, learning plans, and presentations of learning), and to students’ experiences and outcomes.

  • Use different kinds of learning activities to fully engage members in reflection and dialogue.

  • Identify productive tensions in ways that surface different perspectives in service of learning.

  • Model, invite and encourage vulnerability, risk-taking, curiosity, and course-correction (opposed to performing or judging).

  • Create spaces for people to step into leadership roles.

  • Design for reciprocity among members, lead learners, and community stewards so that each person derives value and feels valued.

Principle #2: Invite with intention

  • Create invitations that offer reciprocal commitment to purpose and process.

  • Invite people in as their whole selves and not just their job title.

  • Invite people in from different parts and levels of the system.

  • Invite people from diverse backgrounds and identities.

  • Empower and encourage members to identify other critical voices to join the community.

  • Return and reflect on the extent to which the invitational commitment is being upheld.

Principle #3: Build trusting relationships to build and sustain community

  • Create time and space for relationships to develop and flourish.

  • Create opportunities for them to share their gifts and for them to see other peoples' gifts.

  • Actively look for ways for people to meet; connect those with similar interests and questions.

  • Create expectations for mutual accountability.

  • Help members develop a sense of identity within the learning community so they are in kinship with one another.

  • Use empathy practices to build understanding and relationships across lines of difference within the learning community.

  • Create spaces and opportunities for members to make and do stuff together.

  • Work with community members to create a variety of spaces in which each member of the community finds comfort and safety - drawing on the unique assets (traditions, rituals, practices) of its members.

Principle #4: See the system, pay attention to power, and interrupt patterns of oppression

  • Use empathy practices to lift up voices of learners and communities, especially those most marginalized.

  • Allow people to be where they are on their equity-seeking path and hold members accountable for their continued learning and growth.

  • Pause to notice and interact when patterns of bias, exclusion, and oppression are reproduced in conversation.

  • Use constructs to support critical analysis of current behaviors, processes, and policies to identify and change oppressive habits and system characteristics.

  • Continue to center and re-center how this work is rooted in equity.

  • Identify and disrupt disproportionate levels of power that come from position and expertise.

Principle #5: Ground learning in place

  • Analyze a wide range of contextual characteristics when trying to understand why something was designed the way it was or why it is working the way it is working.

  • Ensure that student voice and student perspectives are always part of the work.

  • Prioritize, study, center, and invite in local wisdom.

  • Use empathy practices to see, hear, and learn about the experiences of students, families, educators, and those closest to the work.

  • Use frameworks and tools as guides that are in dialogue and uniquely adapted to a place.

Principle #6: Scale through shared learning

  • Use stories to share learning, to change the narrative, to foster adaptation, to humanize quantitative data, to support critical thinking, and to help people locate themselves in the work.

  • Use analysis of others’ work to affirm your own work and learning, and become more critical and creative about the work.

  • Gather and share diverse ideas from others and adapt them for use in other contexts and places.

  • Co-create frameworks and tools to foster adaptation and scale beyond the learning community.

  • Pursue local, state, or federal policy changes to enable innovation and/or scaling.

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By Paul Leather, C!E's Director of the Interstate Learning Community

This blog post originally appeared on Future Focused Education's blog on Monday, December 6, 2021.

As the sun comes up over the green forested hills and ignites the fall colors in the leaves of the trees surrounding my house in Concord, New Hampshire, I am writing this post to you. As you have entered another school year, one with continuing challenges, it has been edifying to see how you have kept the well-being of the children in your care top of mind. Although some students have become disconnected from learning over the last year, you have learned new ways to connect with them and their families.

This year, many of you have answered the call for a new way of teaching, through greater engagement with students and community through capstones and Graduate Profiles. In doing this, you are addressing deep fault lines within your communities, reaching out to those children who have so often found themselves on the other side of the chasm. To support this new way of teaching, wise leaders from your communities and the NM Public Education Department gathered during the darkest days of the pandemic to determine a more fair and equitable approach to learning in your state.


First, they extensively interviewed children, families, educators, community leaders, from Zuni to Logan, from Cuba to Las Cruces. Emerging from those interviews were the voices of children, parents, Indigenous nations, and rural communities. Those voices rang out with stories of inequity, racism, of children not being seen or heard or understood. The songs of these people echoed across the land, in the canyons and the valleys, from the rooftops and the mountain tops, they sang a song demanding to be heard, of connections lost from culture and language, and ways of being.

The wise leaders coalesced around a statement of hope, underlying the pain they heard in those voices:

“To address the education system’s history of structural and inherent racism, New Mexico’s high school students need a more expansive learning and assessment system that honors their cultural and linguistic strengths while providing feedback and other engaging opportunities allowing them to take ownership of their learning, build strong identities and see a rich future ahead."

So many of you have heard the challenges embedded within these words. In response, you have joined a Community of Practice to examine what it would mean to paint a picture of the expectations your communities hold for your children. You created a Portrait of a Graduate, and built a new pathway to learning, the Capstone process, where each child can embrace their identity and their future through deepening connections with you and those in their communities.


This is not easy work, not when you work every day to re-instill the routines of learning in schools for those children who have returned to your buildings. Not when we still do not have a vaccine for all children, and you find yourself quarantining for days on end, while continuing to teach, either in person or remotely.

People from across the country are interested in how you are going about this work, something Future Focused Education is addressing deeply this year in the Community of Practice. You have refused to define yourself strictly by state test results and the deficit thinking that those tend to offer. Instead, your different approach includes a thoughtful Graduate Profile model that includes something you don’t always see elsewhere—a launch pad as a basis to support the rising graduate.

Not only are you looking at deeper kinds of assessments—capstones designed to address the whole child within the school environment—you are also focused on ways to increase their success as they become adults in their community. Through burgeoning internships and work-based learning, you are reframing your schools as community development hubs, something they were always meant to be.

As educators, you have always recognized that children are the future and so you must always seek to help them rise. Your hope is that when New Mexico students graduate by going through the Capstone process, you will have fostered the growth of the whole child and prepared students to take their rightful place in their communities, something youth and their families desperately want and desire.

It is the love that you have for this work, the love you hold for the children in your classes, who have suffered so much from an imperfect system that was not built with them in mind, that brings you to persevere, to carry on and to try this new way forward.


You may wonder why I, from so far away, am writing this message to you today. Because of your tireless efforts in developing community-based Portraits of a Graduate and your fearless capstone designs uniquely based on addressing systemic inequities, the nation is following your progress.

This includes in the halls of Congress, where your leaders have shared your innovative work with staffers of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) and Appropriations Committees, who are hoping that innovative new ways of schooling will emerge that will be more wholistic in serving children and better connected to community values, which might inform the next reauthorization of the federal Education Act.

Maybe this time around the New Mexico example—your example—can help crack the code of inequities in education across the nation. As your efforts, skills, and capacities grow with the Community of Practice, the stories of your learnings and your students’ success will follow you.

Thank you, New Mexico Educators, for doing your part in a great cause. You are providing a model for all of us as you work to make your public schools increasingly relevant and rewarding for New Mexico’s children and families from all backgrounds, not just the privileged few.

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Dear Friends, Today we are sharing a new seminal report called Measuring Forward: Emerging Trends in K-12 Assessment Innovation. Knowledge Works serves as one of the founding members, along with C!E and the Aurora Institute, of a small but influential network of national organizations called the Student-Centered Assessment and Accountability Coalition who are advocating for greater flexibility in innovative assessment and accountability educational systems at local, state, and federal levels. With Knowledge Works taking the lead through a small grant, all of the members canvassed our respective communities to produce the report.

We are including the report here as part of the C!E blog series as a help and a reminder to all of you who follow us that learner centered assessment has truly become a national movement, one that is increasingly capturing the attention of policy makers at all levels, educators, parents, and, most importantly, students. If we are sincere in our commitments to build equity-seeking assessment systems, it is essential that these emerging systems be truly learner centered, finding ways to recognize the unique gifts of each student, regardless of race, economic status, or zip code. This has been a foundational principle for C!E, and, indeed, for all of our partners.

As the gray veil of the pandemic finally begins to show signs of lifting, children and their families are crying out for major shifts in how education performs and how it is held accountable. Such a demand for change can only be met by innovators and pathfinders working closest to the learning process. Over time, if fostered, these many beacons of light will shine across our cities and towns, illuminating new paths forward for generations to come. This report points to the many ways and trends emerging just now. We ask that you give it a read and let us know about the innovations that are creating change in your communities. For those of you who are desperate for more supportive educational policy and legislation, please know that the Student-Centered Assessment and Accountability Coalition will look to make your achievements known in your State Houses, the Administration, and even the Halls of Congress. Read the report Measuring Forward: Emerging Trends in K-12 Assessment Innovation here.

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