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What We're Learning: Our Blog

At C!E, we lean into the concept of “leading with learning” and delight in digging into nerdy topics, lines of inquiry with colleagues, and asking the hard questions. This blog serves as a sandbox, our testing ground, and space for rumination to share out C!E’s work.


Here you can find resources, papers, questions, and conversations we’re having as we strive to learn from and alongside our peers about our ever-changing field.

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The Reciprocity Project Interviews C!E's Doannie Tran


In our Invitation to a New Path Forward: Seeking Equity Together Through Assessment and Accountability, we suggested the need to fundamentally restructure how our education systems operate. We proposed a different approach that involves building state-to-local coalitions and discerning when to share or cede power and decision-making authority, within what structures of oversight, and with what reciprocal investments in capacity-building.

But what does look like when education systems are more reciprocal? What bad leadership habits stand in the way and how can we convince leaders of the importance of rebalancing power? In this interview with The Reciprocity Project, C!E's Doannie Tran draws on his personal experiences to offer provocations toward a better way to serve all our students and communities.

The Reciprocity Project is a coalition of nonprofits, community organizers, and education innovators that are working together to build a new kind of school from the ground up. This work is rooted in reciprocal relationships, where the voice and ownership of stakeholders will create schools that are truly in service to their communities. If you enjoy this post, check out other articles in The Reciprocity Project's blog series, “The Questions No One Is Asking.”


I was really blown away by both the power of the people who were involved and the work that they’re doing, but also really the sense that every context is deeply different. Everybody reinforced the importance of honoring local context so much.

That kind of connection to other people and that we are all part of this unique moment. The feeling like there’s an opportunity to really share power and build more power where it hasn’t been cultivated before. That’s just so rare in this world right now.


There are so many pressing things in front of us and that urgency to solve those near-term problems never gives us a chance to dream. Being a part of The Reciprocity Project is an opportunity to step back from that and actually leave some of that urgency of the now behind in order to dream a little bit and commune with people who have a lot of shared experiences and commitments but in different contexts. We just never get those opportunities in our daily life because we’re so embedded in our specific contexts that the opportunity to do that is really priceless.


We do have a special moment now, because parents know more about the educational experience than they ever have before. I talk to families all the time that are seeing their kid do some pretty inane things during remote learning. They need support and dialogue with other families. They need different experiences to make meaning of that and to coalesce it into energy for change. I think leaders should be wanting to lean into that dissonance and cultivate it. But, I think a lot of leaders paper over it because everybody wants to return to normal. Even people who are badly served by “normal” who don’t want to return to that are just tired. They’re tired of the moment we’re in now.


We live in a world where two things are simultaneously true. First, we distrust experts and you only need to look at public health right now to see evidence of that. Simultaneously, experts often seek to control the narratives and the terms of the debate. Experts create the narrative that reinforces their expertise. So it’s a bad dynamic because experts live in a world where no one gives them the latitude and the trust to do what they’ve been trained to do. Then, people who are not seen as experts are constantly reminded of that and they are kept at the gate.

In that kind of world, power is scarce. So people hoard what they can. Experts hoard power by controlling narratives, controlling tools, and those who are kept at bay because of their non-expertise are trying to constantly tear down the foundations of the thing.

That’s keeping experts and regular people separate and apart. Everybody uses power to try to get a little more. But, I think that that power is usually poisoned. It’s tainted because it’s not born out of justice and sharing, it’s born out of exclusion. In this context, leaders who want to share power put their expertise at risk and that’s connected to their influence, their relevance, their stature, their self-respect. I really wish that every leader was sort of ego-less and able to do that gracefully, but that’s just not realistic.


When I was an assistant superintendent in Boston and in Fulton County, Georgia, I was not accountable to making those communities healthier and more prosperous. My accountability was connected to the number of APs (Advanced Placement courses) that were going to be offered at each school. The percentage of kids who were scoring above X, the number of dual enrollment students—it was connected to a set of outcomes that had unclear collective benefit.

I think it would have been better if I had felt a sense of reciprocal responsibility to the community members that were in our neighborhoods. We should have been talking to them about what it would take for our community to be healthy and more prosperous, more joyful and more successful. And, we would say, “that’s the thing we’re going to do and you should hold us accountable to that.” But the machine of accountability was not organized around that.


When leaders are only concerned about garnering support, instead of working on co-construction, you get focus groups. You get surveys or hand-picked advisory boards that supposedly have legitimacy in the community. Those mechanisms are the bad habits of leadership. When the survey says 95% of people say this is a good idea, that’s not co-creation, that’s trying to claim legitimacy. So many mechanisms like that are part of the habits not rooted in reciprocity. They’re rooted in power imbalance.


When we ask, “How are we going to get these people to give up some of their power?” it feels weird. It’s strange to care so much about the needs of the privileged, when there’s so many people who’ve been marginalized by the system. But if we’re doing justice, we’re supposed to be with those who have been marginalized. We do the movement a huge disservice if we don’t consider our messaging and our promises to those who have a lot to lose and will fight desperately to maintain the power that they have. To solve this problem, we must uncover the abundance in the world. Because the narratives are dominated by scarcity.

When power is shared, the broader benefit is abundance, right? We’re saying give up something now that was ill begotten anyway. And, if you give it up in the right way, we are promising more, we’re promising something better. How do we do that? That’s where we begin.


Doannie Tran is an Equity and Strategy Fellow at the Center for Innovation in Education and former assistant Superintendent in Boston and Georgia.

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  • Writer's pictureC!E

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.


Download a PDF of Investing in Learning to share below.

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The author and researcher Mark Moore asks leaders endeavoring to improve society to consider how clearly and effectively they can articulate the public value of their enterprise, whether they have the legitimacy and support to pursue that value, and how much operational capacity they can muster to create that value. Leaders in the public sphere are left then to wonder:

  • What strategies are likely to create the most substantive public value at the greatest scale?

  • What ways of implementing those strategies mobilize the greatest support and legitimacy?

  • What approaches effectively use existing capacity and unlock additional capacity?

The C!E System Transformation Framework claims that the traditional answer to these questions have often started with leaders establishing policies and implementation plans. These policies and plans would then dictate the system’s habits and behaviors. With a wholesale change in habits and behaviors of everyone related to the strategy, the instructional core would surely shift in alignment to the desired change. The linearity of this approach makes it easy to define the value the public should expect to see from the endeavor. The clarity of policy documents, action plans and benchmarks is meant to build critical legitimacy and support from an important subset of stakeholders, often those who hold the pursestrings and political power. The presumption of a linear cascade of learning through management and professional development channels lays out an elegantly efficient use of capacity. While there are notable successes that have come from this kind of approach, this way of doing business has too often had far less than the desired impact.

The System Transformation Framework grew from observations of what happened when leaders departed from this traditional model for change. The framework defines an alternative approach where policymakers, leaders who oversee prevailing habits and behaviors, and the leaders who enact the instructional core come together in a different kind of partnership and collaboration. The framework claims that when siloed actors come together for planning, decision making, testing, learning, and iterating, the endeavor has greater impact, scale and sustainability. We hypothesize that this way of working changes who gets to decide and communicate the public value, garners deeper legitimacy and support from a broader set of stakeholders and unlocks operational capacity that systems didn’t even know was available.

The journey from a linear and hierarchical model of change to one that encourages and supports radical collaboration to test, learn, and iterate involves many leadership choices. The story of New Hampshire and Hawai’i illustrate some of the decisions leaders make while seeking equity for their communities, and how those decisions can shape the way the system operates. As you read the case study, please consider the following questions:

  • What does the case study illustrate in terms of equity-seeking systems and system transforming leadership?

  • In this case study, where do you see examples of these coalitions creating a different kind of claim of public value?

  • In this case study, where do you see examples of these coalitions building different kinds of legitimacy and support among different stakeholders?

  • Where do you see examples of these coalitions developing new sources of operational capacity?

New Hampshire and the Work-Study Practices

New Hampshire has long been a pioneer in competency-based education and the inclusion of skills and dispositions into a vision for desired student outcomes. An early member of the Innovation Lab Network sponsored by CCSSO, the state has focused on innovative instructional techniques meant to serve traditionally marginalized students. At these convenings, New Hampshire sat with other innovative peers wrestling with questions of how to better align systems with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions students need to succeed after high school.

Initial efforts in New Hampshire to codify skills and dispositions suffered a backlash from legislators, who believed this kind of work deprioritized academic knowledge and skills. Savvy leaders, working with allies in the legislature, reframed skills and dispositions as “Work Study Practices” to make them more politically palatable. In the eyes of state leaders, renewing the effort to establish a framework state-wide and cultivating support among the legislature also required situating the effort within a national research and policy agenda focused on postsecondary alignment. Many local districts had frameworks for skills and dispositions in place, but before this initiative, there had not been a state-wide codification of these competencies. State leaders empowered a task force of educators to decide which centrally codified framework would be adopted. The panel chose a framework for the Work Study Practices largely informed by Dr. David Conley and Sarah Lench of the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC), a leading research organization with deep expertise on College and Career Readiness.

After the adoption of the Work Study Practices, there was tension between the state education agency and the state intermediary, the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, in how to approach implementation. State education agency leaders saw this is as an opportunity to “roll-out” the Work Study Practices, building on the successful implementation of performance assessment through the Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) program. The leaders of the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, however, were hearing from districts that insisted that their local work on skills and dispositions be included in the process. Additionally, Sarah Lench from EPIC, who was advising the implementation process, saw the opportunity to learn from the variations in local implementation across a network of districts. In response to all of this, leaders at the NHLI convinced the leaders at the department to take the approach of nominally adopting the nationally-informed Work Study Practices statewide, but encouraging local districts to adapt and approximate them based on their own work. Because this grew out of a legislative priority, state leaders had to figure out how to talk about this less directive approach with key lawmakers who needed to lend their support. Education leaders had cultivated a critical ally, the Republican chair of the House Education Committee who was a former teacher and administrator. He was able to make the case to Tea Party members within the party who were resisting the inclusion of these skills and dispositions.

The New Hampshire Learning Initiative, and its Director of Innovation Jonathan Vander Els, faced a challenging landscape of building capacity in places that had not previously attended to skills and dispositions or only done so in a shallow manner, while simultaneously iterating and improving upon the deep existing work of some districts to align better with the state framework and its underlying research base. The approaches taken with the Work Study Practices mirrored the performance assessment work done through PACE. They chose to provide entry points into the WSP work that were sensitive to local contexts and existing work. They created lateral networks where schools and districts learned from one another. In support of this locally contextualized, but nationally-informed implementation, the learning network districts included teachers, administrators and district leaders in their implementation teams. The intentionally chosen members of these teams brought different expertise in different aspects of the Work Study Practices, however, the first iterations of these teams did not include community members.

In support of the implementation of the Work Study Practices, the teams went through multiple cycles of iteration, coming back together at convenings to share learning and creating informal connections they would maintain during the periods between meetings. Strong practitioners from the early efforts were developed into exemplars and leaders that encouraged new participants. The leaders of convenings were careful to set “guardrails” to guide learning, but not to set them so tightly as to constrain their ability to authentically and effectively place this work in their distinct local contexts. For example, they asked teams to focus on how the Work-Study Practices played out in the domains of instruction, assessment, professional capacity, and conditions (contexts and policies), very broad buckets that still gave some direction to the teams. They frequently left an “other” option available also, to allow for ideas that wouldn’t fit neatly into the guardrails they established. In the case of the WSP, districts were allowed to explore an “innovation of your choosing” even if it didn’t fit into the stated guardrails.

With these structures in place, state leaders and representatives of the New Hampshire Learning Initiative found that their primary role in supporting districts was often “giving permission”. Through recurring engagements with district leaders, principals and teachers, leaders reminded those in the field that the Work Study Practices legislation provided them with policy cover to explore new ideas related to competency-based learning, performance assessment and the work-study practices.

Through these processes, practitioners at every level built up habits of collaboration, storytelling, and managing ambiguity that resulted in a depth of implementation of the Work Study Practices that felt profound to everyone involved. In the words of one state education official, “Once I saw the degree of local ownership in the emerging local processes, I learned that the more diversified system was going to be both more productive and scalable, and encouraged the state to back off the more traditional implementation of the state-defined Work Study Practices.”

The New Hampshire network of districts was also building muscles that would support new innovations as leaders engaged in learning with other states in the networks sponsored by the Center for Innovation in Education.

Hawai’i and HA

At the same time the New Hampshire was looking to codify a broader definition of student success, Hawaii was engaged in similar efforts. They were part of a ten-state learning community convened by the Lumina Foundation called Core-to-College that was supporting stronger alignment between K-12 and postsecondary education. The foundation charged members of that learning community with creating a state definition of college and career readiness.

The Hawaii P-20 Council adapted David Conley’s Four Keys to College and Career Readiness to include a culturally specific concept of wayfinding. The locally adopted frame for wayfinding used a metaphor of ocean navigation that honored Hawai’ian seafaring traditions, supporting students to understand the skills required to navigate the known versus unknown waters of their post-secondary plans. The adaptation was an initial response to an ongoing tension within Hawai’i education systems, where agendas and frames were imported from the mainland with white dominant cultural underpinnings, with local leaders then attempting to adapt them. “Wayfinding” was a culturally relevant metaphor for college and career readiness, but did not address a bigger issue with the push for “college and career readiness” itself: The dominant frame was all about individual achievement, whereas Hawai’i culture prioritized community well being.

The board initiated a review of the policy that defined the desired student outcomes for the Hawai’i Department of Education. The leaders of the review empowered a committee from across the educational and non-profit sectors, including leaders from the community. Leaders emphasized that instead of trying to retrofit externally created frameworks to fit Hawai’i, they should start with “Hawai’i at the center”. The committee aimed to create something reflective of Hawai’ian context and needs, but also informed by examples from many communities around the world. In seeking to live out this charge, the committee articulated their developing framework first in Hawai’ian and translating to English after.

As they began to crystallize a framework, members of the committee went out to the community to gather feedback and check for resonance and commitment. Through multiple rounds of validation and community engagement, the Hawai’i Department of Education surfaced the six key outcomes captured in the Nā Hopena A‘o, shortened to HĀ. HĀ also translates to BREATH in English, which serendipitously is the acronym that arises from the english translation of the six outcomes. The HĀ framework captured a vision for college, career and community readiness deeply situated in the context of Hawai’ian culture. The leaders of this process began to sense, however, that what began as a locally contextualized way of defining a vision for student college, career and community readiness could be much more.

This process resulted in a seismic shift. The board decided to adopt HĀ not only as a set of outcomes for students, but as a set of system-wide outcomes for all of the Hawai’i Department of Education. In the words of the policy, HĀ provided “a framework for the Department (HIDOE) to develop in its employees and students the skills, behaviors and dispositions that are reminiscent of Hawai‘i’s unique context and to honor the qualities and values of the indigenous language and culture of Hawai‘i”. Leaders across the system called for HĀ to inform how all employees engaged with students and community members and work in concert to develop these skills in students.

Kau’i Sang, who served on the committee to create HĀ, was tapped to lead the implementation as the head of the Office of Hawai’ian Education at the DOE. As the leader of implementation, she oversaw how HĀ was introduced to communities, which was always by invitation, rather than by mandate. Her approach 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. She set in place an ambitious agenda of organizational learning that gathered insights from “early adopters” in the field. The DOE would identify patterns, introduce practitioners to relevant research and connect innovative implementers. Working with practitioners, community members and the broader education community, Sang was able to put her office in the role of learning alongside practitioners in the field. She encouraged local groups to interrogate the newly codified practices and deviate from them where they felt it was necessary for their context.

Creating this local “why” simultaneously created space for educators to try new behaviors and pivot away from mis-aligned practices. The community-driven purpose for education served as a call to action for new approaches, with the community poised to provide accountability for follow-through on implementation. For many educators, living up to the new aspirations also meant facing the inadequacy of their previous approaches. A new and revolutionary vision rooted so clearly in their local community allowed educators to acknowledge that their previous efforts had been limited by a myopic and constrained vision of student success. Investment in a broader vision allowed teachers embrace new techniques with enthusiasm.

New Hampshire Learns from Hawai’i

Jon Vander Els and other members of the New Hampshire team would learn about the the HĀ work at an Assessment for Learning Project (ALP) convening, where Kau’i Sang and the Hawai’i team were presenting their work. Their work helped Jon realize that the Work Study Practices and HĀ work had a number of similarities in both purpose and process. However, he also realized that while the implementation of the Work Study Practices had mirrored many of the same practices of shared learning through the networking of locally contextualized implementation, the community had rarely been involved and engaged at the level he was seeing from Hawai’i.

The New Hampshire team studied how the Hawai’i team engaged communities and students in co-design of a shared purpose of school. Jon and the team realized that in their implementation of the Work Study Practices, they had not co-created a“why” for their integration of these practices that was contextualized in the communities across the state. Based on their learning about the core features of both the HĀ process and outcomes through the ALP network, they developed the “What is Our Why” project. In the same way that they invited districts into the implementation of the Work Study Practices, the New Hampshire leaders started by inviting a small number of communities and districts to test out early ideas for how co-construct a community-driven “why” of education. Within a community, citizens and educators learned and built shared meaning together. Communities across the state learned and iterated together, studying each others’ approaches to the shared endeavor. Both learning processes were supported by the New Hampshire Learning Initiative and state education agency leaders who provided common language and a blueprint of an approach that could be adapted to meet local needs, much like in Hawai’i.

Operating in equity-seeking ways demands that leaders develop new skills in establishing public value, building legitimacy and support, and uncovering sources of operational capacity. The cases of Hawai’i and New Hampshire demonstrate how these capacities can be developed through a learning agenda that allows leaders to share their endeavors for others to learn from and approximate those innovations in ways that fit their local contexts. This kind of approximation in a learning community works best when it happens within and between communities and when the learning communities include policy makers, managers, practitioners and community members. Close study allowed Jon and Kau’i to better understand the underlying principles and values that enabled their innovations and to approximate approaches that allowed those principles and values to flourish in their respective states. This inter-state learning mirrored the systems Jon and Kau’i put in place between communities in their states, which in turn mirrored what districts did with their communities. A shared learning agenda based on approximation then becomes a critical lever for scaling innovations both within and between states, rather than a luxury that sits beside a traditional implementation “rollout”. Approximation via shared learning validates the tremendous effect of local context on the success of an initiative and the power that can be cultivated when people are respected as learners.


Reflection Questions:

The C!E System Transformation Framework is rooted in a core belief about learners, establishing that “All children are capable and curious people with multi-dimensional identities who belong to local and global communities, who learn in different ways, and who need to be prepared for a wide range of societal, civic and professional possibilities."

We also claim that equity-seeking systems that are more likely to reach this aspiration for children...

  • Recognize the historical origins of the system and seek to help individuals reflect on their personal histories and experiences and move to productive action based on what they see

  • Seek to help all actors build relationships across lines of difference

  • Seek to help each learner build academic and essential skill competencies

  • Seek to help each learner build a healthy identity both as an individual and member of local, connected and global communities

  • Seek to help each learner grow in their agency

We believe that equity-seeking leaders create coalitions across the circles of policy, habits/behaviors and the instructional core for a different kind of collaboration. We also claim that in doing so, leaders of innovation endeavors can unlock new forms of public value, legitimacy and support, and operational capacity.

  • What does the case study illustrate in terms of equity-seeking systems and system transforming leadership?

  • In this case study, where do you see examples of these coalitions creating a different kind of claim of public value?

  • In this case study, where do you see examples of these coalitions building different kinds of legitimacy and support among different stakeholders?

  • Where do you see examples of these coalitions developing new sources of operational capacity?

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