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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Download a PDF version of this letter below..

. and Accountability Invitatio

As stewards of America’s noble endeavor to educate our children, it is our collective privilege and responsibility to marshal the resources, skills, and knowledge necessary to ensure that each and every child is prepared for lifelong learning, a meaningful career, and productive engagement in our communities and broader civil society. In recent history we have raised expectations for our students, educators, and the systems that serve them, and have developed broad policies and programs intended to assess progress and hold ourselves accountable for results. We are beginning to see, however, that the consequences of our current approach to assessment and accountability are not living up to intentions, and that new solutions – as well as new ways of working together – are required.

This invitation communicates what we – the Center for Innovation in Education in partnership with our local, state, and national learning communities – are learning about how we can better seek equitable ,authentic, and sustainable improvements in education through new approaches to assessment and accountability design. It is offered as a launching pad for exploring the potential to support such work in partnership with state and local leaders and communities in the states.


Even before the tumult of 2020, we recognized that the assessment and accountability structures we built were not working. As Gene Wilhoit wrote to chief state school officers in September, the current system’s shortfalls are plain to see. Even where one can show important gains through the use of end of- year summative assessments for institutional accountability and oversight, the negative impact of these systems on the most critical goal, improving teaching and learning, is well-documented: a narrowing of curriculum; preoccupation with the performance of “bubble” kids in tested subjects while others are ignored; decreased student motivation; increased pressure to cheat; and growing disillusionment among the teaching workforce. At a systems level, over-reliance on top-down external pressures to coerce changes in behavior has removed responsibility and ownership from those closest to students, causing them to perceive assessment not as integral to improving outcomes but as a state endeavor with which they must minimally comply.

Families, too, have become increasingly disillusioned by assessment and accountability systems they perceive as intrusive, punitive, and perpetuating systemic racism. Indeed, the current system consumes considerable percentages of taxpayer money and instructional time to identify results that, in the eyes of those inside classrooms, are already known. Disparities in performance within and across schools and districts do require surfacing, therefore we do agree that states cannot abdicate their important role in

holding public institutions accountable for serving each and every child. But the invasive and punitive manner in which current systems enact that role – especially when consequences for persistent achievement gaps are prescribed without also providing resources to make necessary improvements – insufficiently promotes improvement. Instead the current system largely shrugs at resource disparities like differences in local tax-based revenue and educator experience that are historical consequences of overtly racist policies such as redlining. Consequently, low marks on state assessments and accountability

measures repel home buyers, lowering property values and prompting a vicious cycle of disinvestment in under-resourced communities. Thus, historically underserved families feel inappropriately blamed for achievement gaps and are disproportionately punished by them, too.

Now, the co-evolving crises of 2020 including the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recession, and social awakening to systemic racism have deepened stakeholders’ discontent with assessment and accountability systems exposed as inequitable and disconnected from reality. They perceive the mismatch between standardized” assessments and students’ wildly inequitable opportunities to learn (let alone variable testing conditions) as schools turn remote. They rebuke leveling judgment on students, families, and schools based on an oversimplified sense of “results” while ignoring the far more complex indicators of student and community health and progress that are of greatest local concern. In the eyes of many

stakeholders, state assessment and accountability systems are presently irrelevant.

For these reasons, we must recognize and reject the myth that what we have created is helping as intended. Instead, to truly improve education, create more equitable systems, and positively impact teaching and learning – in a pandemic and after – we must approach assessment and accountability design in very different ways.


State education leaders may be drawn to retrofit prior assessment and accountability machinery with technical fixes, ignoring the adaptive challenge caused by shifts in context and growing disillusionment among multiple stakeholders. Or, they may be tempted to solve the “assessment problem” on its own through assessment system redesign or innovation pilots without jointly addressing what Gene has called the “web of dependence” between current standardized end-of-year assessments and entire systems of state and federal accountability, and all the other system components they implicate. We believe both “business as usual” and “siloed tinkering” approaches are inadequate responses incapable of meeting our ongoing commitment to serve every child. Instead, we are learning that true equity-seeking transformation requires not only rethinking what we do but also fundamentally restructuring how we work together across all parts of the system.

A key insight emerging across many fields –education, business, national defense, sociology, and anthropology, to name a few – is that in complex social systems, and especially in times of turbulence, advancements are made not by experts handing down pre-constructed solutions but by marshalling the collective wisdom and capabilities of diverse actors across the whole system to find emerging solutions. In doing so, system leaders gain rich insight on reality (where things are here and now, not where we assume or wish them to be) and are best able to collaborate to achieve meaningful shifts in culture, behavior, and outcomes. On the other hand, leaders who wall off diverse input or prescribe a “right path” risk worsening the situation by creating unforeseen negative side-effects, losing credibility, and squandering distributed ownership and buy-in even if (and it’s a big “if”) desired results are achieved.

In education, we must recognize that our current assessment and accountability systems – like the agencies that created them – operate paternalistically by discounting the expertise of local actors and placing the onus on state leaders to know what is best and prescribe a “right way” for others to follow. As a result, like any underutilized muscle, the capacity of local leaders and educators to self-regulate and drive improvement in assessment and accountability must be invigorated if systems are to achieve the strong foundation necessary for sustained improvement in outcomes for all students.

Similarly, education departments themselves deeply silo their processes based on a flawed sense of predictability and disregard for a more coherent view of systems thinking. Both leaders and staffers are prone to think programmatically, with the majority of staff acting as caretakers implementing directives with a compliance mindset. Walled gardens intended to promote efficiency prevent the kinds of collaborative, cross-cutting conversations necessary to respond nimbly to change and inhibit shared ownership of the work. It is little surprise that buy-in both internal and external to education agencies is often so low and that talk of underperformance catalyzes more push-back and defensiveness than real desire to change patterns of behavior.

We also must recognize that embedded deep in the hierarchies of the current education system are remnants of white supremist assumptions that directly limit our ability to seek more equitable outcomes for our students. For example, when a community with significant racial minorities is persistently underperforming, our systems will often value the perspectives of powerful, typically-white experts from outside the community more than the lived experiences and expertise of community members themselves. Education agencies are more prone to shallow inclusion efforts, such as token focus groups and surveys that inadequately reach intended populations, than to be led by or enlist members of historically marginalized communities as partners and co-creators of systems that will actually work for all of us.

No single person is responsible for this substandard way of operating, but all of us can work together to change it. We believe that it is well within reach for education system leaders, in partnership with their full agencies and stakeholders across state and local communities, to pursue equity-seeking work that shifts paradigms around educational assessment and accountability; and in doing so, effectively improves outcomes for all students, especially those most historically underserved.


We believe this work lives or dies by the strength of relationships with and among those directly engaged in the learning process: students, educators, and – increasingly with the ubiquity of remote learning – parents, families, and community members. These stakeholders represent the beating heart of the educational enterprise and their influence is felt not only on the “instructional core” but reverberates throughout the system. They are, as such, the primary stakeholders around which the design of new assessment and accountability models should be centered.

Centering assessment and accountability system design around those closest to the learning process means more than inviting their input through more frequent and longer meetings or focus groups at the state department or district central office. Rather, it requires building state-to-local coalitions and then discerning when to share or cede power and decision-making authority, within what structures of oversight, and with what reciprocal investments in capacity-building. It means building inclusive, interdependent relationships and commitments that forge levels of trust necessary for distributed accountability to take root.

This new way forward is premised on a balance between (1) local organization and leadership of “laboratories of learning” and (2) state support and responsibility for systems-level implications and for ensuring every child is served.

In their role, districts assume leadership for organizing primary stakeholders and partners in local “laboratories of learning” aimed at creating more balanced assessment and accountability models that better serve community needs and strengthen teaching and learning. Districts can invite conversations and build partnerships with diverse stakeholders in their communities, including representatives from groups least often involved in education transformation and decision-making. When districts are leading in this manner, it is they who are best positioned to lead collaborative efforts to prototype new accountability metrics that better align with outcomes most meaningful to the community, and to innovate different ways of collecting evidence of progress towards those outcomes. Similarly, when reciprocal trust is established with primary stakeholders, districts are best situated to recognize whether innovations are or are not having desired effects on learning and why or why not, and to work with their partners to make adjustments.

From their system-wide vantage point, state education leaders are responsible for animating the work, engendering trust and commitment to a new path forward, converting local insights into systemic transformation, and providing oversight that ensures equitable learning supports for every child. Specifically, the state’s role, in partnership with intermediaries and local leadership where applicable, includes:

  • Communicating an unwavering commitment to pursue equity and serve each and every learner;

  • Initiating and facilitating conversations with diverse stakeholders statewide to build awareness; reach a consensus appraisal of the current assessment and accountability system, its shortcomings, and the need to work differently; and surface a vision for a better way forward;

  • Creating conditions (policies, funding, structural supports, networking, and other incentives) that enable local “laboratories of learning” based on the common goal of creating more equitable and balanced assessment and accountability models that strengthen the learning process for all students;

  • Validating local results, and ensuring consistent alignment to equity goals and adherence to shared principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion; and

  • Listening to and learning alongside local work and supporting sense-making (what is happening, what shared meaning is created) and application to broader systems change.

That latter role – supporting application to broader systems change – is critical and involves several wrap- around tracks of work that must be pre-loaded from the beginning, not attempted as an afterthought; otherwise the “web of dependency” among system components will snuff out progress. These essential wrap-around tracks of work are within the charge of state leadership working in reciprocal partnerships with intermediaries and local leaders and include:

  • Working within state and district agencies to improve capacity to support local work as partners and co-creators (including both structural reorganization and culture change as needed);

  • Keeping focus on the long-term goal of system-wide transformation, including creating strategies for involving increasing numbers of districts in assessment and accountability redesign (through communications campaigns, defining tiers of involvement based on readiness, building tools and systems useful to onboarding, and supporting strategies for scaling through approximation);

  • Listening to and supporting educator professional learning communities as they enhance their roles in supporting student learning; Enlisting, engaging, and creating transparent flows of communication with both political actors and the broader public to garner broad understanding and support throughout all phases of the work;

  • Creating routines and mechanisms through which robust, contextual information on progress is routinely monitored, reflected on, and used to inform corrections or enact broader systems change; and

  • Addressing implications on funding and governance, including implications for the investment of time, talent, finances, and/or tool development.

While these responsibilities may feel dauntingly comprehensive, if the hard work of building trusting, reciprocal partnerships is front-loaded, the work will not rest solely on the state to carry out. In addition, some of these functions may be supported by partner organizations as we will describe in the final section of this invitation.

We envision the work unfolding through two phases: an initial exploratory, coalition-building phase, followed by a longer phase of deep transformational work, as illustrated below.


Phase One: Exploration and Coalition-Building

Before any tangible work begins, we must work to build broad awareness and understanding of the need for change in our approach to assessment and accountability, similar to what we’ve attempted to communicate in the first sections of this invitation. Importantly, these conversations should include representatives from groups that have been historically under-represented in education system decision- making so that emerging solutions reflect the authentic needs of all those impacted by the system. First steps should also include engaging the State Board of Education, State Legislature, and Governor to ensure they are willing to help carry this agenda.

Next state leaders, in partnership with local leaders, lead diverse stakeholders in collaborative exercises to envision a better way forward. Co-creation is paramount because the resulting vision must feel owned by all stakeholders, especially those closest to the learning process as well as those internal to state and district agencies. This critical step “plows the field” to prepare it for the deep local work that comes next.

Then, guided by the emerging “North Star” vision for equitable assessment and accountability, states initiate exploratory conversations with districts to determine willingness to lead local “laboratories of learning” tied to the statewide agenda. Questions of broad-based will as well as district capacity, stability, and expertise should inform the conversations and shape the collaborative creation of tiers of readiness reflecting how and when districts might engage in the statewide learning agenda, and what additional capacity-building supports are needed at each tier. It should be noted that, while some districts may begin the work first, all of them should be involved in the broader conversation about where we are headed and why; and all should be increasingly looped-in according to readiness milestones if and when Phase Two work proceeds.

Meanwhile, this initial phase of work must make inroads in re-patterning state education agency behaviors to be better able to work collaboratively and support local laboratories of learning – otherwise departments will too readily revert to entrained top-down behaviors. State chiefs should look across departments (not just assessment or accountability staff but also directors of equity, inclusion, innovation, teaching and learning, and others) to examine which organizational assets should be directly mobilized to support this work. Further, we recommend chiefs lead an effort to change agency culture by building understanding of the limitations of how we have operated in the past and the need to work differently – more collaboratively – moving forward. This does not mean that sweeping cultural change is expected by the end of Phase One, but that a vector is set, awareness is raised, and important conversations have begun.

Some of these Phase One actions might be carried out with the support of partner organizations knowledgeable not only in assessment and accountability but also in equity-seeking systems transformation, especially those that have relationships and credibility at both state and local levels. For example, such organizations may be able to assist state and local leaders in framing stakeholder conversations, ensuring diverse representation, facilitating inclusive processes for collaboration that balance power dynamics so that all voices are heard, advise on the creation of processes for partnering with districts around a shared learning agenda, and/or support conversations leading to structural and cultural changes inside education agencies.

Resulting from Phase One, the state and its partners will achieve:

  • A shared state-wide narrative capturing the dire need and urgent opportunity to seek equity by rethinking assessment and accountability;

  • A shared state-wide vision for a better way forward;

  • An initial plan for structuring Phase Two work; and

  • A broad and inclusive structure of relationships that can serve as a coalition for change, whether or not the state decides to move into Phase Two work.

Upon completion of Phase One, we imagine that the state and its local partners would pause to ask whether there is desire and capacity to launch into Phase Two at this time. If not, participants can still realize the value of the assets created in Phase One for future improvement efforts. But if the state and its partners are ready, a timeline and milestones are established for the deeper, longer work of Phase Two.

Phase Two: Deep Transformation Work through Local Laboratories of Learning, Sense-Making, and Application to Broader Systems Change

With the groundwork laid in Phase One, states are poised to launch a Phase Two process through which local, district-run “laboratories of learning” prototype and test ideas and models designed to address their local priories in ways aligned to the statewide vision of more equitable systems of assessment and accountability, as identified in Phase One. Meanwhile state education leaders and their partners carry out the responsibilities and wrap-around tracks of work as described above in Section III. Importantly, we emphasize that state leaders, local leaders, and communities should collaborate to routinely monitor and synthesize what is learned within and across sites. States also support the work by identifying and applying insights toward broader systems change, supporting increasing engagement within and across districts, continuously engaging with and garnering public and political will, and ensuring adherence to statewide equity goals. Like in Phase One, some of these Phase Two actions may be carried out in collaboration with partner organizations skilled at framing, advising, process design, and/or facilitation.

Resulting from Phase Two, the state and its partners will achieve:

  • A variety of models, prototypes, or elements that improve local systems of assessment and accountability and can be approximated elsewhere in the state at increasing scale;

  • Directional movement of the structures and dispositions of local systems that, when a tipping point is reached, trigger statewide (and potentially, national) systems transformation; and

  • Muscle tone” (i.e. capacities, attitudes, and trusting relationships) supporting a reciprocal approach to accountability in which responsibility for outcomes is shared across all levels of the system.

While we cannot promise a rapid timeline for Phase Two results to materialize (i.e. we can expect more than a one-year project), we emphasize that the slow work of building trust and shared responsibility is far more effective and able to substantially improve teaching and learning for all students, especially the most historically underserved, than a quick but shallow top-down mandate. To quote Dwight D. Eisenhower, 4 star General in command at Normandy during WWII and 34th President of the United States, “There are no victories at bargain prices.” But there are, already throughout your state, partners and allies who will commit to seeing it through. They merely need to be invited in.

November 17, 2020 This Invitation has been prepared for the Interstate Learning Community by Jennifer Poon in collaboration with Gene Wilhoit, Paul Leather, Linda Pittenger, and the team at C!E, as a follow-up to Gene's September 21, 2020 letter to state chiefs and the education field.

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Updated: Sep 24, 2020

On September 3rd, all chief state school officers received an important letter from US Education Secretary DeVos regarding assessment and accountability for the current school year.  You now have greater clarity about Federal expectations. To quote: “It is now our expectation that states will, in the interest of students, administer summative assessments during the 2020-2021 school year, consistent with the requirements of the law and following the guidance of local health officials.  As a result, you should not anticipate such waivers being granted again.”  However, this does not mean assessment designs and administration need to be as they have been. And, we know that we have learned a lot under the intensity of COVID 19 and the call for social and racial justice. It appears the Department is open to working with states to improve assessment and accountability this year. Again, to note: “It might be difficult to imagine the administration of statewide assessments in the same manner as they have been administered in the past…..it may be that the assessments will look different….Now may be the perfect time for you to rethink assessment in your state, including considering competency and mastery-based assessments, to better gauge the learning and academic growth of your students.” 

So, let’s get down to specifics about assessment and accountability.

All chiefs took the opportunity to request and receive a Federal reprieve to forgo state summative assessments for the year just completed. The reason was COVID 19—schools were closed, students and teachers were communicating with each other via hastily developed distance learning with some students coping and too many disconnected totally. Curricula were adjusted, aborted or dramatically altered. So, everyone admitted that forcing summative tests on a system in disarray was unfair and impossible to administer. This made sense given what we thought was a one-time situation in which we found ourselves and we thought we could return to normal assessment and accountability routines this year. 

It is clear that we are not going to return to prior practice this year and, given what we are learning, we may be at a point of inflection that will reshape multiple aspects of learning in this country. Therefore, the issues of assessment and accountability are up for debate and revision. For real reasons, people have concerns about this shift. Well-meaning advocates for historically underserved children - whether they be students with special needs, English language learners, students of color and those in poverty - know that those children and youth have not been supported as they should. Their rightful plea to policymakers is that we not regress to a time when these children were overlooked, underserved and forgotten. 

Moreover, the entire system of federal and state reporting and accountability is dependent on these summative tests. They undergird state and school district collection, reporting and determination of learning gaps, labeling school and district performance and formation of improvement plans.  The entire accountability system in all of the states is anchored in the standardized end-of-year assessments and they are used by states to make judgments about schools, districts and state performance. Many states factor these results into judgments about individual teachers and students.

Given this web of dependence, many will be doing all they can to make it through the crisis in the hope that we will be able to return to normalcy as soon as possible. After all, we may not like the system, but we do understand it and have developed ways to operate within or around it. Our systems are dependent upon what we have crafted over the years. Policymakers are invested in and are content with this system as a way to hold schools and districts accountable; we do have what they perceive as a valid way to make policy and to allocate resources. Why not build upon this system? Does it not make sense?

We at C!E have a different perspective. The COVID crisis is an opportunity - for it has shown light on a system that is not serving us as we envisioned. The shortfalls of our investment in assessment and accountability have been recorded—narrowing of the curriculum to perform well on assessed areas and the revelations of cheating are only symptoms. Underneath are more serious issues. We contend that we have put too much faith in the tests as true measures of success or failure. End-of-year summative assessments can give only very broad indications of progress. Because of budget constraints, testing time, nature of test design and other factors, state summative assessments are not appropriate tools to determine student or teacher accountability nor do they support the most important purpose of testing, which is student learning.  Do not misunderstand our intent. We need state measures of institutional accountability, for courts uphold the state as the ultimate agent of responsibility for services to students according to each state’s constitutional language. Policymakers must know that each and every school and district is living up to its responsibility to the community and to the state.  We must not abandon the states’ oversight responsibility.  Standardized assessments can be good instruments for institutional accountability and should be continued since states do need some means to validate local judgments. But they do not need to exist as they are. 

One can envision state summative assessments that are less intrusive, given less frequently and used in much more reasonable ways. States can make valid and reliable judgments about the institutions within their states by annually alternating content areas or assessing by school unit; these tests can be administered in time frames longer than a year, they can be sampled as opposed to each child taking every test, they can be improved in terms of methodology and they must be limited in their application to the use case for which they were designed. For this reason, tests developed for institutional accountability should not be the primary determinant of student and teacher accountability.

In order to balance the impact of state standardized tests we must correct a missed opportunity to invest in the capacity of those working most directly with students by supporting the development of local faculty to assess student progress and standing.  In our immediate future we must commit substantial resources and energy to empower teachers to be the primary determinants of student accountability and for local administrators to use multiple indicators to adjudicate teachers and to provide the necessary support to build individual and team capacity.  To be clear, to withdraw intrusive and inappropriate applications of state summative assessments without ensuring the complementary capacity of local professionalism related to assessment would be folly.  We see no choice; we must do better, and we will never have a high functioning system of assessment and accountability until we shift greater responsibility and support to local educators. 

As professionals, teachers should be expected to possess the knowledge and skill to become the center of a balanced system of assessment. It can be done. We have been privileged to stand in support of one state effort to do so and are aware of others that are moving in this direction. 

Under a 1204 agreement with the U.S Department of Education, New Hampshire is engaged in a process to empower and engage teachers as the builders of a better way. I am sure these educators would say this is not the only way, just one way to build a balanced system of assessment and accountability.  The NH Performance Assessment of Competency Education PACE system is based on local performance assessments that are calibrated partially by comparisons to state tests in the core content areas of English Language Arts, Math, and Science given not annually, but only in grade spans, as well as Common PACE performance tasks in each grade and content area, that are constructed and piloted by teams of NH teachers, overseen by the National Center for Assessment.  Data analysis and group calibration sessions find PACE accountability determinations to largely be as reliable as the state test overall.  The common task development sessions of teams of educators within a community of practice model has led to an apprentice-like development of assessment literacy among the teachers leading the process.  Scaling across the state has been slow due to the lack of resources in 1204 for supporting innovative assessments, something crucial to the development of a locally supported model.  

New Mexico, in the last year, has adopted what approaches a fully balanced assessment system that is closely aligned to what we have laid out in this paper.  They have adopted a state assessment in required content areas with a minimal footprint to meet federal school accountability requirements and are simultaneously constructing a locally developed performance assessment for student graduation, based on state and locally derived Portraits of a Graduate. Their design is intended to better connect to the diverse cultural populations in a state with vast rural areas as well as the substantial racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic realities that exist in Albuquerque and other cities. They have adopted a community of practice approach to work in partnership with local leaders and educators, as the system is designed and implemented.  They are approaching the emergence of this new way from an asset-based perspective, looking to build on the strengths of their communities, although they recognize that local capacity building with educators will need to be extensive over the coming years.  This project is just completing its first year, and although they have been hampered by the COVID moment, their momentum and commitment to a more equity-based system is exciting to see.

We encourage leaders in other states to use this moment as a time to reassess the balance of their assessments.  Does our assessment system only address state-level accountability at the expense of classroom improvement?  If so, how might we reduce the footprint of our state assessment to allow for growth at the local level?

Ultimately, an effort to build balanced systems of assessment that provide valid and reliable determinants of school and district accountability complemented by evidence of student learning at the classroom and school level will require federal leadership from the Congress and Administration.  The 1204 option should be replaced with a challenge to states to engineer balanced systems of assessments from which appropriate accountability can be designed. This may be the opportune time to act.

More importantly, states in cooperation with local leaders must be the primary agents for assessment and accountability reform. Accountability was conceived of primarily as a way for state and federal officials to hold local schools accountable. To honor and be responsive to the heightened role of families, we will need to engage in productive dialogue with families to consider how schools, districts and even states will be accountable to them.  Governors, legislators, and state boards of education, facilitated by Chief State School Officers and their agencies, must come together with field leaders and families to face the effectiveness of their assessment and accountability systems. 

COVID 19 and the social and racial justice awakening have laid bare deficiencies in systems. Now is an opportune time to ask serious questions and to resolve to do what is possible to develop systems that uphold our commitment to high standards for what students must know to succeed in life while supporting creative learning opportunities for each and every learner. Is the current system serving us well? Where are we achieving our goals and where are we falling short? What are the unanticipated shortcomings? How can we engage our professionals, parents and caregivers and communities in a process of improvement and mutual accountability? Are we willing to and do we have the ability to commit necessary human and financial resources to move in a new direction?

The important point is to use this awakening to pursue improvement. If upon collaborative investigation, you decide your system is serving you well, reaffirm and move forward. If your system needs improvement to better serve learners, educators and their communities and the state, please risk for the good. There are places attempting to redesign assessment and accountability who can be resources. We and others are committed to supporting this important transition within states in which policymakers pledge to come together, engage broadly with education professionals and with broader communities in an effort to align assessment and accountability for the betterment of all learners.



Download Gene's letter below.

Considerations Assessment & Accountabili
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Updated: Aug 24, 2020

By Sarah Lench, Director of Learning Networks for C!E

The Washington Post recently ran an essay by Jeff Gregorich as part of the publication’s “Voices from the Pandemic” series. With heartbreaking honesty, the superintendent of a small Arizona district offers his perspective on reopening schools for his 300 students by August 17.

“I’m sorry, but it’s a fantasy,” Gregorich said.

August 17 was the deadline Arizona Governor Doug Ducey set for districts to offer in-person instruction to students, or risk losing 5% of school funding. Meanwhile, Arizona has been identified as one of the nation’s “hotspots” for COVID-19.

I was struck by how Gregorich’s words capture the incredibly complex challenges all local education leaders are facing: maintaining the safety and well-being of staff and students, serving families who are struggling without the communities of care that schools provide, and navigating the national politics that divide and distort local decision-making. But I was also struck by how the tone of this essay was decidedly different from a recent conversation I had with another superintendent from Arizona.

Steve Holmes is the superintendent of Sunnyside Unified School District (SUSD). Extending from South Tucson to the Mexico border, Sunnyside serves approximately 17,000 students, of which 84% are Hispanic, 80% qualify for free and reduced-priced meals, and 17% are classified as English Language Learners.

Sunnyside started the school year remotely on August 5, with the commitment to return to in-person instruction “only when it is safe to do so,” according to a video message from Holmes made public shortly after we spoke at the end of July. Conspicuously absent from that statement – or our Zoom conversation - was any mention of August 17 or the Governor’s mandate. But when I asked Holmes and his Chief Academic Officer Pam Betten about their strategy for starting the school year, he offered the core message he’s been sharing with staff and families.

“This is an opportunity to do great things with our students,” Holmes said.

Perhaps I should pause to provide some background on my relationship with Steve, Pam, and the Sunnyside story. Back in 2015, SUSD was one of three districts partnering with WestEd to pilot a formative assessment professional learning program that was funded through the Assessment for Learning Project (ALP). As the Director of ALP, it’s my job (and honor and nerdy delight) to regularly connect, learn, and #rethinkassessment alongside grantees and their partners within the ALP learning community.

Early dispatches from my colleagues at WestEd signaled that there was something important happening in Sunnyside, something bigger than but directly connected to the formative practices they were piloting in seven schools. Holmes, who was educated in Sunnyside from kindergarten through 12th grade, had just assumed the Superintendent position the year prior in 2014. He and his leadership team were building out a districtwide coherence framework that was grounded in a vision of equity defined by student agency, identity, and purpose.

Decades of research describe the systemic failures of districts serving high-poverty communities: pervasive use of prescriptive curriculum focused on marginal test score gains rather than the development of critical skills and deep knowledge; instructional and assessment practices that subtract students’ culture and language; low expectations for student performance; and structural and cultural systems that maintain privilege and the power dynamics of the status quo. Prior to Holmes’ appointment, Sunnyside embodied much of these inequitable learning conditions and the predictable patterns of student outcomes produced therein.

The formative practices teachers were developing through the WestEd pilot were creating the kinds of learning conditions Holmes was seeking more broadly for SUSD: an intentional focus on cultivating student agency as well as an approach to professional learning that mirrors the inquiry, reflection, feedback, and learner-centered experiences of students in the classroom. A series of field memos from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) documents the powerful ways this professional learning operates within schools and across the district. Five years later, there is wall-to-wall implementation of the WestEd program in 16 of 21 schools, and formative practice is central to the Sunnyside’s instructional core and organizational learning culture. (Quick note: if the mere mention of formative assessment conjures images of boring old exit tickets and checks for understanding, go read those field memos. This is not that. This is radical, transformative work.)

In the past five years, SUSD has also become a 1:1 district utilizing OER curricula strategically selected to move away from a heavy reliance on teacher-directed instruction and toward structures where students direct and monitor their own learning. Sunnyside reimagined its graduate profile describing the knowledge, skills, and critical consciousness students need to live, work, and learn after high school. Assessment approaches that are authentic demonstrations of the graduate profile also serve to shift the narrative – once dominated by test scores – about who Sunnyside students are and what they are capable of accomplishing.

I remember a conversation I had with one of the Assessment for Learning Project’s independent evaluators who had just returned from her first site visit to Sunnyside. She was describing the quality of feedback, reflective vulnerability, and focus on learner agency that she observed there. This Stanford professor who literally wrote the book on conditions of learning stated candidly, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

So in the middle of a global pandemic, while education leaders across the country are grappling with the greatest challenges of their careers, Steve Holmes tells me, “This is an opportunity to do great things with our students.” And I believe him.

The great things that Holmes and Betten have in mind are not emergency detours brought on by this moment. Instead, they are strategies that deepen, expand, and push forward the work they’ve already been doing. Like a resilient crescendo of a coherence strategy conceived five years ago.

Developing student agency has been a core of principle of the Sunnyside vision and a central focus of instructional and assessment practices. As a 1:1 district with OER curricula based in Google Classroom, SUSD was able to shift to online learning in March more easily than many of their peers. Holmes shared lessons from the spring that proved students were more capable and more prepared to navigate this shift than many thought possible. In other words, the district was able to make the technical transition to distance learning, and students used their agency to make the move with them. Further, he believes this extended time in distance learning is an opportunity to continue to develop agency in ways that will make them better, more self-directed learners when schools reopen for in-person instruction. “These skills,” he said, “will benefit them throughout their lifetime.”

Pam Betten sees an opportunity to innovate grading practices in ways that are aligned with prior efforts to move away from teacher-centered, teacher-controlled classrooms. Distance learning means a loss of control, and for Betten that means “no more micromanaging and rewarding compliance behaviors.” She’s encouraging Sunnyside teachers to lean on their formative assessment training that helps them to elicit and observe evidence of student learning, not evidence that a student simply completed an assignment.

Building strong, reciprocal relationships with students is critical to formative practice: feedback builds trust but also requires it to be received; knowing students on a deep level allows teachers to more clearly see their growth; and students in safe space are more likely to take risks and show what they know. SUSD’s reflections on distance learning in the spring made very clear the importance of relationships. Teachers with strong student relationships prior to the shift online sustained engagement in distance learning. Teachers with weaker relationships lost much of their students’ attention online, and they tended to employ more teacher-centric practices. Another important insight was found in survey data on teachers’ perceptions about student disengagement. Teachers ranked lack of parent involvement, negative attitude toward school, or lack of wifi access as chief causes of disengagement. While “student-teacher relationship” was a survey response option, most didn’t perceive it as a cause despite evidence to the contrary.

Holmes sees this as an opportunity to take on the heavy lift of implicit bias training. Prior to COVID-19, he already knew implicit bias was a barrier to fully realizing the benefits of formative practice in Sunnyside. In simplest terms, the assumptions a teacher makes about a student distorts what a teacher is able to see about that student’s learning. Holmes noted that - while this may sound like a response to the current national conversation about systemic racism - this is local work. Many teachers grew up in Sunnyside. “The biases they carry about our students are the stories they carry about themselves and our community,” said the Sunnyside-raised superintendent.

And because he knows this community on a deep level, he knows the challenges families are facing due to distance learning, as well as the broader economic instability of the pandemic. Access to devices and wifi was an equity issue before schools closed, especially for a 1:1 district, and SUSD had a collaboration with local utilities to connect students at home years prior. As of March 2020, all Sunnyside students had Chromebooks and 85% had internet at home, an access rate far higher than similar high-poverty communities. And within a week of shifting online, Sunnyside had a fleet of 29 wifi-enabled busses set up as mobile hotspots and free meal distribution sites across the district, a service that continued through the summer.

Even the best technical solutions, online pedagogy, and virtual relationships can’t replace the physical communities of care schools provide for students. Parents and caregivers in SUSD are predominantly hourly wage earners without paid leave or the option to work from home to support their children with remote studies. In the spring and summer, many students were cared for by extended family, older siblings, grandparents, neighbors, NPOs, churches, as well as licensed and informal daycares. And weeks ago, while popular attention was fixed on the phenomenon of wealthy white families hiring private tutors for small “pods” of students, Steve Holmes was in negotiations with local government, community organizations, and commercial property owners to use empty warehouses and airplane hangars as pop-up care facilities.

I asked Steve and Pam about the great things they hope to do with students who can’t access instruction via remote learning, specifically students with disabilities.

“Those are the students who keep me up at night,” Pam said.

I was relieved to hear the honesty of Pam’s words. I am the mother of an autistic first grader who loves learning, hates Zoom, and was all but abandoned when his school closed in the spring. I am a community organizer for families of children with disabilities who are collectively concerned about what schooling will (and will not) provide this fall. Rather than the rote recital of state IDEA guidelines that many parents are hearing right now, her words signal care and compassion and a grounding that there are big challenges still ahead. Pam and Steve went on to explain that while they don’t have clear solutions, they are committed to have families and teachers share what is working and why, push in to these students’ learning experiences with curiosity, and use the power of observation to better identify what their needs are.

Push in with curiosity. Learn from families and educators. Do great things. No one would choose to be starting the school year this way - be it logged into a device from an airplane hangar or masked within a six foot square in a classroom - and none of us have the perfect solutions to the challenges we face. Yet the Sunnyside story is one every innovative, equity-seeking leader should be turning toward this season. Where are you pushing in? What are you learning? Who are you empowering in this moment? What are your most resilient practices to deepen, expand, and lean into? When faced with what feels like an impossible future, what great things are possible?

To learn more about Sunnyside's work with student agency, formative practice, and professional learning culture:

Developing A School Culture of Meaningful Feedback Deepens Everyone’s Learning

A Systems Approach to Creating an Ecology of Equity in a High-Poverty School District

WestEd's Student Agency in Learning (SAIL) project, piloted in Sunnyside

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