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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Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Updated August 14, 2020

Like the rest of America, we continue to learn about barriers to equitable outcomes for learners and the ways in which systemic racism is woven into our ways of schooling. We are learning from families who we have helped facilitate in partnership with educators in a number of places across the country. We are learning from members of the ALP community who are responding differently to what they learned in the spring and the constraints and opportunities of the fall than some of their peers. We are learning from intermediary organizations who are playing new and expanded roles in responding to needs of local school systems. And we continue to learn by maintaining the reflective behaviors we committed to in our statement of solidarity.

It felt important to capture that learning in an update to our organizational declaration. As we said when we first shared our declaration, we do not profess to have things figured out nor are we seeking to tell others what should guide their decision-making. We do feel we should be transparent with partners about why we do what we do. And we meant it when we first shared the declaration:

The declaration is more than just a living document for us, it is a document that guides our practice and learning as a team and organization. We continually use it to check ourselves as we make decisions about partnership, resource use, initiative design and use of internal staff time.

We have been checking ourselves. We have been making different decisions about the work we do, partnerships we seek and whose voice we amplify. And we will continue to learn and change in response to that learning. We offer the updated declaration in an effort to be transparent about our learning and our stance as an organization.

Click the image below to download C!E's Declaration of Intent.

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For privileged families, the question of pods is one of complexity, not chaos.

By Michelle Ampong and Doannie Tran

Families are innovator-leaders now

If you are a family trying to plan for the fall, you are now at the forefront of educational innovation. As remote learning becomes the primary re-opening strategy, families will be overseeing much more of the learning time for their children. Districts are occupied with re-opening safely, providing a consistent experience for learners, and providing required services. Families will take the district’s valiant and imperfect solutions and find ways to make them work in their unique situations. In doing so, families will create a wave of innovative solutions at a scale never seen before. All families will develop innovations, from families from traditionally marginalized groups to those with privilege.

In this article, we are focusing on what families with privilege can do to support equity in their communities and avoid worsening opportunity gaps. Privileged families must design with an equity lens in mind as they develop innovative ideas, some of which are new and others that have been discussed in education circles for over a decade. Otherwise, their innovations could concentrate their resources and attention on the few, instead of supporting community-wide success. This article focuses on privileged families because their access to resources and power translate into outsized influence on the system. This article will guide privileged families to shift the focus from their needs and onto the needs of the community and provide a way to move from making assumptions about needs in their communities to learning about needs in a spirit of partnership.

Innovating with equity in mind is not easy. As families plan for the education of their children, there is a growing and necessary push to consider the equity implications of their solutions. Many voices are urging families, especially white families with privilege, to avoid worsening inequities with their plans for the fall, but with precious little guidance about how. School systems often implicitly message equity as, “if you can’t do it for everyone, do it for no one.” This approach is more ‘equality’ of inputs than ‘equity’ of outcomes. For many, even the word ‘equity’ might require a re-definition, clarifying whether we are referring to equal access to the inputs of education (eg. devices, textbooks, quality instructors) or equality of outcomes (e.g. learning, grades, graduation).

To paraphrase Ibram X. Kendi, equity requires ensuring that two or more groups are “on approximately equal footing” relative to outcomes. To achieve equity of outcomes requires more targeted approaches as advocated by john a. powell at UC-Berkeley. powell writes about removing barriers for the most traditionally marginalized and providing the extra support they need to thrive. If you are a family, you might be asking yourself: “Who are the marginalized families in my community? What assumptions have I already made about their needs and barriers? How can I go from guessing what is needed to learning from marginalized families about their real needs?”

After adding these kinds of equity considerations into the mix, the challenge to create a “best” or even “good” solution can seem impossible. Not only are typical families not proficient at solving problems in the education and equity spheres, but the pandemic reduces our ability to form the trusting relationships needed to learn and build together.

Are you in chaos or complexity?

Trying to meet all these new challenges and do the right thing might make you feel like an unprepared leader in a time of chaos. If you are reading this from a place of privilege, your family may not be in chaos, though the moment might feel unpleasant and even out-of-control. Chaos requires immediate reactions to the situation - act now and figure out how it worked later. Though the timing might not be what you’d prefer, you likely have more time to understand the complexity and the implications of your actions than you may think. We are assuming that readers here have access to things like Amazon, credit cards, stable internet and the time to read this. You can make the time to question your own beliefs and your plans before school starts. Having time to prepare, think, and plan means that this situation is not chaos - it is highly complex. Any situation that includes race and equity in the United States of America is inherently complex and requires a leadership approach to match.

Create and recreate

David Snowden, a former IBM executive who wrote about acting/leading in chaotic and complex environments, notes that in chaotic situations, a leader needs to immediately act by taking decisive actions to create order, sense whether their actions are working, and respond to the new information they gather. However, leaders in complex situations start with probing the environment by learning, asking questions, understanding the complexity, and perhaps taking small actions to see what happens. Then they move to integrating that knowledge and sensing what solutions will be best. Responding is the next step that starts the cycle again. Because the situation is complex, it is likely that the first (or fifteenth) solution proposed will not be perfectly equitable or even a good way to meet all criteria. That’s ok. Every response should start a new cycle of probing the impact of any actions against equity values and family needs and expectations.

Families seeking to act equitably can use cycles of probing-sensing-responding to manage the complexity of this moment. Using this approach builds the habit of looking for the impact of your actions and responding according to your equity aims.

Create and recreate in ever expanding and more inclusive cycles

After going through the cycle a few times individually, it’s time to bring the cycle of probing-sensing-responding into the sphere for which it was created: the community. Equity conversations cannot stay in the realm of the individual. The goal is to engage in this cycle individually, then with others. The ultimate desire is to engage in this cycle with those from all sectors of your community, including those who are in ‘traditionally marginalized’ groups. Starting and building relationships that can have these kinds of conversations may take time. Some might be ready for this step now. Bring your ideas to an ever-expanding table and there might be more community friends to help you innovate and even join with you.

Real-world Application: a Thought Experiment on Pods

In order to bring this discussion out of the theoretical, let’s apply this cycle of thinking to an emerging innovation: pods. Pods can take many forms, but generally feature some subset of children getting together in person as an addition or substitute to fully remote instruction. We’ve seen families scramble to create pods in response to many districts announcing 100% remote education in the fall. Many families are imagining that grouping families/learners into pods is an acceptable or necessary solution to the complex problem posed by remote learning and personal family constraints.

Pods plus Equity

Many have called out pods as possibly problematic solutions in regards to community equity, as if we know what “pods” have to be. By declaring them equitable or inequitable, we assume that there is some kind of pod playbook somewhere that we can accept or reject. The reality is much more complex. There is no pod playbook. With every step and every choice, you can create a pod, or some other solution, that takes into account the equity impacts on other families, other classrooms, other schools, and across your community. Every choice will involve equity tradeoffs in all of these domains and there is no perfect solution.

The amount of moving, new, and confusing variables might bring a family to label the situation as chaotic. The speed at which pods emerged suggests that pods are the natural reaction to our current moment of perceived chaos, like grabbing on to the nearest floating object in a flood. Our reminder for families is to acknowledge that this is not a moment of chaos, we have time to plan before we start acting. In considering the highly complex challenges that remote learning poses, we can take the time to create with equity: Pods will be what we make them. All the possible solutions will be what we make them. Solutions will be as equitable as we design them to be, and will evolve as we learn and situations change.

Probing, sensing and responding the idea of equitable pods

Perhaps I decide that I want to explore doing an equitable pod because my family cares about education and helping close gaps. I first have to probe for information on the topic and my own feelings about what a pod is, and how I understand their impacts on equity in my community, school or classroom. Perhaps I read this critique from Clara Green and this excellent list of questions from Dr. Shayla R. Griffin. How do I understand my needs relative to my equity aims? What kind of pod do I want? Do I have what is required? Do I have relationships across lines of difference? Do I have the ability and will to not impose my cultural norms on the relationship? What kind of pod is needed by my community?

I might sense that I agree with Dr. Shayla R. Griffin, who says, “we are not going to fix hundreds of years of race and class segregation through better pod strategizing.” She rightly brings up all the things you can do instead of podding, including advocating for systemic improvements that will benefit the most traditionally marginalized students. Because I’m still striving to make more equitable decisions, I then respond by considering different options - donating twice what I spend on my own family’s learning to another family, having a diverse social pod, or perhaps going remote voluntarily so that others can have more access to in-person instruction. Or I might focus my time organizing my community to limit community spread or as Hannah Nikole Jones recently suggested, advocating for federal and state resources for a safe re-opening. I might probe my community for more equitable innovations.

I might decide that I can pod in a way that seems equitable, and my next probe will be to see if families of a different race or background will pod with me, which they certainly may or may not wish to do.  I’ll sense the openness, or lack of it, and then respond, hopefully with a dose of reflection. In a world with no perfect answers, the key is probing with equity in mind and being open to sensing and responding to the answers.

Any innovation I try or read about will involve equity tradeoffs. If I want to be an equity-seeking leader, I will need to probe and sense what my choices mean for myself and my community, and respond accordingly.

Equity and Innovation - Starting Small but Thinking Big

Traditional technological innovations, such as your phone, tend to center your needs and your convenience. Innovation, as we have been talking about it, is about making your community more equitable. The probe-sense-respond process can be done in a way that justifies your needs or it can be done in a way that balances your needs with that of your community.

Families seeking to create solutions that are equitable will need to create and recreate in ever-expanding cycles of probing-sensing-responding to meet the complexity of this moment. We hope that districts and schools can get past the stress of re-opening and learn from the wave of innovative solutions happening across their communities. Families can, and must, be partners in beginning school and district-wide innovation cycles towards greater equity. How would a school or district probe? Ask its families how they met the challenges they faced, how they created community, how they engaged, and what challenges they faced with equity decisions. Bring in community organizations as learning partners to help bring in new perspectives. Families and community organizations will be driving innovations that could benefit the most traditionally marginalized students. While districts and schools no longer hold the majority of the learning spaces in communities, they can play a critical role in helping communities make sense of what they are learning about education and what that means for the future. Districts must also respond to innovation challenges by setting guardrails to advance and preserve equity, such as blocking class transfers to support pods but that might undermine diversity in classrooms.

Families can influence districts and schools, which can sometimes feel like impenetrable systems. Systems and families can work in partnership to innovate in service of equity, but this will require a new social contract to be forged, just as our current contract seems to be fraying. As they are increasingly given opportunities to exit the system, families must agree to stay and use their voice. As districts are increasingly in crisis management, they must agree to listen and learn from the voices of families.

One of our reviewers, Erica Warren, who is a instructional coach in a public school, challenged us with this point: “This call to action is very privilege-centered, but if we want to address inequity, we must first decenter those with privilege and center those who have been historically marginalized. This does not happen by assuming what those from historically marginalized communities need, but in actually asking them what they need. It is problematic to assume, as this article does, that Black families are not creating their own innovative solutions, which is happening on some scale.” We agree. We began this article acknowledging that we are centering families with privilege because their choices historically have the most capacity to destabilize the system. Communities must develop a shared equity-driven goal and develop understanding of the barriers that hold groups back from achieving that aim. If communities want to make choices and develop policies and practices that target those barriers with intention, they must do as Warren says and ask historically marginalized families about shared aims and ask them what they need. We must also commit to learning about their innovations and lift those up to influence systems.

In our next piece, we will be sharing what we are learning from families and sharing ways for families, schools and districts to probe, sense and respond so that more equitable solutions can emerge through shared learning.

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Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Written by: Jennifer Poon, with C!E staff: Gene Wilhoit, Linda Pittenger, Paul Leather, & Gretchen Morgan


Sincerest thanks to the following individuals who shared their experiences during spring 2020 and their perspectives on assessment and accountability in the COVID-19 era: Michelle Ampong, Tora Hines, Tony Monfiletto, Paul Tritter, and Jeremy Wilhelm.

Click the image to download a PDF version of this blog post.

What does it look like for state and local education systems to ensure excellence and equity in the middle of a global pandemic – one in which unprecedented numbers of learners are disconnected and in which learning gaps will continue to proliferate?

In a phone conversation last week, Atlanta parent Tora Hines, who does hair for a living, described her up-close view of the “catastrophic” effect of COVID-19 on educational opportunity. “Some of the girls who come in, they don’t even have computers,” she says. “I ask them, ‘How’s school going?’ ‘Oh, I haven’t done school, I don’t have a computer.’” She adds, “Just imagine that your child hasn’t done any work since March.” What might it look like for states and districts to ensure educational excellence and equity for learners like Tora’s young clients?

At C!E, one thing the pandemic has not altered is our belief in the value of each child, their right to educational opportunity, and their innate ability to achieve lifelong success. As Gene Wilhoit says, “this is not a time to let up on a commitment to the kids. We can’t abandon the mission to ensure they achieve the knowledge and skills that are important for their success in life.” The pandemic cannot become an excuse for lowering expectations.

We also recognize that education leaders are now confronting this question in a dramatically altered reality that is changing our perceptions about equity and its implications for learning and instruction. As the Center for Assessment’s Scott Marion and Ajit Gopalakrishnan attest, “Attributing outcomes to school performance is uncertain in any year, but it is simply indefensible immediately following the pandemic.” Therefore the challenge before education leaders is to rethink how assessment and accountability models can uphold high expectations while also prompting critical investments that make achieving these expectations possible.

We believe these challenges cannot be confronted solely with technical fixes to previous systems of assessment and accountability. Technical adjustments like temporarily redefining accountability indicators, perfecting at-home proctoring of standardized tests, or performing “statistical gymnastics” to smooth over missing state assessment data may help refurbish pre-existing constructs around assessment and accountability, but they squander the opportunity for deeper, community-wide reflection that could bring assessment and accountability into greater coherence with the realities and complexities of teaching and learning in this COVID-19 era. In the words of Tony Monfiletto, who advocates for underserved students at Future Focused Education, an educational intermediary organization in New Mexico, and who spoke with me last week, “It’s a mis-reading of context. We’re in an adaptive moment, we’re not in a technical moment. What we need is for people to speak to the adaptive challenge. Not ‘how can we administer a standardized test’ but ‘what are the needs of kids.’

"We're in an adaptive moment, we're not in a technical moment. What we need is for people to speak to the adaptive challenge. Not 'how can we administer a standardized test' but 'what are the needs of the kids.'

- Tony Monfiletto

On a recent Zoom call with C!E staff, I was talking with Linda Pittenger and Gene – both of whom previously helped to articulate a new vision for accountability in Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm – and Paul Leather and Gretchen Morgan, who have spent considerable time learning and leading in state education agencies, about the tensions states must reconcile in their assessment and accountability decisions next year. For the first time in decades, state standardized assessments are in question, and federal direction around future state testing is unknown. We have spoken with parents and teachers who perceive systems of assessment and accountability to be punitive and feel that testing next year would unfairly punish kids who have so much else to worry about. One teacher quipped in a viral Facebook post, “I don't want to hear one word about testing, unless it involves a nasal or throat swab.” At the same time, teachers will depend on better diagnostic and formative assessments to adjust instruction to meet children where they are, while district and state systems need robust information to address inequity at a systems level and to understand growth from this point forward. FutureEd senior fellow Lynn Olson reminds us that,

“As the nation’s struggle with the coronavirus has made clear, failing to gather information about a problem doesn’t make it go away. It makes it worse.”

- Lynn Olson

On that C!E call we all sensed that tensions like these cannot be resolved in state houses alone. Rather, we feel that true partnership between stakeholders with varied lived experiences and perspectives is necessary, and that local communities already hold parts of the solutions that state leaders can listen and learn from. Take the issue of inequity for example: for the first time in decades, states are unable to use their accountability machinery to measure achievement gaps. “And yet,” Gretchen notes, “inequity is more visible now than ever before.” What can be learned from how local systems are already capturing need and responding to it? How can investing in local wisdom and more authentic input from educators and communities better inform state decisions, like resource allocation to address root causes, and result in more useful information to inform student learning?

To help state leaders approach these conversations with their communities by applying what we’ve been learning to the COVID-19 context, we offer some of our wonderings in three areas – originally described in Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm – in which education systems can innovate to meet the adaptive challenge:

  1. Focusing on meaningful learning,

  2. Developing reciprocity across the system, and

  3. Investing in professional capacity-building.

We further describe each of these areas along with questions relevant to the COVID-19 context in the following briefs, which are intended as fodder for education leaders and their local communities to explore together in collaborative, inclusive conversations about how assessment and accountability policies can best place students and their needs at the center.

We believe that change is both imperative and already happening; we need only to ask the right questions, listen, and answer the call to action. C!E is excited to support and learn alongside education leaders and communities as we leap from a semester of crisis management into a future of hope. We invite you in as a learning partner to help inform our thinking on this and other topics as they play out. What are you noticing? What are you wrestling through? We invite you to tell us at jenny@leadingwithlearning.org or take our survey on how COVID-19 is changing your perceptions of education.

To view the supplemental PDFs, please click the corresponding image below:

Assessment, Accountability, and the Adaptive Challenge of COVID-19: Focus on Meaningful Learning

Assessment, Accountability, and the Adaptive Challenge of COVID-19: Develop Reciprocity Across the System.

Assessment, Accountability, and the Adaptive Challenge of COVID-19: Invest in Professional Capacity-Building.

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