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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As part of our ongoing blog series about leading and learning in the time of COVID, we were planning to share a post this week recasting schools as communities of care and responsibility. Yet as communities across this country are physically and spiritually on fire, we feel compelled to ask ourselves, as an equity-seeking organization...What is our responsibility - individually and collectively - in this critical moment?

Today isn’t an ordinary day, and it isn’t an ordinary time. And yet, many of us and our colleagues in education find ourselves sitting in ordinary corners of our homes, reading emails, recording video lessons, hopping on and off of video conference calls, making meals, maybe helping a child with remote learning or caring for elders. We put on masks to be out of the house, we clean our groceries and remind everyone in our COVID circle to wash their hands.

Day by day, as our COVID habits become increasingly ordinary, an extraordinary, sickening and historically persistent phenomenon has re-emerged in plain view of all Americans. Elected officials were forced to face the data that emerged indicating that people of color were being infected and dying at disproportionately high rates. Tribal communities clashed with state governments about who can decide whether their land is theirs to restrict access to or not. It also became clear that the working and living conditions of those living in poverty in our country, as well as inside our jails and immigration detention centers, were all ideal environments for COVID transmission.

Then, at a time when it would seem that our most basic human instincts would call us together to fight a common threat, violent acts of white supremacy emerged with a chilling nonchalance and at a staggering cadence.

We condemn the murder of George Floyd and stand in solidarity with those who are calling for justice and accountability for his death. We stand in solidarity with our Black family, friends, and neighbors whose pain is too deep, too long, and too often denied. We say George Floyd’s name, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and mourn the names we do not know. We say Black Lives Matter.

We condemn all forms of racial violence and the public systems inflicting that violence. We also recognize the inequitable conditions of public education as part of white supremacy’s suffocating effects. We know we aren’t the first to see these things, nor do we think that our partners don’t already see, and still it felt important to us as part of our sensemaking to name that patterns of oppression are repeated and reinforced in the daily experience of American school children. Children notice whose history is told, whose ways of knowing and communicating are recognized, and as they see whose bodies are disciplined, who teaches in and who leads their schools, and whose identities matter. And these patterns repeat in the ways education systems operate: whose voices are heard, whose expertise is valued, who has power, and whose order is maintained through policy decisions and distribution of resources.

We believe in what adrienne maree brown offers about fractals in Emergent Strategy. That if we seek changes at a large scale we can, or maybe even must, begin by creating the vision we wish to see in the scales closest to us. To that end, we are sitting in sustained discomfort, staying conscious and alert to the pain of individuals and communities. We are reflecting on when we have been both perpetrators and victims. We are reflecting on the power dynamics present in classrooms for children, and at the front door of the school building for many families, and on our own team.

And, although we like to think of ourselves as system transformation engineers and great tool builders, we commit to resisting the temptation to find, develop or otherwise promote program innovations or tools in a rush to feel that we found a great way to help. Instead we commit to the following. We seek, and will continue seeking equity by:

  • Observing what is happening, taking time and care to bear witness

  • Listening to hear about what others are experiencing

  • Naming root causes for white supremacist and racist structures, as we do in our organizational Declaration of Intent

  • Amplifying voices of pain, frustration, responsiveness, insight and partnership from people of color, and particularly voices of Black and Indigenous people

  • Examining ourselves, our assumptions, the intentions and impacts of our decisions and actions

  • Inviting dialogue, critique, emotion and honesty in all of our interactions and relationships

  • Following the leadership of learners, families, educators, and community organizers of color

  • Questioning in a way that both calls out and calls in our peers when we observe misalignment between intentions, behaviors and impacts

  • Loving and believing in our learners, our colleagues, and our communities

  • Calibrating and recalibrating, committing and recommitting to each of the above actions such that we challenge and change our habits and foster the fractal of the equitable future we seek

Finally, we will observe that there are young people suffering real trauma from the effects of this moment in history. And there are young people who are using their voices to lead in this moment. And all young people are watching to see what the adults will do. Schools can repeat history; ignore their pain, mute their voices, and redirect their attention back to their lessons. Or schools can be extraordinary spaces of healing.

We commit and recommit to challenge and change our habits to be part of that healing. We’re calling ourselves in. We invite colleagues and friends who also find themselves sitting between the ordinary and the horror of this moment to commit to the healing as well. We invite dialogue, critique and any other responses to this letter.

With love, and hope for healing and meaningful change,

Doannie, Gene, Gretchen, Lauren, Linda, Paul, Sarah

Even in a pandemic, some topics in education are always relevant...

This week, as we continue to collect responses in our I used to think, but now I am thinking survey seeking to hear from you about how ideas and assumptions are changing as learners, teachers, families, and system leaders respond to COVID -- we also wanted to release a set of topical briefs.  

Just prior to the arrival of COVID, C!E team members worked with Jenny Poon, a C!E Fellow and frequent thought and writing partner, to produce a series of briefs pulling together more recent learning on topics we just seem to keep coming back to over time.  

Each of these briefs can be found posted in our blog series by following these links:

Essential Learning: School Finance 

Essential Learning: Accountability

Essential Learning: Leadership in Learning

Essential Learning: Essential Skills and Dispositions

Essential Learning: Assessment for Learning Project

Essential Learning: New Hampshire Performance Assessment for Competency Education (NH PACE)

We wanted to share them as a group this week and invite you to let us know which of these topics you are finding yourself coming back to as you contemplate your plans for schooling in the coming year.  You can tell us in the shortest survey every written here. Or email us at gretchen@leadingwithlearning.org.

Based on a number of conversations we have had with local partners and themes emerging across those sites, we are already working on a COVID-specific update to the brief on accountability which will be released in a couple weeks as this blog series continues.  

In conversations with state partners and intermediaries who work with state partners, we are also hearing a lot about school finance.  We make some recommendations here, in an earlier blog post. And, we think finance is a topic we will need to keep returning to, as states each contemplate what is beginning to feel like a perfect storm of impossibility.  Each state is trying to find a way to simultaneously:

  • serve learners in dramatically smaller class sizes, 

  • while ensuring all learners have stable access to virtual learning, 

  • prepare teachers to be engaged toggling back and forth between in-person and virtual instruction 

  • while ensuring educators whose health prevents them engaging any face-to-face instruction

  • while filling the gaps in learning created this spring in a single school year, 

  • while building and repairing and deepening relationships with learners and families who may be experiencing existential trauma, 

  • while we also plan for significant cuts in funding, not just in this year but perhaps the next several years.  

Let us know your thoughts on the briefs as written before COVID, and let us know which of these enduring topics you most want C!E to focus on in the next few months.  

Thanks for reading, 

C!E Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Align education dollars with other priorities to amplify impact

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

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

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

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

Download and read the Policy and Funding PDF here.

COVID Policy Funding Letter
Download PDF • 258KB

© 2020 Center for Innovation in Education

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