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What We're Learning: Our Blog

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


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

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Part 1- Fractals

Our last blog ended with a declaration that the few blogs to follow were going to get nerdy about why we think local processes of shared inquiry are THE work, and how to go about them in a way that enacts equity as the work unfolds. We hoped a few of you would find that prospect as exciting as we do.

Before we get into the real meat of the nerdiness here, we wanted to briefly explain our warm feelings for the word “nerdy” and how we see it as different from having expertise. To us, being nerdy means being up to learning something. It means being curious and driven in your pursuit of coming to understand. It is a disposition. Our website is “Leading with Learning” not “Leading with Expertise” or even “Leading with Innovation”. This is because the core disposition at C!E is to be nerdy. So, in our effort to seek equity, we do not lead with authority or expertise, we lead with curiosity. And actually, moving a step beyond not leading with it, we have come to believe that professional expertise, including our own, must be re-examined, redefined and repositioned as no more relevant than the expertise of families, teachers and learners themselves.

It is with that spirit that we offer this series of blogs. We offer our thinking, inspired by and hopefully building upon the thinking of others, about this complex situation in which we find ourselves and how we believe we can move forward - not because we seek to demonstrate expertise, but because we are curious to know how much our thinking is like and unlike others’. In dialogue, we can learn from one another.

Ultimately, we hope that there are some local and state teams out there who are curious about what can be done if we inquire with learners, families, and community members about what success looks like this year and how they will monitor progress and ultimately hold one another accountable. We would like to partner with and connect these lead learner communities to one another so that as a group they can help all of us see how key system components such as accountability and assessment can be transformed so that instead of helping uphold racist assumptions held in the origins of our system, they help us enact inclusion, democracy, and equity.

For the last three years, we have convened and supported a learning community of state teams who began their work together because of a shared interest in performance assessment. Some of those teams are interested in building on their work regarding performance assessment by moving in direction similar to what is outlined in an Invitation to a New Path Forward written by Jenny Poon with Gene Eilhoit, Linda Pittenger and Paul Leather last month. They are thinking about how they can support their own state networks that connect local communities of practice to one another to reimagine the broader accountability context within which performance assessment takes place. If your state isn’t participating, or if you want to know if there is a team from your state, email Gretchen Morgan at

That said, let the nerdiness begin.

We begin by focussing on the idea of fractal symmetry. The thinking that follows has come from listening to adrienne maree brown and two of her influencers, Margaret Wheatley & Deborah Frieze. We also find kinship with the Deeper Learning Dozen who observe that symmetry must exist between the view of the learner, learning, teacher, culture, and leadership. And we believe fractals can help explain both why recent reforms fell short of our aspirations and also offer us a way to move forward toward a more equitable future

Fractals are naturally occurring. They are complex patterns, building and building to repeat and expand while keeping utter symmetry with each contour of their core. From “emergent strategy” brown says, “The patterns of the universe repeat at scale. There is a structural echo that suggests two things: one, that there are shapes and patterns fundamental to our universe, and two, that what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale.”(brown, 2017, pg 52)

This silver fern frond has the same proportions in the smallest curve as it does in each curve that branches off the main stalk, and on the main stalk itself.

This level of symmetry and repetition, from the smallest scale to the largest, is an essential idea in coming to understand both how to enact future oriented actions in a time of chaos and also in coming to understand why, despite so much effort, our system continues to replicate racial injustice.

Like this silver fern frond, there is a place in which the basic shape of our education system is defined. Our education system has an origin, and in that point of origin the values, beliefs, & assumptions from our shared history establish the pattern of racial inequality which we enact at all levels of scale.

Seeing and understanding that origin is essential to change. When connecting the idea of fractals in nature to human behavior and systems change, brown says, “this may be the most important element to understand -- that what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system,”(emergent strategy, 2017, pg 53). By changing HOW we do our work, by naming and using equity-seeking beliefs and assumptions to drive how we behave, we can reshape the origin of the fractal, and in doing so, we can change the system.

This work must be done explicitly, intentionally and out in the open because while the behavior of seeking symmetry -- feeling passively compelled to replicate the original shape or of feeling comfort when dissonance is resolved and things fall back into symmetrical alignment, is natural--it was humans that defined the original shape of the public education fractal. Our system’s origin was defined by imperfect, white, and powerful public leaders who sought to educate the masses to enable democracy, but who also sought to explain and justify racial and ethnic hierarchies as though they were naturally occurring.

This history can be seen in Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” and the work of Horrace Mann, his fascination with the Prussion approach to education and what he ultimately created, the Common Schools. The Common Schools are the first implementation of many of the beliefs that still define the shape of the American public education fractal. The Common Schools movement aimed to bring certain American values and the skills required to be an informed citizen to all white American youth no matter where they immigrated from or whether their families could pay for private education. The decision to exclude freed slaves or Native American children seemed normal to these founders because the design and opening of the Common Schools was simultaneous to our nation enacting the “scientific” view popularized in the emerging field of sociology that people of different races had different basic levels of intellect and that if we could really understand these tiers, we could prepare and direct young people to their right place in the workforce (Muhammad 2019). Together these influences shaped the education fractal’s point of origin.

With the advent of “No Child Left Behind” our nation challenged one long-standing belief from that era, it was a belief about learners. Instead of believing that some learners could achieve at high levels and others could not, we determined that all learners were capable, and that the real barrier to equitable outcomes was our willingness to believe in and serve each learner well.

However, the way we enacted that belief reveals a set of equally troublesome and powerful beliefs. We built assessments that would reveal each learner's gaps, understanding that our system of academic assessment was built by eugenicists seeking to use assessment to prove rank superiority of people based on race. We developed best practices and proven tools to provide the appropriate interventions to students with gaps. We established consequences for students ranging from the loss of electives to retention. We established consequences for teachers, schools and districts. We established “supports” for schools that failed to meet expectations, which largely also felt like consequences. We issued report cards for schools that told parents and homeowners how far from expectations their neighborhood school was performing on the set of measures that we could produce with high degrees of validity. We closed schools that failed to become good schools when they implemented the “proven practices” we told them to use.

It is uncomfortable to acknowledge, but as we continue to examine the history of both white supremacy and schooling through reading, discussion, and also an equityxdesign course we engaged in with Caroline Hill at The 228 Accelerator, we have come to believe that the way in which we enacted a belief in the potential of each child reveals a number of other beliefs that continue to define key contours of the fractal core of our system of education. Might our system also be built on assumptions such as…

  • Some people are meant to be leading/deciding. They should be held up and apart from others.

  • These people are usually white men, and in education this also often includes white women.

  • Those who are not leading/ deciding need direction. If they knew how to be successful on their own, they would have done it already.

  • An unfortunate burden of leadership is holding others accountable until everyone goes in what you know to be the right direction.

  • If someone doesn't naturally conform to white leadership norms, it is a personal fault and/or cultural deficiency.

  • Educators with advanced degrees are experts.

  • Students and families are not experts.

  • Experts can measure the distance a student or a school is from “good”. Such data is scientifically valid and should drive decision-making.

  • Using grades and ranks based on this scientifically valid data to report the size of the gap between current performance and good performance drives students and schools to improve.

  • Proximity to the ruling class affords families flexibility and influence. Families farther from the ruling class have fewer choices and means of influence.

Do we still believe things like this? What does it look like when someone who believes they are meant to lead and save others from themselves tries to enact a belief in the potential of each learner? When we questioned our assumptions about the capabilities of learners, but left the assumptions we had about their families and ourselves unexamined, we ended up bringing white supremacy into our design and implementation of a reform effort meant to promote equity.

So, what do we do with this understanding? How do we begin to imagine and create a more equitable and hopeful future? We think we turn right back to the fractal and ask…

  • What work...

  • Closest to the places where children are learning...

  • Done in which ways...

  • With whom at the table...

  • With whom at the center...

...will help us uncover the beliefs that define the fractal and then how will we work together to redefine them in a way that enacts democracy and equity?

We think these questions are best evaluated in a local context. Each place will find there are differences in what to focus on with whom. There are, however, some answers that we think are the same from place to place. The answer to, “with whom at the table,” cannot be our usual blue ribbon group of experts. And the answer to, “who does the conversation begin with,” cannot be the squeakiest wheels, or the people with political connections, or even those who have volunteered the most.

The expertise driving the redefinition of the fractal core cannot come only from those who have been defining it for centuries. And although there is predictable resistance when we do not begin with the needs and concerns of white privileged people in these types of processes, we need to begin by listening to and engaging with communities that have been traditionally marginalized. This means the process itself must be different.

Since last spring, we have had the opportunity to help facilitate teams of educators, students and families in North Dakota, Colorado and Georgia. When we entered into partnership with these communities, we brought with us curiosity about their experience in this historically difficult time and practiced using equity centered design thinking methods to help facilitate the formation of strong learning communities among educators.

We are learning with these communities how to approximate tenets of high quality professional learning communities for use in collaborations that include families and students. Some patterns are beginning to emerge in terms of tenets that help describe HOW we treat one another as even handed members of the learning community. These tenets do not ask educators to pretend they don’t have professional expertise, they just ask them to lead with learning and to both listen and contribute as partners who recognize and respect the experience and insights of others.

A draft of these equity-seeking tenets follows below. As you read them, perhaps ask how might enacting more of these tenets in my team, or in a specific initiative, change the work? What prevents us from behaving this way now? How might we come to work together more like this?

In our observation and practice, staying connected to these tenets helps us enact different assumptions and beliefs. And learning from brown, we believe that working in this way with learners, families and communities furthest from opportunity on anything they identify as important helps transform the core of the fractal and foster the emergence of new patterns, which ultimately grow into transformed equity-seeking systems.

Equity-seeking Tenets

Download a PDF of the tenets below.

C!E Equity Seeking Tenets - Dec 2020
Download PDF • 50KB

In the next blog we will dig into two other key frames that led us to these tenets: the idea of emergence and recognizing and operating in complexity. We continue to learn from Margaret Wheatley, Deborah Frieze, and adriene maree brown in understanding emergence. And we begin to explore the complex quadrant of the Cynefin Framework created by David Snowden. We have found tremendous value in really digging into what this frame says about times of chaos and complexity. Thanks to the National Equity Project for first introducing us to this framework and teaching us that the pursuit of equity is always complex.

Beyond the links embedded in this blog, specific quotations or other attributions in this blog came from:

  • Brown, A. M. (2017). Emergent strategy: Shaping change, changing worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press.

  • Muhammad, K. G. (2019). Chapter 1. In The condemnation of blackness: Race, crime, and the making of modern urban America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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  • Writer's pictureC!E

Dear November, I know we have always been polite to one another, but I feel I need to come clean and let you know that to me, we have never really been friends. You seem to enjoy starting the month in a sugar filled haze powered by both leftover Halloween candy and an early embrace of holiday pumpkin spiced treats. Then, you push us right into elections. No matter how these turn out, they are a reminder of how differently we see things when we envision both the core history and the future of America. For those of us in education, the high tension dialogue about what defines the American enterprise hits differently, because both our personal missions and our employment are interwoven with how different people in our community imagine and pursue democracy.

Normally, Novembers seem to say, “Let's go!” It is time to shift into our highest gear of executive function. Sense, organize, and respond to as many year or semester end tasks as we can, in service of as many people as we can, and with whatever speed we can manage until we collapse sometime around December 22 when winter break begins with the warm knowledge that for those with whom we work, the year is closing with a feeling that we sorted some things out and after a little break we will all be ready to roll again.

But this November is different. This November is trying to better understand and respond to systemic racism, and seeing the terrible second spike in COVID rates that the doctors told us would come but we hoped to avoid. This November isn’t just divided in its opinion of who we hope will become president in January, it is also arguing over the legality of different states' mail in ballot procedures with each side believing that in the end it is obvious that the legal system will see it their way. Looking deep into the eyes of this November, I’m not so sure whether each of us plowing ahead and blazing through our end of year checklist is the right move.

At C!E, we have had the privilege of distance from the most difficult decisions and processes of schooling this fall. We are aware that this privilege offers us a chance to keep our heads above the turbulent waters and observe across contexts, but we are also aware that such distance may interfere with really seeing and understanding. To address the risks of this distance, while trying to help from the vantage point we have, we have followed through with the commitment we made in our statement earlier this year. We have taken the time to observe and listen closely over time to partners who are working directly with learners, families, and educators. We have also helped steward a number of local efforts to engage families and students in learning communities with educators. We have had opportunities to invite, examine, name, amplify, follow, and question to better understand. And what is beginning to emerge might be a reason to fall in love with November 2020.

Building on the invitation to state teams that Gene, Linda, Paul and Jenny put out last week, we think scared, lonely, and tired November 2020 might actually be just what we need to find our way forward from a well intended but paternalistic approach to schooling that upholds racial inequity and onto schooling as a way to enact anti-racist democracy while feeling more connected, more useful and more appreciated as educators.

During this November, more easily than any other November, local education leaders can...

  • Acknowledge that this situation is too complex for any one field of expertise, let alone one person or one leadership team, to solve alone.

  • Acknowledge, without too much vulnerability, that families have always had essential expertise about their children and, now that they have been supporting learners as much or more than teachers, they have even deeper insights that are essential to finding a way forward.

  • Point out that COVID has revealed disparities in opportunity with starker contrast and that we must all feel compelled to learn about and address these inequities.

  • Introduce the idea of targeted universalism, that by creating solutions for the problems of those farthest from opportunity we can also create strategies that are great for a lot of students and families.

With that frame, local education leaders can invite a group of families, students, and teachers to work together to determine what to do next. This expanded learning community can enact democracy by attending to HOW they work as they engage in an inclusive co-design process in which each person’s expertise is valued, each person’s view of what the real problems are is believed and each person’s view impacts the design of the solution.

As the C!E team said in the most recent invitation to state teams in which we explored the particular potential for local inquiries to lead to innovations in accountability and assessment:

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.”

When we open ourselves up to collaboration and co-creation, we can be more effective leaders and we can find greater trust and joy in our relationships with the community. How differently would it feel to let go of the expectation we place on ourselves to know all the right answers? What if this November, instead of driving ourselves to the edge of ruin tying up all of the end of year loose ends, we established a clear priority and let other things go to be sure we spent consistent and focused time inviting in, listening to and collaborating with students and families? What if we asked them to work with us, to help us see what we cannot, and to help us decide what to try next?

In good times, it feels good to be part of something good. And, maybe the most fun is when we can be part of good trouble, as John Lewis asked us to do. In dark times, being part of something good or even getting up to some good trouble, is how we survive. In this dark time, in this November, we think coming together into spaces of learning, empathy, creativity and collaboration with learners and families is the way forward. It is available to each of us. If we open up and invite folks into communities of learning we can all become more connected, we can all find joy in working toward progress, and we can all work to make our shared endeavor a model of a more democratic approach to schooling.

Over the next few blogs, we will say more about how we came to this conclusion - that democratic learning communities that include families and learners are where it is at. It is going to get nerdy, which we hope stirs the same kind of excited flutter in your chest as it causes in ours. Also, to be transparent, what is coming isn’t a nerdy celebration of C!E’s great ideas. It is the synthesized sense we are making by:

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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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