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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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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Updated: Jul 2, 2020

From Scaling Up to Scaling Across:

French winemakers use the term terroir to describe the unique characteristics that place bestows on each varietal… The word itself means something like “a sense of place,” which emerges from the unique qualities of soil, climate, and topography. Just ask any Napa winemaker who’s ever tried to imitate a Burgundy or Chianti, and they’ll tell you: Cultivate the same grapes, use the same techniques, follow the same timing—and your wine is guaranteed to taste nothing like the original.
Modern winemakers have learned to embrace the notion of scaling across…Scaling across happens when people create something locally and inspire others who carry the idea home and develop it in their own way.

Walk Out Walk On,

Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, 2011

For the last five years, we at the Center for Innovation in Education, C!E, have observed the development of state level intermediary organizations arising within and across multiple states. Not necessarily a new phenomenon, however, one that has become increasingly critical to change efforts in state ecosystems as they seek to make transformative change in their educational system design.

Although there are many consequential differences in mission and purpose of these intermediary organizations, they share a set of common tenets, some of which I will speak to here, some of which will need to wait for fuller emergence. Right now, we are seeing the following ideas and constructs arising and connecting across the group:

1. Emergence of the Intermediary Role in State Ecosystems: There is a growing need at both the state and local level to move and support the nexus between state policy and local practice closer to the instructional core, including conversations around assessment and accountability.

2. Intermediaries can play powerful equity-seeking leadership roles. They have learning dispositions towards authentic local issues related to structures and policies, and so they are positioned to see inequity within and across contexts, and they foster enough trust with and among local partners that frank questions about race and social class can be pursued as an ongoing strand of the work. This role provides a check within the larger system, which in turn allows for new ways of thinking about accountability.

3. Fostering Connections at Multiple Levels: Intermediaries work in relationship with other state and local entities and individuals to support emerging work within the state and localities.

4. A Place-Based Approach to Problems: Intermediaries are sensitive and responsive to local contexts. They assume deep study and redesign will be required for a good idea to be taken from one place to another. As intermediaries act more and more through embedded work within localities, they are positioned to honor the power of locally emergent solutions, as opposed to imposed approaches from outside. The consultancy nature of intermediary work allows for approximation and customization of efforts deeply rooted in community culture.

5. Systemic Standardization Becomes More Dubious: As a more place based approach emerges, there is no one size that fits all in any part of the system, including assessment and accountability. Standardized and top down approaches to assessment and accountability have actually served to bind, if not hamstring the efforts to drive innovation in state and local educational systems over the last 30 years.

6. The Intermediary Role is Growing: Each intermediary we work with has seen a change and expansion in their roles as they respond to context changes with agility, unconstrained by institutional restraints. COVID-19 has accelerated this phenomenon. Many intermediaries have seen their service area grow beyond their state lines as their networking behavior has brought local systems together across state lines. As a group, this learning community of intermediaries is beginning to show signs of becoming their own system of influence.

The Colorado Education Initiative, CEI, is one such intermediary, having been in existence for 10 years. CEI defines itself as an entity that, “holds a unique place in Colorado’s education landscape that allows us to make connections, move mindsets, spur possibilities, and drive system-level transformation to get the most promising practices off the ground and into classrooms.” They support individual educators, schools, districts, networks of schools. They sometimes partner with the State Education Agency in soliciting input from the field or offering training and technical assistance. They are also sometimes called upon by those in the political sphere to weigh in on proposed policy and practice relationships. Their range extends from one day convening state assessment and accountability forums for educational leaders to providing on-going technical assistance and professional development to a network of districts each seeking to implement their version of a portrait of a graduate, to elevating concerns they hear from local leaders about things like gaps in broadband access and how they impact remote learning opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

CEI is not alone, The New Hampshire Learning Initiative was created as an entity to provide supports to NH school districts interested in implementing innovative practice, or the Learning Policy Institute in California, begun as a policy and research organization by Linda Darling-Hammond, and has helped to create and grow the California Performance Assessment Collaborative across a number of large and medium sized districts in the Golden State. Then there is Future Focused Education in New Mexico, which started as an organization designing and developing a network of small innovative high schools in Albuquerque and now has reached further to support assessment practices across the state. The Center for Collaborative Education (CCE), serves as an intermediary to the Massachusetts Consortium of Educational Improvement and Assessment. The Office of Innovation for Education (OIE) at the University of Arkansas supports innovative work in schools across the state in close concert with the Arkansas Department of Education Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, ADE DESE. These are several more examples of organizations that fill similar roles in their states. The Virginia Commonwealth Learning Partnership, a recent start up in the last year with one intrepid long-time Virginia educator, Gena Keller, has helped to create an inter-linking set of state level collaborations with several other organizations in the Commonwealth. Each of these intermediaries has a unique place in their state’s educational constellation, and they are learning from one another what there is to learn across the larger firmament.


...the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible…
This is good news for those of us intent on changing the world and creating a positive future. Rather than worry about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections. We don’t need to convince large numbers of people to change; instead, we need to connect with kindred spirits. Through these relationships, we will develop the new knowledge, practices, courage, and commitment that lead to broad-based change.
But networks aren’t the whole story. As networks grow and transform into active, working communities of practice, we discover how life truly changes, which is through emergence. When separate, local efforts connect with each other as networks then strengthen as communities of practice, suddenly and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of scale. This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals. It isn’t that they were hidden; they simply didn’t exist until the system emerges. They are properties of the system, not the individual, but once there, individuals possess them. And the system that emerges always possesses greater power and influence than is possible through planned, incremental change. Emergence is how life creates radical change and takes things to scale.

Using Emergence to Take Social Innovation to Scale,

Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, 2006

Intermediaries often take on the role of agents of change, but new leaders of these organizations are now working as capacity-building partners more within a school or district’s unique local contexts. CEI supports individual High School and District modeling of solutions to the Colorado requirements for high school graduation, based on a state menu of options. Some CO districts choose to develop Portfolio Defense systems, others Capstone projects, still others multi-pronged efforts that include ACT, College Board, and Performance Assessments. In each case, CEI acts as a consulting partner supporting local community engagement, staff input, and local design thinking to support statewide accomplish their change efforts over time in ways that are not just congruent with but reflective of local community principles and expectations. As these local practitioners arise, and learn from one another, a new local/state system of both assessment and accountability begins to emerge. The stance of the intermediary in this situation is to facilitate learning, collaboration and then see what systemic changes emerge from it, rather than to drive a top down agenda across the state.

As local, regional, or state level intermediaries mature, they will often begin to reach beyond their locality, still assisting local schools and districts to build opportunities based on scaling across. CCE has also assisted District and NEA leaders in Jefferson County, Kentucky as they considered the implementation of micro-credentials to support educator development. Operating within the context of the District’s digital backpack initiative, CCE has helped local leaders as they sought to frame the micro-credentials as voluntary, within a system of district mandated digital backpacks for every student. Future Focused Education now supports networks of schools and communities across New Mexico and is currently reaching out to Tennessee, although they began as a small network of schools developed by the organization in Albuquerque. The Learning Policy Institute, having constructed a California Performance Assessment Consortium with other CA partners made up of some of the largest districts in the Golden State, is now advising Hawaii as they seek to do the same in a unique, single district state with several islands, multiple localities, and a rich, indigenous culture.

A Place-Based Approach to Problems:

“…Yet somehow the uniqueness of place regularly breaks through. When we know a place intimately, we experience its aliveness in many dimensions. We are connected to its past and its present, to the people who live there today and those who have passed through before, to its native ecology and that which has been added or destroyed, to the structures that have been built upon its ground and those that have crumbled back into the earth.
Each place is an interdependent web of relationships, which is why you can start anywhere. There is no right place to start. It is only when we are inside a system that we begin to know its dynamics. And even then, we can never predict how that system will respond to our efforts. It is only after we disturb the system that we can see its interconnections and what our next work can be…”

Wheatley, Frieze. 2011

Working with local partners in emergent practices, these intermediaries are learning how to trust and respect the perspectives of local leaders and stakeholders in new ways. These leaders understand that a singular state or federal model of assessment or accountability may not be meeting the needs of students, or parents, or leaders in a given local community. The lack of relevance, the disconnect from local mores and culture of these state level systems are too great. They also understand that a single particular model of practice decided on at the state capital will not scale down in reliable and replicable ways. Rather, they seek to help leaders beg, borrow, and steal designs from other systems and then adapt them in ways that meet their particular concerns, based on their knowledge of their learning practices, their data, and their theories of action.

By embedding within the community, and forming networks of educators and communities of practice across schools and districts, these leaders are attempting to learn about what can and will emerge, what new approaches that systems can take on, yet still learning from one another, across states and the nation. For example, Future Focused Education in New Mexico supports a district Network that allows for each school leadership team to define for themselves local models of schooling, and associated ways of assessing student learning that are connected to community culture and expectations, in conjunction with the New Mexico Public Education Department, NMPED. The idea that local communities might develop unique local systems of assessment and accountability in response to state expectations, but be networked with other districts and schools for both implementation and improvement, has long been discussed but has previously been seen as impractical or difficult to manage from the state agency perspective. However, with the support of an intermediary, this more nuanced approach becomes more feasible. Progress with this design is being watched closely by other intermediaries. It is a strong example of how both intermediaries and state agency partners are changing how they lead to be more equity-seeking.

And now, suddenly, in the COVID-19 era and within the aftermath of the last eight minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd’s life, so much has changed. What does it mean to be place-based, in these times? What had once been physical community connections are now limited to virtual spaces. Distance is no longer defined by miles from point A to point B, but to levels of intimacy and common understanding that can occur in virtual gatherings, 1:1 meetups, or days and nights of marches in protest. As we consider the tragic murders of Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others, there is a profound lack of trust in institutions large and small. For those that are closely held, like our public schools, and far, like our State Departments of Education. Elements of society that were originally created to protect us and have been under question for some time are now starkly suspect, even those as seemingly simple as school accountability and state tests in public education. In this new reality, as Rob Bilott reflected as he considered the results of his career-long attempts to uncover efforts to hide community poisoning by big business in Dark Waters, “They want us to think that they protect us, but it’s not true. We protect us.”

What have we learned in the last several weeks? One thing that we have realized deeply is that accountability in many cases is intensely personal and is best kept local. Based on what some of our partners have heard when surveying families, there are parents in a variety of situations finding it hard to even consider letting their children return to the school house, or to consider approaching the learning opportunities that exist outside of the family circle. One intermediary leader shared with us that parents in their community are asking themselves and one another things like, “how can we ever return to what was?” They are learning again to trust, questioning all that had been accepted until recently, and asking, “what can we rely on when we don’t have faith in our institutions?”

A New System of Influence?

Meanwhile, during this same period, the intermediary leaders have Zoomed together regularly, considering all of these issues, and their many roles and constellations of dilemmas together. While they network, there is no expectation that they will seek full or even necessarily common understandings, many times they only wish to be heard as they reflect on their circumstances. Nor do they seek to replicate each other’s work. There is at first, growing relationships, and then later, a developing common understanding of standing together as they consider challenges. There is trust within the circle of sharing, and there is admiration for individual voices. One emerging tenet which has magnified in the time of COVID and the growing fundamental meaning and reality of systemic racism is the need to courageously seek equitable opportunity for each child, collapsing every barrier to this end within their communities and their states. They realize that this is a moment where trust and authenticity is connected in many ways only to relationships and local community. At the same time, they realize that there continues to be a need for connective tissue, when so much previously held to be true is either tearing and flying apart or simply no longer relevant.

The cycle of learning for us all is spinning so quickly, the need for agility and perspective is so critical. As we all build new lines of connections to one another and to our respective new realities of teaching and learning, including new ways to hold one another accountable, we will be curious to see if there will become what Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze have called a new system of influence that will challenge the old ways of being, particularly in terms of educational federal/state accountability. These intermediary leaders tell us that their communities long for such a change, there is an ache for a new way forward. They find themselves joining with others with similar interests. There is a sense that a door is now open, that emergence is possible, that a movement could begin.

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