08/29/2017

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Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Getting to the Schools We Want – For Each and Every Child

The following guest post was written by Cyrus Driver and Scott Nine of the Partnership for the Future of Learning, a growing network of educators, advocates, philanthropists, and community mobilizers dedicated to preparing our nation to thrive in a rapidly changing world. The Partnership advances an affirmative vision that protects public education while advancing the future of learning.

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The possibility of creating amazing schools for each and every child is possible – but what will it take to turn possibility into reality?

As two educators and advocates who have been in or around public school reform and advocacy for the past three decades (yikes!), this is a confusing, painful, startling, and exciting time. We’ve never known as much about the science of learning. We’ve never had as many parents, young people, and educators connected and engaged in calling for brighter future while keeping education in the hands of the public. And we have more concrete examples of schools where students are at the center, teaching and learning are driven by student agency and passions, rigorous high quality work is nurtured, and relationships and the school community tend to children’s holistic development – social, emotional and physical as well as cognitive and academic.

And, of course, a skim of the headlines on any given day points to the areas of contradiction, tension, unfairness, and confusion that exists about the future of learning and public schools.
Part of what makes this an important moment is that it’s not the first time we’ve been here. From Montessori, Waldorf and Dewey-inspired ‘lab’ schools of 100 years ago, to many of the ‘whole-school’ models of the 1990’s, such as those in the Coalition of Essential Schools, Deborah Meier’s Central Park East, Hank Levin’s Accelerated Schools, and James Comer’s School Development Models, there have been sparks and important efforts to reimagine learning.

What’s changed in the last 15 years is the opportunity for the sparks to actually power a pragmatic, necessary, and beautiful remodel of learning for each and every child and community.
Making a long-called for leap on Moore’s diffusion curve of innovation – getting beyond early adopters and seeing quality changes realized more evenly – requires five committed leaps:

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    1. Tell a better story. The dominant narrative repeatedly suggests the system as a whole is in crisis. This ‘failure’ narrative undermines getting to scale because the public and policymakers do not want to renovate something in crisis, they want to flee! We must establish a new narrative born of renewed belief that we are capable of, and indeed already advancing, a public renovation project. Given our current politics, it is more important, not less, that we find a way to positively yet truthfully convey stories that link the existing work of hundreds of communities, schools, and networks. The Partnership for the Future of Learning’s Shared Story effort has begun to align dozens of groups around such a value-based narrative, but it is only the beginning of creating the necessary ‘surround sound.’

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    1. Be real about the past injustices to build a more durable path forward. Getting to scale will be meaningless if it cannot achieve real equity in outcomes. To get there, we need to deal with the painful truths of a system that was never designed to educate all children well, and that is imbued with a deep and painful history of injustices, in particular racial injustice. To renovate the system, we have to examine what this truth, this reality of injustices, has meant and now means, for children of color – who are now a majority of children in our schools, and for white children who need new ways of understanding how to be healthy and vibrant as a demographic minority. We will need to ask ourselves, and answer, hard questions including:
      • What would it mean to have deeper learning and student-centered learning play out across systems that are just, equitable, and rooted in the positive value of communities?
      • How do change efforts unfold in ways that disrupt rather than repeat past inequities and injustices?
      • Whose voices need to be at the table and what are commitments to assuring the voices are there? More pointedly, how do we truly engage marginalized perspectives from communities of color, and support leveling the playing field on dialogue and decisions?

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    1. ‘Eyes on the public system.’ For the exceptional school to become the normal, we must take seriously the challenges of renovating systems – and that means renovating public education systems where the vast majority of children learn. How we do this is not at all clear, but some things are known and they should guide our efforts:
      • Systems are complex – adjusting one part of the system will have an effect on other parts, and we should attend to this dynamic as much as we can.
      • Educational systems are human systems, which means that our task is significantly about changing how people think and act. It goes without saying that this is not easy, and needs to done in ways consistent with values we hope live in a remodeled system.
      • Steady work is needed – this idea has been a recurring but often ignored caution in education reform – where we have seen change get to scale in systems it has been guided by a long-term, stable vision and strategy, with steady, iterative and humble execution, and development of capacity, over time, to get feedback, learn and adjust.

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    1. Align, align, align! While there are countless efforts underway that are re-shaping the practices of teaching and learning in schools, and growing advocacy and related policies in many states and communities, these remain far too fragmented and dispersed. Aligning this vast and diverse field requires relationships, discussions about shared values and aims, and intentionally building the connective tissue of networks. Networks like Reimagine Learning, the Partnership for the Future of Learning, and Education Reimagined have begun this work, but we believe there is far more demand – and work on the ground – than we have recognized thus far. Alignment work needs to be understood and resourced as core infrastructure commensurate to the large-scale renovation of public education.

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  1. Let values be the guide. Finally, we must value public education, and the multiple systems that surround it as a fundamental public good that is foundational to replenishing our society and democracy. Valuing the institution in this way affirms the need to achieve a systems renovation, to confront past injustices, and to build the necessary public will that begins with alignment and a shared story. To pursue this value, and equally important in their own rights, we must value equity, democracy itself, and the deeper learning that put students at the center and values the judgement of educators and system leaders alongside communities. These values then should drive any school or systems designs we advance. These values are the ‘North Star’ of the Partnership for the Future of Learning.

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We are building on decades of hard won wisdom, missteps, and innovation. And while there are too many promises left unrealized, rolling up our sleeves together and re-building with a shared agenda can get us to a powerful future for learning for each and every child. Onwards!

This piece brought to us courtesy of Cyrus Driver and Scott Nine of the Partnership for the Future of Learning