Amplify Blog

Insights and ideas directly from New Profit

May 11, 2016

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The following post was written by Jody Cornish, a Managing Partner with the Reimagine Learning Focus Fund.

In a blog post in February 2015, the Reimagine Learning Fund at New Profit talked about a “quiet revolution” taking root across the United States. Educators, policy-makers, nonprofit leaders and other stakeholders were beginning to craft a new vision for education in our country. Over the past year, this “quiet revolution” has morphed into an active and vocal movement to reimagine learning to create environments that can be customized to meet the needs of diverse learners. The movement has focused in parallel on what it will take to remodel our schools, classrooms, and communities to make it possible to create these learning environments, and how to address the very real economic, political and capacity constraints of the American education system.

Interestingly, even in this transition from “quiet revolution” to active movement, there continues to be diffidence toward open dialogue about why the challenges of public education are particularly difficult to solve. In this context, the realities of income inequality, community instability, and the changing demographics of the U.S. are all too often not being addressed head on as key factors. At the Reimagine Learning Fund at New Profit, we are shedding light on the issue of learner diversity in all of its dimensions. This includes not only established definitions of learning differences, but a more nuanced understanding of the intersection of brain development and learning, as well as an updated understanding of the different ways in which race and ethnicity, culture, family, socio-economic status, early adversity, and other factors affect the learning experience and academic and life success of students.

A variety of initiatives have emerged with this particular focus on appreciating learner diversity, including many being driven by Reimagine Learning Fund partners. For example, the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution’s “Education Reimagined” initiative has, to date, done one of the most compelling jobs encapsulating a vision for what it can mean to reimagine learning. Convergence, and its influential Advisory Board, recently undertook a deep dive assessment on ways to support diverse learners. Teach For America’s 25th Anniversary Summit in February 2016 featured a Diverse Learner track that was the most highly enrolled of their professional development sessions. SXSWeduaddressed learner diversity as a consistent thread in their March 2015 conference. Likewise, we see key philanthropic institutions embracing the concept and challenge of learner diversity as they craft their grant-making strategies for the future.

In 1966, James S. Coleman’s landmark report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, was commissioned as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It provided the first detailed descriptive analysis of disparities in educational opportunity by race and the economic implications of this—what we have come to call, in shorthand, “the achievement gap.” Nearly 50 years after this first data-driven report shed light on the inequities in public education, the President signed into law a the watershed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Action Act (ESEA), which was originally authorized in 1965 and rooted in both the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty. The December 2015 reauthorization of that act (rebranded as the “Every Student Succeeds Act” or ESSA) reminds us that nearly five decades into the struggle to equitably distribute educational resources and opportunities, our education system is still very much a work in progress.

Our understanding of the challenge of educational equity has become more nuanced with the publication of evidence-based reports. Both the 2015 Grad Nation Report and President Obama’s 2015 Progress Report on Elementary and Secondary School Education called out the US hitting a historic high graduation rate of 81 percent of all students and historic lows in the high school dropout rate. While we don’t disavow the progress, we believe focusing on this aggregate progress runs the risk of covering up the enduring disparities between groups of students and ways in which the education reform system has failed to become an adaptive institution. Thomas Kane, professor of education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, points out that after 50 years, we can really describe the problem well, but in his eyes we have done remarkably little to develop a shared understanding of what works. At the Reimagine Learning Fund, we would further argue that by focusing on the achievement gap itself, we have overlooked the real problems of unequal distribution of resources across schools and communities and fallen short in developing a nuanced understanding of learning and learners that would allow us to support all kinds of minds.

Through our particular lens of social entrepreneurism and innovation, what we see is a system in which the links between research, innovation and experimentation and changes in classroom and school practices have been, and continue to be, broken. We see district leaders and chief academic officers struggling to juggle the realities of changing demographics, resource constraints and other challenges, and to make sense of a crowded and fragmented set of potential programs and providers offering tools and products that could help to address disparate pieces of the challenges these leaders face. These education leaders, until recently, have been juggling these realities in an environment where making changes is very high risk, given testing requirements and funding contingencies. We see that in many cases where innovation to better serve groups of students has been undertaken, it has started first in resource-rich environments, where the solutions emerging are very hard to translate into communities with high concentrations of poverty. We also see innovation often focusing on very targeted sub-groups of students without subsequent effort or ability to connect what is working for these students to a broader emerging body of knowledge about what works for learners in general.

Thomas Kane, who wisely calls the achievement gap “the educational equivalent of the fight against cancer,” suggests that we may need the educational equivalent of an FDA: a formal way of coordinating research and practice that enables us to develop a sound point of view about what actually works in classrooms for all different types of students in both high and the low-resource environments. There’s a parallel need to connect what we know with what we do—in classrooms and in the corridors of power.

With ESSA now law, what we see is an opportunity—a window if you will—to begin to experiment and innovate in lots of schools and districts across the nation. In essence, ESSA is an invitation to states and school districts across the nation to think and act differently and to connect their deep, day-to-day understanding of learner diversity as it manifests in their schools to a renewed aspiration to remodel education to achieve its original promise as the engine for economic opportunity and our democratic way of life.

Our question is: what is needed to support this work? Thomas Jefferson said that every generation needs a new revolution. The education reform narrative that began in the time of Sputnik may need to be retired, replaced by a new narrative that is less about “carrots and sticks” and more about how intrinsic engagement in learning builds in all learners the diverse set of human capabilities that are desperately needed for the inevitable challenges of a rapidly-changing world. While education reform is certainly not a new movement in and of itself, we feel it is our collective responsibility to inject new energy, new ideas and new approaches into the movement, both to avoid some of the pitfalls of the past but, more importantly, to build on what has come before and the learnings that have emerged.

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