One Good Question with Susan Patrick: How can we build trust in our education system?

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Education Equity / Eisenhower Fellowship / Equity / International Education / One Good Question

This is the second interview with Susan Patrick for the series “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

There’s a big difference in how you would fund the education system if you were building for the longer term – you would invest in building capacity and trust.  We need to take a very honest look at our investments.  If people and relationships matter, we need to be building our own sense of inquiry.  That’s not at odds with innovation investments.  We should be about innovation with equity.   That way, we can change our own perspectives while we build new solutions.

The debate about top-down reform vs. bottom-up innovation is tied to the same trust issues.  In Finland, they made an effort to go towards a trust based model and it meant investing in educator capacity so that the systems trust educators to make the best decisions in real-time.  If we don’t start investing in trust, we can’t get anywhere.

When US educators visit other countries, we tend to look for silver bullet programs from the highest-performing countries.  What are we missing in that search? 

During my Eisenhower Fellowship, I was able to meet with teams from OECD and UNESCO that gave me great perspective.  UNESCO has just published an Education 2030 outlook presenting their global education development agenda that looks at the whole child.  Their goals are broad enough to include developing nations who aren’t yet educating 100% of their population.  When we read through the goals and indicators, the US could learn a lot from having our current narrow focus on academics.  Our current education structure is not going to lead us to provide a better society.  Are we even intending to build a better society for the future?  We’re not asking the big questions.  We’re asking if students can read and do math on grade level in grades 3-8. In Canada, they ask if a student has yet met or exceeded expectations.  If not, what are we doing to get them there?  You don’t just keep moving and allow our kids to have gaps.

The UNESCO report specifies measures about access to quality education. Is there gender equality?  Is there equity? They define equity as:

Equity in education is the means to achieving equality. It intends to provide the best opportunities for all students to achieve their full potential and act to address instances of disadvantage which restrict educational achievement.  It involves special treatment/action taken to reverse the historical and social disadvantages that prevent learners from accessing and benefiting from education on equal grounds.  Equity measures are not fair per se but are implemented to ensure fairness and equality of outcome. (UNESCO 2015)

Across the global landscape of education systems, there is a diversity of governance from top-down to bottom-up regarding system control, school autonomy and self-regulation and how this impacts processes and policies for quality assurance, evaluation and assessments.  It is important to realize the top-down and bottom-up dynamics are often a function of levels of trust combined with transparency for data and doing what is best for all kids. In the US, let’s face it, our policy conversations around equity are driven by a historical trend of a massive achievement gap.  Said another way, there is a huge lack of trust from the federal government toward states, from states to districts and even down to schools and classrooms.  We ask, “How do we trust that we’re advancing equity in our schools?’”

However, when you start to think about what we need to do to advance a world-class education for all students and broaden the definition of student success – you hit a wall in coherent policy that would align to better practices.  There’s so much mistrust in the system given our history of providing inequalities across the education system, it is inequitable. In recognizing that our education system isn’t based on trust, therefore, perhaps we need to focus on what our ultimate goals and values for our education systems should be and then backward engineer how we get there, how we hold all parties accountable and how we could actually build trust in a future state.  We need to consider future-focused approaches that work to build trust, transparency, greater accountability and build capacity for continuous improvement.  We do need to assure comparability in testing to tell us whether we have been providing an equitable education.  It’s just right now, this lack of trust is creating a false dichotomy of limited approaches to a future-focused education system.  We’re defaulting that the only test that we trust is criterion-referenced standardized tests.

We need to take a deep look at the implications that systems of assessments mean for the rest of the system.  It seems that we’re only willing to trust education outcomes based on a standardized test, that we commit to locking students into age-based cohorts, and that we focus primarily on the delivery of content.  What would be the long-term implications for creating better transparency, more frequent inquiry approaches on what is working best for both adults and children?  Are there different ways to evaluate student work and determine whether students are building knowledge, broader skills and competencies they need for future success?  Can we consider a range of future goals and backward map alternative approaches?  All assessments don’t have to be norm-referenced.  This is a familiar conversation with education experts globally.  I’m afraid we’re not having that conversation in the US.

That’s what’s so interesting to me about iNACOL’s work.  It’s global and focuses on future states for educators and practitioners designing new models using the research on how students learn best.  We listen to practitioners working on next generation designs and then ask, is our policy aligned with actually doing what’s best for kids?  What if you could set a vision for a profile of high school graduates that would ensure success?  What goals would you want for redefining what students need to know and be able to do?  And, how would you then approach aligning the systems of policy and practice with what’s right for kids?  The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) law gives states the flexibility to come up with new definitions of students’ success.  States can now use multiple measures — and still report data transparently. This is a really important time to engage in deep conversations between states and communities, families, local leaders and educators around what would we do for redefining success —  but I’m not seeing yet any states that are having enough foundational conversations on the ultimate goals and vision of education WITH COMMUNITIES.  I’m hearing educational leaders say, “All we know how to do is NCLB” . . . and wonder which other indicators a future accountability system might require. They’re uncomfortable thinking about alternatives. It’s a sort of “Stockholm Syndrome” of educational policy limited by the past. ESSA is an opportunity to engage in real dialogue with the communities we serve.  Communities have been locked out of the process for years now.  Community outreach has become a box that people check, but it’s an ongoing dialogue and should be about building understanding and trust.  This is a really rare opportunity in the United States to engage in a broader conversation around student success with local school boards and communities.  This would encourage innovation and provide a clear platform driven by communities on the clear goals and outcomes we hope to achieve in our education system for equity and excellence.

Susan PatrickSusan’s One Good Question: Who asks the question is as pertinent as which questions they ask.   Earlier, I mentioned that investment in the long-term capacity building of our education system would require building our own sense of inquiry.  In other more top-down nationalistic approaches to education in countries outside the US, leaders do control the system so they are having strong “values-based” conversations about education in the context of societal goals, too.  Because we are a strong federalist approach to education – this isn’t possible or even desired at a national level . . . the US Department of Education doesn’t have a federal role in that way, and quite frankly, we can’t have a national or even state-level values-based conversation in the same way.  In a federalist approach, we have 13,600 school boards with local control.  The unit of change in this country is the local school district (LEA means local education authority).  School leaders, superintendents, CMO leaders — they actually can drive the values conversation about what our educational goals, vision and values are and how we measure success transparently.  We’ve stopped talking about values in the name of objectives related to literacy and numeracy.  I believe literacy and numeracy are extremely important, but let’s not forget that foundation for reading and arithmetic (with all students having proficiency) is not enough in the modern world. For students to be successful it is a “yes, and . . . “ with literacy and numeracy being important but not enough. I don’t know how schools can address the extreme inequities in our education without having a values conversation and a re-framing of conversations around re-defining student success with broader definitions of student success.

I think that our local communities should start asking themselves these two questions:

  • When a student graduates what should they know and be able to do?
  • What is our definition of student success?

About Susan :Susan Patrick is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). iNACOL is a nonprofit providing policy advocacy, publishing research, developing quality standards, and driving the transformation to personalized, competency-based, blended and online learning forward.

She is the former Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education and wrote the National Educational Technology Plan in 2005 for Congress. She served as legislative liaison for Governor Hull in Arizona, ran a distance learning campus as a Site Director for Old Dominion University’s TELETECHNET program, and served as legislative staff on Capitol Hill.  Patrick was awarded an Eisenhower Fellowship in 2016. In 2014, she was named a Pahara–Aspen Education Fellow. In 2011, she was named to the International Advisory Board for the European Union program for lifelong learning.  Patrick holds a master’s degree from the University of Southern California and a bachelor’s degree from Colorado College.

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One Good Question with Susan Patrick: What students (and schools) can do if we stop ranking them

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Accountability / Agency / Eisenhower Fellowship / International Education / One Good Question / School Design

This is the first of two interviews with Susan Patrick for the series “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

From a student-centered perspective, what are the investments being made in the learning environments? In a rapidly changing world, we need to examine the foundations of our education both for the purpose of education and its results.  Are we preparing every student for the world they are entering, or are we investing in a factory model of education designed as an assembly line?  The old model of education is under question and is being challenged by educators around the world with questions of appropriateness and whether it is fit for the purpose of preparing all students for success in today’s world.  The investments made in today’s education system are often reinforcing the basic traditional structures to grade and sort students, with limited exposure to one class at a time, one subject at a time, one textbook at a time, with one teacher at a time — with inevitable outcomes of ranking students.  The premise of our society’s investments in an education system that is based on sorting kids remains for the most part unchallenged – rather than examining how funding could follow the student toward ensuring equity and supports to ensure every child reaches mastery of the same high standards and develops competencies for future success.  The urgency of school funding debates need to consider what designs are better suited to ensure each and every student has access to the best educational opportunities, and making a case for investments in a transformed system, rather than tinkering with a system that sorts and ranks kids – designed for a world that no longer exists.

We have 13,515 school districts in the US making investments in education approaches and environments.  The traditional system is based on Carnegie units and seat time, providing varying levels of learning on an A-F grading system, and whether the students have gaps or not, the clock marches on. Are these investments that we’ve been making for past 10-20 years designed to innovate and ensure student success?  Are we making investments for each student to be able to have access to innovative models for equity?  The investments in modernized education includes the learning spaces, but more importantly, it’s the pedagogical experience for what’s happening in learning.

We have been historically funding a system based on minimal exposure to subjects, with one way of approaching learning and it is easy to manage through a bell schedule and calendar dictating how much learning might happen.  The inverse would be to realize, in a given hour of time, there might be variable amounts of learning – thus, we need to design for supporting the maximum learning in each hour – not the minimal.  How do we design for how kids learn best?  We need to know their readiness level, existing competencies, and how to meet them where they are.  If we ask about how investments reveal what we believe about education, investing in a system that ranks and sorts kids means that we are okay with this approach.  I’d argue that we should invest on identifying what every student needs and ensuring the investment reflects an approach that maximizes every student’s potential and future success. Right now, we’re not investing on understanding where every student is when they enter school.  What is their academic readiness level? What are their social, emotional, needs?  How do we address the whole child and their learning experiences?  Today, we’re having an entire conversation in the United States about investing in summative testing as an autopsy at the end of the year instead of addressing the very needs of the students from day one.

We talk about college and career readiness as part of an important goal in our K-12 education system.  Our system is designed to rank and sort kids (GPA and a class rank) to determine their college access.  Is that not telling us that the system is built on an institutional fixed mindset?   If we had an institutional growth mindset, we would hold the bar high for all students to learn to reach the same high outcomes. What does it take to get all students to the 4.0 GPA?  This end goal would be a worthy investment for our future and our society’s future.

 

How do we innovate our system for all students to be successful?

During my Eisenhower Fellowship in New Zealand, when I walked into every school, I could see that they were focused on meeting students where they are.  When I looked around the classroom, I could see the articulation of the curriculum frameworks on the importance of 21st century skills, a broader definition of student success, visibility of the language of learning about rhetoric, context, thinking critically and solving complex problems.  The wall posters actually had reminders to teachers: creativity and entrepreneurial thinking, communicating and collaborating, making sense through the use of knowledge, research and synthesis, understanding the information and opportunities to identify new ways of doing things.  Are we asking bigger questions on what we want our students to know and be able to do?  The language of learning in modern classrooms with redesigned curriculum asks the “big questions” about core concepts of learning and it is all around you—whether in primary school or in secondary school – and the language of learning is targeted at the appropriate level.  Students from a young age are learning from a metacognitive perspective: What are the ways I am thinking about this? Am I developing skills for a changing world? How is this relevant to how I might participate and contribute to a fair and just society?  They ask themselves: Am I analyzing?  Am I learning how to function and self-manage?  Am I learning new ways of working, new ways of thinking and skills that I will need to make sense of the world?

In some New Zealand schools, they have multi-grade classrooms and the students have clearly identified learning objectives posted across multiple levels. The teachers are constantly working with every student to identify their learning goals, assess their performance on evidence of their mastery, and co-design the next steps as students move on to the next learning objective once they’ve demonstrated that mastery to the level of proficiency.  Each student can see what they need extra help in and can go to other students to get help.  Every school and classroom was referring back to questions about how teachers can best meet students’ needs, how to personalize instruction, how they better identify students needs, which research-based practices are most effective, and how they can improve what’s working and not working. It was a culture of inquiry in a personalized learning environment.

David Hood, former head of NZQA, has described the traditional model of K-12 as the paradigm of one: One teacher, teaching one subject, to one class, at one time, for one hour.  In New Zealand in 2007, they created a different curriculum that asked what each student needed to learn and do with a broader definition of student success.  It gives a lot of flexibility to teachers and students in how they reach those goals and hold all students to the same high standards.  The five key competencies are: Thinking; Using language, symbols, and texts; Managing self; Relating to others; Participating and contributing. Then Secretary for Education Sewell wrote, “The New Zealand Curriculum is a clear statement of what we deem important in education. It takes as its starting point a vision of our young people as lifelong learners who are confident and creative, connected, and actively involved. It includes a clear set of principles on which to base curriculum decision making. It sets out values that are to be encouraged, modeled, and explored. It defines five key competencies that are critical to sustained learning and effective participation in society and that underline the emphasis on lifelong learning.”

We know through learning sciences that all students can learn, all students can develop a growth mindset.  We actually can create learning environments that will dramatically improve outcomes and do so in a way that empowers students’ own passions and interests.  The education system in New Zealand includes many schools that have been designed around personalized learning and are working intently on closing the achievement gap and raising the bar for all students.  The goal is that all students are not only meeting literacy and numeracy skills, but ultimately, when they graduate, they’ve built a whole set of knowledge, skills, competencies, and dispositions that will lead to them being contributive in society and help contribute to the free and open society.  New Zealanders’ cultural values are deeply reflected in their education work. Maybe that’s easier to do when each school is autonomous and school can set their values clearly.

 

New Zealand schools have more local control than the States, don’t they?

Absolutely!  Some education systems are top down, others are bottom up in terms of their governance and control.  In New Zealand, each school is autonomous and self-managed with their own principal and each has its own elected board of trustees from the community.  They set values, goals and set the accountability framework for results and metrics.  How community values tie into local control is interesting.  New Zealand is really a case study in empowerment of local schools and local families setting their own accountability goals. The opening presentation, of the first school that I visited, was about their annual goal to reach 1.5 years of growth for each student.  That goal was set by the community.  Everyone was on the same page, clear and transparent about that target and what they needed to do. All families have choices for the school they attend and they choose to go the school. It’s a nice balance in New Zealand where the top-down is having the Ministry of Education work across all schools to design a curriculum framework that will ensure a broad definition of student success and ensuring the bar is the same high bar for all students.  The top down approach is simply examining the research on a world-class education to set that bar high to make sure the curriculum is right, but the empowerment is bottom-up — creating capacity for educators and practitioners to design learning activities around the research on how students learn best.

I also observed how local control impacts their governance.  In the US, our unit of local elections is with the local district’s school board.  Anyone can run and anyone with political aspirations can be elected to the local school board (if they win the vote) as part of further political aspirations.  In New Zealand, you’re only eligible to run for Board of Trustees of a school if you’re nominated by a teacher or parent in that school community.  It is an interesting approach to building community engagement and capacity.

 

In the discourse about preparing youth for jobs that don’t yet exist, educators fall into two camps: skills-focused (STEM, design thinking, makers, etc.) and people-focused (critical thinking, global sensitivity, socio-emotional learning).  To what extent are we creating a false dichotomy? 

I think it’s a false dichotomy.  Learning is an incredibly humanistic pursuit.  We’re talking about helping each and every child work to their full potential which is tied to relationships, understanding student interest, student goals and how to to achieve it.

In the world that we live in today, you can access a lot of content—it’s all available to you.  But what’s more important is having a baseline knowledge on how content fits together and how you can approach critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and questioning the ideas and perspectives presented to you. That’s really important in terms of being relational and contextual in the idea of people focused – how do we challenge or explore ideas effectively? Cultural responsiveness, global sensitivity, and social-emotional learning (SEL) are becoming more important than ever.  Having those deep people-focused skills doesn’t mean that you can’t also be approaching STEM or creative design or “makers” together.

Back to New Zealand, I visited schools with more interdisciplinary approaches to learning.  Students are able to identify big conceptual projects, design learning experiences that respond to community or students’ needs, and then map which standards and subjects they’ll be addressing in these projects.

For example, in one school, I walked over to the closest student, a 15-year-old boy, and asked him about his project.  He said he was studying Artificial Intelligence (AI) and he explained his full plan to me: he would first conduct a literature review on how AI has evolved over the past 30 years; then, we wanted to explore what trends were likely to occur in the next five years in AI; and, finally he wanted to finish the project with an analysis of the societal and ethical implications of AI in the future.  He explained how he would be able to be evaluated across many of the key competencies and develop mastery of standards — he shared that he is mapping his project to the attainment of science standards, some math standards, some English/text/communication standards, and social studies standards for the ethical implications. The variety of ways he was able to build an understanding of the world, but at the same time earn attainment of competencies and credits for his qualifications toward a degree. That’s a great example of how an education system can be both skills-focused and people-focused with interdisciplinary approaches using multiple perspectives contributing to deeper learning – that is highly personalized for each student.

Even in their elementary schools, I witnessed New Zealand’s teachers asking students to take on big questions and build the capacity for learning in their own classrooms. This means really giving students agency and empowerment with the language around learning through analysis, perspective, and ethics.  It was really amazing how young students were very focused on knowledge and the range of skills that they were developing.  As David Hood noted, “Literacy and numeracy do include the ability to use language, symbols and texts; but these are only tools – it is the ability to use these interactively, in a connected way in context, that the OECD identifies as most important, as it does in being able to sue both knowledge and information, and technology, in interactive ways.” Teachers were trying to not only give students the language, tools, and strategies to address academic issues, but the strategies that would help them solve more complex problems and ultimately be successful in college, career, societies and their communities.

Susan PatrickSusan’s One Good Question: I’m a positive person with a positive outlook, but the future of our country has never been more at stake.  We have some hard decisions to make right now.  We have successfully under-educated our population in such a significant way that we really need to address this gap.  We’re investing a lot of dollars in education but is it based on the research for how students learn best? Are we investing toward a more open and just democratic society in a global context where issues will become more messy, more challenging than ever?  Will we be investing in the capabilities of thinking critically, creatively and problem-solving with the deep cultural responsiveness we will need to navigate an increasingly changing world?

About Susan :Susan Patrick is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). iNACOL is a nonprofit providing policy advocacy, publishing research, developing quality standards, and driving the transformation to personalized, competency-based, blended and online learning forward.

She is the former Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education and wrote the National Educational Technology Plan in 2005 for Congress. She served as legislative liaison for Governor Hull in Arizona, ran a distance learning campus as a Site Director for Old Dominion University’s TELETECHNET program, and served as legislative staff on Capitol Hill.  Patrick was awarded an Eisenhower Fellowship in 2016. In 2014, she was named a Pahara–Aspen Education Fellow. In 2011, she was named to the International Advisory Board for the European Union program for lifelong learning.  Patrick holds a master’s degree from the University of Southern California and a bachelor’s degree from Colorado College.

 

 

This I Believe: Change is possible now

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Collective Impact / Diverse Schools / Eisenhower Fellowship / Equity / Language education

When invited to talk about the importance of a multilingual America, I’m the last person that anyone expects to see walk up to the podium.  As a Black American with unaccented English, people are surprised to learn that I grew up in a language-minority community in the US.  My family is frequently stopped and asked what language we’re speaking and what country we’re from.  By now, my children (11 and 7) are accustomed to these questions and are starting to understand the nuance of our Louisiana history.

My grandparents’ generation spoke Creole French as their home language and learned English in schools.  English quickly became synonymous with education.  Even after university study, my grandmother still regularly slipped into Creole for her phone conversations, Friday night card games and Sunday morning coffee.  I felt like she was happier in Creole than in English.  As I child, I wanted to be in that language with her and decided that I would be bilingual and I would raise my children in our language as well.  I didn’t know that embracing my family’s language would put me on a path to championing diverse, integrated environments later in my life.

Soon after giving birth to my daughter, I began to realize that just raising my children to embrace a vision of integrated, multilingual America wasn’t enough to shift how the world would treat them.  How can bilingual, bicultural kids grow up and not feel like outsiders in our country? I became clearer that they would need stronger community models than the walls of our home and that our public schools have the biggest opportunity to promote an integrated future.  A few years after my daughter was born, I founded a network of intentionally-diverse, public, language immersion schools. When we opened the French, Spanish, and Chinese schools, I narrated a long-term future vision for how our integrated schools would eventually unite the region.  I knew that, as our kids from all backgrounds grew up together, they would have a more nuanced, inclusive view of the world into adulthood.  What I didn’t expect was that our work would make profound changes for the adults in our community at the same time.

One day, Ms. Elizabeth, a mom from a lower-income Black community, called me about a project.  Her video production class had an assignment on immigration.  She admitted that, before our schools had opened, she would have focused her project on how immigrants make life worse for working class Americans.  After one year of witnessing her daughter make friends across race, language, and neighborhood lines, she was inspired to film a positive perspective on the value of immigration.  During that one call, Ms. Elizabeth reminded me that, with the right opportunities, change is possible for us now.  We don’t need to wait for the next generation to get integrated communities right.

This is what I truly believe: Only when diverse people have opportunities to learn, live, and love together, will we fully embrace our multilingual, multicultural America.

Anu Passi-Rauste, (Finland '14), George de Lama (president of Eisenhower Fellowships), Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (executive director of UN Women), and me! Photo credit: Elias Williams

Anu Passi-Rauste, (Finland ’14), George de Lama (president of Eisenhower Fellowships), Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (executive director of UN Women), and me!
Photo credit: Elias Williams

This essay is excerpted from Building Bridges One Leader At a Time: Personal Essays by the Women and Men of Eisenhower Fellowships.    I’m thankful for the EF community for encouraging us to think about our own deeply held beliefs.

Rhonda Broussard, USA ’14
Rhonda Broussard has a passion for education and has been a leader in diversity and international education initiatives. She helps schools transform their practices and align adult culture with key beliefs for teaching and learning. Prior to launching The Ochosi Group, she founded a network of language immersion, International Baccalaureate schools serving an intentionally diverse student population.  Rhonda explores her own wonderings about education reform at her blog One Good Question.

One Good Question with Anna Hall: Can you break up with your best ideas?

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Education Equity / One Good Question / School Design

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

Our field collectively is investing in new school development and in the engines that can generate new designs for school.  Those two things sometimes happen simultaneously, and sometimes run on parallel tracks.  In the new school development work, there are districts and cities around the country that have invested very heavily in opening new schools to change the paradigm for what high schools could be — NY, DC, and NOLA come to mind.   Deeply embedded in that investment is a commitment to equity and choice – as a system we are committed to creating great opportunities for young people and ensuring that they and their families have a range of choices for where they want to go.  That’s urgent, exciting work.

But in addition to offering more great high schools, we know that we also need to make sure that we have evolved high schools – with designs that advance as quickly as the world we live in. It’s important to acknowledge that creating a truly world class system of 21st century-ready schools will require a multitude of design solutions – or models.  It’s inspiring to be able to work simultaneously in new school design efforts that focus on that challenge.

 

Why does equity matter in school design?

Learning is part of becoming a fully formed, socially- and culturally-engaged human.  We all have a right to do it, and our society has a responsibility to create those learning opportunities.  All kids should have a chance to go to a great school, designed to support them and give them opportunities to shine.  I came to teaching, in fact, because in my 20s I worked for a child welfare agency whose stated chief academic goal for the young people in its care was that they achieve their GED.  I was deeply disturbed by the inequity and unfairness of that premise – by the idea that our system would organize around such low expectations for young people who had already navigated so much trauma and struggle in their lives.  I knew kids could do more, given the right opportunity and support. I joined the NYC Teaching Fellows, and have been an educator and a school designer ever since, because I believe we can and must create better systems, better schools, better choices and supports for young people and their families.

When working with educators on school redesign, how do you narrate the new design process for them?

It depends.  If you’re working with a team attempting to open a new school but not a new model, that’s an easier soup to dive into because things seem known.  You’re taking the core of someone else’s practice and building a design around it.    We recently published a collection of some of the questions and experiences from the design process that our partners have found most relevant and helpful – but to sum up here, we’ve found that the real challenge for completely new model design is actually reframing the task at hand – understanding that you are trying to create a custom-built school that maps to and builds upon your specific students’ ambitions, dreams, strengths, and needs, not just curating a set of great ideas that could be engaging to any group of kids.  And we recognize that “design” is work that school leaders and their teams may engage as part of the process of creating a new concept for a school – but that it continues in perpetuity after the school opens, as part of a robust iteration cycle.

“Stop for a second.  Look at the young people in your schools. Consider what path those young people need to get to where they want to go.  Then build.”

Step 1: Breaking up

If you accept the premise that schools should be built uniquely to serve the students in them, then new school model design requires designers to begin the work without a preconception of what their school will be. In this context, designers don’t have to be married to a certain schedule, or course sequence, or bells, lunch, etc. Instead, we encourage them to launch their design work by developing a deep understanding of the students and families their school will serve, and build from there.  This “frame-breaking” work can be challenging, but it can also be really creative and fun.  It lets us think about how to organize school around what our kids need.

Step 2: Wow!  We have inspired the most beautiful design! 

Often, design teams come up with inspiring, innovative design concepts that look great on paper.  But the act of translating the design into systems that work for faculty and all of the families and young people is often when folks hit the second wall. Again, we encourage design teams to look at their designs through the lens of student needs and assets, and prioritize based on local context and realities.

Step 3: Oh Crap! 

This is often how teams react when they have to decide how to actually bring their designs to life.  They have to answer many questions: In which order will we create and roll out each design element? Which people do we try to hire and recruit who will be willing to do this?  What is the enrollment pattern around our school and its ecosystem? How do we both navigate logistics and protect our model?   It’s an intellectual puzzle—arranging the pieces and putting everything in place. It can be a messy exercise.

Step 4: Euphoria

When schools open for the first time, and through the first few weeks, team often feel like they’re walking on air: “We made a thing! A real thing! People are here! Children are here!  They’re doing things that look like school.  It’s amazing!!!!!” It is really a lovely moment, while it lasts.

Step 5: Breaking up (again)

Shortly thereafter, things start to break or not work.  The ideas that were awesome might not fit because a team couldn’t predict what their students would need or want or respond well to, or what might not work in practice.  We help our partners navigate that first wave of struggle: my original ideas were not perfect, so what’s the path forward? How do you break up with the parts of your idea that just don’t fit your current reality? How do you deal with that emotionally?  Then, practically speaking, because you have young people in the space and adults who are trying to do their job well— how do you make shifts strategically, without causing too much disruption and stress?  Consistency is important – how do you maintain a baseline of quality for your kids that you can sustain, whatever your changes?

 

I love that students are your starting and ending point!  How much do students participate in this process?

Our position is that we want students to participate fully and as much as possible in the process. When we started this work, our first school partners already knew which communities their new schools would serve and where their feeder schools were.  This was a great opportunity, which meant teams wouldn’t have to design in abstract – they could solve for specific challenges.  So as we developed our process, we saw that student knowledge as an asset and designed a process that capitalizes on that information.

Given that, as I mentioned before, we believe that every school design team needs to start with a deep immersion in the process of understanding the community and families and students that the new school will serve.  Instead of starting with an academic model, we encourage designers to spend time talking to families and kids.  What are their ambitions, dreams, hopes, skills & knowledge?  What do they hope the school will be?  We pair that process with qualitative and quantitative data exploration. Brainstorming sessions with families and kids from the feeder schools can also be valuable. Some schools go beyond and have students as full members of the design team and/or the launch team.  That involvement varies depending on each school’s constraints.

anna-hall-headshot-2Anna’s One Good Question:

The thing I’m always trying to figure out when looking at new school design is: Does this new design create opportunities for kids or does this design prove/support an idea?

We’ve got to continuously ask this of ourselves when designing schools. And we’ve got to be careful not to be too rigid in school design.  It’s pretty straightforward to read a book about a strong school model, or to visit and observe one – and then to distill the model’s concept or “rules”, and commit to executing the idea with precision and perfection. But that approach can be limiting. We need to always be willing to analyze which parts of any given school model will work for our kids, which don’t, and which we need to change.

About Anna

Anna Hall is Senior Director of Springpoint: Partners in School Design. Anna is a seasoned educator with experience developing and leading a range of institutional, state, and national initiatives.  As a founding teacher of a highly successful small New York City public high school, she collaborated to design and build an innovative and rigorous secondary program for students in the South Bronx – and then, as principal, she led the school’s expansion and redesigned its academic programs.  Prior to teaching, Anna spent nearly a decade working as a writer, researcher, and project manager in a range of policy, politics, and technology firms.

Anna holds a B.A. from the South Carolina Honors College at the University of South Carolina, and an M.S. in teaching from Fordham University.  She is a graduate of both the New York City Teaching Fellows Program and the New York City Leadership Academy.

Download a copy of Springpoint’s School Design Guide here.