From a “wide portfolio” to systemic support for foundational learning: The evolution of the Central Square Foundation’s work on education in India (Part 1)

NOTE: This interview I did with Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja originally appeared in internationaledews.com

Over the next two weeks IEN looks at the first 10 years of the evolution of the Central Square Foundation (CSF) and its efforts to build the capacity for improving learning outcomes in India. The posts draw from an interview with CSF’s Co-Managing Director Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja. Part one explores the first five years of the Foundation’s initiatives (2012-2017) and how they developed their strategy for the next five years focusing on foundational learning, educational technology, and affordable private schools. Part two concentrates on the “four pillars” of their approach to foundational learning and the lessons they have learned in trying to improve learning at scale in India. For more on the 10th Anniversary of CSF’s founding see #10YearsOfCSF: Leaders at CSF on Their Vision for the Next Decade.

Central Square Foundation’s first five years: Developing a “wide-portfolio”

Thomas Hatch: Can you tell me about the background and evolution of the Central Square Foundation (CSF)?

Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja: We started in February 2012. The founder of CSF, Ashish Dhawan, has one of the largest private equity funds in India. He always had a deep desire to move to the development sector, and he started by serving on boards of other NGOs to try to gain an understanding of education. I joined CSF in July 2012, and for the first five years, we were only funded by our founder which allowed us to be very entrepreneurial in how we looked at education. The only “guardrails” he put up were that we would be a non-profit; we will look only at school education (K-12); and we would support young social entrepreneurs. As a result, venture philanthropy shaped a lot of the work that we did in the first phase of our journey.

Without external funders, we had the flexibility to look at a diverse set of issues from education technology to early childhood education to data and assessments. During this time, grant making was one big part of our work. Second, we supported research, particularly research from the perspective of how it can inform policy. Since we are neither a university, or an evaluation agency, our research was always oriented more for policymakers and for other education leaders and on how our research can help the ecosystem develop a collective voice. Third, we focused on government engagement. Even while we were doing grant making and looking for innovative solutions, we knew that for any solution to scale and be sustainable it needed government adoption. Early on, we weren’t even sure what government engagement meant, but we began by trying to come up with innovative solutions, having smart researchers lend their voice to it, and then handing it over to the government to run with it. But, as in much of the developing South, government demands typically include asking you to work in partnership with them, so we ended up setting up a number of project management units both at the central and the state level.

TH: What’s the advantage of an organization like yours taking some of that work on in a partnership with the government?

SS: The reality is that most people in the government understand the issues and challenges that the system is facing; they’re not blind to it. but the education production function is so complex that it’s difficult to pick out one part of the problem and solve it. The government is in the business of setting up the policy, and they are doing the regulation, and they are also the service provider of education. Working with an external partner enables them to hire people with a different profile – with different backgrounds and more specific expertise about a particular issue. The external partner becomes an extension of the government but they’re also able to bring a different profile of talent and to be razor sharp on the issue that they’re working on.

Working with an external partner enables [the government] to hire people with a different profile – with different backgrounds and more specific expertise about a particular issue. The external partner becomes an extension of the government, but they’re also able to bring a different profile of talent and to be razor sharp on the issue that they’re working on.

For example, working on a partnership focused on school leadership was my first project at CSF. At that time, school leadership as a term was not even being used in India. But, in 2012- 13, we were able to bring a group of people together, including myself, from the US and India, with expertise in organizational leadership to create the India School Leadership Institute (ISLI) which worked with principals of “low-fee” private schools. (For an overview of the evolution of ISLI see IEN’s conversation with ISLI Founding Director, Sameer Sampat.) But then the government was able to set up a National Center for School Leadership that built on a lot of our learnings in ISLI even though “low-fee” schools aren’t even part of the government sector.

The development of India’s national online platform for teachers provides another good example. As you know, the growth of technology in India has always had the advantage of better device penetration, cheaper internet, cheaper hardware but the software solutions have been the problem. In this case, states started building their own portals for teacher education but their first version was basically just a PDF of their teacher manual that they put on their websites. So there was a huge opportunity for a platform to be built, not just a portal, but a platform on a national level that states could connect to. 

The national teacher platform called DIKSHA relied on core technology that came from the EkStep Foundation. Their own legacy is from AADHAR which is a platform enabling the Government of India to directly reach residents of the country in delivery of various subsidies, benefits, and services by using the resident’s unique 12-digit Aadhaar number only. They already had sophisticated technology at a level that no state government would have been able to develop itself. CSF then took on the project management responsibilities to integrate and adapt the technology for the state governments so that it aligned with their needs and had the look and feel of their website portals. It was a logical opportunity for CSF to start working with the government, but it was dependent on identifying a strong need where the government wanted support and where CSF had the ability to provide that support.  It’s one of my favorite examples of a government partnership, because it involved a foundation like EkStep that brought in the technical capability; we brought in the project management capability, and we also had a much deeper understanding of teacher education, having worked on that for about four years. To the best of our knowledge, this is one of the most successful examples of a public good being created in partnership with CSO’s and NGO’s and different parts of the government. By 2020, the Prime Minister described DIKSHA As “one nation one platform” for the entire spectrum of education, now serving students and families as well as educators.

Shifting to phase 2: Focusing on “impact”

TH: The examples you talked about illustrate how you were operating during those first five years? 

SS: Yes, and this was the time at the end of what we call the first phase of our work that our Board put the question in front of us of “What will CSF’s work look like?” During that phase, we were an operating organization which doesn’t actually work on the ground with students and teachers and school leaders. We incubated ISLI.  

We helped to bring the leader in from the US (Sameer Sampat who went on to co-found, with Azad Oommen the first Executive Director of CSF, Global School Leaders on the ISLI model), but I was the donor on the team. I wasn’t running the organization. We were also working with states who had different interest areas. In Delhi at one point, we were working on the school-to-work transition and department restructuring. Two very distinct areas of work that are not directly related to student learning outcomes. It’s a long value chain for department restructuring: it depends on department re-structuring leading to better pedagogy and better curriculum that reach classrooms in schools and teacher education programs that then leaders to better teaching and learning.  Our board left it up to us to decide: would it be better for CSF to continue with the “wide portfolio” approach and continue to engage with state and central government, when an opportunity and interest appeared? Or should we take stock and pick a part of learning outcomes where we could have a more direct impact? And we felt that the breadth of our work allowed us a space where we could narrow down our focus and make a more meaningful impact. We essentially said:  Let’s pick out an area. Let’s be more outcome and measurement and evaluation driven in our work overall and also in how we work with our partner.” We always say for education reform to stick we need to zoom in to a district and go deep. Similarly, we decided to pick an issue within education and go deep. 

Would it be better for CSF to continue with the “wide portfolio” approach and continue to engage with state and central government, when an opportunity and interest appeared? Or should we take stock and pick a part of learning outcomes where we could have a more direct impact?

This was around 2017 and about the time that the Gates Foundation began looking at doing work in education in India.  Our first validation came when they chose CSF as an “in-country” partner. We were still a relative rookie in the education space when they saw potential in us. 

As we moved into this second part of the CSF journey, we shifted from the portfolio approach to three focus areas: 

  • Foundational learning
  • Technology in education
  • Private school sector

Landing on the need for foundation learning was very evident for us. There is a rural household survey called ASER which has been going on in India for 20 years, and it shows that the problems with basic skills are quite deep.

The second area, building on some of our earlier work, was education technology. The widespread availability and use of mobile devices and data put India in a unique position relative to many other countries. There was also a lot of for-profit entrepreneurial activity happening in India, so we saw an opportunity for solutions to be created and designed locally. We also had a unique advantage because CSF had already been playing an evangelizing role for how tech can be leveraged for education within the government system. 

The third issue area is private schooling.  We are very unique as a country where over 40% of children do not take advantage of the free education provided by the public education system. Education in India, like it is worldwide, is aspirational. The moment a family can afford to pull their child out of the free government school, they would rather send their child to a private school with fees beginning at roughly $10 a month. For the most part, the government has looked at the private school system mostly from the perspective of regulation, and there hasn’t been a strong focus on quality. But in the first phase of our work, because a lot of us, including our founder Ashish, came from the management and the corporate side of the world, many people assumed “Oh you guys must be pro-private schools,” and it took us a while to clarify that whether it’s a government school or low fee private school the school is accountable to deliver quality education. 

Our approach to these three areas has been similar to what I described for our first phase: 

  • Working with the government and creating a reform agenda with a collective voice of other education leaders
  • Evidence building and supply shaping comes from the work we do with our partners, with other NGOs in the ecosystem with a sharp focus on the public good – making sure that whatever we are creating is available to others in the education ecosystem – and an emphasis on research
  • Deepening our government engagement efforts by shifting from working across multiple issues in multiple geographies to focusing our work in certain states on the issue of foundational literacy and numeracy

Getting to scalable and sustainable solutions in these areas became an extension of our approach in phase two. Across focus areas like education technology, we are trying to be more sharply focused on early learning, including at home, and in our work in private schools, we are trying to raise the bar for quality at the primary level. From a measurement perspective, we are targeting the learning poverty index the World Bank has highlighted (measuring the percentage of children who can read and understand a simple text by age 10), asking “how can we contribute to bringing down learning poverty in India?” with an ambitious target of bringing it down from 55% to 15% over the next five or six years. We’ve found this is both a directional goal– requiring us to articulate how our work contributes to it – and an aspirational and inspiring goal that connects our work with others. 

TH: Given how hard it is to achieve these goals, have you also established some benchmarks to see if you’re headed in the right direction?

SS: Unfortunately, because of COVID, the plan to get a baseline is still on paper. The whole principle of system reform is that you’re doing it – not just with the approval of the government – but in partnership with the government. However, with the situation worldwide with COVID, that’s been impossible. We actually adapted a tool that USAID uses, the Early Grades Reading Assessment and the Early Grades Math Assessment. We’ve partnered with an assessment agency, and we’ve piloted it in English and in Gujarati so the tool is ready, but quite honestly haven’t even asked the government for permission yet because it’s just unfair. We’re also acutely conscious that whenever we get an opportunity to do the baseline, it will actually be lower than it would have been before COVID first hit. But, in a way, it will also capture a more picture from ground right now. 

What can change in schools after the pandemic?

“What if this is a moment when we can re-imagine education?” But “What if it isn’t? What if, despite the changes wrought by the pandemic, the conditions that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?” These are the questions I asked in a commentary I published in the Journal of Educational Change in August 2021 and that were excerpted in a post on International Ed News (Full commentary available at the Journal of Educational Change website). My commentary is the second in a series launched by Corrie Stone-Johnson Editor of the Journal of Educational Change and builds on the first commentary by Yong Zhao and Jim Watterston – “The changes we need post-Covid My commentary is part of a new project exploring school improvement efforts and educational innovations in both developing and developed contexts post-pandemic (following-up on issues my co-authors and I raised in The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin, 2021).

“We will now resume our regular programming…”

The times are always changing. The question this year is whether we can build on some of the changes schools made in the face of the coronavirus and reimagine education altogether. Like many, I am hopeful that we can take advantage of the current moment to make at least a few meaningful steps in some of these directions.

Nonetheless, my work over the past thirty years on school improvement and school reform efforts in the US and in “higher” and “lower-performing” countries also makes me deeply skeptical. Time and again, I have seen how ambitious plans and visions fall short of their aspirations. As a consequence, although I believe this may be a crucial time to ask: “What if this is a moment when we can re-imagine education?”, I also know that we need to ask a second question: “What if it isn’t?”  What if, despite the changes wrought by the pandemic, the existing institutional structures, practices, incentives, and beliefs that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?

Is there a real opportunity to re-imagine education post-pandemic? Or will the existing institutional structures, practices, incentives, and beliefs that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?

I don’t see this as a pessimistic take. It’s imagining the future and understanding the past that enables us to take off on journeys where the exact destination is unknown. When getting ready to climb a mountain, adventurers don’t just hope that the path they envision does not lead to an impassible ledge; they don’t rely on the hope that the weather will hold. They try to imagine what might happen when they turn a corner or reach a new level, and they get prepared. When the unexpected happens, when the conditions predictably change in unpredictable ways, we need to be ready to respond and rise above.

As my colleagues Jordan Corson and Sarah Van den Berg and I argue in our new book, The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict, education systems all around the world find themselves in this situation today. Now more than ever, it’s clear that we do not know exactly what lies around the corner, and we cannot determine, with certainty, what today’s students will need as adults or what roadblocks or supports societies will put in place for helping them to get there. But we can build on what we know about why it’s so hard to improve schools, and we can imagine what it will really take to create more powerful and equitable educational opportunities in the future.

We can build on what we know about why it’s so hard to improve schools, and we can imagine what it will really take to create more powerful and equitable educational opportunities in the future.

In my commentary in the Journal of Educational Change, I explore what it will take to support real changes in schools post-pandemic by exploring three questions:

Part 1: Why don’t schools change?

Part 2: How (and why) did schools change during the pandemic?

Part 3: How can schools change post-pandemic?

My responses to those questions build on several key principles derived from my working in and studies of a variety of efforts to create more powerful learning experiences in both developed and developing contexts: 

First, new possibilities for schooling are most likely to take off when their goals, capacity demands, and values fit the common needs, existing capabilities, and prevailing conditions in the schools and communities where they’re supposed to work.

Second, this first principle leads to a corollary or second principle that seems particularly problematic for those who want to reimagine schooling altogether: the more radical our visions are for education and the more they diverge from conventional practice, the less likely they are to take hold on a large scale. However, that does not mean that it is impossible to pursue the new visions for education that Zhao and Waterston and others imagine. It means that the demands and pressures of conventional schooling make it easier to bring those visions to life in particular circumstances and contexts – ecological “niches” in a sense – rather than across entire school systems.

This tension between the nature and extent of reform efforts, however, yields the third principle and opens up another avenue for change: There are places – “niches of possibility” – where the conditions are more amenable for transforming education. That does not mean that we have to accept every aspect of the conditions or ignore those that are deeply problematic. But we have to figure out how to challenge and work with and around the conditions in order to change them.

From this perspective, the specific vision for learning remains important, but that vision has to be accompanied by the recognition that it is not the vision itself that will change schools; schools will be transformed, over time, with changes in the conditions and the construction of the infrastructure for more powerful learning. Rather than aiming to develop a program and scale it across contexts, the focus shifts to the student level and to making sure that all students, particularly those left out and systematically disadvantaged by conventional schooling, encounter more and more opportunities inside and outside schools to engage in powerful learning experiences. Those experiences create new emergent possibilities for education that build directly on the specific conditions in which students live and learn every day.

(Full commentary available at the Journal of Educational Change website)

The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict on the Getting Smart Podcast

In February, the Getting Smart Podcast featured a conversation with me and Tom Vander Ark about my new book The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict. Tom talked with me about the key stages of my career and we walked through the key sections of the book. I was particularly interested to learn that Tom first encountered my work through my article “When Improvement Programs Collide,” published almost 20 years ago. That set us off on a discussion of how I see may work as focusing on what we need to do to improve school reform and to build the capacity of the whole eco-system of organizations, agencies, services, and people who are engaged in the work of school improvement.

What do we need to do to improve school reform efforts and build the capacity of the whole eco-system of organizations, agencies, services, and people who are engaged in the work of school improvement?

You can find the full podcast here: https://www.gettingsmart.com/2021/02/thomas-hatch-on-the-education-we-need-and-the-future-we-cant-predict/

Here are some of the key takeaways that Tom highlighted:
[:51] Thomas shares the origin story of NCREST as well as its mission.
[3:01] Tom shares his appreciation for Thomas’s early work on the concept of coherence.
[3:39] Thomas takes us to the early beginnings of his work around coherence and explains what it is and why it is important.
[7:54] Thomas tells about each of the sections in his book, starting with part 1: “Why Should Schools Change?” He headlines the case for change and provides some suggestions on how to create agreements around them.
[11:40] Tom shares the key insights he appreciated in the first section.
[12:27] The second section of the book covers barriers to change. Thomas lists some of the barriers and what we can do to make progress in overcoming them.
[15:39] In section three of Thomas’s book, he writes about how schools can improve. In particular, he focuses on high-leverage problems. Thomas explains what these are, why they’re critical, and shares some examples.
[17:33] The next section of Thomas’s book is on how education can change where he introduces the concept of micro-innovations. Thomas explains what these are and what they can do to move a system agenda forward.
[20:18] Tom shares how 4.0 Schools have been teaching this idea of micro-innovations.
[21:07] Chapter 5 of Thomas’ book is on systems change. Thomas speaks about two critical elements of systems change that are covered in this chapter: capacity building and collective responsibility.
[25:28] Would Thomas agree that it takes a decade-long push on all three of these primary levers to really promote systems change?
[27:44] Thomas reflects on his career, professional learning, and how he has seen education change over the years.
[30:29] Would Thomas say that writing is part of his learning process?
[32:00] What’s next?

Mentioned in The Episode:

https://www.gettingsmart.com/2021/02/thomas-hatch-on-the-education-we-need-and-the-future-we-cant-predict/

From Learning Loss to Learning to Read: High Leverage Strategies for School Improvement

This post draws from my new book with Jordan Corson and Sarah van den Berg, The Education We Need For A Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin 2021). An edited version of this post was published originally at: https://corwin-connect.com/2021/01/what-it-takes-to-improve-schools-now/

Along with the devastation of the coronavirus outbreak and widespread school closures come hopes for reimagining schools as they reopen. These hopes for the future, however, rest on making the concrete improvements in schools that we know we can make today.

Despite the enormity of the challenges and the massive race and income-based inequities in society and schools that the coronavirus exposed – again – the pandemic has also made visible the fact that many communities already have the capacity to address at least some of these challenges. In New York City, in the first month of the school closure, the Department of Education worked with businesses like Apple and Microsoft to provide almost 500,000 computers and iPads to students who needed them. Across the US and around the world, even with limited digital infrastructure, communities are opening up hotspots for public use, equipping buses with Wi-Fi (and sometimes solar power), and pursuing other innovative ways of getting students online. Given the existing possibilities, one commissioner for the US Federal Communications Commission testified that the connectivity gap could be closed “virtually overnight.” If it can be done, then it should be done. No need to wait any longer.

Getting students connected to the Internet is no panacea for educational challenges, however, particularly in many parts of the developing world, where almost half of all students don’t have a computer at home and over 40 percent lack access to the internet. We also know that even with Internet access and online opportunities, significant improvements in students’ learning depend on developing more powerful instructional practices and providing better support for educators. Nonetheless, the responses to the coronavirus show that we have the capacity to address some inequitable learning opportunities, and we can take these steps right now by responding to high-leverage problems.

High-Leverage Problems

My colleagues in the New Jersey Network of Superintendents and I argue that those efforts can begin by developing a coordinated response to what I call high-leverage problems:

  • High-leverage problems concentrate on issues widely recognized as central to the development of more equitable educational opportunities and outcomes.
  • They present opportunities for visible improvements in relatively short periods of time.
  • They establish a foundation for long-term, sustained, systemic efforts that improve teaching and learning.

Addressing high-leverage problems depends on developing a keen sense of what matters to people and what matters in an organization. It requires careful analysis of multiple problems and continuous reflection on the process of addressing them. It relies on a powerful repertoire of strategies that meet the specific demands of different situations and on developing new practices and resources when necessary. All together, these steps can lead to the “quick wins” that help propel organizational and social changes in many sectors.

#Learningloss & Learning to Read

Take the critical concern for the “learning loss” likely to be created by the massive disruptions to schooling that so many children around the world are experiencing. That term – now almost a one-word hashtag – actually obscures a host of challenges that have to be unpacked to be addressed productively. First, different children experience learning loss to different degrees; they may experience it in some academic areas and not others; learning loss may also be affected by experiences of trauma and the stresses and socio-emotional challenges that come with the pandemic; it may result from inaccessibility to online learning and school support services including free meals and counseling; and it may stem a loss of relationships with peers and teachers, disengagement with school, and prolonged absences from learning in person or online. Such a litany of problems can make any first step seem inadequate and pointless. Nonetheless, breaking down a high leverage problem like learning to read yields a coordinated series of strategies that many communities already have the capacity to pursue:

  1. Make books by authors from a variety of backgrounds freely accessible.
  2. Find children with vision problems and provide them with glasses.
  3. Develop and understanding of why some children are chronically absent from school/online learning and support regular attendance.
  4. Identify children who are struggling to learn to read and provide targeted interventions.

The logic is simple: when children have access to books, when they can see, when they’re in school, and when they receive targeted support if they’re struggling, they’re much more likely to learn to read.

The logic is simple: when children have access to books, when they can see, when they’re in school, and when they receive targeted support if they’re struggling, they’re much more likely to learn to read.

Even in countries like the United States, children in high-poverty areas have a much harder time getting books than their peers in middle-income areas, but a number of programs (including one sponsored by the country singer Dolly Parton) have taken advantage of book vending machines, doctor’s offices, and other mechanisms to address this issue. Organizations like EmbraceRace and the Jane Addams Peace Association post lists of books by authors from different racial and cultural backgrounds so that there’s no excuse not to provide all children with access to materials that reflect their heritage.

 Of course, making books and print materials available in a variety of languages, by authors from a range of backgrounds, is just one step. Children still need to be able to read those books once they get those books into their hands. Nonetheless, 25 percent of school-aged children in the United States have undiagnosed eye problems that inhibit their ability to read, and one in three children haven’t had their vision tested in the past two years (if at all); but relatively low-cost programs to test students’ vision and get glasses to those who need them do exist. In the developing world, it may be complicated to create a supply chain that makes print materials readily available and ensures every child who needs glasses gets a pair, but it can be done.

We know that chronic absences from school have a devastating effect on children’s learning and have a disproportionate impact on students in communities of color, but that knowledge has also led to the development of a number of successful strategies for helping many children to get to and stay in school. Despite the re-emergence of the “reading wars” over the best approach to teach reading, there are a number of well-established strategies and supports that many teachers and schools are already using that target the specific needs of at least some of the students who experience difficulties in learning to read when they are in school.

Improve Schools and Transform Education

These first steps may not reach every student right away, and any initial success has to be followed by developing educational activities that foster more advanced skills and a broader set of developmental needs – an even more challenging proposition. Ultimately, addressing these challenges will depend on truly reimagining schooling, and, reconceptualizing notions like “learning loss” that ignore the mile-wide and inch-deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for students to catch up once they’re left behind.

We need to reimagine schooling, reconceptualizing notions like “learning loss” that ignore the mile-wide and inch-deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for students to catch up once they’re left behind

In short, the pandemic itself will not change schools:  Nothing will change in schools unless we change it. Yet the strategies to provide glasses, to address chronic absences, and to provide targeted support in reading can lead to real improvements in schools – even in the midst of a pandemic – if we choose to dedicate the time, resources and commitment to put them into practice on a wide basis.  We can take these critical steps to make the schools we have more efficient, more equitable and more effective today and to lay the groundwork for transforming education as a whole in the future.

How to take responsibility for the future of education

This post was adapted from my forthcoming book The education we need for a future we can’t predict and “Building the capacity for collective responsibility in Norway” (to appear in Leading and Transforming Education Systems edited by Michelle Jones and Alma Harris). It was published originally on GettingSmart.com.

In a recent article in Forbes, Tom Vander Ark outlined 15 “invention opportunities” that can support the development of equitable high-quality learning opportunities in the future. Among the fifteen are challenges to create “accountability 2.0” and develop the mechanisms that can bring people together to share diverse perspectives and support community agreement on the aims and purposes of education. These mechanisms are essential for fostering the common understanding and collective responsibility that fuel the social movements we need to dismantle systemic racism, create equitable educational opportunities, and transform education.                      

Re-defining accountability itself serves as a first step in developing these new mechanisms. For too long, accountability in the US has been synonymous with answerability: Answerability reflects the beliefs that individuals and groups should be accountable for meeting clearly specified and agreed-upon procedures and/or goals. Yet the focus on answerability ignores responsibility another crucial aspect of accountability. Responsibility reflects the belief that individuals and groups should be held account­able for living up to and upholding norms of conduct and higher pur­poses that are often ambiguous and difficult to define in advance.

Individuals and groups should be held accountable for living up to and upholding norms of conduct and higher purposes that are often ambiguous and difficult to define in advance.

Although carefully specifying outcomes that need to be achieved and establishing consequences for failing to meet those targets can increase efficiency, it also ignores many other valued outcomes, and it can undermine the discretion and expert judgment that may be needed to make many decisions. When taken to extremes, this approach spawns a compliance mindset and leads to efforts to game the system that make it look like the goals have been achieved when they haven’t.  

At the same time, simply leaving individuals and groups alone is not the same thing as supporting the development of individual or collective responsibility. Developing responsibility also involves developing the capacity—the investments, materials, abilities, commitments, and relationships—needed to carry out responsibilities effectively. In short, accountability comes from the capacity to support a balance between answerability and responsibility.

Finland’s PISA scores have slipped a bit in recent years, its education system still excels in many respects and continues to stand out as one of the most equitable high-performing systems. Even though many analyses highlight the autonomy of teachers as central to that performance, those analyses often fail to mention several other key aspects of Finland’s education system that support the development of the relationships, trust, and common understanding in education so central to developing collective responsibility and achieving equitable outcomes:

  • A well-established social-welfare state that supports all members of society by connecting education, health, social services, and other sectors
  • A national curriculum framework and a strong, coherent infrastructure of facilities, materials, assessment and preparation programs to support teaching and learning
  • A curriculum renewal process in which stakeholders from all parts of society participate in reflecting on and revising the curriculum framework
  • The use of a vari­ety of high-quality informal and formal assessments that inform efforts to improve practices and performance throughout the education system

The Finnish approach to assessment play a particularly important role in supporting the development of common understanding and common aims. That approach includes diagnostic and classroom-based assessments that elementary teach­ers can use early in children’s school careers to identify those who may need some additional help with academics and to ensure that all students stay on track. In secondary schools, well-known exit exams anchor and focus the system. The National Board of Education in Finland also regularly gives tests to samples of students and schools, providing an overview of national and regional performance in key subjects, such as Finnish and mathematics. Although the National Board doesn’t use that information for ranking (and can’t, because not all students and schools are assessed), it shares school-level information with the schools that participate and municipal-level data with the munici­palities involved. In addition, the National Board makes these sam­ple assessments widely available for free, so that any teacher, school, or municipality that wants to administer these tests can do so. As a consequence, even without national testing, Finnish schools and municipalities have government-paid tools that link directly to the core curriculum that they can use to benchmark their performance against regional and national samples.

Under these conditions, students don’t have to pass tests that require them to demonstrate proficiency by third grade; they hardly ever “fail” or have to be held back; and most students reach at least a basic level of educational achievement.  At the same time, this approach both supports considerable autonomy for educators and schools and builds the common connections that steer the system toward broad education goals without having to rely heavily on rewards or punishments.

This approach contrasts sharply with those in contexts like the US that focus almost exclusively on answerability by using tests to hold teachers, school leaders, and schools “accountable” for reaching specified benchmarks and other outcomes. Rather than using assessments to look back to see whether educators did what they were supposed to do, educators and system leaders in Finland use assessments to look forward and to see if people, classes and schools are headed in the right direction. Such an approach doesn’t require data on every single aspect of student, teacher, or school performance, but it depends on making sure no one gets too far off course. It means using assessment to look for outliers and listening for signs of trouble, not to check on each individual or make sure everything is done a certain way or in a certain timeline. In the process, Finland supports the development of the collective responsibility central to guiding education into an unpredictable future.

Rather than using assessments to look back to see what educators did, we need to use assessments to look forward and to see if people, classes, and schools are headed in the right direction.

New technologies, artificial intelligence, and many other kinds of innovations can help to improve education. But those technical achievements will not accomplish much without the personal commitments and broader social movements that can transform our communities. If we are truly to develop collective responsibility in education, then we have to develop collective responsibility for education. We have to hold ourselves, our elected officials, and our communities accountable for making the changes in our society that will end segregation and discrimination, create equitable educational opportunities, and provide the support that everyone needs to thrive.

What in the world is happening in the US? Scanning the headlines for news on education and the election

This is an updated version of a post that I published initially on internationalednews.com

The US elections on November 3rd spawned uncertainty and anxiety across the country. In addition to summarizing the initial presidential election results (using the headline “Trump sets U.S. on course for institutional crisis”), Politico’s Global Translations provided links to headlines from around the world.

Beyond those headlines focusing on the Presidential election, I found a series of stories that described the implications for education at the national, state, and local levels as well as several articles and blog posts that explored how educators and students are responding so far.

Before the election, Education Week focused on 7 Big Questions for Schools and Education and noted as well that Educators Prefer Governors With a More Cautious Approach to COVID-19. After the election, Sean Cavanagh reported on the “muddled picture for K-12 and the education industry.”

Chalkbeat previewed 8 big consequences the election could have for America’s K-12 schools. After the election, they took a look at what the results mean for schools and reported on a series of education related issues in Indiana, Colorado, and Michigan:

The74 continues to curate a live blog with updates on key education related votes across the country 2020 Liveblog — Education on the Ballot: Rolling Updates, Results & Analysis From 50 Key Votes That Could Reshape Education Policy. In addition, they have summarized many of the results of state and local elections for governors, senators, and school board members (Education on the ballot 2020) along with highlighted results of several different ballot initiatives:

  • Pre-K Wins Big in Colorado, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Multnomah County
  • California Ban on Affirmative Action in College Admissions Likely to Stay in Place
  • Washington State Passes Sex Education Bill
  • Florida Voters Choose to Amend State Constitution to Say ‘Only a Citizen’ Can Vote

Ballotpedia provides links to an extensive set of overviews and results of national elections, ballot measures/issues, state-by-state elections, and school board elections, and google searches of education and elections turns up many stories on local ballot measures and school board races.

Beyond the results, both before and after the election, a series of stories have been looking at the aftermath and how to deal with it in schools and classrooms.

Small steps to big changes in schools

As schools in the US and other parts of the world make difficult decisions about how to reopen this fall, I look at some of the concrete steps that, over time, could make schools healthier places and transform the basic parameters of schooling. This post expands on comments I made at the Education Disrupted/Education Reimagined convening sponsored by WISE and the Salzburg Global Seminar in April  and summarized in a volume sharing the conference proceedings.

Have the wide-spread school closures changed schools forever? The history of school reform efforts shows that schools are much more likely to change slowly and incrementally than they are to suddenly transform, even in the face of a deadly virus. Yet we can take advantage of what we know about how students learn and how schools change to address a critical problem with the design of conventional schools:  Schools are a better medium for spreading disease than they are for supporting meaningful learning.

Learning depends on healthy, safe conditions for students, educators, and all those who work in schools; but schools cram too many people into too little space, and the typical lay-out of age-graded classrooms along labyrinthian hallways limits collaboration, exploration, and engagement with the world. We’ve made things worse in the US by leaving buildings in disrepair, and failing to provide adequate ventilation, air conditioning or heating, particularly in low-income communities. Add on a draconian schedule with little time for exercise, lunch, or other healthy activities; and then ramp up stress levels with high stakes tests where students have to sit in rows in silence for hours facing a ticking clock.

But things can change. We can make schools safer for students and staff as schools reopen, and we can create a foundation for much healthier and more powerful educational opportunities in the future.  

We can make schools safer for students and staff as schools reopen, and we can create a foundation for much healthier and more powerful educational opportunities in the future.  

Focus on learning that matters

The school closures and the inequities of access to online learning immediately launched a spate of proposals for dealing with “learning loss.” Many of these proposals rely on intensifying work on academic subjects, yet these proposals ignore the mile-wide and inch deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for those left behind to catch-up. Addressing academic learning loss begins by concentrating on a small set of key skills and concepts and providing educators with the tools to ensure that every student actually meets those learning goals.

Although academic needs have to be met, the challenges that students face as they return to school go far beyond academic achievement and a “less is more” approach to academics creates the efficiencies that provide time and space for supporting other critical aspects of children’s development. Back in school, learning will be enhanced by creating educational opportunities for students to reflect on their experiences during the outbreak; to develop coping strategies; to rebuild positive relationships with their peers and teachers; and to get engaged in meaningful and constructive work in areas they care about. When that happens, educators can shift their focus from covering the entire curriculum to addressing the critical needs of every child.

Addressing academic learning loss begins by concentrating on a small set of key skills and concepts and providing educators with the tools to ensure that every student actually meets those learning goals.

Break down the barriers between learning “inside” and “outside” schools

As we remake schools to help stop the spread of the virus, we can stagger schedules to fit students’ sleep patterns and development as they get older. We can make sure that students have regular chances to take the breaks and get the exercise that we know benefits learning and productivity. As we limit the number of people using school facilities at any given time, we can rotate students in and out of schools and expand support for students’ learning far beyond school walls. In addition to online learning, we can take advantage of possibilities for education outside on playgrounds, in the natural world, and in the neighborhood in gyms, museums, libraries, community organizations, and businesses. In the process, we can shift the focus from getting children into schools to enabling them to explore the world.

Expand the power of the education workforce

         To increase the reach and power of teachers who have been limited largely to working with students in classrooms, we can engage a host of people who have the time and the capacity to play a positive role in learning inside and outside schools. Organizations like City Year and Citizen Schools already demonstrate how to mobilize volunteers young and old who can provide targeted academic support as tutors, act as mentors, or guide students’ in projects, apprenticeships, and community service. Numerous proposals could help meet the demand, whether it’s through the kind of education “Marshall Plan” discussed by Robert Slavin or by expanding National Service and Americorps as outlined by David BrooksJohn Bridgeland and Alan Khazei, or bills  being developed in the Senate.

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Condense schooling and increase learning

All of these changes are within our reach right now. They do not require new curricula, massive professional development for teachers, or new technologies. Reimagining education depends on re-orienting our priorities, making schools healthy and safe, and focusing first and foremost on students’ needs and interests, particularly those of Black, Latinx, and immigrant students, students from low-income communities and the communities hardest hit by this pandemic. But as we change our priorities and take these initial steps, a more radical possibility emerges: Condense the school day.

Instead of extending the school day and requiring students to spend even more time on basic skills, we can concentrate more efficient academic support in more limited time slots, with educators able to utilize sophisticated materials and coordinate contributions from colleagues with specialized expertise as well as volunteer tutors, mentors, and online and offline guides. In a sense, every day could be a half-day, opening up opportunities for students to have lunch, get outside, and participate in a host of school-based, community-based, or online activities; to get any counseling they need; to pursue their own education interests; and to participate in activities that foster a much wider range of developmental and educational goals. Such an approach rejects the tacit assumption that limits education to schooling and embraces the possibilities for supporting students’ learning and development wherever and whenever it occurs.

6 Things Educators Can Do From Home To Help Their Students

What can we do? That’s a question we are all asking right now. For all of us that question begins with what we can do to keep ourselves and those around us safe and healthy.  But parents and educators like me are also thinking about what we can do to support our children, students and colleagues as K-12 schools close and classes go online. There are no easy answers, but here are 6 things I’m thinking about to try to deal with the challenges and take advantage of the possibilities:

  1. Focus on health and wellness. Learning is an important goal, but health and wellness for everyone has to come first. Students will learn the most from the acts of courage and kindness that help keep us all going.
  1. Suspend Schoolwork. Suspend exams, grades, and any other requirements that may contribute to stress and anxiety – for teachers and parents as well as students. Children and parents need opportunities and guidance for engagement in positive and productive activities, not more reasons to fight over homework or “keeping up.”  
  1. Encourage invention, design, creative expression and meaningful engagement. Instead of trying to figure out how to cover the curriculum, educators can put the syllabi aside and focus on meaningful activities – activities related to important learning goals that might be motivating and interesting for students to do while they are out of school.  Instead of creating new demands, concentrate on creating new possibilities:
    • Encourage students to keep a weekly diary – in words, pictures or any other media
    • create online journals, newspapers and magazines that students can contribute to
    • Invite students to share artwork, music, writing, photographs, or videos in an online exhibition
    • Stage online “talent shows” for students to share videos they have produced
    • Provide links to online resources and tutorials for learning languages, playing an instrument, developing academic abilities or learning other skills and enable students to share their progress
  1. Connect, connect, connect. Educators are uniquely positioned to provide information and support for their students, particularly those who are struggling the most. We can check-in, ask how they and their families are doing, share the latest news and resources, and help to identify critical needs. Educators can also build relationships and fight isolation by finding and creating opportunities for students to connect with one another as well with adults, particularly those in retirement homes, hospitals or anywhere else people might be disconnected and in distress
  1. Find new ways to serve the community. Create online community service activities and virtual service projects. My oldest daughter, a senior in college, has been serving as a mentor and had to say goodbye to the elementary student she visited every week, but what if they didn’t have to say goodbye? What if they could stay in touch by text or video even for a short-time every week? With so many students of all ages out of school, we can create online clearinghouses where students – or anyone really – could connect with those looking for mentoring, tutoring, or just conversation. Reach out and partner with parents, those from community centers, after school programs, Americorps programs like City Year and Citizen Schools, museums,  and libraries to find and create these activities for students to engage in online. Together educators and these extended programs can work to focus particularly on the students and their families who may be unable to get online or stay connected.
  1. Embrace collective responsibility. From living in Norway for a year, I learned it is possible both to respect the rights of every individual and cultivate a sense of collective responsibility.  There is no more important time for reinforcing our common bonds and recognizing that everything we do has an impact on our neighbors. It could be as simple as inviting children to call their grandparents or extended family once a day or a couple of times a week or just calling down the hall, leaning out the window or talking across the fence. The most profound thing we can do in difficult times can be done anywhere in any circumstances, dedicate ourselves to working with and for each other.

New year, new predictions?

In this week’s post, I scan of some of education predictions in the news over the past few weeks and reflects on the possibilities schools and education in the coming years.

Last week and the week before, my roundup of key issues of the past year and decade highlighted for me the difficulty of making predictions about the future.  The safest thing to do is probably to stick to ambiguous statements like “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” My recent work looking at why so many efforts to change schools fall short of their goals suggests that statement may be particularly accurate in education. That does not mean that things have not and will not change at all and scanning the predictions for the coming the year and decade (listed at the end of this post) provides a glimpse of what some commentators think might transpire. By the end of the 2020’s there will undoubtedly be many new schools, new learning experiences available outside of schools, and new technologies. Looking back at the concerns about stress, safety, data privacy, the spread of false information and other problems that emerged in the last ten years, the new developments of the 2020’s may well have some undesirable effects. But it’s possible to imagine some more positive effects as well:

  • Beyond school choice? Rather than arguing over whether students should be able to choose schools, students might have more opportunities to fashion learning pathways that match their specific needs and interests. Those pathways might include learning experiences in schools, but students might be able to draw on a much wider array of learning opportunities outside of schools in their own communities but also around the world, online.
  • Beyond the “usual subjects”? Rather than intensifying the focus on testing and basic skills, new developments might make it possible for more students to learn the basics more efficiently and in less time, creating opportunities for them to develop their abilities in many different ways. Those will likely include more formal and informal opportunities to participate in e-sports, to produce their own music and other art works, craft their own products and services, and participate in virtual communities where they can share those experiences and products far beyond their local schools.
  • Beyond personalization? Rather than having to rely on educators to figure out how to personalize learning or differentiate instruction for every child, students and parents may be able to play a more active role in choosing the goals of their learning experiences and the nature of those experiences as well.
  • More time for teaching and learning? Rather than making teachers obsolete, new technologies may tackle many of the “back-end”, administrative, and managerial aspects of schooling; in the process, those developments might create more room for teachers to work with students and other educators on teaching and learning.

Nonetheless, as it has been in education for the past 100 years, many of the most unconventional developments are likely to be confined to the margins, to alternative schools and special populations, and to the white and/or wealthy elites who are most likely to be able to take advantage of them.  At this point, I’m not sure there is any reason to revise substantially what I said when looking ahead last year:  That changes in schooling happen slowly, and incrementally and that the most significant changes will come as society as a whole changes, as the environment evolves, as new economies and technologies develop. Those changes may have the most significant impact on schools when the nature of work and family life shifts and parents no longer have to rely on schools to look after their children from 8 to 3 PM five days a week. At that point, as the nature of childhood changes, schools may change and some may be left behind entirely, allowing children to explore far beyond their own neighborhoods, develop their abilities, and express themselves in ways that might change their world.

PREDICTIONS

Grim and hopeful global trends to watch in 2020 (and fold into a zine) (NPR)

A teacher makes 10 predictions for education in 2020 — some of them rather hopeful (Answer Sheet, Washington Post)

Six education stories to watch in 2020 (Forbes)

Ten Education Stories We’ll Be Reading in 2020 (Straight Up, Education Week)

Will higher education roar in the ’20s? (Inside Higher Ed)

10 Higher Education Predictions for a New Decade (Inside Higher Ed)

5 K-12 trends to watch in 2020 (Education Drive)

2020 priorities inside America’s 15 biggest school districts: Student protests over equity, school boundary changes, abuse charges, & more (The 74 Million)

Albany primer: Here are the big NYC education issues to watch in the new legislative session (Chalkbeat, New York)

California education issues to watch in 2020 — and predictions of what will happen (EdSource, California)

New Year’s Resolutions for Leaders of Social Change (SSIR)

Philanthropy in the 2020s: 16 Predictions (Inside Philanthropy)

14 predictions for the future of classroom technology (Forbes)

From artificial intelligence to augmented reality to peer-to-peer learning, 7 ed tech trends to watch in 2020 (The 74 Million)

Four Things You Need To Know About STEM And Education For 2020 (Forbes)

Report: Climate change literacy, early childhood focus shaping STEM in 2020 (Education Drive)

Rounding up the issues of 2019 and the 2010’s (Part 2)

In this follow-up to last week’s post on some of the common issues and key concerns mentioned in end-of-the-year and end-of-the-decade education reflections, Thomas Hatch highlights questions about the role of research and technology in improvement efforts.

Last week’s post showed that many reviews of the key education stories of last year and the preceding decade noted some progress as well as some stagnation and continuing inequities in student outcomes.  At the same time, those reviews also often came back to concerns that neither research nor technology were having the hoped-for effects in improving education.

What research adds value?
The discussions of progress and stagnation over the past decade reflected continuing concerns about educational research, its quality and value. The championing of “value-added” research in the 2000’s was succeeded by an embrace of large-scale data sets and data mining which contributed to rising concerns about data-privacy and cyber-security (as Audrey Water highlighted with a link to the K-12 Cyber Incident Map).

In what Alexander Russo identified as one of the 10 pieces of education journalism that defined the decade, Emily Hanford may have both re-ignited the reading wars and made concerns about the lack of impact of research on practice a hot-button issue again.  (We shared our own take on the problems of getting research into practice in blog posts and a podcast about our study of the 112 external support providers working to improve K-3 reading outcomes in New York City).

At the same time, Matt Barnum’s review of 8 lessons learned in 2019 pointed to some key of issues of equity, race, and poverty that research is shedding light on.  The awarding of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer also capped a decade in which the use of randomized controlled trials expanded even more, particularly in the developing world. As Crawfurd and Hares report, a systematic review of RCTs in education research found just over a thousand unique studies between 1980 and 2016, with more than half of these produced between 2010 and 2016.

What’s changed? Technology? Schools?
Even another ten years of promises of an ed-tech revolution couldn’t seem to speed up the slow pace of change in teaching and learning in primary and secondary education (as Larry Cuban continues to chronicle). Some things have changed. Students can now use their phones to access google classroom (and get texts from their parents in the middle of the day) and teachers can download lessons from a host of sites offering open and free access to tons of instructional materials (though many of those don’t appear to be aligned with academic standards). Yet, in 2019, both students and teachers still worked in the same schools and classrooms, for roughly the same amount of time, with the same instructional approaches, focusing on many of the same skills and outcomes as they did in 2009.

At the same time, questions about the quality and the value of higher education have erupted along with  the development of online courses, micro degrees, and other new higher-ed entities that few had imagined when the decade began (and the “Varsity Blues” elite college admissions scandal and the student loan crisis hasn’t help much either).

For those that aren’t already depressed, Audrey Waters provides a detailed accounting of the 100 worst ed-tech debacles of the decade.

Looking ahead?
Although many education conversations in the 2000’s in the US were consumed by debates of the No Child Left Behind Act, only a few of the reviews of the last decade mentioned the Every Child Succeeds Act of 2015 or other policy developments. Instead, partisanship seems to have overwhelmed many discussions of policy and the fractures seem to be growing. It gets harder to tell the “reformers” from the “non-reformers,” and even those who thought they held similar views – Democrats, charter advocates, free marketeers among others – find themselves trying to make sense of who stands for what in the age of Trump.

But students are standing up and speaking out.  One more scan for “student activism” in the news in 2019 reveals some of the people and the stories we could be following in the coming years:

2019 was the year of the protest, thanks to a new generation of activists, I-D

A ‘new wave’ of activism on campus: Students are aggressively seeking their demands, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Where Did All These Teen Activists Come From?, KQED

Young people across Asia pushed for change in 2019. Meet five of them, CNN

Greta Thunberg isn’t alone. Meet some other young activists who are leading the environmentalist fight, CNN

8 young activists you need to hear from today, XQ

19 youth climate activists you should be following on social media, earthday.org

Youth Activist Movements of the 2010s: A Timeline and Brief History of a Decade of Change, Teen Vogue