Tag Archives: Educational Change

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.