Let’s Not Return to School, Let’s Move Beyond It

By: Tony Jackson and Jordan Shapiro

Across the United States, children are returning to school. For some, it will be their first time since March 2020. The past year and a half has been a challenging, if not devastating, disruption for families, teachers, and administrators. Now we’re all hungry for a return to normal.

But at what cost? Normal, for vast numbers of American students, is not something to which we should aspire to return. For too long, our society has been willing to ignore persistent inequities—specifically, the lopsided distribution of education resources that the pandemic amplified so clearly. We’ve seen the disproportionate suffering of youth who were already marginalized by poverty and systemic racism. We’ve watched as schools literally became the means of survival for the most disenfranchised children.

Still, many pundits, education journalists, experts, and thought-leaders have already returned to a perspective that reifies the past. When they’re not writing about mask mandates, they offer a steady stream of op-eds about learning loss and the need for remediation. This is precisely the language that has long framed an ineffective, paternalistic approach to education inequality.

What they’re missing is that, for underserved youth, returning to these conversations means the same old discrepancies in achievement and the diminished futures they foretell. For all children—regardless of their race or socio-economic status—it means a school experience that fails to adequately prepare individuals to survive and thrive in a world threatened by a climate crisis, rising authoritarianism, partisan political division, misinformation, tribalism, and nationalism.

In April, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the Center for Global Education at Asia Society convened more than 40 top education leaders—including researchers, administrators, reformers, philanthropists, policymakers, EdTech developers, and more—to identify priorities for establishing a new education mindset for the 22nd century. But we wanted to avoid the old debates, which have defined the conversation about teaching and learning for more than a century: “hard” vs. “soft” skills, rigorous vs. playful, STEM vs. SEL. Instead, we wondered: What education system do we need not only to prepare for the future but also to ensure the human race has a future?

…it is time to rethink the ways we center young people in their education.

Tony Jackson and Jordan Shapiro

Key to this conversation was the idea that it is time to rethink the ways we center young people in their education. How can we reframe the conversations about learning, community support, and policies that will really allow our children to flourish and reach their full intellectual and human potential? We established three recommendations to help teachers, parents, caregivers, administrators, funders, and policymakers think differently about what normal can and should be.

First, if students don’t understand themselves, they can’t understand others. And without empathy, there is no working together, no collective prosperity. Let’s move beyond the tired question of skills vs. personal development. Education should not be premised on a view of the child as either a future worker or an individual in need of social and ethical development. We all know that a fully realized human being is both. Skills and values are interconnected. Productive civic engagement and economic contribution require autonomy, agency, and reflexivity.

Second, we should embrace the notion that learning happens everywhere, all the time. Recent research on youth during the pandemic shows that given the opportunity and the right support, kids take learning into their own hands—when kids use technology and digital media, they often choose how-to videos on TikTok or deep dives on YouTube. There’s an alternative to the “pandemic learning loss” narrative, a narrative that relies on a narrow and problematic understanding of what constitutes “learning.” The new normal needs to move beyond the false division between formal and informal learning, school-based and self-directed learning. Let’s replace this outdated way of thinking with a new model of education ecosystems which embrace, rather than avoid, nonlinear and connected modes of communication.

Third, let’s rethink where the power and responsibility for education lies. We need a rigorously inclusive model of “local education authority” that enables kids and their communities to determine their future. Let’s move beyond school district bureaucracies and the massive disparities based on property tax revenues they represent. The governance of education systems is not just a safety net accounting for individual achievement, but also as a springboard for the kinds of action that today’s kids innately know they want to take: to make the world safer, healthier, more embracing of difference, and more equitable. Only by sharing power and responsibility for education, in a radically cooperative fashion, can we transition our children to be the makers of a 22nd century worth living in.

Taking the comfortable path of least resistance back to normal imperils our future. We need a new, inclusive approach to education for the 22nd century. Our children’s future and the future of the human race depend on it.

Tony Jackson leads Asia Society’s work in education which strives to enable all students to graduate high school prepared for college, for work in the global economy, and for 21st-century global citizenship.

Jordan Shapiro is a Senior Fellow with Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.


What Schools Can Learn from the NFL Vaccine Playbook

Back in July, the NFL released an aggressive COVID-19 plan that will keep games going and incentivize players to get their vaccines: The League informed teams that canceled games due to unvaccinated players may result in forfeits and loss of pay. Vaccinated players who test positive and are asymptomatic can return to play after two negative tests, 24 hours apart. Unvaccinated players, however, must isolate for 10 days. The strategy is working as more than 93% of players and 99% of club personnel are vaccinated.

The NFL has made clear what every football fan knows: Players are only as good as their ability to show up, a team only as strong as its time together on the field. The NFL has also made clear that playing well entails safeguarding the health and safety of everyone in the League. The result: Even vaccine-hesitant players understand that remaining unvaccinated undermines their team’s prospects.

As students head back to school, states and school systems should borrow a page from the NFL’s playbook and embrace consistent and high levels of vaccination among school staff and eligible students as the lynchpin to a successful year.

This aligns with President Biden’s path out of the pandemic, which calls for schools to increase incentives and requirements to get staff and students vaccinated. Biden was adamant that schools must aim to get 100% of teachers vaccinated. “Vaccination requirements in schools are nothing new,” he said. “They work.”​​ Some districts are aiming higher: The Los Angeles school board, which manages the second-largest district in the country, voted to mandate vaccines for students 12 and up.

As a network-based organization with franchises across the country, the NFL’s vaccination plan provides a useful model for schools to learn from as they build their plans this year.

COVID-19 is spreading fast among children, most often among children of color and low-income households. The number of children hospitalized due to COVID-19 has reached the highest level since the pandemic began. As more kids return to school, infection rates are climbing, and districts have had to institute frequent, widespread quarantines and whole-school closures.

Recent studies have shown that remote school is often no substitute for the classroom: Pandemic learning disruptions have left K-12 students an average of five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading.

We need a vaccination plan to keep our schools open for learning and the other critical roles that they play in their communities. What should that playbook look like?

First, school staff — teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, janitors, administrators — must be required to get vaccinated unless there is a clear medical or religious reason for exemption. Those who do not get vaccinated should be offered frequent community surveillance testing.

Second, every school should utilize federal stimulus dollars to create a campaign to get members of their community vaccinated, including students, families, and neighbors. The access schools have to American communities is wide and deep: some have the physical reach to offer accessible vaccine sites to students and/or the wider community, and most schools have staff and leaders with the necessary trust, credibility, and empathy to talk one-on-one with vaccine-hesitant people and encourage them to do what’s necessary to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.

Third, we should educate. Let us not forget what schools do best: We have an unparalleled opportunity to teach our kids about the importance of public health, the science behind the virus and how vaccines work, and how to make sense of misinformation.

Finally, school leaders should develop plans to encourage vaccinations for eligible students. Whether this is by providing incentives, such as providing a gift card for submitting proof of vaccination or access to events and opportunities, or by mandating vaccines for students who do not have clear medical or religious exemptions, as the Los Angeles Unified School District has done. We also must prepare for the next change in COVID-related policy, particularly the possible upcoming emergency authorization of vaccines for children ages 5–12.

We have an unparalleled opportunity to teach our kids about the importance of public health, the science behind the virus and how vaccines work, and how to make sense of misinformation.

Asaf Bitton and Eric Tucker

A school vaccine playbook, deployed across the country, would help keep our schools open and allow  us avoid a repeat  last year’s learning loss and social-emotional disruptions.

Students need consistency. Parents need reliability. Communities deserve to be safe. Schools need to prioritize vaccination as a linchpin to a safe and successful year. It’s unacceptable to settle for lower safety standards for our children than for grown adults playing professional ball.


Book Review: Digital for Good

I first met Richard Culatta years ago at SXSWEDU, listening to his impassioned plan to bring high-speed internet to not only schools but to homes for our students so all learners would have a chance at an equitable education. He was working then for President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, also a former educator bringing forward their frontline experience with the widening opportunity gap. He also led the development of a National Education Technology Plan. Now, as CEO of ISTE, Culatta continues to make headway as a leader advocating for instructional technology best practices and the requisite policy work needed to implement at scale.

In Digital for Good: Raising Kids to Thrive in an Online World, Culatta takes a career’s worth of insight into how technology is impacting and impacted by educational interests and packages these ideas in a convincing and very personal narrative for anyone trying to serve our children’s best interests across a spectrum of outcomes: from the basic implications of digital influences on healthy parenting and teaching oversight all the way across the board to impacting our global culture. It’s this span that makes this volume immediately pragmatic. However, it’s his personal stories that show his work as not only endearing but credible. This gives Digital for Good shelflife. The examples of certain apps will likely change, but he’s careful to explain an underlying framework that is evergreen.

Culatta sets the stage in the opening chapter on a stark note: “With no expectation for acceptable behavior and near-complete anonymity, we have created an environment that is optimized for self-destruction.” He points out examples for how much the urgency for better digital citizenship may be unsavory to revisit since most readers will identify with the current state of our culture as a dire one. Culatta reflects on the most current trends that represent two sides of the coin: we need technology/technology is hurting our relationships with each other. The author says, “We have spent the last two decades excitedly finding ways to migrate all kinds of experiences to the digital world, but we haven’t stopped to ask how we will preserve our civil society as it also migrates there.”

The global implications may feel overwhelming, yet the book is organized in a manner that makes incremental progress possible with our own children or those that we teach and support in our schools. Whether we’re changing acceptable use policies for our districts and schools or coming up with a set of agreements for our households, Culatta does something necessary by speaking to both of these places where we can have the most influence on our own behavior as we guide those young minds who haven’t developed to the point of recognizing the inherent traits about what draws us to one technology or another. Both parties need support because as Culatta says:

“The migration from the physical to the digital world represents a fundamental shift in the lives of our children. The events that take place in the virtual world are not ancillary to their lives but are some of the most important elements of them. The limitations of the physical world will not shape or constrain the design of our children’s life events the way they did mine or yours.”

Culatta stays focused on the long-term and far-reaching gains of changing our priorities and harnessing the potential with new agreements and expectations of all parties, end-users and developers alike. He encourages us towards the same goals when he casts a vision for a shared philosophy, admonishing us all that, “We need to commit to establishing expectations for meaningful and civil online behaviors that will allow our children to not only be their best selves online, but bring out the best in others as well.”

The middle of the book is built upon his five areas where we all need to concurrently bolster our skills. This specificity is excellent as each chapter ends with Next Steps and Conversation Starters parents and educators alike can apply in their homes and schools. Here are the five attributes that Culatta has identified as essential for a healthy digital well-being for all:

Balanced. Balanced digital citizens participate in a variety of online activities and make informed decisions about how to prioritize their time in virtual and physical spaces.

Informed. Informed digital citizens evaluate the accuracy, perspective, and validity of digital media and have developed critical skills of curating information from the digital world.

Inclusive. Inclusive digital citizens are open to hearing and recognizing multiple viewpoints and engaging with others online with respect and empathy.

Engaged. Engaged digital citizens use technology and digital channels to solve problems and be a force for good in their physical and virtual communities.

Alert. Alert digital citizens are aware of their digital actions and know how to be safe and create safe spaces for others online.

As he discusses each attribute, he does an expert job considering his audience and making connections to applicable field research. With a call for more deliberate work on all fronts to improve our acceptance and usage of the tools we have grown so curious about or dependent upon but keeping users, vendors, and policymakers continually focusing on becoming more human, teacher, and firstly, student-centered:

When thinking about adapting and changing a school’s or family’s digital culture, it is important to do it with your kids and not to them; involve older kids, who will have suggestions based on habits developed from their own digital experiences.

In essence what Culatta does with Digital for Good is to reprioritize some of our known needs and show how to address them starting now, while reframing relatively recent concerns around the viral nature of digital fads and trends (recent in so much as we know tech is more like mushrooms than oak trees in their overnight development). But much like the Chinese proverb that, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” Culatta doesn’t use fear and uncertainty to persuade, but to inspire: “To become lifelong learners, provide for their families, and become leaders of our civil society, our children must learn how to responsibly use digital tools from a young age.” We should all be able to agree with that idea.

Whether found on the parenting shelf or your classroom desk Digital for Good is a timely message of hope, which is always the most inspiring leadership approach as Culatta coaches us all to work together to this common goal:

Being digital for good is a team sport. Families remain at the center of preparing their kids to be effective digital citizens, but they should not be expected to shoulder the burden alone. We should be continually identifying potentially missing members of the team and work in partnership with social platform providers, governments, and educational institutions to create an effective environment for our kids. This means helping these institutions understand what we’re expecting.

For more, see:


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Equity and ESSER: How Schools Can Embrace a Participatory Approach to Amplify Family Voices in Budget Planning

By: Barbara Pape, Jonathan Flynn, and Cecile Kidd 

Schools across the country have a welcome task this summer: deciding how to spend a windfall in federal stimulus funds.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund represents a once-in-a-generation surge in federal education funding. Created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has transformative potential for schools across America. It could support more teachers in classrooms, higher staff pay, tutors, improved technology, and enrichment activities that never reached enough students before the pandemic.

“We have often named lack of resources as the reason for achievement and opportunity gaps,” explained Dia N. Bryant, interim executive director at The Education Trust – New York. “Now that we have the resources, there is a unique opportunity to ensure that all children—especially those whom we have historically marginalized and minoritized—have access to a high-quality, public education in their neighborhood.”

But for the design and provision of funds to fulfill the needs of the community—particularly parents and caregivers—administrators must open their doors to include families and students in discussions about spending priorities.

“If we really want to understand what families and scholars need to succeed in school when they return to campus, we need to include them in the process,” said Kristin Levine, of the Academic Committee of the Board at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools. “We need to put the needs of the most vulnerable students at the center of whatever we do.”

[Visit Choose High School Now for XQ’s recommendations for how to engage communities in ARP-ESSER funding decisions.]

Building Structures and Systems for Parent Engagement

Fortunately, parent engagement is achievable, especially if schools create the right systems and structures to foster collaboration.

In the weeks and months to come, schools can reach out to families and gather their input through focus groups, digital or mailed surveys with writing prompts, one-on-one conversations, parent-led and parent-to-parent meetings, or even home visits. Administrators should make these activities easy for participants, holding meetings in convenient locations like neighborhood or community halls, and having them at times that work for attendees. Schools may even consider paying parents to facilitate information sessions or paying consultation fees for their advice on how best to reach families in marginalized communities.

It’s important for schools to remember that parents are not a monolithic group. They represent a wide range of cultures, backgrounds, and languages, and have diverse ideas about the best ways schools can support the needs of their unique children. So including just one set of parents’ voices will not capture the nuance and diversity of experiences that many different parents can bring. We reached out to Educating All Learners Alliance colleagues to identify specific, practical approaches to doing just that.

“Parents are individuals, coming from diverse cultural backgrounds, and schools need to understand and respect the cultural values that parents bring to the table,” said Jessica Jackson, director of partnerships at the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise.

Jonathan Santos Silva, founding executive director of the Liber Institute, said families of color and indigenous families, who are too often left out of the decision-making process, should be prioritized.

“The people who are most impacted by the way our system is designed to reinforce oppressive structures or White supremacy are the last ones we usually engage,” Santos Silva said. “It’s really about elevating these talented, innovative, creative leaders so that we can say, ‘Hey, these communities have ideas and solutions, if we would only engage them to truly be partners.’” Santos Silva added: “Our work is incomplete without those perspectives.”

Sarah Sandelius, the founder of the Ability Challenge, added that it’s also important to gather the input of families with children who live with disabilities. These students have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and schools should make a point to prioritize their needs in this process.

The National Down Syndrome Congress (NDSC) emphasizes the importance of including students with disabilities in planning for all classrooms. “[Disabled students] were even more isolated from their peers during the COVID pandemic,” said an NDSC spokesman. “ESSER funding should be used to provide the support and services necessary to increase and improve inclusive education opportunities for these students to ensure they participate in the grade-level general education curriculum as required by IDEA and ESSA.”

When reaching out to any parent, schools should aim to be intentional and consistent, following up if they don’t receive a response after their initial outreach. Schools should also be transparent about how they are incorporating parent feedback and responding to their needs.

“If schools do it right, it’s a recognition that we’re in this together, and we value everyone’s opinion,” Sandelius said. “We need to make sure everyone is at the table.”

Thinking Beyond Educational Needs to Support Families

Because of their different perspectives and relationship with their children, parents will have ideas that school leaders may not have considered. Importantly, parents can identify challenges not directly related to school that nonetheless affect their children’s ability to learn.

Students can also offer this perspective. Christopher Wilson, Peer Health Exchange, suggests that a Youth Advisory Board approach can play a pivotal role, informing the strategic planning of supports and approaches that center the identities and lived experiences of youth.

For example, families facing eviction might need housing vouchers or legal services. Other parents may point out the need for mental health services to support family members who have struggled with anxiety or depression during the pandemic. While ESSER funds cannot cover these services to families directly, schools and districts should coordinate with their local agencies to develop plans to help these families.

Some families may have mixed feelings about the return to school because they benefited from certain aspects of remote learning, such as flexible or hybrid scheduling, or virtual IEP (individualized education program) meetings for students in special education.

However schools decide to spend their ESSER funds, the process should reflect a holistic, student-centered approach that will lead to long-term improvements for students and their families, especially those who are most in need of support, said Brooklyn LAB Charter School CFO Sheryl Gomez.

“The goal is not just to adjust a few budget lines,” Gomez said. “It’s about the preparation of a strategic approach that’s integrated and comprehensive, that infuses the science of learning and development throughout the entire plan. It’s about hearing the hard stuff from the families and scholars who most need our efforts to be responsive and equity-focused.”

Rebuilding Communal Trust and Fostering Ongoing Collaboration with Families

The past 18 months have left many parents and students feeling uncertain and alone. As schools shifted from remote to in-classroom learning, and then back again, many families didn’t know what to expect from schools. Many parents saw their children struggle and fall behind academically as well as social-emotionally, while schools’ attempts to engage with families often fell short.

This has eroded trust. A Learner Variability Project survey captured by Digital Promise found that parents of students in full-time remote learning were twice as likely to say that their parent-teacher partnerships weakened during the pandemic than parents of children in in-person learning.

The issue of trust is especially crucial for Black, Brown, and low-income families, as well as families who speak a language other than English. Many of those parents felt disenfranchised, intimidated, or unwelcome at the school even before the pandemic, and those feelings may have been exacerbated after a year of distance learning.

As schools look to engage families on spending ESSER funds, this is a critical opportunity to think more broadly about how to rebuild trust and start a process of ongoing engagement with families on all school matters, said Bibb Hubbard, founder, and president of Learning Heroes.

“This is an important moment where schools can intentionally build trust with families and enter into true partnerships with parents,” Hubbard said. “Parents are ready for that partnership.” She added that this engagement should not be a one-off; it should continue throughout the year.

This kind of engagement will require schools to give teachers more time, support, and professional development. But Bryant of The Education Trust – New York points out that establishing those ties with their community members is an important priority for all schools. “By establishing these relationships and providing the necessary funding, we can eliminate lines of difference, and our children and their future deserve just that,” said Bryant.

The article was originally published by XQ on Rethink Together.

For more, see:

Celebrating Edmund W. Gordon

Five Principles to Help Provide Our School Communities With the Communications They Deserve

Schools Need a Success Coach for Every Learner


Barbara Pape is the director of policy and communications for the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise.

Jonathan Flynn is the director of family and community engagement and the director of public affairs at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools and joined Brooklyn LAB in 2017.

Cecile Kidd is the bursar at Brooklyn LAB, and has served in operational and family engagement roles at Brooklyn LAB since 2017.

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It’s Time To Reimagine the K-12 Content Map

By: Antonia Rudenstine

Is it really best to place Geometry between Algebra 1 and 2 in a mathematics curriculum sequence? Why does most US K-12 curriculum exclude Native American history after the Trail of Tears? Why is it that the majority of the K-12 scope and sequence is limited to four core content areas, when the world we live in is far more multi- and interdisciplinary?

At reDesign, these are some of the questions we’ve been asking ourselves (we are certainly not alone, nor the first to ask them). Underlying these questions are deeper and more profound questions about the fundamental purpose of education, and the “best means” of achieving this purpose. Over the past 130 years, a prevalent response to the question of purpose has been that of civic and economic utility: you go to school to become an engaged citizen, and to help build the US economy, so that we can compete in the global economy. Throughout our history, this has often manifested as a commitment to two very big and very racist and classist ideas:

  • The metaphor that the US is a “melting pot,” achieved through the cultural assimilation of Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and ethnic, racial and religious “minorities.”
  • The notion that the American Dream of social mobility and economic success is accessible to anyone who works hard enough, and therefore anyone who does not achieve the Dream must simply lack work ethic. Or must not value their education. Or must not…you get the idea.

As our team at reDesign continues to converge commitment and action on our antiracism journey, we have identified the K-12 content map as one of the central educational artifacts that continues to uphold these ideals that are deeply rooted in white supremacy ideology, and in the myth of equality it hides behind.

What if the purpose of school were not assimilation, or social reproduction, but liberation? What if the purpose of formal education were to create spaces—what we call learner-centered communities—where young people:

  • build competency as they engage with big questions, transferable concepts, and ideas within and across disciplines;
  • develop critical consciousness as they critically examine injustices in the world, and explore opportunities to disrupt and transform them; and
  • sustain, celebrate, and center the tapestry of cultures and communities to which they belong?

This is our vision at reDesign: All young people thriving in learner-centered communities that cultivate competency, connectedness, and critical consciousness. We stand with so many others who share a vision for a reimagined education system as key a lever for advancing equity.

Our First Step: Reimagine K-12 Disciplinary Maps

Our goal is to redefine the “canon” of K-12 content from a multicultural, antiracist perspective.

Many people have been engaged in this reimagining: some since the beginning of formal schools, and others as recently as this past year. Consider:

  • Black and Indigenous communities and families that have adapted or withdrawn from the formal education system in order to ensure that their children learn about their own culture, history, and frames of thinking;
  • pods that launched during the pandemic as families decided not to engage in district remote learning plans; and
  • independent and charter schools, and some district schools, whose more trusting accountability systems make it possible to develop an antiracist, inclusive curriculum.

In this same spirit of centering the lived experiences, identities, and needs of young people, reDesign is convening 250 content experts across 25 disciplines, with diverse backgrounds, funds of knowledge, perspectives, and geolocations. An expert might be an architect or a 2nd grade teacher of reading. Or perhaps a physicist or computer scientist, a teacher of algebra, a poet, a doctor, or an antiracist community organizer.

Experts will convene to reimagine the “canon” of K-12 content, centering inclusion and antiracism, in the articulation of key concepts, questions and ideas that are central to making meaning of each of the initially identified content areas (additional content areas will be included in years 2 and 3 of this project). Together, we’ll let go of the long list of Google-able facts, formulas, and phenomena that make up so much of the K–12 scope and sequence, and we’ll prioritize disciplinary concepts and inclusive funds of knowledge that are organized in ways that are in-sync with how the brain actually learns, and how the adult world actually works.

It’s a big bite. To our knowledge, it has not been done before: The committees that developed the 3 current National Content Standards and Frameworks (The Common Core State Standards, C3 Framework for Social Studies, and the Framework for K-12 Science Education) included 61 participants. Of these,

  • 82% were white-presenting;
  • 79% were part of higher education/academia; and
  • only 4 Asian, 4 Black, and 3 Latino members participated, with no indigenous representation.

Given this, we enter the work as collaborators and learners engaging in a process. There is no paved road to follow here.

Our Approach

The ten experts from each of the 25 disciplines will convene for a week-long virtual design studio this summer. We’ll provide the rules of engagement, and then place our trust in the expertise of our participants to self-organize as they work to draft a concept map. Each studio will be loosely facilitated and supported by folks trained in antiracism and inclusion to help participants work through conflicts, identify biases, and ensure all voices are heard.

What Happens Next?

We’ll share the results, ask for feedback, include more content areas, and revise.

We believe in iteration, and we believe in a collective and inclusive process to take the work forward. We look forward to publicly sharing the first draft of the content maps this summer, and engaging a broader audience with new perspectives for review and comment.

For us, the content map has a very utilitarian value and also speaks to our personal commitments. Inside of reDesign, we’ll use the new K-12 content map to develop inclusive, antiracist, competency-based curriculum that learners in our lab school, to be launched in 2022/2023, will be able to explore.

Out in the world, our hope is that the new content map helps build the case that a distilled, concept-based orientation to disciplinary content, and a much more flexible, culturally inclusive, and explicitly antiracist approach to reimagining the canon, is better for all of us. It moves us beyond our education system’s industrial blueprint of standardization (assimilation), linearity, and compliance. And it brings us one step closer to living out what the incredible Nikole Hannah-Jones often describes as our nation’s “majestic ideals” of justice and liberty for all.

For more, see:


Antonia Rudenstine is the Founder & Creative Director of reDesign.

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Perfect Storm: Toughest Year Ever Ahead for Schools

April was the worst and weirdest economic month in modern history. The self-induced economic coma disabled half the workforce and threw the other half into a frenzy of modified activities.

With school buildings closed, and various attempts at supporting remote learning underway, the last six weeks were the strangest in modern education history.

As perplexing as this spring has been, the next school year could be the toughest ever. It looks complicated and challenging. Here’s the problem: costs will be higher and revenues will be lower.

Revenue is down dramatically in every state, especially states that rely on sales tax. As a result, several big-city school districts are now projecting 15 to 25 percent cuts in overall revenues going into the next school year.

Over the last 20 years, often in an effort to boost equitable funding, the majority of states have boosted their percentage of funding (about half the states provide half or more of the funding for schools). Dr. Marguerite Roza, Research Professor at Georgetown University and Director of Edunomics Lab, notes that reduced revenue in states that rely heavily on sales tax (Washington, Tennessee, South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, Louisiana) is likely to hurt school districts.

The Federal CARES Act included $13.5 billion pushed out to districts that have a large percentage of low-income students. That sounds like a lot but it’s a few hundred bucks per student–nothing like the cuts big districts serving low-income students are likely to see next year.

What makes this the perfect storm is that it happened suddenly and dramatically increased the level of challenge and cost for school districts. There are at least six reasons school will cost more next year:

1. Addressing remediation needs: Come August, most learners will be behind and efforts to help them catch up with learning expectations will cost more. Starting early (for some or all learners), providing extra time and support,

2. Addressing trauma: many students will have experienced physical and emotional trauma. Providing counseling support and extra youth and family services will cost more

3. Preventative measures: time- and place-shifting learning to achieve social distancing (including longer days with staggered cohorts, learners on alternating days, and learners in temporary facilities) will cost more. Transportation to support time- and place-shifting will cost more.

4. Dual programming: when necessary, schools and districts may need to provide mitigation for groups of students and staff. That could mean running remote and onsite programming simultaneously. All the forms of risk mitigation for staff and students will cost more.

5. Additional hygiene: keeping school extra clean will cost more. Keeping transportation, food services, and support services extra clean will cost more. Closing and reopening and sanitizing schools will cost more.

6. New expectations: innovating to meet new learner and parent expectations will cost more.

Many parents will want to stay more involved with heightened communication. Some learners that enjoyed more voice and choice and self-directed learning will seek new options. Some parents and learners will want new smaller more personalized hybrid options. New programs

It’s going to be hard to figure out what to do and how to pay for it. All of these issues will result in more legal and accounting fees. All will require heightened coordination with regional, state and federal authorities.

Only the federal government can address the massive shortfall in revenue and spike in expenses to cope with the health crisis.

Two weeks ago was National Principal Appreciation Day. It was a good thing to recognize their leadership. The next school year could be their most challenging.

Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week–a good chance to celebrate the amazing pivot. Most American teachers are scrambling to support remote learning in new unfamiliar ways. Next year could be even more demanding for teachers.

Steering into the Storm

Dr. Roza, who for 18 months has been warning districts to get ready for a downturn, anticipates “anywhere between 5-20% impacts on state budgets which could bring 1- 8% impacts on districts.” She adds, “The financial implications depend on how long states constrain their economies and whether/how much stimulus states will get.”

With the sudden evaporation of tourism, Hawaii Gov. David Ige proposed a 20% pay cut for teachers and a 10% reduction for other public workers, such as nurses.

Roza urges districts to freeze hiring, cut costs, and protect financial reserves. She urges them to keep communicating with stakeholders about trade-offs.
School districts should look for cost savings in every department, revisit planned raises, but avoid across the board cuts and instead be more surgical in cutting where they can and remaining flexible for what could be the most challenging year ever.

For the last 30 months, America Succeeds has been calling this the Age of Agility and calling for agile educators and systems. Now more than ever, it will be critical for school districts to be agile in their response to the crisis. And it will be critical that Congress fills the gap between lower revenue and higher costs.

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What Will it Take To Achieve Equity in Education?

By: Jessica Reid Sliwerski

“Until we get equality in education, we won’t have an equal society.” That was Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2009—more than a decade ago and 70+ years since the start of the Civil Rights movement. The disparity in educational equity has continued to widen, rather than shrink, in the decade since. Gaps in academic outcomes between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially. And it’s just not ok.

Eighteen years after “No Child Left Behind” promised to “close the achievement gaps” in race and socio-economic background, children in more than one-third of the nation are still underperforming in reading, writing, and math. Lackluster recent NAEP scores among 4th and 8th graders confirm this.

In many states, funding is the driving force behind education inequity. According to an analysis by the Education Law Center and Rutgers Graduate School of Education, school budgets vary dramatically and are usually dictated by local property taxes. This often leads to “less funding in higher poverty school districts, even though these students may require more resources to achieve.” (Federal funding, on average, accounts for 10% of a district’s budget.)

Even more alarming: “The worst-funded states also tend to neglect the basic educational interventions that could close the gaps in academic performance by underfunding early-childhood education,” according to TheNation.com. Compounding the problem are low student-to-faculty ratios, overworked teachers, and curricula inadequate for meeting basic state standards. The result: Consistent “underperforming” ratings for poorer districts. Students of color are disproportionately affected, with approximately 40 percent of these young people attending high-poverty schools (defined as 75 percent or more of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch).

Disparities persist throughout the educational careers of low-income children, starting with a substantial achievement gap in kindergarten-readiness. If a child cannot read by the time they are in third grade, they are four times less likely to graduate high school; add poverty to the mix and a child is thirteen times less likely to graduate.

The long-term effects are startling. Missed educational opportunities trap young people in the cycle of generational poverty. Extensive research has conclusively shown that lower educational attainment is associated with diminishing employment prospects, stagnant wages, increased incarceration, and an untrained labor force unable to meet the demands of today’s global job market. This is a degradation of our American values. In order for our democracy to flourish, and prepare future generations for a global economy, the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness cannot be held exclusively for those born into privilege of native-language, learning abilities, skin color, and socio-economic status.

Let’s Level The Playing Field

A special report by the Economic Policy Institute notes that while the total share of income claimed by the bottom 90 percent of Americans has steadily decreased, the majority of income gains are going to the top one percent. “These trends would not be such a major concern,” the report states, “if our education system compensated for these inequities by helping level the playing field and enabling children to rise above their birth circumstances.”

A 2016 national study of school finance reforms found that children from low-income families residing in states that spent 20% more on education over their 12 years of school experienced 23% higher graduation rates than similar children without this benefit. These advantages carried on in later life, ultimately eliminating the gap in adult poverty rates between them and their more affluent peers. Education is the single most effective strategy our country has for eliminating poverty. But what of the states that simply do not have the funds?

There are many theories on how equity needs to be addressed in K-12. Overwhelmingly, the students without access to high-quality curriculum, classrooms, technology, and consistently-trained teachers suffer the most. The pain for schools is figuring out where to start while already feeling defeated. These schools need access to affordable, high-quality curriculum and professional learning for their teachers for implementation support and success.

This failure is preventable for virtually all children. A 2017 report by bipartisan education advocacy group Chiefs for Change highlighted the extensive research demonstrating the impact of high-quality curriculum on student outcomes, noting, “Investments in curriculum components are highly scalable, and effects are greatest with weaker teachers, who are disproportionately present in high-need classrooms.” More recently, the Center for American Progress found “the effect size of a strong curriculum is larger than that of many other common education reform efforts.” If schools have greater access to high-quality curricula and practices, it could be possible to reverse the continued fall in achievement of the nation’s lowest-performing schools, thus leading to a narrowing—perhaps even an elimination—of the achievement gap.

Offering hope and growing in popularity are open educational resources (OER). These cost-effective solutions provide freely accessible, openly-licensed curricula for teaching, learning, and assessment. Districts are free to use, customize, enhance, and redistribute materials for their unique student populations. In most cases, there is no charge, or only modest licensing fees. Expanded access to learning is then available to all, regardless of school system, income, zip code, or background.

However, it’s not enough to make curricula freely accessible. A quick Google search will show you a myriad of “free” resources with little promise of effectiveness and no implementation support. Curriculum needs to be evidence-based, thoroughly vetted, and supported with ongoing professional learning programs to help build teacher knowledge and confidence.

Open Up Resources (OUR), the organization I lead, is looking at the solution holistically by incubating and distributing top-rated OER while offering a variety of professional learning opportunities to ensure districts are set up for success and supported throughout their implementation—which, for most districts, takes years.

Across our curricula, educators around the country are seeing results. Seaford Public Schools (DE) have implemented Bookworms K-5 Reading & Writing. Once one of the lowest performing districts in Delaware, it now matches state performance, and its third-graders are significantly outperforming the state. In a diverse district that serves African American and white students and the children of relatively new immigrants from Haiti and Central America, these schools are now building ELA excellence.

Twelve schools across Northeast Georgia adopted our High School Math Curriculum and saw gains anywhere from 10% to 30% on End-of-Year assessments given by the state.

In Beaumont Middle School, Open Up Resources 6-8 Math supported them in a time of transition where they saw a 14% increase in minority students, a 17% increase in students receiving free lunch, a 12% increase in special education students, and a 28% increase in English Language Learners. Just a year after implementing OUR 6-8 math, 7th graders took the state-required state final exam and saw scores increase across the board. Among the highlights, the average score increased from 67% to 83%. The collaborative class—a co-taught class for students who have IEPs—was only 3% lower than the general ed class, virtually closing the achievement gap; and for the first time in over 13 years, there were no novice students in the collaborative class.

Inequity in education cannot be denied but solutions, like Open Up Resources, exist! The impact affects our country both now and in the future. The need to course correct is urgent. In Nelson Mandela’s words, “There can be no contentment for any of us when there are children, millions of children, who do not receive an education that provides them with dignity and honor and allows them to live their lives to the fullest.”

Therein lies the challenge. The opportunity to foster equality and fulfill our democracy’s founding promises stands before us.

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Jessica Reid Sliwerski is CEO of the education nonprofit Open Up Resources. She is a published children’s book author and former teacher, district literacy coach, and Chief Academic Officer at an award-winning literacy company.

Open Up Resources is a 501c3 that exists to increase equity in education by making the highest quality curriculum freely accessible to educators and providing implementation supports to the broadest number of teachers, empowering them to effectively and sustainably improve student outcomes in pre-K-12 English Language Arts and Mathematics.


Students and Phones: Symbolizing The Battle Between Tradition and Transformation

For those of us that follow the news, especially education news, we don’t have to wait very long for an educator to give us the excuse for a blog post. Almost weekly I read about how some school administrator or teacher somewhere has instituted their latest cell phone ban plan. Indeed, many are not only banning them from classrooms, but some are even not allowing them at lunch or free time.

Now before anyone thinks I’m completely unsympathetic or removed from the reality of classrooms, I admit this is a tough thing to balance. Are we distracted by our phones? Of course, the answer is yes. But noticed I said, “we”, not “they” or “them”. It’s not just students who are on their phones continually, it’s all of us. That’s the problem. We’re trying to tackle a social or cultural challenge as a school discipline issue.

Traditional Response to Contemporary Challenge

According to one principal, his schools tried to let seventh and eighth grade students use their cell phones during lunch and free time during one recent school year and it was, according to them, an abysmal failure.

The school claimed that due to the students being glued to their cell phones, no one was talking and interacting with one another. After watching the movie Screenagers and drinking from that proverbial firehose of biased information, this school was trying to have students spend less time with headphones on, listening to music, bending their necks forward and avoid dozens of other ailments caused by the continuous use of cell phones.

The students, according to the school’s administration, were engaged in conflict and drama via social media and they wanted to put a stop it. Furthermore, an English teacher at the school discovered students pretending to read books while actually looking at their phones (students have been pretending to do work long before phones were in their hands). The principal even directed students over the microphone to talk to the person next to them at lunch.

What have we become? What is our definition of teaching, leading or mentoring? Are we not satisfied to be facilitating what students are doing during their class time that we need to dictate to them what they do during their personal time?

I can’t help but imagine what these educators would do if any of us told them to get off of their phones and talk to one another while in the teachers’ lounge or at Starbucks. And we all know that the best way to teach students anything, especially responsibility, is to just ban it. Right? WRONG!

The Ban Plan Versus Teaching Responsibility

You can see plenty of educators on social media posting their favorite pictures of the latest cell phone takeaway tool. These teachers and administrators create cute cliches like “Cell Phone Hotel,” “Cell Phone Parking Lot” or “Cell Phone Cell.” There are dozens of teacher hacks on how to do this. Sadly, there are fewer educators trying to come up with meaningful ways to facilitate cell phone use and etiquette in the classroom. It seems as though it is easier to ban or condemn versus teach or model.

To me, this actually epitomizes the divide we are experiencing in education. It’s classic compliance versus creativity. In an effort to solve a problem, or teach responsibility, too many times educators lean towards the compliance side of thinking. Kids are to be quiet, obedient and controlled. If so, they are learning, according to this mindset. The problem is that this is counterintuitive to two things:

  1. teaching our students to live and work effectively in a digitized, globalized and transformed society and
  2. doing things that actually work.

We May Never Learn

Educators are famous for continuing to promote and implement things that have actually never been very effective (if not counterproductive) – i.e. homework, detention, overreaching dress codes, etc.

Should we approach students as young adults in the way we would like to be approached? Or do we want to continue to control them? To me, it’s that simple. I’m not suggesting that we don’t have rules, guidelines or policies. I’m asking that they be common sense.

And what about the actual problems? Things such as isolation, distraction, drama, and conflict are not technology or cell phone issues. They are human issues that we need to address comprehensively and personally; not by banning the use of phones during personal time.

In my experience, the more we make things taboo, the more they become attractive. Creating new policies and rules is not a substitute for actual teaching, training, and respect. I worked at a high school that allowed students to have their phones throughout the day and especially at lunch and during breaks. And you know what? Students were talking, socializing and playing all of the time. It wasn’t because we asked or directed them to – it’s because we worked to create a happy and healthy atmosphere and culture overall. Possibly it’s also because we didn’t try to direct or mandate their every move.

It’s Always About Preparing For The Real-World

If we treat students as featured in the aforementioned examples, I don’t think we’re training them for the future of work where they need to be able to master not only technology but independence. Are the employees at Google, Apple, Microsoft, and others told not to be on their phones at lunch or break time? Of course not. So, what world are we training our students for? Certainly not for the 21st-century workplace and economy. We’re just leaning on what we seem to know best – control and compliance. Again, are we, as educators, focusing on controlling our students? Or are we trying to engage them, empower them and unleash them? We can focus on control or creativity but cannot master both.

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How States Can Jumpstart the Future of Learning

The #FutureofWork is here—exponential technology has reshaped the employment landscape—but the #FutureofLearning seems to be taking its time. Most secondary students are still sitting in rows, filling out worksheets, and moving to the next disassociated subject when the bell rings.

How can state policymakers jumpstart learning that makes kids future-ready? Earlier this month, the National Governors Association convened in Chicago to discuss that question in a conference titled “Future Workforce Now: State Policy Forum for Action.”

The Aurora Institute, leading advocates for high-quality learning for all, encouraged governors and policymakers to create zones for innovative schools and sponsor competency-based pilot programs that ensure all youth have educational opportunities and master the knowledge and skills they will need for future success.

Building on the Aurora Institute recommendation, my advice to state policymakers is summarized in five recommendations.

1. Encourage market-valued outcomes. Like the Profile of a Virginia Graduate, describing what graduates can do will help build support for innovation and align efforts from PreK-12 through adult learning. South Carolina and Vermont have similar profiles.

Another regional example of promoting valuable outcomes is the Real World Learning initiative sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation and shared by high schools in six counties in the Kansas City metro area. Key ‘market value assets’ include internships, client projects, college credit, entrepreneurial experiences, and industry-recognized credentials.

Similarly, a state could create incentives for outcomes valued by the market. For example, Illinois Global Scholar is a recognition for students that complete a course of study, service-learning and a capstone project.

2. Sponsor new school development. Use public-private partnerships to develop new learning models in target geographies and pathways (Aurora Institute policy recommendation #1). The new opportunity is schools that combine personalized and project-based learning with progress based on demonstrated mastery (Aurora Institute policy recommendations #2-4).

New schools (including academies and microschools in existing facilities) address current invention gaps on 1) how to organize school around learning rather than time, 2) how to facilitate more community-connected projects, and 3) how to capture and communicate capabilities better than traditional transcripts.

The best state example of support for new school development is The Texas High School Project, a public-private partnership launched in 2004 (now EdTX), which resulted in 135 STEM and Early College High Schools. Today, there are more than 200 Early College High Schools and 60 P-tech schools, which add internships and employment opportunities.

Ohio’s Straight A Fund also resulted in a number of new STEM schools and robotics training centers across the state.

3. Curtail standardized testing. States can take advantage of all the formative assessment good schools collect to reduce and eventually eliminate end-of-year standardized testing. In addition to encouraging innovative assessment pilots (Aurora Institute policy recommendation #5), states can:

  • Verify: Conduct a verification that would enable petitioning districts and networks to demonstrate that they track student proficiency and growth accurately and consistently using a variety of formative assessment tools and practices.
  • Waive: Provide verified districts and networks a partial three-year testing exemption (with U.S. Department of Education approval). After an initial exemption period, states could sample student profiles to periodically check the accuracy of district/network systems.
  • Support Networks: Encourage a second and third cohort of networks and districts to petition for reduced testing or join a previously authorized group. By encouraging networks of schools and districts to use common assessments, the state may only have to offer dozens of waivers rather than hundreds. (See a proposal for Diploma Networks.)
  • Advocate: Begin working with other states to advocate for an update to federal legislation to allow states to exit annual testing requirements and move to this authorized assessment system.

4. Support guidance systems. There are more secondary and postsecondary learning options and career pathways than ever. Young people need personalized and localized career and postsecondary guidance. Public-private partnerships can strengthen advisory systems in high schools using programs like AVID and provide access to online guidance systems (see our evaluation of a statewide initiative supported by College Spark Washington.)

5. Youth and family supports. This new innovation economy is yielding unprecedented social and economic turbulence. Local and state governments should create public-private partnerships to strengthen youth and family services.

“The first step is creating space for innovation, including K-12 education, higher education, career and technical education, and workforce training and credentialing,” concluded the Aurora Institute.

State leaders have the opportunity to build partnerships that support new schools and pathways that lead to fulfilling high wage employment.

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This post was originally published on Forbes.


Using Design Thinking with Districts to Improve Formative Assessment Practice

By: Kate Sullivan Frades and Brinnie Ramsey

Design thinking—which encourages a focus on users and rapid experimentation—can help identify and address a range of problems by focusing on those most affected by the problem. Originally designed for a business context, what might a design thinking process look like in a school district, where local politics, established policies and well-intentioned bureaucracy can stifle even the best ideas?

We sought to find out. Education First spent the last two years working and learning alongside Dallas Independent School District (DISD), Austin Independent School District (AISD) and Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) as part of the How I Know: Designing Meaningful Formative Assessment Practice project supported by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. Our role was to help these three districts apply design thinking principles to help teachers improve their formative assessment practice. We knew from our own research that formative assessment practice is critical to effective teaching and learning. But as is typical in any structural change, there are significant barriers to effective implementation.

The challenge for the field and for our project was this: Knowing that teachers face a range of competing priorities for their time and that traditional approaches to professional development often do not result in sustained changes in classroom practice, how might we systematically support teachers to implement more consistent and effective formative assessment practice?

To answer this question, the Dell Foundation provided funding for a two-year pilot program that would support 20 teachers in each district to experiment with new formative assessment practices using a design thinking model. Over the course of the two years, Education First worked with district design teams to understand and build a process to oversee and support pilot teachers and campuses using a Design Thinking Roadmap we customized for this project from design thinking resources.

The teams experienced many successes. Pilot teachers who took advantage of the opportunity and support to try new practices in their classroom saw for themselves the impact on students. Students increasingly took ownership of their learning and engaged with more rigorous content, and teachers grew more comfortable with releasing control over that learning to their students. In all three districts, increased attention to formative assessment practices in classrooms encouraged cultural and mindset shifts to greater transparency, collaboration and shared learning which in turn changed the kinds of lessons teachers designed and the way they taught. Teachers also benefited from job-embedded professional learning and peer-to-peer learning, which gave them a clear vision of the transformative possibilities of formative assessment practice within the context of their own student community, the opportunity to try out new practices with support and a collaborative school-based community for shared accountability.

The overlay of a design thinking framework on traditional district professional learning structures and practices also presented design teams and technical assistance providers with distinct challenges. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution because each district faces its own unique set of circumstances and constraints, district and school leaders and design teams should consider how they will adapt their design process to work around these challenges:

Providing the opportunity for rapid-cycle testing. District procurement processes can be a hindrance to rapid cycle testing. For example, to bring in a professional development partner may require the approval of the school board, a process that can take several months and require detailed plans that leave little room for the kind of rapid cycle testing of various solutions to user experiences that design thinking calls for. Traditional professional development contracts can lock a vendor into place, leaving the district with less flexibility to change course in mid-contract if the problem changes or solution needs to be adapted.

Engaging users as a regular part of data analysis and project design. Design thinking places a premium on understanding the user experience and creating space for users to participate in the design of the systems that most affect them. Most teachers teach by themselves all day, limiting their ability to collaborate with other teachers or respond to ongoing requests for feedback or to attend design meetings. School and district leaders also face numerous demands on their time and there are limits on when, how often, and for how long you can bring teachers and administrators together within and beyond the school day.

Creating a safe space for the messiness of learning and “fast failing”. At the heart of design thinking is the need for space to try and fail. This approach can be in direct conflict with structures like teacher evaluation, where teachers’ opportunities for advancement and salary raises depend on adhering to and complying with observation rubrics that may not incorporate formative assessment practices. Power dynamics between principals and teachers may also inhibit candor and the giving and receiving of effective feedback as teachers try new formative assessment practices. If principals do not understand what to look for or what the teacher is trying to do, teachers can be penalized. In a school culture focused narrowly on strict curriculum implementation or where principals don’t nurture innovation, teachers may also be unwilling to experiment with new instructional practices.

Design thinking processes pose strong challenges to traditional district, school and classroom structures and behaviors. But we think the strong focus on user (teacher) experience and providing teachers with the time and space to try new things and fail (and learn) dovetails nicely with formative assessment’s focus on peer feedback and student ownership of their learning. As we worked with district design teams to apply a design thinking framework to formative assessment practice, we learned several important lessons about how to use design thinking to solve district-wide problems. We offer these recommendations to districts considering adopting this design framework:

Confirm whether design thinking is the right framework to solve your problem. The problems most ripe for this framework are those that are complex: for which the problem itself is not clear, and the solution is not straightforward. For example, our project’s formative assessment focus asked teachers to change their behavior and their mindset, which is an adaptive challenge rather than a technical one. We wanted to provide teachers with time to experiment in their classrooms to see how they could adapt their teaching to encourage more student ownership of the learning process. In adopting a design-thinking framework for district change, district and school leaders need to be honest and transparent about what is realistic in terms of possible solutions and who will ultimately decide what solutions to move forward.

Build a truly inclusive design team, prioritizing users most affected by the problem and ensuring they are able to contribute meaningfully to the design process. By the end of the second year of the project, all district teams committed to including teachers and principals on their design teams and engaging them in meaningful ways but this was not initially the case. Our three districts operated in very different contexts with varying approaches to teacher and principal engagement. Across the board, districts did not involve principals early enough and substantively enough in the work to enable them to support the teachers in the pilot. Teachers also were not regularly included in design team discussions for reasons discussed above. As discussions on monthly calls continued, and particularly as observation data started to come in on teacher formative assessment practice, design teams realized they needed to better understand what was happening in these classrooms. At least two of the districts conducted empathy interviews with teachers and principals to learn more about their experiences with formative assessment and one district set up quarterly teacher listening sessions for design team members to meet with pilot teachers and learn more about their experiences.

Spend time to truly understand the problem to be solved by design thinking. This phase can span weeks or even months as the team iterates on the problem, collects and analyzes data, and revises the problem again. The goal is to know the problem inside and out so that any solutions directly address it. In applying for their grants from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the three districts had already decided that formative assessment was the solution to the problem of supporting students to succeed by improving teacher practice. At the same time, we asked district design teams to engage in root cause analyses during their implementation planning to clarify how formative assessment would address those root causes. Our districts dug into these discussions but there are so many competing priorities and time is at such a premium that it was difficult for district design teams not to jump to solutions to get the work going.

Build out prototypes for the specific problem(s) you’ve identified and test them with rigor before taking anything to scale. The value of design thinking comes in the slowing down, taking time to design small tests of potential solutions that are directly related to the problems that surface during the “define” stage. Working in a district context created constant tension between slowing down and testing, and rushing to scale as a way to ensure the longevity of the work. Our primary question at the end of the second year was, “what exactly are you going to scale?” All three districts have decided to expand the number of teachers and schools receiving coaching and professional learning in formative assessment although none of the three are scaling district-wide.

Use the Design Thinking Roadmap as the foundation for design team meetings. This tool, which we developed after the first year of the project, can serve as a helpful reminder of what a design thinking process looks like and help design teams reflect on where they are and what they need to do to move the work forward to the next step.

As pilot participants in Dallas, Austin and Tulsa would tell you: it’s worth staying the course. In our final project convening, pilot teachers reported that they were excited about the ways formative assessment gave them a new sense of ownership over their teaching and a new relationship to their students. Principals reported how exciting it was to see their teachers grow and the connections to student agency and ownership. District design team members noted the strong connections between design thinking and equity and were excited by how formative assessment seemed to be transforming teacher practice. It’s been and continues to be a productive challenge. To learn more about this project, please see the How I Know website or reach out to Education First.

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Kate Sullivan Frades is a senior consultant at Education First. She supports state and district leaders to ensure that low-income students and students of color have access to outstanding educators. 

Brinnie Ramsey is a senior consultant at Education First. She is an anthropologist and educator, driven to ensure that all students – particularly girls, students of color and low-income students – have access to an education that expands their options and life choices. 

This blog was originally published on Education First.