Friday, March 6, 2020

Ceding Power to Create More Transformative Innovation

This blog is the third in a series reporting on CRPE’s “Big Think Network.” Through this project, CRPE is convening a diverse group of practitioners who are working on a variety of  projects, all geared toward the goal of creating a more customized and equitable education system. Our goal is to learn from the Network’s experiences about the process of developing and implementing innovation toward system change. Our earlier posts in the series are here.


The Rural Alliance helps small school districts in Washington State offer educational programs that would be difficult for them to implement on their own, including partnerships with AVID, school and district leadership training, and STEM programs. 

The Alliance sees a major gap in the educational offerings of its member districts: early learning opportunities. At first, the Alliance sought to fill this gap the same way it has supported past initiatives for member districts. It planned to help superintendents in 10 to 15 school districts create hubs for early learning in their communities.

The Alliance brought its challenge—making cradle-to-kindergarten early learning opportunities available in rural communities across Washington State—to our Big Think Network. Before long, they realized they needed to rethink their approach.

The Rural Alliance learned a one-size-fits-all model would be a nonstarter. In some districts, the challenge might be coordinating existing resources, while in others, the communities served aren’t just rural:  they are remotely rural, with few resources to coordinate. Some families in remote areas don’t use many government services, and may be skeptical of new school district initiatives. Or in other communities, the issue is access to childcare, as most families commute to nearby towns for work.

Alliance leaders realized that, to find solutions that really worked, they needed to instill a sense of belonging in the system among all families they hoped to reach. 

In the words of John A. Powell, the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California Berkeley, that sense of belonging “entails being respected at a basic level that includes the right to both co-create and make demands upon society.” 

The Rural Alliance determined that its initiative won’t be effective unless families feel they have ownership, a voice, and a stake in the school system and the education their child will receive in their earliest years. In other words, it must cede power to the families it hopes to serve, and allow them to shape what early learning hubs will look like in their communities.

The Alliance is no longer making assumptions about what families want, or precisely what the resource hubs will look like. Instead, it has chosen to start smaller and spend more time earlier on community meetings, focus groups, and surveys to gain a stronger sense of the resources families have now, where the gaps are, and why some families do not feel invested in their local education systems. The Alliance is also holding meetings with a range of community stakeholders (such as district and school leaders, local service providers, and parents) in each of the potential pilot sites to understand existing needs, assets, and highest priorities in each community. Then, the Rural Alliance will act as a supporter and facilitator as each participating district develops their own hub.

Rather than starting with 10 to 15 pilot sites as originally intended, now they plan to go slow, starting with only seven sites, while bringing other interested rural districts along in the process of learning from the initial pilots. 

Even seemingly minor factors, such as the name of the initiative, have changed. Originally, this initiative was referred to as the “Superintendents’ Early Learning Plan.” Now, Rural Alliance leaders are considering options to rename the project in a way that reflects the bottom-up, community ownership they hope to achieve. 

Beyond the Rural Alliance, the organizations in the Big Think Network are trying to create more customized opportunities for learners who have historically been most marginalized. In different ways, they are looking at shortcomings of the existing K–12 system. The Alliance realizes starting public education at “K” is a major flaw; it kickstarts the opportunity gap for families without the ability to pay for quality childcare, or access to academic and social early learning resources.

Our current education system was never designed to prepare all students to thrive in a 21st-century economy. If we expect equity and high achievements for all students, we will need an education system built to deliver them. 

To achieve that goal without replicating systemic oppression, members of our Network are looking for ways to cede power to groups historically have not have a voice in shaping the education system that exists today.

CRPE is partnering with Caroline Hill to help facilitate the Network using the equityXdesign principles. Chief among these is that equity is a process. We can’t get to more equitable outcomes if we are reproducing top-down decision-making processes on our way there. This process flips traditional power structures. As Hill noted at the first Network meeting,  “As long as power is hoarded and the marginalized follow, you’ve got reproduction; if we do that, [the end result will] be exactly the same thing.”

What happens when we shift the locus of authority in education innovation so that ideas don’t come out of ivory towers to encounter a more complex reality on the ground and a resistant system? What if, instead, innovations were designed to elevate the perspectives of the students and communities most impacted by them?

While Network member organizations apply these questions in their daily work, we at CRPE are thinking about what they mean, more broadly, for innovation in public education. 

In the short term, the academics, policymakers, and philanthropists who drive many current innovation efforts might resist the loss of control and fear their ideas might get watered down  when they bring in more voices. But in the long term, a shift in the locus of control might produce deep and lasting changes that are more responsive to communities. 

It is important to know going in that redesigning the innovation process is hard. As one participant at our first Big Think meeting expressed, expanding the design process to center opportunities for input from educators, parents, and community “terrifies lots of people.” It’s a different way of operating. It means change efforts in education may follow different paths than they originally envisioned. 

And this approach provides less of a roadmap than the typical replication model. It’s no longer a linear process of testing innovations, proving their effectiveness, and then scaling them to more places. It requires a more iterative process, rather than starting with a solution that works in theory or only in specific contexts. One Network participant told us, “When you’re trying to include all community members, there’s a lot of ‘bringing along’ you need to do. If you want to have everyone’s voice included, it’s a slower process.” 

Beyond adding complexity, ceding power in decision-making processes doesn’t eliminate the challenge of navigating the competing demands school systems face. While the idea of responding to community voice sounds sounds simple, no “community” is a unified group. Different community members will still have widely differing views that must be negotiated. And school districts still have to answer to financial pressures and accountability demands—making deviation from the status quo feel like a risky proposition. 

But none of these challenges are a good reason not to try. As we’ve discussed in a previous blog post, the need for real, equitable innovation to support every student’s needs is too great to keep operating as we always have. And, as the Rural Alliance’s evolution shows, ceding power can create shifts in process that may yield a more inclusive, sustainable, and better-fit result.

Fri, 04/03/2020

Developments this week helped drive more school districts in our nationwide review to add depth and breadth to their published distance learning plans. 

Tue, 03/31/2020

Success’s meticulously planned classes and sustained expectations for students’ work will come as a relief to many parents.

Sat, 03/28/2020

This week has been a crucial period of preparation in states from Washington to Florida, where distance learning is expected to begin in earnest by the end of March.