A big congratulations and thank you to Omaha superintendent and Cross & Joftus client Mark Evans, who recently announced his retirement effective the end of the school year.

In December 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled Watch Out for Omaha. In the post, I noted that the district had recently hired Mr. Evans and that the district “after years of persistent low achievement and a fortress-like mentality” was poised to “do great things.”

And great things they did. A recent editorial in the Omaha World-Herald credited Mr. Evans with “refocusing 7,000 employees and 52,000 students on what matters most: improving academic performance.” Indeed, academic performance in both reading and math has marched up, ACT scores and graduation rates have increased, and achievement gaps have narrowed.

Even before he was officially hired, Mr. Evans insisted that reforms would be steady, include all stakeholders, and be based on a high-quality strategic plan, which I’m proud to say was developed with the assistance of Cross & Joftus. At more than one point in the strategic planning process, Mr. Evans told me to be patient: He knew that the hard work ahead—perhaps delayed slightly in the short term—would be more accepted and more effective if we drafted goals and strategies that reflected the community’s input.

And yet, despite his patience, pushback from board members, teachers, and principals often reflected a perception that he was trying to do too much too soon. And, as the World-Herald editorial notes, Mr. Evans acknowledges that he moved too quickly last year in extending the school day without enough community input.

The success of the district despite these challenges can be attributed to many things. First and foremost, guided by Mr. Evans’ steady hand, teachers, principals, and staff worked incredibly hard to implement the strategic plan and provided valuable feedback throughout the process. Many times when I visited the district as an advisor, a group of principals would report that they were being pushed too hard with too little support. I would share that perspective with Mr. Evans who—far from getting defensive or saying “too bad”—would make mid-course corrections in response to the feedback.

Another critical success factor was the creation of four new central office positions known as Executive Directors of School Leadership. The Executive Directors assumed responsibility for ensuring, through coaching and supervision, that all principals in the district are outstanding instructional leaders. Mr. Evans overcame some opposition to increased funding for central office administrators—called for in the strategic plan—by insisting that the Executive Directors would be a key lever to improve school and instructional quality (with the help of a high-quality instructional framework, which was in place but was not being used effectively in schools). With coaching assistance from Cross & Joftus (using funds that Mr. Evans raised from Omaha’s very generous—but previously not engaged—business and philanthropic community), the four Executive Directors—all amazing educators in their own right—are now arguably among the most effective coaches and supervisors of principals in the country. And their work has been transformative.

Mr. Evans’ retirement is a big loss for Omaha. Such leaders, as they say, don’t grow on trees. But hopefully the foundation that Mr. Evans has laid combined with the outstanding leadership of OPS board chair Lou Ann Goding will ensure that the district’s success will continue to blossom. In the meantime, Mr. Evans deserves appreciation and recognition for his outstanding leadership.

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Author(s): Scott Joftus

Donald Trump’s campaign recently announced that it would focus on education during the entire week of August 29th. In general, most of us might think that attention given to education by a presidential candidate would be beneficial. Raising the profile of a critical but oft-neglected policy issue and informing voters about the positions of the candidate seems like a good thing.

It is my fervent hope, however, that education does not become a major issue during this Presidential election campaign. Given the quality of dialogue that is taking place on other issues—with facts being marginalized and sound bites rather than substance emphasized—I fear that attention from the candidates in this election cycle would not serve the best interests of students and might actually cause harm.

Two issues have emerged that illustrate my point. In post-secondary education, the push for universal free tuition for two years of college among Democrats has ignored the fact that students from middle and upper-middle class families—not students from low-income families—would reap the biggest benefits of such a policy play, and at a significant cost to the U.S. Treasury.

At the K-12 level, public outcry for the federal government to repeal the Common Core State Standards, adopted in some fashion by the vast majority of states, disregards the fact that the decision to set academic standards belongs to the states. Only states have the authority to take action, a principle that has been established time and again by state and federal jurisprudence.

As I noted in a previous post, in 2008 two major national foundations (Broad and Gates) spent tens of millions of dollars to promote education as a key policy area for discussion during the presidential debates of that year. Even this effort resulted in exactly one question asked during the 2008 debates, and it was immediately overshadowed by issues of the economy, trade, and taxes, among other things. Given the fact that this year’s campaigns seem to avoid real discussion of any issue, and that bombast and pandering to political factions seem to characterize the news, it is impossible to imagine that any intelligent discussion of complex education issues would take place should they find their way onto the debate agenda.

On August 9th, Michael Hansen of the Brookings Institution published a piece posing questions that should be asked of the candidates during the presidential debates this year. While interesting, it is hard to imagine that a reporter being watched by tens of millions of viewers—most of whom care about education but not about the specifics of federal laws or programs—would ask a question about whether Title I is achieving its intended goals or which specific education programs should be expanded or eliminated. To do so would likely mean it would be the last time they would ever be asked to question candidates in a high profile debate.

Even worse, candidates’ answers could lock the future president into positions derived from snap judgment rather than learned briefings and public discourse. Given the issues that face the 13,500 school districts in the nation, to say nothing of the 98,000 public schools, those kinds of knee-jerk policy promises would likely lead to further incoherence in systems still struggling to find the right balance between state, local, and federal priorities and direction.

Yes, we desperately need a thoughtful and balanced discussion of the state of and priorities for education in the nation. But I submit that presidential debates are not the appropriate place for this discussion, and the heat of an election is not the right time. My hope is that—after the election—local, state, and national leaders will come forward to facilitate the creation of a commission that would do justice to the issues at hand. Until that happens we should avoid snap decisions, facile responses, and comments that bring more heat than light.

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Author(s): Christopher T. Cross

Fifty years after the Coleman Report highlighted vast achievement gaps between students from low-income and more affluent communities, those gaps remain nearly as large as when Coleman and his team first published their findings. Even our best attempts at improving student outcomes through increased academic rigor have not yielded results at scale, particularly for students with unmet social, emotional, and physical needs. With child poverty rates trending up (a majority of the nation’s public school students now come from low-income families) and achievement gaps persisting, it’s clearly time to broaden our focus and adopt a more comprehensive approach to addressing the essential needs of our students.

The new Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA), with its focus on a well-rounded education, provides an opportunity to significantly alter the way we think about and deliver a wide range of the supports and services—afterschool programs, health and mental health services, mentoring, etc.—that research shows are critical to educational success and to closing opportunity gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers. ESSA’s focus on a more comprehensive approach is further buttressed by the inclusion of a non-academic indicator as part of state accountability systems.

What if states and districts took this opportunity to make every Title I school a community school?

Community school strategies, and their focus on bring a diverse set of supports and services into schools to improve educational outcomes, are well aligned with the new law’s vision for a well-rounded education. Making all Title I schools community schools would ensure that we are translating this vision into action for our students most in need of supports. And there is a growing base of research and practice related to community schools to build upon; lessons from states, districts and cities where community schools are gaining traction and showing results can guide this strategy.

While making good on the intent of the law, this approach would also help to satisfy several of its requirements, including conducting a needs assessment, something that community schools regularly do; strengthening partnerships with other public and private organizations to bring in more resources and expand opportunities, another feature of community schools; and engaging families, a community schools’ cornerstone.

So how might this work? 

Language related to “a well-rounded education” is woven throughout the new legislation and appears in all of the major Title programs. ESSA also provides many options for using federal funding to support community schools. New flexibility in Title I from the recapture of SIG resources; the new Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant; and Title IV (Safe and Healthy Students Programs) can all contribute to a community school strategy and some of its associated services. State Education Agencies can also help to smooth the way with other state agencies—health, mental health, juvenile justice—to bring more programs, services and opportunities to schools, promoting a richer set of educational experiences and better outcomes for more students.

This is not to suggest that making every Title I school a community school would be an easy undertaking or a quick fix. According the National Center for Education Statistics, in school year 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available), there were just under 49,000 Title I schools. This represents about half of the almost 99,000 public school across the country. While it is unclear exactly how many community schools currently exist (NCES does not collect this data), a 2014 Child Trends study reported that there were less than 3,000 schools with programs that provide integrated student supports. This leaves more than 45,000 Title I schools where implementing a community schools model or approach would be new.

Additionally, if the education community has learned anything from recent reform experiences, it is that major changes—whether implementing a turnaround model or a new teacher evaluation system—require buy-in from those who will be involved in or affected by the change. The same holds true for becoming a community school; school leaders and staff, students, families and the community must embrace the shift. In addition to the need to garner stakeholder support, we have also learned that real reform takes planning, resources, time, patience, supports, and the adoption of a continuous improvement process that allows the reform to grow and improve as it adjusts to the needs and demands of particular communities.

With all of this in mind, I suggest a strategy that starts by engaging those districts and schools that are interested in making their Title I schools community schools and building from there. More specifically, states and districts could create new processes to identify districts and schools that will receive support to adopt a community schools’ strategy and hold them accountable for doing so by collecting a specified set of data and assessing progress. The districts could then build implementation plans that take full advantage of the new law and will sustain the strategy long into the future. This also creates opportunities to engage community partners—another requirement of the new law. States could further promote this process by developing frameworks that districts could adopt for establishing community schools and providing technical support, drawing from resources and lessons from community school pioneers like those in Tulsa, New York City and Oakland to name a few. Support organizations like the Coalition for Community Schools and the National Center for Community Schools and program models like Communities in Schools and Say Yes to Education can also inform this process.

From where I stand, when it comes to providing students with the range of supports and services that we know are necessary for success, the stars have just aligned. With ESSA we have the ability to make every Title I school a community school and make some real progress on closing opportunity and achievement gaps across the country. At C&J, we welcome the opportunity to support any state or district that is willing to take the leap.

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Author(s): Sharon Deich

Have you ever reviewed a job description and were left wondering what the role would actually do? Official job descriptions are usually jargon-filled documents that don’t clearly communicate what the role is and what the role is not. This can be problematic, especially when launching a new role that will take on the responsibilities that are currently being performed by others.

This was the dilemma facing Omaha Public Schools in the summer of 2014 when they launched four new principal supervisor positions – Executive Directors of School Support and Supervision. The new positions were a centerpiece of Superintendent Mark Evans’ plans to provide a system of support to the 87 principals in OPS. These new roles needed to be clearly defined for the new Executive Directors themselves, the principals they would be leading, and the central office leaders whose roles would necessarily change.

Omaha Public Schools approached this challenge by asking three simple questions:

• Why do we have Executive Directors?
• What are the roles we expect our Executive Directors to play?
• What are not the roles we expect our Executive Directors to play?

The Executive Directors were the first to grapple with these questions during their summer induction program, facilitated by Cross & Joftus. The exercise caused the Executive Directors to deeply explore their new role and begin to clarify what it would look like in practice. The superintendent participated in this exercise along with the Executive Directors to ensure his vision was accurately reflected.

The draft role definition was next shared with the superintendent’s cabinet members to elicit their feedback and to help clarify the new roles for the cabinet members. This was critical since many of the roles identified for Executive Directors were previously the responsibility of other Executive Council members, such as the chief academic officer or human resources director. The superintendent hoped to eliminate any confusion over who was responsible for what. This process ended up comprising multiple conversations at the cabinet’s table over a period of many weeks. The simplicity and clarity of the format helped the district leadership process their changing roles given the new Executive Director positions.

During the same time frame, principals were engaged in reviewing the draft role definition, giving feedback, and helping to clarify their new supervisor’s role. This process involved multiple meetings of principals in small groups as well as all principals together. Principals were understandably concerned about this new role as these new positions were going to be right above them on the org chart. Principals wanted to make sure this role was truly about support and not adding an administrative layer in the system, making their work more difficult.

Once the engagement process was complete, the district published their Executive Director Role Definition. This one-page document clearly articulated what the new role was and was not. This simple and clear role definition become the guidepost for the executive directors as they implemented their new roles. Besides regularly discussing and self-reflecting on how they were doing against the role definition, they also surveyed the superintendent’s cabinet members and principals, asking if they were hitting the mark on each of the identified roles. This feedback was invaluable to the Executive Directors and the district leadership as they worked to refine their practice to align with the role envisioned.

As the role of the Executive Director of School Support and Supervision in Omaha Public Schools continues to evolve, the district will make any needed adjustments to the role definition. However, one thing is clear: The resulting adjustments will be communicated in a simple, clear, and concise manner. No one will be left wondering what Executive Directors “are” and what they “are not.”

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Author(s): Steve Gering

In part one of this series, Systemic Approaches to School and District Transformation, I argued that we can avoid the Frankenstein’s Monster syndrome in school and district reform—parts may look ok but the whole is incoherent, producing inconsistent results—and that school transformation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. In this installment, I explain C&J’s Transformational Framework which, I believe, respects the complexity of the turnaround challenge while pushing for relentless execution of clear goals. Part 3 of this series will focus on the “black box” of district transformation; we’ll make explicit what is often tacit in practice.

At C&J, we believe that seven components are critical to every district transformation initiative; these are the foundation of our Theory of Action.

C&J Transformation FrameworkLeadership. Effective leadership is at the core of district transformation. We help leaders leverage their strengths and build their capacity to tackle the tough work of transformation. Student learning is the core business of schools. Because that learning is unlocked through interactions with teachers in schools, we need to pay special attention to coaching leaders—district administrators and principals—as they create cultures, structures, and practices that attract, place, and support great teachers.

Know where you are. For a plan to be successful, it needs to be grounded in a careful assessment of current conditions. We need to conduct needs analyses to understand and document the current state of human capital, financial, instructional, and other systems and practices, including the extent to which they interact to support district goals.

Know where you’re going. We need to help districts with metrics that they will use to measure success and select the key levers that will drive progress towards their goals. We need to then work with districts to create blueprints for reconfiguring systems and practices to achieve results.

Build a culture of continuous improvement. We believe that district leadership will move from pockets of success to system-wide results by carefully deconstructing challenges and systematically developing solutions. By routinely analyzing what’s working, what’s not, and why, districts can end a culture of firefighting and create conditions for school success at scale. We need to help districts establish routines and protocols for doing just that.

Build reinforcing systems. Beyond planning, we need to work with district leaders to reengineer systems and practices with a focus on coherence and excellence, helping districts leverage their full capacity to execute plans and achieve goals.

Coordinate citywide and create the conditions for learning. We understand that closing the achievement gaps for students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities while at the same time raising the bar for every student is vital to the success of a school district. We need to look beyond the school walls and take a deeper understanding of the community and its effects on the classroom. Looking at correlating factors such as poverty and low achievement, we need to guide systematic change for all students, regardless of economic standing, taking into account that stress and adversity often created by poverty—limited access to good nutrition, nurturing adults, good prenatal care, high-quality early-childhood programs, and housing, among others—have a strong impact on learning outcomes. We also know that these issues can be addressed through a well-coordinated system of early interventions—academic and cognitive, social-emotional learning —provided by schools, city agencies, and partners.

Measure results. Through frequent review of data, research, and analysis, we need to work shoulder-to-shoulder with district leaders to keep major system reforms on track for success. Transforming a school district requires political courage, fierce commitment, and strategic focus.

We believe that these seven components are critical and form the basis for sustainable district transformation. By focusing on these components, leveraging districts’ existing strengths and building capacity where needed, leaders can position themselves to achieve the enhanced educational outcomes that their students and communities deserve.

In 2014, I wrote for the Aspen Institute in the Huffington Post that there is a lot that can be done to accelerate student achievement in our school system if we focus on results rather than intentions and implement reform efforts systemically, thoroughly, and deliberately. Each city has one data point, one element that parents and community look to as an indicator of success. In Rochester, NY, it is the 4-year high school graduation rate. In Chicago, it is access to a good neighborhood school. In Washington, DC, it seems to be access to a good school in your neighborhood. In Washington, DC, working with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, C&J is using the Learning Network to help improve many of the District of Columbia’s district and charter schools. Developed in 2008 in partnership with the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) to rethink the state’s approach to school reform, the DC Learning Network is an approach that engages school-level professionals directly in co-constructing improvement efforts that results in capacity building and bypasses less effective, top-down attempts at reform.

School district leaders need to focus on the key levers that will drive progress toward that data point and understand that these levers must be interrelated and mutually reinforcing. District leaders can move school systems from pockets of success to system-wide excellence by creating integrated district-wide improvement strategies that are supported by critical enablers, such as a synergistic focus on effective instruction together with operational excellence. High-achieving systems are driven by leaders focused on results and have teams disciplined at effective execution of core strategies.

There is nothing magical about these strategies. Lean Six Sigma principles are employed in industries where repeated failure is unacceptable, such as in the airline industry. We learn, change practice, and get safer after each airline accident or incident, yet we are too tolerant of failure in our school systems.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell reminds us “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success…with a society that provides opportunities for all.” Through a responsive, disciplined, and coherent approach, I know that this can be done.

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Author(s): Jean-Claude Brizard

The Keys to Achieving Success in School and District Transformation, Part 1

What does it really take to turn around a struggling school or school district?

More than 15 years ago, Michael Fullan wrote in Phi Delta Kappan that “the main reason for the failure of these reforms to go to scale and to endure is that we have failed to understand that both local school development and the quality of the surrounding infrastructure are critical for lasting success.” In his The Three Stories of School Reform, Fullan contends that the most significant enemies of large-scale reform are overload and extreme fragmentation. He argues for coherence and maintains that the work of reform must occur both inside and outside the system—from the schoolhouse to the state house.

As a former school superintendent, I have always found it puzzling that so many push for school-level reforms without a parallel focus on the central office, state department of education and surrounding community. It’s no surprise that under these circumstances the money and effort allocated to reform have not yielded satisfactory results. A look at the schools under review in any state or district shows a repeated cycle of failure and a depressing trail of dollars spent.

The work of transformation is neither simple nor easy. It is no small task to educate ALL of the children in our nation’s schools. While we have experienced successes, our children still have unequal access to quality education across communities. Why? Because partial reforms have led to partial progress.

The good news is that a number of states and districts are implementing or considering a much more cogent strategy of school improvement. Say Yes to Education (SYTE), for example, posits that we are often focusing on the wrong levers and has demonstrated that the city or county is the unit of change. SYTE leverages a complex network of schools, higher education, governmental systems, service providers, and community organizations to create a comprehensive strategy—with a unique data approach—to improve student educational outcomes and post-secondary success. Through our work advising SYTE and providing strategic support to its districts, we have been fortunate to witness firsthand the success of this approach.

At the state level, Massachusetts has a bold and well-thought-out plan for district and school turnaround. In 2014, the Massachusetts Department of Education commissioned the Institute for Strategic Leadership and Learning to conduct a three-year analysis of school and district practices, systems, and policies and use of resources contributing to successful turnaround efforts. The levers identified reinforce the argument that the effort must be comprehensive and coherent. They include:

  • Employing strategic human capital;
  • Getting the right leaders and teachers in place;
  • Organizing the district for successful turnaround;
  • Organizing district offices, policies, and resources to support, monitor, and expand turnaround efforts;
  • Targeting resources on instruction and professional practice; and
  • Understanding how districts and schools used funding to drive turnaround efforts.

Though specific approaches vary, no matter how it is sliced, reforms, strategies and initiatives must be integrated into a system-wide improvement strategy to avoid the Frankenstein’s Monster syndrome—parts may look ok but the whole is incoherent, producing inconsistent results. School transformation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Engaging a broad array of partners in the work is essential to ensuring the success of any school or district transformation effort.

Opportunity in ESSA
With the latest iteration of ESEA, state and local education agencies will see significant autonomy and decision-making authority returned to them. School Improvement Grants in their current form are ended and states are being given the power to redefine school success. This provides a tremendous new opportunity for a coherent, systemic approach to reform and lift many systems and schools out of their current underperformance.

This post is the first in a three-part series examining the key components of successful school and district transformation.

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Author(s): Jean-Claude Brizard

Across the country, more districts and cities are declaring their intention to adopt and/or deepen their support for community schools as a way to bring additional resources into schools to support the health, mental health and social emotional goals of students. In Newark, NJ, for instance, the mayor has promised to open additional community schools across the city, and in Oakland, CA, community schools are at the center of district improvement strategies. The recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), provides additional catalysts for adopting and growing community schools, including:

  • The specification of wraparound services as allowable expenditures under Title I; and
  • New accountability measures that focus more broadly on the well-being of students.

What is new and, in our view, particularly promising about many of these efforts is the wider-ranging and deeper approach that school districts are taking in organizing and implementing their community schools strategies. In the past, district supports for community schools were often quite limited; in many places the role of the district involved granting leeway to individual schools that were choosing to adopt a community school model either by using their own resources or with support from an outside partner or funder. More recently, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of districts that are investing in staff and other resources to grow and support community schools. Some notable examples include Tulsa, OK, where the district is working to ensure that in every school the services and supports students receive are connected to the core work of the district; Baltimore, MD, where the district, in partnership with the Family League (a well-respected non-profit partner) is rapidly scaling up community schools across the city; New York, NY, where the district is now using community schools as part of its turnaround strategy; and Richmond, CA, where community schools are helping the district to expand offerings that meet the needs and interests of more students.

It is also clear that if these districts and others are to succeed in scaling community schools they will need support to expand capacities at the district and school levels. For instance, we are seeing that, when it comes to implementing community schools, many districts are hungry for guidance and support on:

How to organize their resources (people, time and money) to take full advantage of community school operations; how to tie community school strategies to educational goals; and how to create financing strategies that blend public and private funds from multiple sources. This includes support for reviewing and revising district policies and practices to reduce barriers and promote, strengthen and sustain community school models.

Supporting principals and teachers to embrace and take full advantage of a broader set of resources. This includes new professional development opportunities for principals and teachers (and superintendents) to enhance the effectiveness of community schools. Districts are also looking for opportunities to work with and learn from other districts and to support cross-school networks to collaborate and share their experiences with community schools.

Aligning in-school and out-of-school supports. A key feature of many community schools is afterschool programming. Districts are looking for ideas and opportunities to better connect in-school and out-of-school learning, including programming provided by community partners. They are also looking for ideas and strategies for financing the expansion of successful afterschool programming.

Working effectively with community partners. One of the largest challenges districts report is developing and implementing effective processes for identifying community partners and a framework for negotiating new partnerships. Here, too, districts are hungry to hear from their peers about how they are addressing the issue.

Bringing coherence to multiple reform efforts. In some districts, a key reason for adopting a community school approach is to create connections and coherence between multiple initiatives that often reside in the non-instructional side of the house – like afterschool, counseling and mentoring – with instructional goals. In this way, the school can become a hub for multiple services and service providers, making it easier for families to access services and making these services easier to track. Specifically, districts are interested in understanding how various approaches are implemented in different types and sizes of schools and districts.

Documenting progress and demonstrating the results of their investments. In an age of ever-increasing scrutiny, districts are looking for tested ways to measure progress and results. In some cases, districts are looking for measures of progress that align with state data collection activities. Others are looking to align progress measures with district priorities. Here too, districts are eager to learn from one another.

With more and more districts declaring their interest in implementing community schools, the urgency for new resources and supports is apparent. Over the past several decades, many foundations have made significant investments in community schools. These initial investments laid the groundwork for the expansion that is now underway. New investments that focus on helping districts deeply connect services and supports with the instructional core and provide opportunities for districts and schools to work together and learn from each other have the potential to take this work to the next level and make a difference in the lives of many more students.

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Author(s): Sharon Deich

Districts and schools across the country are working to promote deeper learning among students, which in many places requires a fundamental rethinking of school design. Making this shift can seem overwhelming, but several resources, including an example set by San Jose Unified School District, offer a solid place to start.

What is “deeper learning”?

Deeper learning, a term coined by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, means teaching students to use their knowledge and skills in a way that prepares them for real life by mastering core academic content. Students learn to think critically, collaborate, communicate effectively, direct their own learning, and believe in themselves. The six deeper learning competencies are: Master Core Academic Content; Think Critically and Solve Complex Problems; Work Collaboratively; Communicate Effectively; Learn How to Learn; and Develop an Academic Mindset.

Taken together, these competencies result in students’ ability to use and apply what they have learned. They also align with the skills and competencies around which other efforts—21st century skills, the Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, College and Career Readiness and others—are based.

How are schools designing programs to promote deeper learning?

Last year, the Hewlett Foundation and the Silicon Valley Foundation supported Cross & Joftus, in partnership with the Enterprise Development Group and The Institute for the Future, to help school leaders and teachers in San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) re-envision and redesign their schools to prepare students for the 21st century. Schools designed programs that would change the very core of teaching. Their approaches use technology to personalize learning; activate learning through a model of inquiry or student-centered teaching strategies; and institute group work in which students help each other learn.

When I reviewed the various plans, I was struck by how consistent the proposed strategies and practices were with the strategies most common across the SJUSD school redesign proposals I examined and profiled in my book, Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools are Transforming Education in the 21st Century (2014). These practices include empowering students as learners; contextualizing knowledge so it is coherent; connecting learning to real-world experiences; extending learning beyond the school; inspiring students by customizing learning experiences; and purposefully incorporating technology to enhance, rather than automate, learning.

How can every school develop and implement a redesign plan that enables teachers to focus on and develop the six deeper learning competencies? 

From a national perspective, one of the greatest challenges is bringing deeper learning policies and practices to underserved communities. While all students can benefit from deeper learning opportunities, students in underserved communities are less likely to have these opportunities. One program that is working to expand access to deeper learning is the Deeper Learning Equity Fellows, a cohort-based leadership program working to provide equitable access to deeper learning.

At the school level, one resource designed to help school leaders and teachers create an environment in which teachers can design learning experiences around deeper learning competencies is The Planning Guide. The Guide is grounded in the theory that the first step toward this goal is to develop a school-wide culture that promotes students’ learning and collective responsibility for the school.

Collective responsibility doesn’t happen by accident; a culture of collective responsibility must be purposefully established for students and teachers alike. For students, this can mean developing community through advisories, peer-to-peer mentorships, group work, and community-wide events. For teachers, collective responsibility is established through opportunities to function as professionals with a high level of autonomy, to share in the leadership of the school, to direct and design their own professional development, and to work together collaboratively.

Districts’ role in Redesigning Schools for the 21st Century

While creating a culture that lays the foundation for school redesign seems to fall on school leaders and teachers, districts also have a role to play. SJUSD has modeled this well. The district set a vision for 21st century schools grounded in the six deeper learning competencies and incentivized schools to reorient towards those competencies. Through philanthropic and district funds, the district ran a funding competition for schools to establish a proof of concept to transform teaching in 2015 and created a clear path for broader implementation in the 2016-17 school year. The district provided each funded team with an experienced advisor to push the school’s thinking, provided access to networks and expertise, and provided project management and change management coaching.

SJUSD is a shining example of how a district can tap into the passion of school leaders and teachers and provide support without the use of top-down mandates. The district showed that school transformation is truly an iterative process that can be catalyzed and accelerated when there is district-wide support for a culture of innovation and when school leaders are committed to establishing a strong school culture focused on learning and collective responsibility.

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Author(s): Monica Martinez