By Amy Anderson
What if you were given the chance to create an entirely new state education system from scratch — one that could serve learners of all ages — birth to career — would be designed to better prepare people for success in the world we live in today, and sufficiently agile to keep up with our global society’s rapid changes? This was exactly the opportunity offered to me in early 2013 when I decided to leave my post as Colorado’s Associate Commissioner of Innovation, Choice, and Engagement to return to the Donnell-Kay Foundation, where I had worked previously, to design and launch a new education system in our state.
The idea to start a new, statewide education system is the brainchild of Tony Lewis, Executive Director of The Donnell-Kay Foundation (DK). After spending nearly two decades investing the foundation’s resources in efforts to improve our current system in a variety of ways, he was feeling frustrated with the results. While bright lights existed — selected communities with exceptional schools and school networks, promising new models of learning, and a general openness in Colorado to explore policy improvements and changes — it wasn’t systemic. When you looked across any district, and certainly across the state, tremendous gaps in opportunity and results for learners were significant — and still are today. His conclusion: today’s education system, serving learners from pre-K through post-secondary, isn’t broken. It is outdated. In this blog post we wrote together last year, we use the metaphor of Tony’s 1949 pickup truck, “Gus” to elaborate on the state of our current education system.
When I decided to leave the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), I had a number of people ask me why I would leave my post at the state to take on this risky pursuit of starting a new system when I was in a pretty good position to be making changes to the education system that we already have in our state. My reasons were pretty clear:
First, in my time at CDE I learned that the system is full of smart, ambitious people who work extremely hard running the day to day operations to keep the current system moving. A strong appetite to improve the system also exists; as such, we were pretty successful at putting together a vision for where our state could head in order to modernize our system and better prepare Colorado learners for success in today’s world. However, it is when the rubber hit the road and it was time to implement that vision when things started to get much more challenging. Because of the nature of our current system, new ideas and efforts often result in add-ons, not replacements, and finding the time to both run the existing system while making room to try new things or change the way things are done is extremely hard and can really only be done in incremental, not transformational ways.
Second, as someone who has worked with multiple organizations and schools over the years, I have learned that starting something new, while challenging in many ways, is usually easier than turning around or transforming an existing entity. However, I had never seen anyone designing an entirely new, radically different education “system” until I had the opportunity to visit Rio de Janeiro through the Global Education Leaders Program in the fall of 2012. What I saw firsthand in Rio was the Ministry of Education’s efforts to create a new public education system alongside the system they had been running. This new system was being created as part of the pacification of the Favelas located in the hills and mountainsides up above Rio. To date, many children living in the Favelas had received little to no formal education.
The Favelas had been historically dangerous and fairly off limits, so trying to run a school system there had been extremely challenging, and downright impossible in most places. However, with the pacification of the Favelas — which was being done, in part, to make the city safe and more inviting to those coming to Rio for the Olympics and World Cup events — it opened up an opportunity to start a new school system from scratch. There were few expectations in the Favela communities about what “school” should look like or be — as compared to many traditions and expectations among those who had been and were currently attending schools in other parts of Rio. As such, the ministry worked from a blank slate and created a separate division focused on new schools and innovation. It was this division’s job to create this new system of learning in Rio with the Favelas being the launching point for it.
The idea of a new, parallel system resonated strongly in me, and this experience ignited a spark that I couldn’t extinguish once I returned to Colorado; hence my decision to rejoin my friend and colleague, Tony Lewis at DK, to tackle this exciting new adventure. Our team has since expanded and we have learned and accomplished a great deal together.
The remainder of this article will delve more deeply into our vision for the new system, what we have accomplished to date, and the strategy carrying us towards the realization of the system by 2019. Much like my experience in Brazil, it is my hope that aspects of the work we are doing here in Colorado resonate with you and inspire action towards systems change in communities well beyond our state.
ReSchool Colorado’s Vision
By 2030, 50,000 Colorado youth, from babies to young adults, will be learning in a new education system. They will be actively pursuing extraordinary life paths and prepared for each step along the way as powerful contributors to our society.
This visual representation demonstrates the possibilities of a statewide system designed more purposefully around the learner. Key system components to call out from the visual include:
Learner advocate: Each learner in this new system will have an advocate — or network of advocates — to help them navigate the system and make decisions about their educational paths and learning experiences. We anticipate a marketplace of learner advocates emerging to meet the various needs of families enrolling in the new system.
Expanded landscape of learning opportunities: Learning for most of us already occurs in a variety of places; yet, our education system remains largely place (school) based. Our system is learner based. As such, we start with the learners and customize their experiences by leveraging a variety of experiences for individual and collaborative learning that may include a physical location for all or part of the day — like a school or community center — but also may not. Learners will have the opportunity to create education playlists that bundle courses and experiences accessed through a variety of providers such as cultural institutions, schools, online providers, apprenticeships, educator co-ops, community-based organizations, individual experts/tutors, etc.
Clear Purpose/Path in a Competency-Based System: It is important for learners — and those working with them as teachers, advocates, parents, etc. — to have clarity about the expectations of this system, the learning experiences and knowledge they will gain along the way, and the mechanisms by which to capture what they have done and learned in such a way that it facilitates their journey and informs others about their progress. We are currently working on a competency-based framework to inform the design of the system and the learning that occurs within it.
Access to Education Dollars: In order to unbundle education and re-bundle it to create a customized path for all learners, the students and families in this new system will need to have access to their education dollars to spend across the variety of learning opportunities they may choose. In order to address equity concerns and ensure quality choices, we see the advocate being an essential partner and decision maker with learners and their families in using these resources wisely.
Enabling Architecture (policy/system framework): We can’t simply design a new vision for learning in our state and think that we can retrofit it back into the existing system and structures. We need to design the system in ways that align with the learner-centered nature of the ReSchool vision. This requires a policy and implementation design process focused on the organization and governance of the system, regulatory requirements to create it, financing mechanisms, and quality assurance. The goal is a dynamic system, not the recreation of another bureaucracy. Listed below are more on the critical attributes of the new system.
To design and launch an inspirational education system that coordinates people and resources in new, dynamic ways, ensuring an experience that is welcoming, empowering, and world-class.
This new system will:
Operate statewide, but start small and grow over time
Be designed to function as one, aligned system for learners birth to career
Be approved in 2018 and operational in 2019
Work to Date
Initial entrants and focus on non-consumers
One of the most important questions we’ve had to tackle is, “Who might find value in this new system and choose to enroll in it when open?” As we shared previously, it isn’t our intent to replace the existing system but to provide a new choice for those learners and families who so desire it — a parallel system.
We engaged Michael Horn and Julia Freeland at the Clayton Christensen Institute to help us think about whom to design the system with and for to start. Their theory of disruptive innovation led us to focus on people in Colorado who are non-consumers of our current system, such as:
Families who have opted out or never enrolled in the system such as homeschoolers, those with young learners, and in particular those who are choosing family, friends, and neighbors to care for their children, not pre-schools or child care centers.
Students who have dropped out of the system.
Young adults who aren’t engaging in the typical high school to college to career pipeline and are seeking a different path through the system than currently exists.
With this lens, most of our user-centered research and design efforts thus far have focused on engaging people who fall within one or more of these areas of focus. Highlighted below are a couple of examples:
Engaging the Learner in the Design Experience
Expertise can only take you so far when you’re trying to go beyond the current paradigm. Our early work with The Clayton Christensen Institute highlighted potential areas to launch this new system and helped us identify some of our first partners in shaping the design: families and young learners leveraging a Family, Friend and Neighbor (FFN) network of care and learning. In collaboration with Greater Good Studio and Boulder Housing Partners (BHP), we spent time with families and their caregivers focusing on the child as our center point. The unique experience of these users has inspired new insights around the role a system serves in supporting their learning.
As part of our experience, we shadowed families for the time their child or children were with care providers. Throughout the course of the day, we moved with the child to observe the systems surrounding their care, from morning routines to transportation, to their care providers and back home again. Our goal was to seed our design with openness and humility through observations, conversations, and shadowing and to get beyond typical research and engagement strategies like focus groups, surveys and polls. We discovered that by spending time with families, care providers and learners, we were able to access the successful workarounds, routines and behaviors they may not recognize as “different or important.”
By approaching their personal system through the lens of positive deviance we were able to uncover strategies that may serve as better solutions while having access to the same resources as those facing similar challenges. This compilation of concepts emerged through this process. Our work into this next year involves testing some of these concepts, again in partnership with BHP, Greater Good Studio and families living in the BHP communities in Boulder.
Lessons from Strategic Partnerships: The Learner Advocate Pilot
Equally as powerful as sharing tools to support improvement in the current system, we are grateful for opportunities in which we can cull learning from the present structure to sharpen our design for the future. The role of learner advocates continues to surface as an essential component to the success of the new system. This network of advocates will partner with learners and their families to help navigate an expanded ecosystem of learning opportunities, to design their pathway and to cultivate relationships and resources essential to their success.
Through networking and research, DK has identified several individuals, community-based organizations, and educators who are supporting learners as counselors, advocates, and coaches in the current K-12 and post-secondary systems. As we’ve interacted with learners and advocates, some interesting opportunities to improve those relationships and build capacity have emerged.
For example, a number of advocates and learners operate in isolation. They are looking for an effective way to manage their goals and pathways, to document the resources they are accessing, and to facilitate relationships with and connections to the people who are supporting and encouraging them through this process. As we looked across the field to see if anyone was working on something to help with this identified need, we discovered the concept of a Learning Relationship Management (LRM) system. And, we found a partner, Fidelis Education, who has developed an LRM that we’ve put in front of a number of advocates in our current system. They have been intrigued by it, and we think advocates and learners could utilize it right now.
In May 2015 we launched a pilot with Fidelis and five organizations that are working in an advocate capacity with teenagers and young adults across the state. We hope this pilot will add value to those working and learning in the current system as well as inform the design of the advocate’s role in the future system.
Focus for the next 12 months
We are engaged deeply in the design and seeding aspects of the Theory of Action process shared earlier. Over the next year we are focused on learning more to inform our design and needs for the system in the following areas:
Learner Advocate role
Competency-based framework and learner pathways
Expanded landscape of learning experiences and opportunities
System governance and quality assurance measures/mechanisms
System financing and learner access to education dollars
Regulatory process and pathway to creating the system
By June 2016, we expect to:
Decide on the population and number of learners the system will serve to start;
Create a policy framework and plan to drive approval for the system; and
Understand much better than we do today the resources and capacity required to ensure the system launches successfully.
How to stay informed about our progress
We welcome your feedback about our work (firstname.lastname@example.org). You can stay abreast of our progress by visiting our website and signing up for our monthly Reschool update.
Amy Anderson is the Director at Reschool Colorado. For more, visit www.reschoolcolorado.org.