Helping Education Leaders Build Coherence into Reform Strategies to Support Teachers and Student Learning

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This essay is part of a series written by leading education practitioners in response to a Carnegie Corporation of New York report on improving education equity by addressing fragmentation.

As the education laws came tumbling down from the statehouse, Alison Johnson’s head spun. New, more rigorous standards for student learning. New teacher evaluation procedures. New expectations for how teachers plan and deliver their instruction. As each law passed, the English teacher at “Typicaloosa” High School tried to understand them and speculated on their rationales. Why, she wondered, didn’t they correspond to her experience as a classroom educator?

Johnson adopted new practices to address the demands of the Common Core, at least the elements she best understood. But she questioned how the district’s new evaluation system accounted for the new instructional practices, and if her evaluator had the skills to provide her the feedback she needed. She waited to see if the professional development she had been promised would be delivered. She thought, “Why didn’t these guys take all this complicated stuff into account when they created these laws?”

Johnson longed for someone to tell her how it all fit together. Not even her principal seemed to know. “Look,” he said at a staff meeting, “All I can tell you is what the superintendent told me. He and his staff have been contacted independently by several teams within the state department. None of them told us the same thing.” She eyed the colleagues at her table, shrugged and said, “Maybe this too shall pass.” In fact, as Johnson learned four years later after the legislature bowed to public pressure and changed some of the laws, much of it did pass.

Alison is not alone. Her experience is the experience of the American educator.

As consultants, practitioners, and policymakers, Education First staff has experienced firsthand how the lack of integration, collaboration, and coherence within and across district and state systems — along with disconnected and sometimes dueling reform initiatives — cause inefficiency, confusion, alienation, and lackluster results. We’ve worked in multiple school systems and state education agencies to implement major reforms and observed how the organizational charts — in which one division oversees schools; another manages educator hiring, evaluation, and accountability; another oversees standards and curriculum; and still another manages assessment and data — become not just silos but hardened battle lines.

The end result? Incoherent systems have left schools and teachers like Johnson to connect the dots on their own.

We are taking aim at the fragmentation that occurs within and across state agencies and local school districts.

With a philanthropic grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York, Education First is now helping policymakers learn how to connect the dots themselves, so that educators can focus more of their energies on providing their students with the best instruction possible. With our partner, the Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program, we are taking aim at the fragmentation that occurs within and across state agencies and local school districts by launching and now implementing the Coherence Lab Fellowship (CLF). It was through this work that we met teacher Alison Johnson (not her real name). The Fellowship is an 18-month learning experience for leaders from state education agencies and districts within their jurisdictions. It aims to build integrated reform strategies to improve supports for educators and outcomes for students and to equip these leaders with the mindsets, skills, tools, and processes to address barriers to coherence. A core feature of the experience is rapid cycles of learning, practice, and reflection as teams address pressing problems of practice.

The CLF is part of a larger Carnegie-funded initiative called the Integration Design Consortium (IDC). The IDC is premised on the idea that efforts to improve the lives of young people are too often pursued in isolation, and with an incomplete understanding of their circumstances and the circumstances of the adults in their lives. The result is that well-intentioned strategies produce fewer benefits than hoped for, because they weren’t a good fit for the reality in which they were implemented. More on the IDC, and the thinking behind it, is in Carnegie’s new report, From Fragmentation to Coherence: How more integrative ways of working could accelerate improvement and progress toward equity in education.

Through our fellowship program, we are currently working with a first cohort of three states: Ohio, Nevada, and Wisconsin. Forty-eight state and local leaders from these states are taking part in in-person and virtual learning experiences to address systemic barriers to coherence by building focus and coordination within and across agencies, prioritizing inclusivity and the authentic engagement of educators — in ways that policymakers and leaders of reform typically do not.

Ohio is a representative example of the progress states in the Fellowship are making. Its team has begun having conversations about race, racial bias, and equity that they have never had before. Participants are developing a new level of trust and candor, and a renewed commitment to increasing equity in Ohio. They have also identified a problem of practice: “To fulfill its strategic plan, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) will improve its processes, structures, and culture so that all districts, particularly those with priority [low-performing] schools, get quick access to clear guidance and accurate answers to their questions and exchange in two-way communication so that district leaders are heard/listened to and supported to address their specific challenges to improve student outcomes.”

Interviews conducted by fellows inside ODE and with other school and district leaders generated significant insight into the root causes of fragmentation at the agency, including a complacent, siloed culture and inconsistent listening and dialogue with school systems. The team is addressing the problem by testing two prototype activities. First, all 550 ODE staff are participating in an interactive program to help them connect to the strategic plan’s goals and strategies. Second, a set of fellows is designing and testing with an urban school system a collaborative, jointly developed school improvement plan.

Ohio’s Coherence Lab Fellows play different roles and have different life experiences. They are eight senior executives at ODE, four local superintendents, three teachers, and a principal. Together they represent seven school systems and all of Ohio’s geographic regions. Ohio has come to understand that the interchange of ideas between educators in different positions and with diverse life experiences leads to better policy, practice, and reduced fragmentation within ODE.

Imagine Alison Johnson sitting in with such a group, sharing her experience as a teacher, listening to the perspectives of and learning from superintendents, principals, and state officials, and carving out solutions with them that reflect her experience. She would be an author of and advocate of change.

Jenn Vranek is Founding Partner at Education First, and Cristina Muñoz is a Senior Consultant at Education First.