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.
More often than not, proposed solutions to social challenges come from outside the communities they are meant to improve. The people who most directly experience a problem are subjected to fixes devised largely without their input. But while this approach may be common, it rarely results in change that is truly transformative and sustainable. Especially in education, local context and community values matter too much for stakeholders to play just a minor role in driving innovation.
Especially in education, local context and community values matter too much for stakeholders to play just a minor role in driving innovation.
This is why at 2Revolutions we believe real change needs to start by deeply engaging those who are closest to the challenge, and who have the greatest stake in the outcomes. We are a national education design lab that helps schools, districts, and the communities they serve to build new learning models and systems to prepare today’s students for the world of tomorrow. Our approach is to facilitate diverse stakeholders to collectively envision the kind of teaching and learning young people need to succeed in college, careers, and civic life.
So what does deep community engagement look like? An especially strong example is the work we have been doing over the past year in support of the Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS). With a philanthropic grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York, we are helping VBCPS to engage the larger community in contributing to a new agenda for improving the future prospects of Virginia Beach’s young people.
In Virginia Beach, this collaboration began by inviting local stakeholders to a series of six community-based visioning sessions held across the district this past spring. Because each perspective contributes something important, we attempted to move beyond the “usual suspects” — to reach people in roles and neighborhoods not typically represented in local public forums on education.
In these 90-minute sessions, we gave participants a glimpse of the future — not the future of school or even the future of learning, but rather a brief video speculating on a version of what life might be like in 15 or 20 years. Then participants were asked to consider: What will today’s young people need to know and be able to do to be successful in that future? Together they generated a list of skills, knowledge, and dispositions.
Next, stakeholders identified the range of barriers that challenge our ability to provide students and their families with the opportunity to achieve those outcomes. These fell under several categories, including systemic barriers (e.g., policy mandates); resource limitations (e.g., time and money for training); and mindsets (e.g., resistance to and fear of change). Finally, they prioritized the most pressing issues that, if addressed with creativity and urgency, would have the greatest impact in accelerating toward transformational learning for all students.
Through these visioning sessions, we engaged many dozens of stakeholders across different parts of the community, learning how they define student success, what they believe holds Virginia Beach back, and which challenges are most strategic and important to address first. By combining these insights across multiple segments of the community, we developed a collaborative definition of student success, as well as a “heat map” showing the most critical problems to be addressed, based on their perceived intensities.
With additional ongoing guidance from a diverse Community Advisory Group, as well as information gleaned from a comprehensive landscape analysis, we were able to zero in on the two topics on which to focus in Virginia Beach. First, it was clear from the community members we spoke with that moving beyond the status quo required a “transformational mindset” — a sense of urgency that erased the fear of failure, promoted a growth orientation, and gave people the permission to create and try new things.
The second topic prioritized by the community was “equitable access to opportunity.” Community members passionately shared their frustrations with the lack of access that limited some students’ opportunities to engage in specialized programming. This lack of access is manifest in patterns of underrepresentation in advanced courses, and policies that disproportionately disadvantage certain populations. The VBCPS community courageously selected this topic as an area to dive into throughout the coming year, with the hope of finding ways to address equity gaps head on, so that education in the community is working for all VBCPS students.
Now comes the really fun part. Through a district-wide application process, we’ve convened two teams (what we call “Prototyping Networks”) that will coalesce around a shared definition of each of these topics, carry out their own listening activities to better understand the community’s perspectives on them, and brainstorm potential remedies. As these teams engage in the design process, their ideas and solutions will be tested with various users within the VBCPS system. Our intent is to help them identify potential solutions to the challenges of equitable access to opportunity and a lack of transformational mindsets that may be scalable across the broader system.
At 2Revolutions, we believe this kind of community-driven problem-solving is an approach whose time has come. Across the country, we increasingly see multiple ways in which other organizations, as well as agencies at the state and local level, are experimenting with new ways to engage stakeholders in collaboratively developing innovative solutions. The Carnegie Corporation grant that supports our work in Virginia Beach is part of a larger Corporation initiative, the Integration Design Consortium (IDC), which 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 those of the adults in their lives.
More on the IDC, and the thinking behind it, is in Carnegie Corporation’s new report, From Fragmentation to Coherence: How more integrative ways of working could accelerate improvement and progress toward equity in education.
As in Virginia Beach, there is growing recognition among education leaders that when problem-solving is grounded in authentic community engagement — from the very beginning and throughout the process — it increases the odds that resulting solutions are a better fit for the contexts in which they are implemented.
Rachel Lopkin is a consultant with 2Revolutions. Previously she worked as a university lecturer, policy researcher, and high school French teacher.