School & District Management Opinion

Creating a Learning Community at California’s Education Department

By Glen Price, Jacquelyn Ollison & Briana Mullen — February 22, 2017 7 min read
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When we last wrote, we posed the following question: Is California Ready for Continuous Improvement? We theorized that the California Department of Education (CDE) needed to change in significant ways. We posited that California’s public education system as a whole must effectively become a system-wide learning community, a state of continuous improvement, a learning state!

Taking this to heart at CDE, we decided to “stop talking about it and start doing it,” a decision which has turned out to be the right one. Our recent experiences with new forms of professional learning supporting continuous improvement at CDE have been both intensely challenging and exhilarating. And, as we move forward, several lessons are emerging that inform the way we engage in and support professional learning (see box).

This brief traces how we continue to learn these lessons as part of our CDE journey along the California Way, which embraces rigorous cycles of inquiry and collaboration for positive change in public education. We focus on how the department is advancing new forms of professional learning systems that build our team’s capacity to support continuous improvement processes, both internally and externally.

The CDE’s Learning Journey along the California Way

We started with a dream: What if we turned our whole building into a conference center and invited all team members to participate in thinking about innovation, engagement, and capacity building in sessions we designed, facilitated, and evaluated ourselves?

Crazy, right? It is likely that no state department has ever done such a thing. Could the CDE really pull something like this off? Do we have the capacity? Do we have the support? What could CDE have to gain from an event like this? What indeed!

CDE Team Advancement: Building Internal Capacity to Better Serve External Continuous Improvement Processes

Engaging everyone at the CDE headquarters location (approximately 1,400 employees) in a continuous improvement cycle focused on innovation requires bold action. The dream of turning the headquarters building into a professional learning conference center was an important first step.

December 2015: The CDE Winter Summit Provides Proof of Concept

Starting in late 2015, we began testing our idea, putting this dream into action. To capitalize on the expertise of our staff, and to accommodate our legendary dearth of meeting space, we determined that everyone would gather simultaneously in small groups, wherever these could be held in the building, with designated facilitators for two 90-minute sessions.

In the first session, all team members reflected with their day-to-day colleagues about how their work supported the implementation of our strategic plan framework, Blueprint 2.0. The second session focused on CDE Team Advancement. All team members, in groups of 10 or fewer, reflected on our work at the CDE and suggested mechanisms for improvement, including how to build a more collaborative working environment.

We recruited and trained over 100 facilitators to hold the small group sessions: no small feat!

Facilitator training for the sessions was accomplished by identifying ten highly competent and enthusiastic staff members to serve as “Lead Facilitators,” who would be responsible for supporting ten additional facilitators. Their responsibilities included answering questions, practicing facilitation of the session, and troubleshooting any problems that arose. We could not have done this without them.

Our ultimate goal for this first Institute was to “Discover,” the first phase in a cycle of inquiry that includes “Discover,” “Design,” and “Deliver.” We gathered over 200 pages of notes, input, and feedback, which we used to create the first iteration of the CDE Team Advancement Plan. Three primary discoveries:

  • Discovery 1: Staff want to be heard, and want to see definitive action based on their feedback.
  • Discovery 2: Staff were hungry for professional learning sessions that went beyond discovery and design to actual delivery. They wanted action!
  • Discovery 3: Logistics matter! Careful planning for the optimal use of CDE meeting spaces is essential.

April 2016: Spring Forward Summit

By early 2016, we were ready to build on the feedback from December 2015’s event and facilitate the next department-wide summit, “Spring Forward.” In addition to continued CDE Team Advancement work, staff also had the opportunity during this summit to participate in elective offerings, facilitated by their peers. With the rapidly changing landscape of education in California, staff were hungry to learn from their colleagues in policy sessions designed to intentionally enable our team to learn about important developments in public education in California, especially those that may fall outside of their day-to-day work.

The four sessions offered covered diverse territory, from the latest in our new assessment and accountability tools, to California’s groundbreaking Local Control Funding Formula/Local Control and Accountability Plan systems, through CDE’s Whole Child work, and, lastly, to the internal workings of the department. One participant noted in a feedback survey, “Fantastic: The ability to have a sounding block and feel heard by upper management. The ability to offer constructive criticism as well as brainstorm ideas for improvement here at CDE... The chance to meet new people in the building and learn more about what other people are doing at CDE is huge!”

The structure of the CDE Spring Forward Team Summit allowed CDE staff to attend sessions in either the morning or afternoon. The summit ended with an afternoon gathering in Capitol Park with Superintendent Tom Torlakson.

Once again, by leveraging the enthusiasm and capacity of strong facilitators to bring our large, logistically complicated event together, we received important feedback, including a few surprises.

  • Discovery 1: Elective offerings received mostly positive reviews.
  • Discovery 2: The elective sessions provided a demonstration of the power of CDE staff offering peer-to-peer professional learning sessions, designed by CDE staff for CDE staff.
  • Discovery 3: Full-day summits led to facilitator and staff fatigue.

December 2016: #ForCDEbyCDE

In most state agencies and school districts, outsiders deliver professional development. To further jumpstart the development of CDE’s professional learning capacity, we decided to tap the expertise of our own staff members building on key discoveries from the Spring Summit. We designed the December 2016 Winter Institute as an all-elective day of professional learning with all team members attending professional learning sessions of their choosing offered by their peers.

We sent an internal Request for Proposals to all CDE staff to find employees interested in facilitating workshop sessions, with two requirements: (1) the session be participatory; and (2) workshop providers consult with a member of our ‘Idea Team,’ who would offer guidance, input, and feedback on session development.

The result: We received over 60 proposed sessions from staff! Moreover, we succeeded in obtaining our largest and most enthusiastic participation to date. The range of creativity and quality of the sessions offered at the December 2016 CDE Winter Institute was phenomenal! An astounding 98% of participants indicated that the quality of facilitation was either ‘very effective’ (76%) or ‘somewhat effective’ (22%).

Most importantly, the day was an effective demonstration of CDE’s professional learning support capacity. In addition to the four key lessons discussed earlier, we reaffirmed that we have a cadre of high-performing dedicated professionals serving and supporting California’s LEAs, schools, educators, and 6.2 million students who are capable of great things.

The successes of CDE’s cycles of inquiry and engagement to date have whetted our appetite for more. We are planning now for the Spring 2017 Institute, which will continue to build on our developing tradition of innovation. We are also thinking about how the institutes might evolve into a framework for a series of statewide and regional interactive professional learning conferences/festivals.

Can the CDE convert this into a professional learning movement powered by and for California educators, parents, and communities? Time will tell.

In the meantime, we will keep moving towards a future where continuous improvement is our norm at the CDE. After all, this is California, a learning state.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.