States Opinion

As 50 States Prepare to Reimagine Education Policy, Four Are Able to Offer Guidance

By Sam Chaltain — December 09, 2015 6 min read
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This post is written by Sam Chaltain, an educational consultant, blogger, and leader who worked with the Innovation Lab Network at CCSSO to develop the Next State of Learning project. Follow the project at www.nextstateoflearning.com.

What makes a mind come alive?

How can one community impact every child?

What do schools need to be changing from, and to?

And how can states set the conditions for lasting change?

In theory, these questions have always mattered. In reality, they are about to matter a lot more now that the United States Congress has voted to reauthorize its central education policy for the first time in thirteen years—and usher in an era of state authority on everything from school accountability to teacher education policies.

Now that the balance of power is shifting back towards the states, what should they do with it?

That’s the riddle of the moment—and it’s one the Innovation Lab Network (ILN) has been trying to solve for years.

A network of states that work collaboratively to transform their respective school systems, the ILN includes several members that are fostering meaningful, systems-level changes in their states. And now the ILN is ready to share some of the insights of that work—by way of four short films and a website of related resources—in the hope that other states will parlay their newfound autonomy into decisions that can lead to, as the ILN puts it, the “Next State of Learning.”

In New Hampshire, for example, state officials have done away with the Carnegie Unit—the form of credit which, beginning in 1909, made time, not learning, the key metric by which high schools nationwide would measure student performance. In its place they’ve established a core set of competencies that all graduates need to develop in order to graduate—and they’ve allowed students to demonstrate mastery of those competencies in a number of ways: via a school course, an internship, or a course of independent study. In addition, eight districts are experimenting with a way to assess student learning that relies less on standardized tests, and more on locally developed performance tasks.


According to Ellen Hume-Howard, a longtime educator in the state and the Curriculum Director for the Sanborn School District, what’s driving all of these state-level changes is an observation that many would find self-evident: “One of the things that has been really fascinating for me around what’s happening in New Hampshire is that so much of it is what classroom teachers have thought we should have been doing for quite a long time. It’s really driven by common sense: If we’re serious about putting students at the center of what we do, then we need to change a lot of the things that have been in existence for a long time. There are simply a lot of practices that no longer fit.”

They’ve reached the same conclusion in Maine, where legislators have stipulated that by 2017, all graduates will be assessed by specific, demonstrable skills—not time-based determinants of credit. For educators like Derek Pierce, the principal of Casco Bay High School in Portland, that has made all the difference. “Schools are getting better at breaking down the walls and recognizing that the world is where we need to do our learning,” he said. “In Portland we’re super-fortunate to have a lot of support from our local school board and our district, and even the state in the kinds of practices that we’re doing.

“We’re not fighting against the tide to support kids to have a more personalized path to reaching their goals. The state of Maine supports proficiency-based work, and it’s helped to have legislation that supports our values—it strengthens our standing in the community to know that we’re not just making this stuff up.”

In Colorado, there are examples like the St. Vrain School District, which decided several years ago to remake its entire feeder system into one that could provide high-quality STEM training to its students—the majority of who are low-income and Latino. When they decided that training needed to continue after graduation—by way of a program called P-TECH that lets graduates complete a two-year associate’s degree for free—they approached their legislators for help.

It sounds strange—educators approaching their legislators for help. But according to Gretchen Morgan, the Colorado Department of Education’s Interim Associate Commissioner of Innovation, Choice, and Engagement (and a former teacher and school principal), that’s the sort of arrangement more states should be preparing to follow. “I think our role at the department isn’t necessarily to seek specific legislation. But we are in a unique position to know who’s doing things in different parts of the state. And so, being able to bring them together so they can learn and build momentum is our role; it’s to help facilitate those conversations.

“What happened in St. Vrain is a good example,” Morgan continued. “There was a district doing some really good work around STEM. They had found some great partners to work with. And they wanted to have P-TECH legislation passed that could enable them to partner in stronger ways and set up a high school with some very specific characteristics. Because we knew they were working on that, we tried to put them in places to talk with other people who had similar interests. And now we have a pathway for those kids that can extend beyond their high school graduations.”

And then there’s Wisconsin, a state whose political climate makes the passage of legislation particularly challenging. How, then, have they been able to establish themselves as a leader in the push to make learning more personalized for every student?

Part of the answer comes from an innovative approach to governance: twelve cooperative educational service agencies (CESAs), independent of the state, that exist solely to help local districts coordinate services and receive the type of professional learning their educators feel is most important towards advancing their professional practice. According to Jim Rickabaugh, the Director of the Institute for Personalized Learning within the CESA in Southeastern Wisconsin, “If the things we offer districts are not the things that they want and need, we will cease to exist; it’s all fee for service. That means we have a clear role to play, and part of it is connecting local districts to the state in ways that make everyone feel they are less driven by compliance, and more by a need to generate deeper levels of commitment among learners, educators, and the communities they serve.”

This sort of culture is evident in places like the Waukesha School District, where a number of schools have begun providing alternative approaches to teaching and learning. As Assistant Superintendent Ryan Krohn puts it, “The primary function of education over the last 150 years was to efficiently deliver instruction. Well, the function has changed. The function is now to ensure high levels of learning for all, but the designs are still about efficient instruction. So we need to come up with a set of designs that match that, and here in Waukesha, we’re starting to see examples of redesigned systems that ensure high levels of learning for all students by flipping the script and providing students with the ownership of this work.

Look across those four states and the work they have undertaken, and you start to see some patterns: a clear emphasis on local engagement and authority; compelling examples of district-level innovation and change; an “urgently patient” approach to systems change; and a clear understanding that if public education is going to be reimagined for a changing world, young people—their strengths, their passions, and their own unique paths to proficiency—must be placed at the center.

How this new era of school reform unfolds remains to be seen. But it’s notable that a move to make learning more personalized and restore local authority in decision-making has already generated strong bipartisan appeal.

Perhaps, then, the ILN’s question is the right one to be asking: In this post-NCLB policy climate, where will the Next State(s) of Learning emerge?

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply 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.