States Opinion

Improving Support to States to Foster Deeper Learning

By Contributing Blogger — December 13, 2017 6 min read
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This post is by Joey Hunziker, who leads CCSSO’s Innovation Lab Network (ILN).

In March, I wandered into a local pottery studio here in DC and struck up a conversation with the owner, a fabulous ceramic artist of Iranian descent who shared my love of Instagram pottery videos. She and I hit it off, and after ordering a few special pieces from her, I noticed a note on her chalkboard announcing a new semester of wheel-throwing classes starting in two weeks. I’d always wanted to learn how to make pottery myself, but was frightened. She convinced me to give it a try; the first class was exciting and scary, I made a huge mess of everything, and my first three pieces were lopsided, dilapidated messes. As it turns out, you need to be patient and gentle when throwing pottery, and I happen to lack both of those qualities.

After a few classes, and a deep sense of frustration with myself for being such a perfectionist but lacking the skills to create perfection, I noticed something changing inside me. I was learning. That sense of wonderment and joy hadn’t flowed through my veins in a few years, since leaving graduate school, and I was amazed at the catharsis of learning something new again. I soon realized that the fear and excitement were important steps in my journey of lifelong learning.

Being a lifelong learner isn’t just a visionary component of the deeper learning framework; it’s actually a tangible, actionable part of our lives as adults, education professionals, and ceramicists. My experience in pottery class, which I’m still taking, mirrored my professional life this year at CCSSO. This year, the network I lead, the Innovation Lab Network, reached a point of inflection. At CCSSO, we support state chiefs to build and scale deeper learning in their state systems, through policy and practice. Since 2009, we’ve worked with those state leaders who want to work together to roll up their sleeves and make the difficult changes to their system that will ensure deeper learning can flourish in their state contexts. We’ve achieved incredible success supporting states to build balanced assessment systems to support multiple demonstrations of learning, and improve accountability systems to incentivize and reward multiple measures of school quality and student success.

But a good lifelong learner, and an organization committed to continuous improvement, will interrogate their assumptions and the way they work, to ensure they are learning and growing and in touch with the needs of their community and stakeholders. For us at CCSSO, we reached a point in our work with state chiefs in the ILN that required us to take stock of our successes, gather evidence of emerging and best practices in the field of education, and ask several difficult questions of ourselves as an organization:

  • How can we adapt to reflect the changing needs of the educational landscape?
  • Are we best supporting the transformation of state systems, and if not, what can we change?
  • How can we ensure that equity and access are at the core of everything we do?

The answers to those questions are complex, and finding them involved lots of conversations with our colleagues in the field, and our state chiefs. We found that collaboration across states was one of the most valuable benefits we provided to state leaders working in the ILN. In response, we organized our states in collaborative learning communities to help them solve joint problems and learn from each about their unique state contexts and approaches to policymaking, with the hope that the collaborative community would spur collective action. Borrowing from our colleagues in the fields of improvement science, network theory, and social impact research, we think these learning communities will forge a bond among state leaders to spur action across the Innovation Lab Network.

Additionally, we came to understand that states were grappling with their own changing, dynamic contexts--from the intricacies of various state laws and initiatives, to the very language used across states to describe similar topics. (For instance, some states use the term “personalized learning” and others “student-centered.”) Our research and feedback with our state leaders and peers in the field illuminated for us that each state approaches deeper learning from a unique perspective, and needs differentiated supports and guidance to help them transform their state systems. This perspective strikes me as similar to what we know about students in classrooms across our country today, who need differentiated ways to master content, knowledge, and skills. To help build the knowledge and capacity of state leaders to take action and transform their state systems for personalized, deeper learning, CCSSO built in differentiated supports to states in the ILN that will meet state leaders where they are in their current work.

Finally, we believed that our work, at its core, was in service of every student across the country. But the ILN sought to better understand what we didn’t know about the value and potential of personalized, deeper learning to support students who have been historically underserved, defined for us as students of color, English learners, students with disabilities, and students in poverty. Over the past 18 months we worked with our states, and a partner, New Profit’s Reimagine Learning Fund and the America Forward Coalition, to understand promising practices and potential policies that would support states and districts to intentionally build personalized, deeper learning opportunities for historically underserved students. We just released the research and policy brief from that work, and are pleased to share it with the deeper learning community here. This work, while not exhaustive, builds on the fabulous work of other organizations in the field, including NCLD and iNACOL, to understand the potential state actions for building personalized, deeper learning into state systems. This work is a starting point for us in the ILN, and over the next three years, as we continue to learn about our redesign and how we can best support state chiefs and kids across the country, we commit to build and expand our work to ensure the educational innovations occurring in states broaden access to Deeper Learning for our nation’s historically underserved youth.

The excitement I had at writing this blog ultimately gave way to a crippling fear--what if none of what I wrote made sense for an external audience? What if no one cared? How is the work of a group of states supposed to be relevant for readers who don’t work in states? All of those questions, I’m sure, are valid, but part of being a lifelong learner requires taking risks and opening yourself to questions. I’m proud of the work I and my colleagues at CCSSO have done this year to transform the Innovation Lab Network to better support states and expand opportunities and access for students. I think it’s important for readers of this blog to know that state leaders are grappling with similar questions as you are in your work to improve education for children. I hope you’ll follow along with our work, and share what you’re working on as well so we can learn together.

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