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State Policy Critical to Deeper Learning

By Contributing Blogger — May 29, 2014 4 min read
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This post is by Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky.

It’s been my experience that when you have the chance to talk with people about what deeper learning really means, the critical knowledge and skills plus the habits of mind necessary for success in continuing learning, a career, and contributing as a citizen, they become inspired. This vision of that educational experience for every young person resonates more positively than any other topic in education. Whether people are motivated by economic or moral imperatives, this becomes a conversation about how to organize publicly-funded resources and people to create systems capable of preparing every child to be a self-sufficient, contributing member of society. The public and educators alike are frustrated with rhetoric about defending or preserving a stratified and outmoded system of schools. They feel it’s time to move on and many states are responding. They’re building on a foundation of higher standards and taking responsibility for delivering deeper learning.

Not surprisingly, the farther states go into substantive change the more complex and deeply rooted the challenges become:


  • Even though the definition of college and career readiness has broadened, there is a tendency to compartmentalize the dimensions of readiness in a way that narrows focus and diminishes the importance of deeper learning skills
  • The tendency to focus on the immediate tasks is holding some states back from looking beyond statewide common core aligned assessments to a broader, richer set of measures designed and adjudicated locally
  • Because we lack a comprehensive set of outcomes, measures, and evidence for the specific purpose of supporting the needs of students and learning first, accountability systems are out of synch with the changes we seek
  • Finance policy is still largely based on the currency of time and attendance rather than learning and performance
  • The direction forward-facing states are heading is in direct opposition to and on a collision course with key aspects of current state and federal policy and local practice
  • As is often the case during major transitions, leaders are battling retrenchment to a more compliance-oriented, deficit mindset.

When we formed the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers, we did it to support state and local partnerships that were embarking on this journey. Four years later, the design principles and deeper learning reforms that the ILN represents are far more widespread and in the mainstream of public education discourse. That’s a worthy outcome but it’s just a beginning. State policy may represent the best hope of finding the education solutions society seeks, but it’s also at risk of being the largest impediment. How will we help states develop resilient learning organizations, resist the temptation to freeze around incremental improvement, and maintain fidelity to the lofty goals they have set?

As a small organization with a national mission, the Center I’ve established in Kentucky provides expanded support to the ILN and is pursuing six specific strands of work to support deeper learning reforms in all states:


  • Being a voice to help build consensus and coherence around a new vision of education aligned with the realities the next generation of learners will face and help states develop and act on robust theories of change
  • Helping states operationalize their understanding of deeper learning by producing developmental frameworks for essential skills and dispositions and related instructional and assessment tools
  • Identifying and testing how changes in high leverage policies, such as school finance, can remove barriers to deeper learning at scale
  • Developing a framework for collecting and managing evidence of learning (beyond traditional “assessments”) to inform new accountability designs and statewide assessment strategies
  • Empowering the voices of teachers and local leaders to tap the collective potential of and amplify the voices of practitioners in supporting and implementing deeper learning policy
  • Facilitating collaboration with postsecondary and business, both within and across states.

It’s encouraging that deeper learning is catching fire in districts and communities; it’s inspiring to see teachers who will tell you they’ve waited their entire careers to do the kind of work they are doing today; and it’s pure joy to talk with students who’ve had the world opened up to them through education. But it’s unconscionable that when we are learning so much about what is good for students and the teachers who support them we’re still grappling with devastatingly persistent variability in the quality of education in this country. It’s incumbent on all of us to act in good faith, to support courageous leadership, and to keep the pressure on to deliver on the promise a quality education for every child and the opportunity to succeed that deeper learning represents.

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