States Opinion

State Policy Implementation: An Imperative for Equity

By Contributing Blogger — March 09, 2018 5 min read
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This post is by Joey Hunziker, Program Manager, Innovation Lab Network, CCSSO.

In 2017, CCSSO’s Innovation Lab Network went through a reflection process to take stock of the progress we made to date in helping states build policies and systems that enable deeper learning. We did this to understand how the landscape around innovation policy has changed, but also as part of a commitment to continuous improvement--to better support state agencies of education, and, ultimately, the students of our nation. Based on extensive interviews with our states, national experts, and chiefs, and following the completion of a state needs assessment, we learned two important things:

  1. While the policies and system changes states have made since 2009 are laudable and significant achievements--more students across the country have opportunities for new pathways of learning--it is clear we were not doing enough to ensure that access to these innovations reached historically underserved students.
  2. The through-line from policy to practice had to be strengthened in order to ensure quality, rigor, and equity in implementation, and that required focusing on how states implemented, or executed, their policies.

‘An Idea is only as Good as its Execution’

This phrase has become a driving force in my work leading CCSSO’s Innovation Lab Network. If you do a Google search for the phrase, you will find 63,400,000 results for it, most of which link to cute blogs and dry articles about business implementation plans.

Since 2009, CCSSO has supported states through the Innovation Lab Network to build the policies that enable student-centered learning systems--comprised of personalized learning, competency-based education, and deeper learning outcomes. Over that time, states made significant progress around our ILN Logic Model:

  • 9 states enacted new definitions of college and career readiness
  • 8 states launched pilots to incentivize and launch innovative approaches to learning in schools and districts
  • 4 states changed the conditions for training teachers and leaders to build personalized learning environments
  • 7 states took steps to modernize their accountability and assessment systems to recognize new ways of learning and demonstrating student learning.

Policy adoption is a key phase in the cycle of innovation; it enables certain behaviors, offers flexibilities and opportunities not typically found in existing law, and can change mindsets about permissibility and allowability throughout complex systems. However, great policies alone can often fail to expand access to deeper learning and innovation beyond the well-resourced, high-capacity schools and districts that have the resources to take advantage of the opportunity to innovate.

A Window of Opportunity

It’s important for those involved in complex systems, including policymakers, practitioners, and policy actors (such as state education agencies) to focus their efforts on how policy is implemented. We know from research on policy implementation that a policy window can be influenced heavily by good implementation, and the intended goals of the original policy can be shifted based on the policy’s implementation. As the OECD lays out in this document:

“Political timing provides opportunities for policy entrepreneurs to introduce ideas into the public debate and political management...and allows leaders to control the political effects of distributional consequences. The opportunity to achieve policy reform is often affected by external events. It is important to point out that policy change goes hand in hand with policy implementation”

In our view at the ILN, without concerted effort spent on implementation, we risk exacerbating current inequities in education systems. If educational innovation in support of deeper learning isn’t sustained with thoughtful, coordinated implementation, the innovations risk impermanence and will never reach our nation’s most underserved students--particularly our students of color, students with disabilities, students living in poverty, and English learners.

Shifting Our Support: An Imperative for Equity

Shifting to support states with implementation, particularly at the policy level, is no easy feat--but we believe it will expand access to deeper learning opportunities for historically underserved students. This support will help states to make coherent choices and work with diverse communities to design implementation plans based on the needs of historically underserved students. We shifted our internal human capital in the ILN, to better support state education agencies around innovation and deeper learning, are engaged in ongoing training to broaden our knowledge of successful implementation strategies, are partnering with research partners and those in the deeper learning world, including our friends at American Youth Policy Forum, to connect to emerging practice and model examples of deeper learning in the field.

We are working with states to set clear, intentional goals that focus on expanding access to educational innovation and deeper learning, and through our direct support to state agencies we are helping them achieve those goals. Currently, one ILN state is embarking on a new competency-based pilot, and is concerned about only getting applications from large suburban school districts with an imperative to reduce standardized testing. The state is working with CCSSO to embed in the guiding materials and implementation of the pilot specific design features that will incentivize their rural and urban schools with larger concentrations of traditionally underserved students to also consider the pilot, and then developing a support model to ensure those districts can build the capacity, talent, and assessment literacy needed to build a competency-based system.

Other states in the ILN are focused on the intersection of social-emotional learning skills, in our context referred to as “whole child practices,” and their development and assessment in student-centered learning environments. States are exploring shared questions related to implementation and design through our collaborative learning communities, and are driven by a shared commitment to ensuring equity, rigor, and quality are at the heart of state policy implementation.

A Future for Innovation

As the OECD article references, changing policies is not sufficient if there is no “reculturing” of classrooms and systems. In our belief, this is done through a concerted focus on implementing good policies, using feedback and evaluation data to understand the impact of those policies, and then informing the creation or retooling of policies. This work can build off the resounding success of the deeper learning movement, as long as our state leaders are committed to seeing through a complex implementation process and designing supports that center the needs of our historically underserved students. In this case, we hope that our ideas and policies are executed well, so we can celebrate our success in executing the ideas and policies of states around the country.

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