What’s Next for Education Changemakers? A Conversation with Lillian Pace

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA, Future of Learning

To further explore the possibilities raised in Shaping the Future of American Public Education: What’s Next for Changemakers?© this blog series highlights perspectives on education changemaking from stakeholders who are working to improve the education system. In this installment, KnowledgeWorks Vice President of Policy and Advocacy Lillian Pace, shares her questions about the future of education changemaking and the opportunities that ESSA could provide.

In an earlier segment of this series, we asked KnowledgeWorks CEO Judy Peppler and Vice President of Strategic Partnerships and Development Michael DiMaggio, to reflect on the paper from the lens of their experiences working alongside education changemakers over the years.
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One of the central questions of the paper is whether the wide array of education changemaking efforts could reflect or inspire a new commitment to the promise of public education, or whether the range of disconnected efforts could undermine any more sustainable widespread change. Do you have an opinion on that uncertainty?

While it’s inspiring to see so many influencers using their resources, talent and recognition to improve the education system, the disconnected nature of these efforts worries me. We have a long history in this country of jumping at new fads but failing to follow through with a serious commitment to sustainability. Furthermore, changemakers are all too often convinced they must go it alone to disrupt the system, instead of exploring ways to partner with the communities and stakeholders that are critical to their success. We need to balance excitement over new practices and technologies with a similar excitement for smarter structures and partnerships that promote alignment and continuous improvement.

One of the scenarios depicts a statewide effort at collaborative education reform. Do you see states taking extraordinary leadership in any cases?

New Hampshire deserves significant praise for investing more than a decade in the design and implementation of a new statewide competency education system. Thanks to strong state leadership and engaged stakeholders at every level of the system, the state has advanced bold student-centered reforms. While the state still has much work to do to ensure high-quality implementation for every community in the state, New Hampshire has become a powerful case study for other national and state leaders looking for insights on how to design student-centered systems from pre-K through postsecondary.

What new opportunities for sustainable and positive changemaking does ESSA raise?

I believe that ESSA has the potential to be an important lever for system transformation, but its impact will depend on states’ commitment to a cohesive vision and a culture of continuous improvement. Without those elements, high-quality implementation will be spotty, and achievement gaps could worsen. Fortunately, there are a handful of states that put forth compelling student-centered visions and took steps to align elements of their system behind those visions, namely Arkansas, South Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Tennessee. I’m hopeful that these states will continue to engage in the hard work necessary to really transform their systems.

What changemaking efforts do you feel are most promising in this landscape?

I am most intrigued by the changemaking efforts that focus on the people who will help sustain educational transformation. The Woodrow Wilson Academy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a great example. The laboratory offers competency-based master’s degrees in math and science teacher education but has plans to include school leadership programs and professional development programs and to serve as a certification center for teacher and leader licensure. The laboratory is developing a series of games and simulations to bring the classroom experience to life for future educators.

What questions do you personally have about the future of education changemaking? What do you think we should be grappling with?

I wonder if we will ever get to a place where education changemaking truly disrupts the traditional education marketplace. On the one hand, this shift would free educators to think outside the box and bypass incremental system design. On the other hand, it could dangerously disconnect schools from the safeguards of traditional systems that were designed to uphold student rights and protections.

The time is ripe to look ahead and examine both the course we are presently on and the ways in which the landscape of U.S. education changemaking could shift depending on how influencers engage in their work and what approaches gain most prominence over the coming decade.