Exploring the Future of Education Changemaking: A Q&A with Judy Peppler and Michael DiMaggio of KnowledgeWorks

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA, Future of Learning

KnowledgeWorks recently released publication, Shaping the Future of American Public Education: What’s Next for Changemakers?© examines how and why education changemakers—individuals, grantmakers and organizations influencing, investing in and advocating for various forms of education reform— might work to influence the education system in the future and what effects their efforts might have.

We asked KnowledgeWorks Vice President of Strategic Partnerships and Development Michael DiMaggio and Judy Peppler, former president and CEO of the organization, to reflect on the paper from the lens of their experiences working alongside education changemakers over the years.

Shaping the Future of American Public Education: What’s Next for Changemakers? explores four possible scenarios of education changemaking and raises strategic considerations for education changemakers and other stakeholders to explore as they navigate the myriad ways they or others might seek to influence American public education.
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Below, Peppler and DiMaggio offer their unique perspectives on the current state of education changemaking and what changemakers might consider as they invest in new and promising strategies.

What are the most significant shifts you have noticed with regard to education changemaking over the last 5-10 years? Are there any new influencers or approaches particularly notable in your opinion?

Peppler: There has certainly been a notable shift in education changemakers looking to find more systemic approaches to some of the most challenging problems in education, with an emphasis on equity and access for all students, as well as addressing the needs of the whole child. As education leaders and changemakers develop an understanding that what happens outside of the classroom also has an impact on student outcomes, we’ve seen additional investments in community partners that support families and students’ social and emotional needs. An increased understanding and willingness to remove policy barriers that impede innovative approaches both at the state and federal level will also help encourage even more innovation across the country.

DiMaggio: Another recent approach gaining currency involves the formation and creation of education networks that can support and learn from each other. Organizations and entities cannot tackle system-level problems alone. Changemakers are signaling a preference to this approach through pooled resources, favorable legislation and new funding opportunities.

How would you characterize the current moment in education changemaking? What are people talking about and working toward that may be new or different than in the past?

Peppler: There is a lot of focus currently on moving to a more personalized learning environment for students, with learners at the center and schools/teachers working to meet each student where they are. This requires a fundamental rethinking of the roles of teachers and students and puts more responsibility on students to take ownership of their own learning, which will hopefully translate into much higher levels of student engagement and success.

DiMaggio: People are discussing the shift toward state-level accountability and the potential this has to create opportunities for states to explore more innovative approaches to education, incentivizing changemakers to make larger and longer-term investments.

Specifically regarding funding and philanthropy, what feels different about this moment? What implications do the current approaches to education funding and philanthropy raise for the future?

DiMaggio: There’s a new trend emerging for funders and philanthropists to pool their grantmaking efforts. The Giving Pledge initiative, made by some of the world’s wealthiest individuals to dedicate a majority of their wealth to giving back, is a great example of this and has spawned excitement around a range of social causes, including education. Some of these influencers who have committed significant resources to education are also driving education conversations.

Peppler: Changemakers value personalization, systems thinking and partnerships as the way to make more systemic and sustainable changes to the education system. There is also an increased emphasis on securing the policy changes necessary to support this kind of change. These trends would suggest a higher probability that innovations that address the entire ecosystem impacting students will be more systemic and won’t rely on one particular program or an innovative leader to be sustainable.

What are your biggest questions about the future of education changemaking?

Peppler: The biggest question is whether education changemakers will be patient enough to see a systemic change through, as fundamentally changing an education system that has been in place for over 100 years will not happen overnight. Supporting innovations for enough time to build a solid evidence base and a scalable approach that will be sustainable over time will take at least 3-5 years (or longer) and the tendency has been to move on to the next idea more quickly.

DiMaggio: Many changemakers do not have the luxury of taking a longer view. Reform efforts that arrive with much fanfare often lose support if results are not quickly realized or if leadership changes. Because systemic change is hard and takes time, this begs the question as to whether or not new and established changemakers will be willing to evaluate success from a long-term perspective and allow innovative approaches to adapt before abandoning them completely.

What do you think all education changemakers should keep in mind as they are approaching their work?

DiMaggio: I’ll reiterate that reforming a system, especially something as complex as our education system, is hard work. It requires time, commitment and patience to see positive and sustainable results.

Peppler: Education changemakers need to keep the same thing in mind that educators must: what is best for the student needs to be at the center of every decision if we are truly going to shift to a learner-centered system that best serves all students.

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.