A Need to Evolve: The Impact of Strained Education Systems

Topics: Education Policy, Future of Learning, Impact and Improvement

When COVID-19 disrupted – and strained – the education system, districts, states and federal agencies felt the impact. KnowledgeWorks’ Lillian Pace, vice president of policy and advocacy, and Rita Pello, former program manager of impact and improvement, join Jason Swanson, director of strategic foresight, in conversation on the impacts – including on learners with disabilities, funding allocation and the educator workforce. Watch the webinar or read the transcript below.

Swanson: So my name’s Jason Swanson, I’m the director of strategic foresight at KnowledgeWorks, and this is our third and final conversation around our education in the balance system, with this episode being called “A Need to Evolve: The Impact of Strained Education Systems.”

So for those of you who may not be familiar with KnowledgeWorks, we are a national nonprofit that works throughout the US to help communities really imagine vibrant futures for learning and we work in various capacities to bring those visions to reality, specifically working to transform systems through the lens of personalized competency-based learning. So I’m thrilled today to be joined by two colleagues, Lillian Pace and Rita Pello, who I’ll invite to come off of mute and introduce themselves. And Lillian, we’ll start with you.

Pace: Sure. Hello, everyone. Lillian Pace, vice president of policy and advocacy at KnowledgeWorks, which means I get the fun job of working with policy makers at the federal and state levels to design personalized and competency-based learning systems. My background is largely from the federal education space, but have really spent the better part of the last decade or so working with states as they’ve really been leading in this work and really excited to be with you today. And I guess I should say my hometown is Alexandria, Virginia, and I’m a mom of two kids struggling in the hybrid learning space. So I’m sure I’ll pull on those insights for this conversation.

Pello: Hi, everyone. I’m Rita Pello. I’m program manager of impact and improvement. And what that means is I help with our communications effort translating research to practice. I myself was a high school educator for five years in Madison, Wisconsin and fell kind of into a passion for teacher leadership and autonomy in policymaking and generally cheering on and investing in the public institution that education is, so happy to be here.

Introducing tensions from “Education in the Balance”

Swanson: Well, thank you both. I’m thrilled that we could have this conversation today. I couldn’t think of two better people to really pick their brains as we think about this idea of strained systems. So some level setting kind of, how did we get here? This conversation stems from a webinar that my colleagues and I had on the strategic foresight team roughly about a year ago, where we got together and it was simply an unstructured conversation about where we thought post-pandemic futures for learning might be headed. And we were thrilled and really honored by the depth of conversation that happened in the chat box. So coming out of that, we knew we had some up work to do so we authored some content as I mentioned, called education in the balance, which really explorers tensions that have a fair degree of sway over education futures.

So one way we could think about tensions is through the lens of the critical uncertainty and depending on which way they resolved themselves, we would get different kinds of futures. So those included this idea of contested power, which really looked at this idea that communities of color over the course of the pandemic having finding new avenues for power and influence, and thus one of our critical uncertainties was really thinking through, will this continue? So will we see community activism having a lasting impact on the learning landscape or might we see established power structures persist for a variety of reasons?

The next critical uncertainty or attention really was focused around leadership so much so that we called it leadership focus. And this really had to do with this idea that over the course of this year and really throughout all stages of the pandemic, learning communities really acted very quickly so that there was this fairly fast adaptation for folks to meet learners needs. So from our point of view then, the critical uncertainty or attention really became this question of whether or not systems leaders will bring people together to really reimagine education in bold ways and act to create that change, or will we sort of have that system snapback? Will we have that pronounced desiring really that the systems constraints, which drive us back to normal pre-pandemic learning environments?

So for our conversation today, we’re going to focus on the last tension, one that we’re calling strained systems. Our education system’s capacity to address complex problems is fairly limited as those problems grow in scope and complexity. So one of the questions we’ve been asking as it applies to this idea of strained systems really is, will new approaches and funding addresses emerge that can address these learning challenges or will systems continue to rely on inadequate approaches and structures in terms of resourcing and problem solving?

And one important note here is that here in the US, many of these systems are experiencing a big influx of resources coming out of the American Rescue Plan. So as we look at as those resources are deployed, sort of what comes after? Will we be able to fund the initiatives that are being set up? Where might that money be spent, and just really what happens in a world that’s getting more complex by the minute? So with that said, I want to turn it over to my two guests and what’s become tradition at this point is to really ask from your point of view and within your day-to-day work, when we think about strained systems in this tension, what are you seeing on the ground with the policymakers whom we work with and the learning communities in which we serve?

Explore the issues and the tensions that arise from it in your own education communities through sensemaking templates.
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When we think about strained systems, what are you seeing on the ground with the policymakers whom we work with and the learning communities in which we serve?

Pace: I’m happy to kick us off, and we’ll enjoy going back and forth with my colleague, Rita on this. Yeah, I mean, I think it’s important to note that we have seen strained systems in our education system for some time and the pandemic really exacerbated that. We have a system that has not paid teachers and leaders well. We have a system that has not dealt with crumbling infrastructure, we have a system that has not done a great job at connecting to the social and health needs in our communities that schools and students need to be healthy and to come to school thriving and ready to learn. And so we already had a pretty significant number of strains on our current system. The pandemic hit and we saw all of those exacerbate and with additional ones like lack of internet access, right, and lack of devices and disconnect from the systems that provide meals to students, right?

And so really our leaders on the ground are grappling with so many things at once. It’s been incredibly difficult. Policy makers of course responded with huge infusions of money from the federal level. So Jason, you mentioned the American Rescue Plan, which was significantly, that was the biggest one but there were even two stimulus packages before that the CARES Act and then the COVID Relief Package. All three of those totaling $280 billion that are coming down right now to support our education systems as they respond to this moment. I have heard from some really great forward thinking policymakers that want to use those funds to really implement some long-term shifts. We were really proud of our partnership in Nevada, for example, where we helped facilitate a Blue Ribbon Commission for a globally prepared Nevada.

Nevada leaders formed the Blue Ribbon Commission to help re-imagine an education system that is future-ready, resilient, equitable and student-centered.
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We were really listening to stakeholders that want to redesign the education system with equity at its core. I think those kinds of conversations are incredibly exciting, but we’re also seeing a lot of early data coming out that’s suggesting that a lot of these resources are going to really plug the gaps of the strained systems previously. So one of the things that I wanted to share is this is very early data coming out of the Edunomics Lab out of Georgetown University. This is research from Marguerite Roza, who was one of the nation’s leading experts in education finance for K-12.

They’re asking districts how they’re spending their money, and what they’re finding is that the primary expenses right now are thank you payments to staff again because our teaching force is burned out, and there’s fear that they might leave the system after all of this strain; filling budget gaps, right; class size reduction; facilities projects; technology and curriculum updates. What they’re not seeing is these investments in these next generation learning models. The very models that KnowledgeWorks has been supporting states and districts to think outside the box on. So I remain optimistic that those few leaders that are really asking these incredible questions at our state and our district and our classroom level, that we can get those stories out so that they can really prove an inspiration to others.

Pello: Yeah, I would add, Lillian, to you, in terms of the strain, you were saying there’s so much strain within our systems. The other thing I think that’s straining, or is an effect of that, is I’m not sure we’re even having any in the system level a conversation around the purpose of education. Once you do have such a shock to the system like COVID, can we have honest conversations about what are we talking about when we say learning loss, or what are we talking about when we say that students need to reach a certain standard at a certain time or grade? What do we mean when we promise that the education system should be used to move up, but we know that that’s not actually the reality of how the economics or the political world will work or the cultural world will work.

And so educators and leaders in schools have for a long time known we are doing our best to fulfill a kind of I would say society ideal of cooperation and of feeling supported and being able to understand different opinions, and that’s what some might say a purpose of education. And for others it’s making sure that in a metric, you hit it in order to go through a system, says, “If you hit those metrics, you can measure your worth.” And I think those are the deeper questions we have to ask now with COVID because if we realize we are… If public health is tied to a public ideal, and we are all connected in certain ways, and we share our communities, we share our spaces, what do we want out of schools? And what do we do when we label or provide metrics or talk about students in a certain way when that goal, at least in my eyes is to nurture students where they are and with what they need, period.

And I don’t know if everyone would agree with that. So that’s the kind of discussion I’d like us to see at a time where we’re all kind of shocked and tired, and I know that’s a lot to ask but.

Swanson: Most definitely. And as we deploy all of these resources, having some sense of aspiration or bold vision for… How do we get there, right? How are we going to deploy these resources to make these systems sustaining, right? Whereas to Lillian’s point, where we’re at right now, we’re paying the price for decades of cost avoidance. So does that begin to make transformation a harder bargain because we’re still paying bills that were due for 20 and 30 years?

When I think about sort of strained systems and sort of problems on the horizon and in terms of a post COVID world is simply enticing fresh blood into the teaching profession. We’ve had a mass exodus of teachers. So we’ve got pressing pipeline issues that resourcing can solve a little bit for, right? So if we begin to pay teachers like the professionals they are, we might see uptick in terms of what that pipeline looks like, but again, there’s that cost avoidance piece coming back into it. But Lillian, I’m curious to know from your point of view or from the policy front, has there been any movement when we’re in this really interesting time period where it feels like almost anything is possible? For states that are really maybe rethinking funding models, has there been any kind of murmurs there?

How are states rethinking funding models during this transformational period?

Pace: Well, that’s the most toxic issue in politics in K-12 is funding systems and given how challenging political environments are right now at the state level, there’s a lot of division, a lot of toxicity in the conversations. My prediction is it’s going to be really hard to tackle that. I mean, one of the other issues that we’re seeing really dominate in this space is that as a condition of those resources coming down, states essentially have to meet a maintenance of effort requirement that suggests that they are not reducing their state investment and education and using the federal dollars to plug that gap. And so when you’re expecting states to maintain the funding levels from previous years in order to receive this additional funds, there’s not a lot of money to play with for states to then create the political conversations about how to readdress funding formulas.

So I fear that that probably isn’t going to be one of the top issues that we’re going to see states wrestling with. I actually just saw yesterday, I wish I could remember the place I saw this, but once it was either state or district that they’re playing with the idea of throwing $10,000 bonuses on the table for teachers who are willing to teach summer school, knowing that right now and if any educators are on the line, I’m sure you can relate to this, it is really difficult to convince teachers to teach summer school. And yet there’s all this political pressure for systems to provide some additional learning supports to accelerate and address some of that loss instructional time. So I think there’s other ways they’re trying to think about some of the funding pieces, but I don’t think we’re going to see a dramatic change in the way we currently fund our systems.

Swanson: I’m not shocked, right? So I feel like that makes a lot of sense. It’s the political will to do that and it’s also the capacity to deal with more just massively disruptive change, right? We looked at that idea with systems snapback being a very real thing. So it’s almost like how much can you push the system to transform until you’re just pushing too much, too. So it’s a pick your battles proposition, I think. So you had highlighted that great piece around where money is being spent, from both of your perspectives, looking at sort of the stimulus dollars coming in, does there seem to be besides that backfill and sort of remedying the cost avoidance piece – are you noticing any tension points? So for instance, might it be can we use this money to address learning loss in this way or might we think about re-engineering the school for the long haul to make it more environmental friendly? Just as one example.

Are you noticing any tension points with education stimulus funds?

Pace: I’ll kind of kick us off on this. I mean, one of the tension points – this is a national tension point – and I have examples from my own children’s school district, because there is essentially a two-year window on all this funding coming in, there is a huge tension point around what you can spend that on that is going to generate results in that two-year period of time, right? And so it gets really hard to have conversations about some of these longer term expenses when there’s going to be this funding cliff coming.

And so if I’m over simplifying the situation, two of the most popular things that we see lifted up and they’re being presented as a tension are:

  1. Do we invest in facilities knowing that that’s a really easy two-year finite project? We can reform all of our schools and deal with the crumbling infrastructure and create these beautiful places for students to learn that are safe, or
  2. Do we invest at all in tutoring providing that one-on-one support that students need in order to really accelerate the areas that they are lacking due to limited instruction issue?

And we’re hearing a lot of push from, for example, civil rights organizations saying “tutoring, tutoring, tutoring, focus the money on the student.” And then there’s a lot of pressure from school systems saying, “But we’ve had these crumbling buildings that we’ve never been able to… This has been sitting on our capital improvement plan for so long, and we haven’t had the resources to invest in it, and this is our moment.” And so I think those tensions tied to the timeline of the money are going to probably be one of the bigger conversation points.

Pello: And I wonder if it is an or, or a both and. I often get slightly defensive given my experience teaching in a school where I didn’t have windows and I was one of the only teachers that even had her own room, but it happened to be tinier and like I said, windowless. Whether if you can imagine 150 sophomores, juniors and seniors. So by the end of the day, it would be 83 degrees in there and I would get these migraines. And you think about that and you say, “Yes, it’s hard.” When you talk about education, it’s often there’s a little bit of that mistrust, whether it goes back to the history of whatever the teaching force was, or is, how we now talk about where we put money in making sure we can measure it.

There’s just so much conversation about how much trust we have in the people within the institution to be what we want them to be or to do or help our kids the way we want to help them. But the truth is if you don’t have facilities or proper working conditions, what you’re saying not only to workforce you don’t pay very well is you’re also saying, “I can’t invest in your professionalization. I can’t invest in your autonomy or your ability to do your job the best you can because I have to actually come over here, and my political will or my economic will is to measure something so that I can tell somebody either through tests, or through whatever funding formula, that you are meeting some kind of standard that we’ve set.” And to me, I feel like it can be both.

You can put money into facilities and that can be putting money into teachers who can then have much more time and space to tutor or to have one-on-one instruction with students. The hard part with me and education reform in the last 40 years is how dissected a certain type of reform efforts we’ve had. When we’re talking about the most human institution charged with the development of children. So how can you divide? How can you say, “Work in this garbage facility and also do this and do this but we’ll only focus on this.” And so I feel like this is the moment of time where we can say you shouldn’t be counting every dollar towards a facility, you should be able to see how improving your facilities improves the teaching workforce, helps with burnout, or whatever it is, and actually keeps a community thriving in a school.

Read Pace and Pello’s article exploring the strained systems of public education and what policymakers can do to help revitalize the systems.
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What sort of data is available to us in examining strained systems?

Pace: So one of the big political conversations and ultimately decision that needed to be made by the US Department of Education this year was whether the federal government was going to continue requiring the state standardized summative assessments that are administered in math, English language, arts and science. Ultimately the department decided that states did need to move forward with administering those assessments, but they did provide some flexibilities that states needed to extend their testing windows and make some other small changes. However, they also said that they wanted every state to report disaggregated data by student subgroup on which students were learning in a hybrid model, a virtual model, we’re actually in person additionally, how many educators or students in these different learning environments had access to a technology device and reliable internet.

And so now it’s the state’s jobs to really figure out as they’re reporting that standardized assessment data to actually contextualize that data to really dig underneath the hood and say, well, where did we have remote learners really high numbers and what does that mean and how do we make sense of that data? We’re also seeing a really big push from particularly advocates, but increasingly I think our system leaders are starting to wrestle with how do we begin to look at more holistic data moving forward, knowing that we really built a system that relied so heavily on the state standardized assessment scores, that when we didn’t have that right, particularly last year, and then with spotty data this year, what do we do instead? And so I think that’s a movement that will be really fun and encouraging to watch as communities in particular work to identify those metrics.

What will it take to turn attention towards the need for education outcomes to evolve?

My personal take is the next year is going to really move the needle on that, in that pre pandemic we had such a razor focus on readiness, readiness for the future of work, readiness to continue your learning journey in service of finding employment. My suspicion is given the past year as students come back into the building, it’s going to have to focus on whole learner health to address the reality that we all just survived the pandemic. And I think if we can’t begin to move the needle now, I would hate to see us fall back into education as just a production machine for the next worker.

Pello: Yeah, yeah. For me this is a great question because I struggled between the balance of what are we asking educators to do with such limited funds and autonomy, or sort of agency in their classrooms, versus what I know in my experience is that so many of us in my school building had a different teaching philosophy than what we were always asked to do. And I learned for me and my students, it meant really making sure they had the skills but allowing some freedom of content and for us to get away from kind of the scripted sort of curriculum that often comes from dominant stories or dominant ideologies and doesn’t always our students to critically examine what language we’re using and why and what that shapes in our mindsets. It’s hard though when I think about what that would require of asking of teachers personalized learning and competency-based learning is for me, so incredibly important.

How do you ask that in a system that is so used to being lockstep and is so used to being kind of in the grammar school or the post-industrial revolution school of getting students ready for factory work or having them go somewhere when they couldn’t be in factory work? So I’m very well aware that the history of kind of how we situate our workforce, what we demand out of our nuclear families, that that all plays a part. But I know, and I think that the passion for educators to have that agency and autonomy, and to actually reveal and be able to implement their teaching philosophy around cooperation, around mutual understanding, civic engagement, critical thinking is there. And I think it now requires a system that says we trust you, and we care enough about what you’re doing for our kids, that we will put money and time into you and your development in the classroom with students.

How do we address learner variability and neurodiversity in the context of a strained system?

Pace: Maybe the way to start that out is how we aren’t addressing those needs in the current strained system, right? I mean, one of the probably most unfortunate storylines coming out of this pandemic was how ill-equipped school systems were to deal with special education students or students with varied learning needs. When we saw systems close down, all of those additional supports that those students needed were just terminated or put on hold. And families really struggled at home to try to piece together some sort of system to support those students. And so this is maybe a silver lining, a recognition that this is a huge problem and something that is going to require new ways to address learning environments moving forward.

And one of the things that I have been emphasizing a lot and it’s actually something that the US Department of Education also included in their handbook for guidance to districts around how to use funds is this notion of needing to think differently about acceleration and grades and how we’re structuring student learning in this at least temporary period of recovery, though KnowledgeWorks would argue that we want to probably think about this as a long-term strategy, is how do we actually identify where each individual student is and provide grouping and regrouping and think of how we use time differently so that students have the ability to accelerate in areas that are incredibly strong and they have incredible interest in and they have really significant supports in areas where they’re struggling. And so I think we have to think about differently.

I’ve been really concerned about some of the laws and states around third grade reading guarantees, this notion that when students come back to the school building, if they don’t test on grade level in third grade, then they aren’t promoted and they have to be held back. What does that signal to the students and how do we actually begin to look at the unique needs and structure learning plans to ensure their success? So I mean, we’re going to have to think differently. It’s going to require a whole system shift because I won’t get into this now, but that requires us to think differently about accountability systems, assessment structures, et cetera, to provide those space for educators to really meet the needs of students.

Can we address the profile of a graduate and in competency-based education?

Pace: I can speak to the profile of a graduate trend that we’re seeing. I’ve been talking about the fact that there was such an emphasis in this sort of last period of education reform around students’ success is clearly defined as college and career readiness, and every state was required to go define what college and career readiness meant. And you had these really robust stakeholder conversations that were at the end of the day, hyper-focused on, well what percent proficient do we expect to see in math and English language, arts and science on our state assessments. Academic knowledge is critically important, but as we’re learning, and as we’re seeing a shift, it is not the only thing that ensures readiness.

And that is where we are seeing this rise around redefining student success to include that academic knowledge, but to really have this emphasis on these other skills that business leaders and post-secondary leaders and even community members are saying are absolutely essential to student success. 13 states have either created one or in the process of creating one, these become the visioning north star, if you will, for them designing a system. So if we decide these skills are critically important for student success, how do we design accountability systems and assessment systems that tell us whether we are as a state doing a good job of meeting the needs of those students, right?

So I think it’s a really encouraging trend and certainly we’re going to need next generation learning models that embrace approaches like competency-based education to ensure that students have the ability to go deep to really develop these rich skills and interest based pathways to be able to perform a rich performance-based assessment to show that they not only know the Pythagorean theorem, but they can apply it and this really rich performance task, right, that might even help solve a problem in their community. And I think that’s where we’re going to see some really encouraging growth in next generation learning models as a result of this trend around the profile of a graduate work.

One way to help in the exploration of what the changing nature of work and this new foundation for readiness could mean is to create future graduate profiles and to imagine what kinds of learning experiences might support the development of future-ready knowledge, skills and dispositions.
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Swanson: Yeah. And thank you, Lilian. And to add to that too, one of the ways we’ve been thinking about sort of the profile of a graduate from a foresight perspective is when we work with learning communities that are interested in kind of enacting personalized, competency-based learning practices is not to just think about the profile of a graduate in a narrow sense, but to start to make larger assumptions and manage those assumptions about what the broader world might be like so that we can get a sense of the contexts for which the system of learning might rest in. So out of that, what are the skills, knowledge, dispositions that we think would help a learner navigate increased uncertainty and ambiguity across those assumptions we’re making? So then we can say, we’ve got this north star, how do we design a learning continuum? What do I need to do in terms of adapting plans? What new services, roles, offerings do we need even beyond just a competency-based education lens, right? So how can we really kind of widen that aperture up when we think about a graduate and think about the world that they may have with them or not.

What are your thoughts about the need for educator or adult development and wellbeing as we move forward?

Pello: I hear that, I hear that. And I often feel like educators have an interesting role in an institution like I said, otherwise, that kind of follows ideologies and philosophies that the US society at large doesn’t put their best foot forward towards collective understanding, we’re very much about self-sufficiency and individualism, and you have educators who know, oh, when I’ve got a classroom of anybody who comes in, right? Sort of the beauty of the real public education access, anybody from my community can come into my classroom. What does that actually mean for me to be able to support them and nurture them?

And so for me, when you talk about teacher professionalization, I’m talking definitely salary and the right benefits and the ability to have a strong healthy working conditions, but I’m also talking about that desire because you’re with the students, you’re the one, right, who bears the consequences of how they’re doing and what they bring to the room. So what does that mean for your – what supports, what adult development, what collective goals do you have as a teacher force in your school or in your department that kind of gives you the opportunity to talk about your teaching philosophies, what you care about and be able to truly say professionalization in the sense that you have the agency to pursue your learning.

I need support with the student who has disabilities, or I need, I’ve never had a student like this who thinks like this, how do I actually reach them? Teaching to me is a very improvisational job. So how do I learn how to improvise and listen to my students and what they have? And I think the more time and space and professional status educators gain, the more likely they are to have those deeper conversations, and that’s what I’d love to see.

Swanson: All right. So on that note, I think we’ll call it a wrap. Thank you, Rita, Lily and Sean for hanging out longer. Of course, thank you for those of you joining us. We’re thrilled that you would spend this 40 minutes with us. Any questions please feel free to reach out.

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