We find ourselves at a unique moment for pursuing change in education. Many people and organizations are trying influence its trajectory. As that happens, social, economic and policy shifts are converging to alter both the context and the nature of education reform and to bring new leaders and benefactors to the fore.
- Society – The changing nature of work, shifting demographics and the rapid pace of change are increasing the urgency of rethinking today’s approaches and are raising new questions about the purpose of public education. These factors are changing expectations of education and are opening new opportunities for both new approaches and new changemakers to gain traction.
- Economy – A shift in the balance of state and federal funding for education, an uptick in private investment and the emergence of alternative funding resources, such as social impact bonds, demonstrate appetite for exploring new ways to pay for programs that serve the public good.
- Policy – An increasingly decentralized policy environment is providing changemakers with increased flexibility to set goals and design interventions.
Given these and other dynamics, we face key questions about the impacts our collective efforts to improve American public education:
- Might the efforts, investments, and innovations of an expanding array of changemakers reflect or inspire new commitment to the promise of public education?
- Or might the myriad perspectives on how to change the system, no matter how well-intentioned, undermine or further erode collective belief in public education, threatening the social fabric that the system helps uphold?
At the National School Boards Association’s conference this past weekend, I had the opportunity to explore possibilities for the future of education changemaking with school board members, educators and other stakeholders who are working to make sure that we deliver on the promise of public education. I oriented the conversation around four scenarios for the future of education changemaking from KnowledgeWorks’ Shaping the Future of American Public Education: What’s Next for Changemakers?
Four Scenarios for the Future of Education Changemaking
If we continue on our current course, we are likely to continue to see many approaches to improving education, with investors funding islands of innovation but with continuing difficulty spreading new approaches beyond pockets of excellence. It would also seem difficult to move education systems forward quickly enough to respond fully to the changing landscape. Changemaking efforts would likely become even more diverse than they are today, with a tendency to try new approaches without waiting for results. This baseline scenario invites us to ask:
- Whether the presence of many diverse efforts might be useful in influencing the direction of state and federal education systems.
- How education can balance the need to increase the system’s tolerance for risk and innovation with a view toward lasting impact.
Shooting for the Moon
There is no guarantee that we will stay the present course of education changemaking. Today’s increasing interest in collaboration among educators and education influencers could lead to a more cohesive change agenda than exists today, with more people working together in authentic ways to effect change. This trend could lead to broader regional, state-level or national visions for learning, along with extensive stakeholder buy in. For example, a governor or another player could rally stakeholders around a common vision for education, bringing together a diverse network of contributors to engage in the long, hard process of implementing large-scale change. This alternative scenario leads us to consider:
- What a shared vision for the future of learning might look like.
- How a broad education changemaking effort could be inclusive of learners, parent and community members.
By the People, for the People
Alternatively, we could see the communities most affected by educational inequity increasingly set the agenda for changemaking, with other stakeholders uniting behind their visions. This possibility is supported by the attempts of established education changemakers to involve more people in their efforts or to make equity a stronger focal point. It is also supported by a trend toward more and more communities rejecting external narratives of reform and looking to peers or to leaders who have lived experience of inequity and other challenges. If these trends continue, we could see more communities pursue change on their own terms, with an upsurge of grassroots changemaking efforts involving students and others who have traditionally been excluded from education decision-making processes. This second alternative scenario raises the questions of:
- What a school or district might look like if it were designed by or with the learners and communities it served.
- How education organizations might increase the level of community involvement and voice.
On Our Own
The current level of interest in improving and influencing public education might not continue. Other priorities, such as the graying of America, climate change or political conflicts could reorient priorities, capturing the interest and resources of people and organizations interested in pursuing social change. If this shift in priorities occurred, we could see a scenario in which educators and communities would have to find and fund solutions on their own. These bootstrapped solutions could lead to hyper-local innovations that could serve specific needs well, but they could be very hard to grow or sustain. This scenario invites us to think about:
- How education stakeholders might benefit from influencing or planning for changing national priorities.
- How the field can make funding and initiatives sustainable regardless of what approach to education changemaking becomes prevalent.
Considerations for Education Changemaking
On the whole, the school board members, educators and others who attend the conference session seemed to prefer the two scenarios, By the People, for the People and On Our Own, where local communities had relatively great control over change efforts. They talked about the fragility of funding and interventions brought in by outside actors and about how demoralizing it can be to work toward a new school or approach only for an external circumstance to make it falter. They also acknowledged how quickly leadership can shift or become tainted by things like political scandals.
At the same time, session participants recognized the need for something to connect resources, insights and exchange across communities. In particular, they recognized the potential for current inequities among communities to become further entrenched if educational changemaking took place only at the district level. Too, they acknowledged that opportunities and challenges presented by education policy and accountability are systemic issues that can enhance or inhibit districts’ efforts.
That systemic view led to some consideration of where shared visions for the future of learning might best be defined. Session participants tended to want their communities to have ownership over specific visions but also entertained the idea that some elements could be shared across a region, state or some other entity. They seemed wary, though, about letting states direct too much, given the importance of understanding local factors such as being rural or having a lot of students who are affected by trauma.
Funding also played a big role in the conversation. The overriding sense was that there is simply not much extra money to support new approaches, much less to fund broader system transformation. Even well-crafted state funding formulas do not always deliver the intended amounts. Having infusions of funding with broad discretion about how to use the money appealed, though participants recognized the rarity of benefactors’ giving them so much leeway. They also acknowledged the need to explain to policymakers where current funding is going and why it is falling short. The financial side of education changemaking seemed to be at a logjam, at least for now and for the people in the room.
Looking across these points, local ownership of education with supportive systemic structures and selective external interventions seemed to have the greatest appeal. It will remain to be seen how these and other views of what dynamics of education changemaking are most desirable will shape the future of education changemaking in ten years’ time.