By: Andy Calkins
“If adults are not authentic, then kids won’t be either.” —Pam Betten, Chief Academic Officer, Sunnyside Unified School District in Arizona
“Our kids and adults have authority and autonomy. They knew they were needed [when COVID hit] and were not going to sit back and wait to be told what to do.” —Luke Bauer, (former) Principal, The Urban Assembly Maker Academy in New York City
“Since our founding, and well before COVID, we have been operating like we are in a crisis, because we are.” —Jenny Finn, Head, Springhouse Community School in Virginia
These are the voices of educators who participated in a year-long research project being released by NGLC today. What Made Them So Prepared?, a collaboration of nine partner organizations, hand-picked schools and districts from the partners’ networks that had made a deep commitment to next-gen, student-centered learning and ambitious 21st-century definitions of student success.
Here’s what we heard, over and over again: What’s true of the vision and learning model for the kids needs to be true of the professional culture and operating norms of the adults. To help students become capable, caring, self-directed learners and creative problem-solvers, these educators believe, their schools should deliberately model those same attributes for them—in their design of learning, for sure, but also in the ways the adults work together, address problems, design systems and procedures, and engage with the community.
Two years to the day after widespread COVID shutdowns began, the release of this research points to a strengths-based, positive, and (thank you Pam Betten, quoted above) relentlessly authentic way forward for schools and districts eager to move beyond COVID and the recent Omicron surge—while not letting lessons from the most challenging two years in public school history go to waste. The project highlights the work of peer leaders with profoundly important and extraordinarily timely perspectives to offer.
Activating Education’s Greatest Untapped Asset: The Grand Agreement
At the root of the Prepared project schools’ and districts’ approaches is their reimagining of student success along the lines of what we call The Grand Agreement. This is the remarkable consensus among researchers, employers, educators, parents, students, and community members about the kinds of capacities today’s kids need to develop in order to thrive in a challenging and rapidly changing world. Agency and self-direction, critical thinking and resilient problem-solving, caring and collaboration, creativity and lifelong learning…. We all share this general sense, no matter what words we use. This wide and deep agreement is the vision and set of shared values that can, and should, provide public education with a direction-setting compass for the foreseeable future.
What’s notable about the schools and districts that NGLC and the project partners studied is the groundbreaking work they did, pre-COVID, to activate those attributes across the entirety of their organizations. Their vision of student success, their learning model, and their organizational model are coherently designed around the same set of attributes.
Or, at least: they have been trying to bring this super-alignment to life. No one, over the course of this entire research project, has ever said this work is easy.
The pandemic presented them with an acid test for their approaches. Could they respond with agility, resilient problem-solving, caring and collaboration and creativity? And if so: what does that look like in practice?
That’s what the Prepared project website and research report present: stories of inventive resilience and creative solutions that were enabled, rather than obstructed, by the operating habits and systems of these schools.
The website also provides a set of “catalyzer” activities for schools and districts seeking to move past Omicron in productive, positive ways—ways to reignite forward momentum by surfacing and building on their school or district’s own examples of resilient, adaptive innovation during the pandemic. Every school has them! They just need to be identified, studied and understood if they are going to help lead to the development of better, more aligned operating norms.
The “total coherence” of vision, learning models, and operating models show up in many of the stories we heard about pandemic-era resilience from the Prepared project educators. These examples focus on shifts in operating model, which are often the steepest—and most under-addressed—challenge of coherence.
Operating Models that Embrace Agency, Self-Direction, Initiative
- Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin launched its transformation effort 17 years ago with an open invitation to all staff to pilot creative ideas, catalyzing “hundreds” in the process. Today, almost all district PD (and consequent step-salary adjustment) is done through micro-credentialing: collaborative, teacher-created learning pathways to solve common problems of practice. During COVID, teachers were enlisted to explore ways that students could best develop competencies from the district’s “Learning Without Boundaries” graduate profile while learning remotely (see pages 4-5 of the Prepared project research report).
- Shelby County Public Schools in Kentucky recognized that they needed to prioritize learning approaches during shutdowns that still supported their graduate profile. A quarter of its teachers were proficient in project-based learning but to take PBL districtwide, in remote learning, would require teacher-to-teacher collaboration and support. The solution: “Shelby Speaks,” a reimagining of professional learning that empowered any teacher in the district to post short videos of successful strategies in remote project-based learning. (See research report, page 7.) Built on the initiative and creativity of the teacher-vloggers, the platform was a hit with colleagues eager to learn how to make project-based learning work remotely.
Operating Models that Embrace Collaborative Problem-Solving
- The Vista Unified (California), Sunnyside (Arizona), Arcadia (California) and St. Vrain Valley (Colorado) school districts all leaned way into carefully-nurtured operating norms that put students’ interests and community vision ahead of defined adult roles. In the research survey and interviews, all four districts described myriad ways that their adults immediately shifted roles to tackle COVID-related challenges—and kept on shifting as the pandemic progressed.
- Envision Schools, a charter organization in California, wrote so clearly and persuasively in their Prepared project survey responses about their learning model redesign when COVID hit that we published their response in full. Read about their team’s all-inclusive effort to redesign an agentic, self-directed learning model with care and purpose on pages 19-20 of the research report.
Operating Models that Embrace Active, Lifelong Learning Strategies
- For St. Vrain Valley Schools’ deputy superintendent Jackie Kapushion and her colleagues, future-leaning learning did not stop during the pandemic. As she explained, “We’re studying trends in the world and asking, what are going to be the next steps for schools, given those trends? We think AI [artificial intelligence] is going to be big; so we have an AI Lab in St. Vrain. COVID taught us a lot about flexibility. We’re a team that really pushes ourselves around continuous improvement and pursuing what’s next. Working with industry partners helps a lot with that. We’ll be watching what they do, coming out of the pandemic, and we’ll be very attuned to what they say they need.” (See pages 14-15 of the research report.)
- Sunnyside’s Pam Betten observed: “Where you get the most growth the fastest, are the schools where leaders have made the turn into seeing themselves as learners.” That attribute, she told us, may be the key to unlocking all the others. “Identity, purpose, and agency,” she said. “These are all from our district’s graduate profile. These attributes are more than just a poster, they are how we live. From the district to principals to teachers to the kids—it is all a constant, at every level.”
We could not sum up the main headline of this research any better than that. All of this is within reach of every public school, CMO, and district in the country. It’s a matter of building on the bright spots you already have, in order to help those bright spots become the lighting and wiring of your whole organization. Your next step on that journey can begin right here with the Prepared project’s resources.