Ed Leaders: Your Path Out of COVID to a Radically Better Future Is Hiding in Plain Sight

By: Andy Calkins

“If adults are not authentic, children will not be either.” —Pam Betten, Chief Academic Officer, Sunnyside Unified School District of Arizona

“Our children and adults have authority and autonomy. They knew they were needed [when COVID hit] and would not sit back and wait to know what they would do. ” —Luke Bauer, (former) Rector, The Urban Assembly Maker Academy in New York City

“Since we were founded, and long before COVID, we have functioned as if we were in a crisis, because we are.” —Jenny Finn, Principal, Springhouse Community School, Virginia

These are the voices of teachers who participated in a year-long research project released by NGLC today. What made them so prepared?, a collaboration between nine partner organizations, hand-picked schools and districts from the partners’ networks that had made a deep commitment to next-generation, student-centered learning and ambitious 2000s definitions of student success.

Here is what we heard, over and over again: What is true of the vision and learning model for children must be true of the adults’ professional culture and operational norms. To help students become capable, caring, self-directed students and creative problem solvers, these educators believe, their schools should consciously model the same characteristics for them– in their design of learning, of course, but also in how the adults work together, deal with problems, design systems and procedures and get involved in society.

Two years to the day After extensive covid shutdowns began, the publication of this research points to a force-based, positive and (thanks Pam Betten, quoted above) relentlessly authentic way forward for schools and districts eager to get beyond covid and the latest omicron increase – while not letting the lessons from the most challenging two years in the history of the primary school be wasted. The project highlights the work of peer leaders with deeply important and extraordinarily timely perspectives to offer.

Activate the education’s largest untapped asset: The Grand Agreement

The basis of the prepared project schools and districts approach is their transformation of students’ success in line with what we call The big deal. This is the remarkable consensus among researchers, employers, teachers, parents, students and community members about the kind of capacity today’s children need to develop to thrive in a challenging and rapidly changing world. Agency and self-management, critical thinking and resilient problem solving, caring and cooperation, creativity and lifelong learning … We all share this general meaning, no matter what words we use. This broad and deep agreement is the vision and set of common values ​​that can, and shall, give public education a guiding compass for the foreseeable future.

What is remarkable about the schools and districts that NGLC and the project partners studied is the groundbreaking work they did, before COVID, to activate these attributes throughout their organizations. Their vision of student success, their learning model and their organizational model are consistently designed around the same set of attributes.

Or at least: they have been stressful to bring this super adaptation to life. During this entire research project, no one has ever said that this work is easy.

The pandemic gave them an acid test for their approach. Could they respond with agility, resilient problem solving, caring and cooperation and creativity? And if so: what does it look like in practice?

That’s what Prepared project website and research report present: stories of inventive resilience and creative solutions that were activatedrather than hindered by the work habits and systems of these schools.

The site also provides a set “catalystActivities for schools and districts that want to get past Omicron in productive, positive ways – ways to revive the momentum by developing and building on their school or district’s own examples of resilient, adaptive innovation during the pandemic. Every school has them! They only need to be identified, studied and understood if they are to contribute to the development of better, more adapted operating standards.

For example….

The “total coherence” of vision, learning models and business models appears in many of the stories we heard about the pandemic resilience of prepared project trainers. These examples focus on changes in the operational model, which is often the steepest – and most understated – challenge for coherence.

Business models that include agency, self-management, Initiative

  • Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin launched its change work 17 years ago with an open invitation to all staff to pilot creative ideas and catalyze “hundreds” in the process. Today, almost every district’s PD (and the consequent gradual salary adjustment) is made through micro-identification: collaborative, teacher-created learning paths to solve common practice problems. During covid, teachers were hired to investigate how students could best develop skills from the district’s degree profile “Learning without Borders” while learning at a distance (see pages 4-5 in Prepared project research report).
  • Shelby County Public Schools in Kentucky realized that they needed to prioritize learning methods during shutdowns that still supported their degree profile. A quarter of its teachers were skilled in project-based learning, but to take PBL district-wide, in distance education, teacher-to-teacher cooperation and support would be required. The solution: “Shelby speaks”, a transformation of professional learning that made it possible for all teachers in the district to post short videos on successful project-based distance learning strategies. (Looks research reportpage 7.) The platform, which was built on the initiative and creativity of teacher loggers, was a hit among colleagues who were eager to learn how to make project-based learning work remotely.

Operational models that include collaboration problem solving

  • The Vista Unified (California), Sunnyside (Arizona), Arcadia (California) and St. Vrain Valley (Colorado) The school districts all leaned far into carefully constructed operational norms that put students’ interests and societal vision ahead of defined adult roles. In the research survey and interviews, all four districts described countless ways in which their adults immediately switched roles to address covid-related challenges – and continued to change as the pandemic progressed.
  • Imagine schools, a charter organization in California, wrote so clearly and convincingly in their prepared project survey responses about their restructuring of the learning model when covid hit that we published their responses in full. Read about their team’s comprehensive effort to redesign an agent, self-directed learning model with care and purpose on pages 19-20 in research report.

Operating models that embrace Active strategies for lifelong learning

  • For St. Vrain Valley Schools’ Deputy Superintendent Jackie Kapushion and her colleagues, future-oriented learning did not end during the pandemic. As she explained, “We study trends in the world and ask, what will be the next step for schools, given these trends? We believe AI [artificial intelligence] will be big; so we have an AI Lab in St. Vrain. COVID taught us a lot about flexibility. We are a team that really drives us around continuous improvement and strives for the next. Working with industry partners helps a lot with that. We will look at what they do, get out of the pandemic, and we will be very focused on what they say they need. ” (See pages 14-15 i research report.)
  • Sunnysides Pam Betten observed: “Where you get the most growth the fastest are the schools where leaders have made the transition to seeing themselves as students.” That quality, she told us, can be the key to unlocking everyone else. “Identity, purpose and agency,” she said. “These are all from our district’s degree profile. These attributes are more than just a poster, they are how we are live. From the district to principals to teachers to the children – everything is constant, at all levels. “

We could not summarize the main headline of this research better than that. All this is within reach each Public SchoolsCMO and districts in the country. It’s about building on the bright spots you already have, to help those bright spots become the lighting and leads for your entire organization. Your next step on that journey can begin right here with the resources of the prepared project.

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