Eli MacLaren

Written by Eli MacLaren @elithechef eli@bif.is

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Year after year, we see new big hairy audacious goals emerging for our education system. For example, by 2025, we want to see 60% of Americans attaining a higher education degree. Currently, the national average is 46.9%, up from only 9 basis points in 2008, calling the question:

What is it going to take for us to move 13 percentage points in 7 years, given our track record?

The same question emerges when you look at school readiness, 3rd-grade reading levels, and high school graduation rates versus goals. Unfortunately, we have to get our heads around the inconvenient truth:

Unless we do something dramatically different, we can’t get there from here.

So what is that different way?

In BIF’s Student Experience Lab, we understand that the problem exists on two fronts:

  1. The education gaps in attainment (from readiness to degree attainment) are largely the output of inequity.
  2. Transformational activities to close these education gaps are few and far between, and those that do emerge are local and fragmented throughout our education system.

The result is that even our efforts to close the equity gap is inequitable. This is why in the fall of 2017, BIF teamed up with the Carnegie Corporation of New York to explore this very design challenge:

How might more integrated approaches to education transform outcomes, specifically for the children who are being left beyond today? How might we reduce fragmentation in our innovation efforts to spread and scale breakthrough solutions? How might we accelerate collaborative innovation to reduce education gaps across the country?

Obviously, this is a project that is near and dear to me personally, and all of us at BIF. It is structured in a unique way, enabling us to both mirror the problem, create a petri dish for experimentation, and collaborate with some our favorite innovative designers in education. This is how it works:

Five organizations — FSG in partnership with PolicyLink, EducationFirst, Bellwether, 2Revolutions, and IDEO’S Teachers Guild — received grants to run two-year projects, each one geared at reducing fragmentation in education and accelerating integrated approaches to equity in education. These five organizations form the Integration Design Consortium. BIF serves as the connective tissue of the IDC — connecting, convening, and collecting learnings towards our combined learning agenda. We also serve as the Chief Instigator, running small experiments to understand how we might spark collaboration, inspire reflection, and insight pivots based on real-time learnings. The objective is to create field facing learnings and tools that can enable greater integration in education.

Being 6 months into our grant, we are in a position to begin to share some of our emerging curiosities.

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Fragmentation by Design

One the challenging aspects of our public education system, as with our government, is that it is fragmented by design. We grant local autonomy to states on many issues, and even further down the pecking order to districts. On the one hand, this enables creativity in responding to context (and much of the challenges in education are about context). Even in the classroom, teachers are often given the autonomy to respond to immediate learning needs in new and different ways. This enables “depth” as it relates to impact on individual students, but it prevents “breadth” in the scale of that impact. It is almost like we’re missing a “hyperloop” in our systems that enable us to quickly move learnings up, down, and out of the system hierarchy. Further, it is indeed a hierarchy which prevents the outward bound mobility of learnings and innovation. When we imagine systems that are well integrated (e.g. platforms), they tend to be flatter with basic protocols (e.g. common languages) that enable users to plug and play, adopt and adapt. This dynamic has us curious:

How might we enable horizontal information flows across a system that is fragmented by design?

Reducing the Hunt

It is rumored that by the time Sir Isaac Newton was 12 he had read every book on mathematics. This is less a statement about his intellectual prowess (albeit undeniable) and more a statement about the availability of information. Today, we are overwhelmed by the abundance of information. This is as true for us as individual players in our education system (teachers, superintendents), as it is for us as organizations exploring and testing innovative approaches in education. We know that innovative methods are out there, but we don’t know where to find them. Further, we are handicapped by our evidence-centric society, that frowns upon “experimentation” in education (i.e. experimenting with our children’s futures), and before innovations can spread or scale, they are put through the “evidence-based” time-consuming process of collecting proof, such that they can be deemed a “best practice.” This slows and curtails the ability for organizations and the system as a whole to get better faster. We’re not the first to ask this, but it remains a question that needs to be addressed:

How might we reduce the hunt for individuals and organizations seeking innovative methods for reducing inequity, thereby accelerating the integrated spread of innovations across the education system?

Catalyzing Learning Organizations

This leads us to a related curiosity:

How might we create the conditions that encourage organizations to learn and adapt in real time to emerging learnings and insights?

Peter Senge framed the notion of a learning organization in The 5th Discipline. It is a framework for understanding how organizations can unleash productivity and success by creating the conditions for adaptive and continual learning. Unfortunately, this is not the norm in a society that is still very much governed by industrial era models — which use business models as the organizational straight jacket in service of organizational efficiency and specifically constrain versus nurture expansive thinking by employees and business units. As a result, we have education institutions which create 5-year strategic plans with lofty success metrics (note the before mentioned degree attainment goal), measuring progress yearly, but not adapting in real time to what is working and what isn’t working.

There are three challenges here:

The first is that we lack the signaling systems and metrics to act in dynamic ways. The second is that learning is a generative act and requires a vulnerability which is often considered a high-risk proposition for organizations. For nonprofit organizations, this dynamic is exasperated by funding models. We are funded to achieve certain outcomes through a specific approach. The conditions are not good for real-time pivots; we perceive, right or wrong, that this demonstrates a weakness, a lack of expertise. Finally, learning networks don’t exist in the wild. Learning networks enable organizations to learn together and from each other, getting better faster. But they are most often catalyzed by an outside force, like a funding partner, and they are exclusive. This exasperates the conditions where some organizations learn and others don’t, and where the benefits of such a network are limited by the funding timeframe to sustain it.

Networking Business Models

Finally, if we can learn and adapt, our growth response is limited by our own organizational capabilities. Collaboration is still understood as coming together and learning together, rather than coming together to network our capabilities to deliver value in entirely different ways. The latter is hard, hard work, and requires a few key ingredients. It requires leadership who is willing and able to experiment with new approaches, and lend the organizational brand and reputation to outcomes that can not be attributed back to a single player. It requires the ability to dedicate a few capabilities, on a small scale, to a new delivery model without disrupting the efficiency of the existing delivery model. And, it requires a new revenue model which will work across organizations.

However hard, it is also essential for integration of a system. If a business model is a network of capabilities woven together into a sustainable financial model, a system is a network of business models that have learned to collaborate. Until organizations learn how to do this, integration in our education system won’t work, and innovations that fundamentally transform outcomes will remain localized and dispersed. Leading us to wonder:

How might we create the conditions (incentives, resources, leadership, and know-how) to build organizational collaboration and integration?

Above, I framed this all as emerging curiosities, because that is what they are. They aren’t necessarily new insights about the education system or guidelines for closing the equity gap. In the spirit of working out loud, they are the thoughts and wonders that come to us as we explore the intersection of equity, integration, and education.

We do not do this exploration blindly; we are standing on the shoulders of giants who have explored it before us. Many frameworks have been developed that answer and address some of what we are finding. As such, we intentionally look at the work through the lens of these frameworks — from Adaptive Leadership and Coherence Frameworks to Learning Organization Theory and the PELP Framework. Our goal is to suss out what can be bundled into these existing frameworks, and what can’t be answered — helping us define new insights and opportunity spaces to accelerate an integrated approach to equity in education.

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be sharing many outputs from this work — from podcasts and interviews with the other IDC grantees to videos capturing our learnings and curiosities. We invite you to help us get better faster —engaging with us along the learning journey. Help us identify more blind spots that might be an important puzzle piece; go a bit further and help us put some of these learnings into action, sharing what happens along the way.

It is, as our partners at the Carnegie Corporation of New York often say, a grand experiment.

And. Experimentation in service of education and equity might be the best alliteration, and purpose, ever.

Thanks to Jessica Brown.

 

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