Profiles In Innovation: Leading At The Edge Of Education

Profiles In Innovation: Leading At The Edge Of Education


Innovation requires adding method to creativity, and innovation in the education sector particularly demands this. In our last piece we discussed the massive complexities of the sector including the fact that innovation takes place in 132,000 separate localities and that it necessitates changes in the interrelated parts that make up the core design of schools. In this piece we would like to showcase examples of education innovation from some of these localities—schools and school systems whose leaders are structuring their institutions in innovative ways, and are tackling the core design of school itself to better and more equitably serve the needs of students.

We present these examples within the context of a simple framework that can serve to add method for others embarking on innovation.

Method: An Innovation Conditions Framework

Through four years of supporting more than 100 district, charter, independent, and denominational school communities in 20+ states to design and launch innovative school models that aim to transform the experience of schooling, Transcend, a national non-profit, has learned that five critical conditions are necessary for innovation to grow in a sustainable manner:

  1. Conviction in the importance of the work
  2. Clarity on the vision
  3. Capacity to implement the ideas
  4. Coalition of broad and diverse stakeholders
  5. Culture of honesty, trust, and learning

The Five Conditions in Action

Innovation begins with conviction in the need for extraordinary, equitable learning environments that redefine student success and reimagine the experiences intended to foster success. Our world is changing rapidly; schools need to be redesigned equitably and foundationally; leaders who take on the work of redesigning schools understand that they are the bearers of this urgency.

  • Stacy Kane, ED and Cofounder, Washington Leadership Academy, a charter school in Washington D.C., is visionary and steadfast in her conviction that all students should have a high school education that prepares them not only for college and career but also for a lucrative side hustle. She understands the complex contexts of her students include the need to be able to earn money during high school and post-secondary education, both for themselves and their families. Instead of locating those needs beyond the scope of school, she insists that school be designed  to meet these needs. To that end she is building a school that brings Computer Science (CS) and the ability to create coding-related side gigs like web design to all WLA students, not just those in advanced classes. She has convinced her team of the crucial importance of both traditional academic approaches to CS and immediately applicable ones in ways that have required changes in the core design of school including mindsets, schedules, partnerships, crediting pathways, and more.

We have found that leaders who move innovation forward develop and spread clarity regarding the overarching goals of the work. To move from the conviction for change to a clear path forward requires the ability to tell the story of why and how to move forward. Leaders at the edge of education often grow this clarity by engaging in innovative processes that bring the world outside of schooling into the often closed institution that is the current design of school.

  • Adam Bunting, Principal of Champlain Valley Union High School wanted to lead his school “not through top-down ‘push’ energy but rather ‘pull’ energy” where staff, students, and the community embarked on change because they believed in it. He engaged a storyteller from The Moth  to grow conviction into clarity by leading students, the leadership team, and the entire faculty of 120 through the process of developing their own stories for why change was needed. The community realized their current design needed to become much more personalized, in ways that enabled all students to thrive and Internalize their uniqueness. The current design of school that reduced learning to a set of letters and numbers (class grades, GPAs) could not accommodate all this personalized storytelling so the school moved to a competency-based assessment system that may culminate in a new interface between high school and college; the school is collaborating with the Mastery Transcript Consortium to pilot a new mastery-based transcript without GPAs that enables students to tell their unique story to colleges and employers.

Once conviction and clarity are strong, successful leaders focus intently on capacity. They are driven to find the personnel, funding, time, and training required to successfully design and implement a transformative school design.

  • Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, Principal of  Van Ness Elementary School in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), is building a school where children, families, and educators come together to develop a generation of confident, curious, and compassionate members of society. At the center of this vision is the notion of school as a place that addresses the whole child, not just the academic being. It entails attending to the mental health and wellbeing of children, as defined by neuroscience and clinical best practices, few of which are part of the training of teachers. Cynthia regularly and consistently engages her staff in the learning science around trauma informed practices / wellbeing. She prioritizes this as much as academics, knowing that — if Van Ness wants real learning to happen — this is an essential foundation. Doing so requires her to make major shifts in the core design of school to enable this continuous learning: by creating a comprehensive school plan, redesigning professional development, redesigning schedules, curriculum, and budgets.

The complex work of school transformation requires a coalition—the support of a committed group of stakeholders, including students, parents, educators, community members, government, and industry, who are helping the work become a sustained success. Without a coalition, innovative leaders may be able to launch the work but it is rarely sustained. This is especially crucial in a sector where leadership turnover is a concern and where resources are scarce.

  • Under Newark Schools Superintendent Roger Leon, students are being enrolled in a coding academy to create a more equitable access to the jobs of the future. The Panasonic Foundation and the superintendent recognized the urgency of this need, and rather than reinvent the wheel, partnered with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation to launch Coding as a Second Language (CSL), a program established first in 2013 that had also been implemented successfully in Calexico, CA; Atlanta, Georgia; and Reno, NV. By the end of this year over a hundred middle and high school students will be exposed to STEM education and tech professionals who will serve as mentors to them. This coalition of a school district, industry, foundations, and community professionals grows the capacity of the district to undertake this important and complex work, and thereby impact future outcomes for students. “This collaborative partnership helps us address one of the most critical issues minority students are facing today,” said Alejandra Ceja, Executive Director of the Panasonic Foundation.

Finally, our work has shown us that leaders of innovation attend closely to culture: intentionally building values, norms, and practices amongst adults and young people that enable new ideas to emerge, be tested and iterated on, and eventually codified and spread. They understand that this may entail growing the capacity for risk-taking and vulnerability.

  • Kim Taylor, Director of Pathways High, a regional charter school located in downtown Milwaukee, accompanied Pathways High board members when they pitched the school to the C suite of a local Fortune 500 company. The company leadership shared Pathways High’s concern that too many students lack the skills necessary to perform the jobs they offered and that workplace and school cultures were misaligned. Pathways High had already developed IMPACT, a program that provides students with real world learning experiences both within and outside the classroom.  However, after meeting with the C suite, Kim and her team recognized the need to extend the IMPACT program to include teachers so they could embrace a culture of innovation from a personal, lived experience. As most educators have very little contact with the current world of work beyond education, the Pathways High leadership team wanted the IMPACT program to enable both students and teachers to work in businesses to create bridges across the different cultural mindsets. Kim and her team began by sending Pathways High teachers a survey asking them to describe their passions, what they would do if they weren’t teaching, and what they read in their free time. Using these interests inventories, they then connected their teaching staff and students with industry professionals whom they could shadow.

The examples above show how innovation is possible in the education sector.  Innovative leaders often intentionally cultivate one or two of these critical conditions, and perhaps accidentally cultivate some of the others. What if they were to take on all five conditions intentionally?

This article was developed and researched in collaboration with Sujata Bhatt, Senior Fellow, Transcend

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