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Aurora Institute

Thinking Way, Way, Way Outside the Box at the Donnell-Kay Foundation

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

dk foundation
From the DK Foundation Website

Update October 24, 2015: Please find the following resources on the efforts to create a new education system for 0-5 year olds: Opportunity to Learn by Alan Gottlieb; Emergence of the Advocate Network; Implications for System Design; and an infographic.

Imagination. It’s overflowing at the Donnell-Kay Foundation (DKF) as they think about how to ReSchool Colorado.

Imagine what school would be if it could take place anywhere, anytime, and in the context that is most meaningful for students. Imagine if we tossed out the ideas of courses, annual calendars, daily schedules, textbooks, and even the concept of school as we know it. Imagine what a statewide system might look like if there were multiple providers designed for learners from birth through young adulthood to allow them to bundle together their educational opportunities (think playlists, but with a wide range of learning experiences).

The goal of the ReSchool team at DKF, led by Amy Anderson and Colleen Broderick, is to develop a broader eco-system of opportunities starting with non-consumers. According to the Christensen Institute, focusing on non-consumers means providing a “whole new population of consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.” The DKF is starting by targeting families not using early childhood education services and older teens/young adults.

The reason they can think way, way, way outside the box is that the heart of the system is a competency-based infrastructure organized around four large goals: academically prepared, disciplined, socially aware, and a solution seeker. The idea is that a statewide system could be designed to have tremendous flexibility as long as there is a unifying structure to deeply personalized paths. Rather than schools, there will be advocates (organizations providing advocacy services) to help learners set goals and organize the right set of learning experiences for them.

It’s not easy to get one’s head around the task DKF has taken on. As I listened to Amy Anderson and Colleen, I realized they were in the process of deconstructing school—taking it apart bit by bit, turning each piece over to see what the research says about it, and then asking how we might meet that function in a different way. Step by step, they are piloting ideas as they emerge to better understand the dynamics and what would be needed to bring the new component to scale.

The goals of the ReSchool system are:

Welcoming: Designed as one aligned system, it empowers extraordinary learning that is open and accessible. Combating complex transitions, it is easy to navigate with a clear process for participation and manageable options.

Connected: The new education system is designed to connect learners with resources and experiences, passions with needs, individuals with peers, peers with communities, and a community with the world. By leveraging the potential of technology and people, learners in this new system will create customized paths with advocates who work with them to connect their present learning to their desired future.

Bold: By its very nature, creating a new system is game-changing. Galvanized by new approaches to financing, governance, and accountability, it will build an inventive culture where learning is authentic and challenging.

Dynamic: The new system is effectively managed and fosters an appropriate level of risk and innovation in an effort to continually respond to a fast-moving global society and economy. It is characterized by continuous change within a self-correcting structure driven by data and shared knowledge.

Accountable: The system reflects a commitment to redesigned accountability for a learner-centered environment. It is characterized by transparency, shared ownership, and clear metrics for quality. Anchored in core values, it is a system that respects the rights, differences, and dignity of others in an environment of trust and care.

World Class: The system serves as an international model of excellence in professional performance, learner outcomes, satisfaction, and value. Beginning with building relationships locally, the system fosters cultural competency and expands to ensure global connectedness.

The ReSchool team is using an inquiry process to help them think past assumptions of the education system. It begins with reading up on what the research says about a huge range of issues (engagement, motivation, learning, teaching, and choice, just to name a few) as well as interviewing experts from a wide range of perspectives. From there, they start to test out ideas. For example, in partnership with Greater Good Studio, they set out an inquiry project to better understand users’ experiences with the early childhood system. They identified families that were using friends and families for child care, rather than the formal early childhood providers, to understand their choices and discover where the formal system wasn’t meeting their needs.

Through this project, they followed the families (primarily immigrant families in Boulder, Colorado) for several days. Starting with an analytical framing that looked at the dynamic between parent, child, and caregiver, they identified several issues. For example, the formal system just isn’t aligned enough to meet the needs of parents. Friends and family met parents and children where they are and provided much more flexibility than formal providers. However, both parents and providers focused primarily on care, not learning. Neither parents nor providers knew exactly how children should be developing and what they should be learning from ages 0-5. Parents didn’t expect their children to have enriching learning opportunities, and caregivers saw taking children to other places as adding to responsibility and risk. After then coming up with a list of new services or opportunities, they asked the family for feedback. The result is captured in A New Vision for Early Learners.

This is an enormous and bold task. To guide them, DKF is using a four-part strategy:

  • Strategy 1: Design a learner-centered system and a policy framework that supports it.
  • Strategy 2: Seed new programs and leverage existing entities to populate the system.
  • Strategy 3: Create an implementation plan.
  • Strategy 4: Advocate for a statewide adoption of the new system.

Regardless of whether you think the DKF is courageous or has created a philanthropic tilting at windmills, what they are doing is important for all of us to understand. In competency education, even our strongest districts aren’t comfortable talking about results yet. There are certainly indicators that competency education is improving schools, but not strong enough evidence that it can do what we think it can—which is make sure a lot more students are reaching proficiency and college/career readiness. We have to ask ourselves what it is that’s preventing that from happening. Is it that our understanding of competency education, the actual structure, isn’t quite right yet? Is it that our implementation hasn’t been full enough or high quality enough? Or is it that traditional practices are limiting how we respond to student’s needs? Do we need to push ourselves further outside of the factory model box?

I wish DKF was making their inquiry process a bit more public. I’d love to be able to see what books they are reading or summaries of their interviews. I’d love to see their reasoning about why ideas might work or might not. If we could see their big take-aways, it could help expedite our own learning process, always assuming that each of us will have a different set of take-aways. As different organizations and networks begin to think way, way, way outside of the box based on different experiences, priorities, fears, concerns, and even aspirations, it will shape what we might think of as next version of the education system.

Disclaimer: Donnell Kay Foundation financially supports CompetencyWorks and Amy Anderson sits on the board of iNACOL. I have also consulted to the DKF in the past.