Looking to the Future of Education Changemaking

Insights   03 July 2018
By Katherine Prince, KnowledgeWorks


Bringing together diverse education stakeholders around a common vision for learner-centered education could help shift the course of education changemaking.

Katherine Prince
Senior Director, Strategic Foresight, KnowledgeWorks

We find ourselves in a unique moment for pursuing education transformation. Social, economic, and policy shifts are converging to alter the context and nature of education transformation and to bring new leaders and benefactors to the fore.

KnowledgeWorks and other organizations are already working to expand meaningful personalized learning that prepares all learners for success in college, career, and life. Looking to the future of education changemaking can help those of us who wish to influence U.S. education consider possible ways of pursuing our visions as dynamics shift.

From a societal perspective, the expectations for what education should deliver are changing. This is creating more openings for new approaches and new changemakers to gain traction.

On the economic side, a shift in the balance of state and federal funding for education, an uptick in private investment, and the emergence of alternative funding resources demonstrate an appetite for exploring new ways to pay for programs that serve the public good.

Finally, the policy environment is becoming increasingly decentralized, providing changemakers with increased flexibility to set goals and design interventions.

These three shifts have the potential to:

  • Open new avenues of influence to new types of changemakers,
  • Increase the influence of existing changemakers; and
  • Reconfigure how changemakers engage with the public education system and with one another.

As the dynamics and outcomes of these shifts emerge, effective efforts to advance learner-centered education will need to stay responsive to the broader education changemaking landscape. By considering possible changes today, leaders and innovators of all kinds—superintendents, teachers, students, policy makers, and others—can begin to explore new possibilities and opportunities.

To help shape forward-looking strategies, let’s look ten years out and explore four possible scenarios for the future of education changemaking in the United States, along with some strategic considerations these scenarios raise for the learner-centered education movement.

While each scenario delineates a distinct future of education changemaking to help emphasize the strategic considerations facing the field, aspects of these futures could come together in different ways depending on the place and context.

Our Baseline Course

At present, many education changemakers are deeply committed to their own decentralized efforts. They are fueled by a sense of urgency, a climate of opportunity, and a belief in the power of innovation and new ideas to improve the public education system.

Today’s changemakers are working toward numerous visions for the future and many approaches to achieving them. However, while pockets of excellence keep emerging, they often have difficulty spreading.

If we continue in this direction, it’s likely the education changemaking landscape will continue to be rich with ideas but lack a cohesive vision or commitment to a common aim. We could find ourselves facing greater fragmentation as pockets of transformation get lost amid a persistent status quo. Even with the efforts of organizations like Education Reimagined, system-wide transformation will remain unlikely.

If we persist in pursuing patchwork solutions, we would need to consider:

  • How might the public education system’s role as a foundational civic institution shift in a more diversified landscape with an even wider range of visions, aims, and approaches than exists today?
  • How might efforts to advance learner-centered education distinguish themselves among diverse approaches to education changemaking?
  • How might proponents of learner-centered education work to increase the system’s tolerance for risk and capacity for innovation, while also advocating for more widespread change?

Collaborative Agendas

The baseline course outlined above is not, of course, the only possible future for education changemaking. In one alternative, increasing interest in collaboration could lead to a more cohesive change agenda than exists today.

Some state-level leaders; national initiatives like Education Reimagined and like KnowledgeWorks’ pursuit of personalized, competency-based learning; and funders are already working to build multi-partner collaborations to foster change.

Such stakeholders are recognizing the importance of cross-sector and authentic relationships in the effort to shift the enormous system that is U.S. public education.

This trend could lead to the development of cohesive and ambitious state-level or regional educational change agendas on which diverse stakeholders collaborate. It could also lead to more, and increasingly powerful, efforts to foster national movements around long-term education transformation.

This prospect suggests questions related to pursuing a commonly held vision for education transformation across a vast system:

  • What are the barriers to, and opportunities for, creating collaborative networks and building collective commitment to learner-centered education? How might they differ across contexts?
  • What would it take for a widespread, collective change effort to be inclusive of learners, parents, and other community members?

Communities in Charge

In another alternative future, the increasing authority and influence of the communities most affected by education transformation could lead to a shift in the leadership and focus of education changemaking.

At present, communities facing the most extreme inequity are often the focus of reform efforts, but the people most affected by that inequity rarely lead educational change. Traditional decision-makers are increasingly aware of this tension.

In addition, more and more communities are rejecting external narratives of reform and are looking instead to their peers or to leaders who have lived or are living experiences of inequity and other challenges.

This shift could lead to a future landscape in which communities increasingly set the agenda for education changemaking, with other stakeholders uniting behind their visions.

Such a shift could lead to communities pursuing change on their own terms. Grassroots education changemaking efforts could involve—and be led by—students and others who have traditionally been excluded from education decision-making processes. The possibility of education changemaking being led by the people and for the people invites us to consider:

  • What might a school or district look like if it were led or designed by or with the learners and communities it served?
  • What approaches might changemakers who have not traditionally held institutional authority use to influence education?
  • How might advocates of learner-centered education prioritize authentic participation and leadership by the people for whom they are aiming to transform education?

A New Dynamic

The three scenarios outlined above assume education changemaking will remain a high priority. But, the urgency and opportunity of the present moment might not continue.

Education changemaking efforts could decline if other priorities captured the interest and resources of people in the position to promote and fund social change. Among other pressing social challenges such as environmental instability and political conflicts, the needs of the aging U.S. population could divert attention and resources from education changemaking efforts.

If that occurred, educators and communities across the country might need to find and fund solutions on their own.

They might struggle to find creative solutions to maintain and improve their areas’ public education systems on shoestring budgets and without significant support from funders or other sectors. It could be hard to keep focus on a national movement toward learner-centered education when local challenges loomed large.

Given these possibilities, proponents of learner-centered education could benefit from considering:

  • How might changing national priorities affect public education generally and the learner-centered education movement specifically?
  • How might hyper-local, community-based education efforts fit into or work against the public education system’s traditional role of promoting civic responsibility and fostering expanded social connections? How might they sit alongside or undermine national movements, such as the current one toward learner-centered education?
  • What might proponents of the learner-centered education movement need to do to ensure sustainability in the face of possible competing social priorities?

Informing Action Today

Each of the scenarios explored above suggests specific questions for the future of the learner-centered education movement. Looking across them, the strategic considerations below can help changemakers maximize the potential of this moment and continue to catalyze change.

Multiple Visions and Value Sets

As Education Reimagined and the pioneers it supports build public will for learner-centered education, this movement’s vision could come into apparent conflict with other existing or emerging visions for education. Differing value sets and shifting world views could also impact how people view education and the need for change—and what they think education should change into.

Given such tensions, what strategies might be needed to address such differences at the local, state, and national levels? What might broaden the appeal of learner-centered education?

Role of Funding

The funding landscape for education is growing more complex. In the future, if funding streams diversify further or if certain funding sources become less reliable, changemakers will need to find ways to pursue education transformation in a different funding environment.

It will be crucial to assess private resources based on whether they have the potential to promote or hinder equity and the collective good. It will also be important to consider how changemaking efforts might be sustained if any given funding source dried up.

In light of such considerations, where or how might schools, districts, and other organizations contributing to the learner-centered education movement pursue sustainable and ethical funding sources?

Nature of Decision-Making Authority

In the current education reform landscape, authority lies largely with public institutions, large philanthropic and advocacy organizations, and well-resourced individuals. Nonetheless, such stakeholders are demonstrating increased interest in involving those most affected by the changes, and grassroots changemaking is on the rise.

In the future, decision-making authority could look considerably different than it does today. Education stakeholders seeking to transform the system may need to review their governance and decision-making structures to ensure those structures support a public education system that works well for all learners and for society.

In what ways might decision-making structures and approaches need to shift to produce the outcomes we hope to see from public education or to accelerate impact?

Structures Enabling Collaboration and Coordination

As Education Reimagined’s movement-building demonstrates, network-based structures have been gaining sway to support education collaboration and innovation, and their adoption is increasingly being enabled by technological tools.

Having more networks in the future would reflect the current appetite for fostering more and deeper points of connection among changemakers.

Even if the future brings a more fragmented education transformation environment, creating structures that help stakeholders communicate and collaborate across silos could ameliorate the more challenging aspects of a highly diversified landscape.

What structures and systems could be changed or put in place to enable more partnerships and collaboration, even with stakeholders who are in other sectors or who are pursuing different approaches?

Purpose of Education

Education systems reflect and influence society in ways that cannot be overstated. As society becomes more complex and the challenges that it faces intensify, education systems will need to help learners and communities navigate those changes effectively.

To help education lead, and not just respond to, such shifts, stakeholders can consider how the role and purpose of education—particularly public education—in society might be defined so it can deliver on its promise to, and responsibility for, learners and the nation.

Without such clarity, it could be difficult to build public will for change or to foster the public policy conditions needed to help learner-centered environments flourish.

To unpack these dynamics, how might stakeholders help clarify how their communities view the purpose of public education and their visions for their graduates?

Responding to the Moment

In today’s relatively open education changemaking landscape, there is opportunity for new players to become involved in education reform or transformation, for established actors to become more involved or to shift their approaches, and for all education changemakers to consider how best to engage with one another and with the learners and communities whom they aim to serve.

Education Reimagined’s movement building represents an important attempt to bring people together around a common vision while also supporting student and community agency in changemaking efforts.

Bringing together diverse education stakeholders around a common vision for learner-centered education could help shift the course of education changemaking. In effect, the societal infrastructure that is the U.S. public education system could transform into one that is equipped for the challenges of the emerging era, while also supporting all individuals and communities well.

To ensure the sustainability and effectiveness of those efforts, stakeholders must account for possible changes to the broader changemaking landscape and assess their strategies accordingly.

It is time to consider whether our collective efforts to improve education are indeed pushing closer to an equitable and effective education system that serves all learners and society well. If today’s education changemaking efforts are not moving in that direction, or are not gaining enough traction, what might you do—and with whom—to get closer to that goal?

To more deeply explore the scenarios and strategic considerations raised by this article, see KnowledgeWorks’ strategic foresight publication, “Shaping the Future of American Public Education: What’s Next for Changemakers?” A related infographic is also available to support exploration and conversation.

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