Exploring Existing Policies that Present Possibilities to Support Ecosystem Design

Insights   28 June 2023
By Sarah Bishop-Root, Education Reimagined


The power of the ecosystem vision is that it provides a new lens or design frame for how existing policy opportunities can be understood and woven together in new ways—with the ultimate aim of system transformation.

Sarah Bishop-Root
Partner for Policy Leadership, Education Reimagined

Despite the strong headwinds generated by the conventional education system, learner-centered leaders, practitioners, and advocates are fearless explorers. They find a way to navigate obstacles while holding learners at the center. The changing dynamics of learner needs, parent demand, and evolving K–12 education policy landscapes across the United States are generating even more challenges. While there are many pieces to manage, we are surfacing the policy and conditions for stakeholders across communities to support the co-creation of community-based ecosystems of learning

This work requires tilling new fields to plant seeds that can sprout an equitable learner-centered future. The power of the ecosystem vision is that it provides a new lens or design frame for how existing policy opportunities can be understood and woven together in new ways—with the ultimate aim of system transformation. In the context of the conventional system, when education policies are passed, they are at risk of not being amplified, or they are often implemented in programmatic siloes. This ultimately does not allow the intent of a learner-centered policy to come to fruition. The potential of these policy opportunities can be optimized when they are leveraged together to bring the learner-centered design elements to life: learner agency; socially embedded; personalized, relevant, and contextualized; open-walled; and competency-based.

After conducting a national landscape analysis of state policy and conditions from a holistic and nonpartisan view, we observed that there are states who currently have a promising mix of policies and conditions that can be leveraged as a starting place to connect policy to ecosystem design. While it may require creativity, communities can leverage the opportunities at hand and while doing so, surface the obstacles that must be addressed within states to support learner-centered ecosystems.

The research surfaced three categories that were explored:

  1. Learner-driven policies that enable learner-agency. These policies directly empower learners and families to have the voice and choice to personalize their learning experiences, despite broader system constraints. For example:
    • Idaho’s self-directed learning designation allows a learner who meets requirements to have agency to shape a learning plan that includes flexible attendance, virtual learning, and learning outside of the classroom. In the context of ecosystem design, this could create a path for young people to build personalized learning plans that leverage a diversity of education providers and opportunities within the community, while still having their education take place in a public system.
    • In North Dakota, local districts can establish a program to allow learners to receive credit for learning experiences outside of the classroom through approved providers, opening the door to opportunities for community-based learning.

  2. Policies that generate flexibility for learner-centered design freedom. These policies provide design flexibility from conventional public education system constraints. Although we recognize there will be some limitations that prevent the extent to which learner-centered invention can occur—as a result of exclusions in statute or rule—they serve as a starting place. For example:
    • Colorado’s Innovation Schools Act creates a way for districts and schools to access waivers and the decision-making control needed to explore and implement new learning approaches. This could create a starting place for ecosystem design and allow a group of schools to work together to develop an ecosystem.
    • Arizona’s Instructional Time Model allows districts or charters to get a plan approved for how an alternative time equivalency approach will be demonstrated, instead of seat time. This can support mastery-based and experiential learning approaches within an ecosystem.

  3. State conditions that could contribute to or inhibit learner-centered ecosystem design. States that have had success with broader learner-centered transformation efforts have balanced fostering the conditions for sustainable transformation without being overly prescriptive. They have co-created with communities to inform systems change. By setting a powerful, inclusive statewide vision, they have created a sustainable compass, deeply informed by communities’ needs, wants, and aspirations. They have generated infrastructure, tools, and support that can be leveraged and modified to local contexts. This creation of a state-wide vision for learner-centered education, as well as providing the frameworks and support needed to design and implement the vision, leads to broader adoption and ignites momentum for additional change throughout the system.
    • Kentucky, Nevada, Utah, and South Carolina are examples of states that have, in their unique approaches, gained momentum to enable transformation both locally and at the state level.

As we embark on the journey to discover the policy framework needed to enable learner-centered ecosystems, it must be informed by the opportunities that presently exist, the exploration currently happening within communities, and a broadened lens of opportunities across sectors. The policy and condition possibilities that have surfaced through our research will, as a next step, help us generate resources to support communities exploring ecosystem design, identify places where ecosystem invention might uniquely flourish, and shed light on new policies and conditions needed to support full expressions of learner-centered ecosystems.

New resources and news on The Big Idea!


We recently announced a new R&D acceleration initiative to connect and support local communities ready to bring public, equitable, learner-centered ecosystems to life.