Learning Out Loud: Debunking the Myth of Where Meaningful Learning Happens
Learning Out Loud | Insights 26 August 2021
How do we get from the bright spots to the big thing? We actually need to find a better way to talk about those bright spots, so they all don’t feel like individual stars.
Co-Founder and former CEO and President, Forum for Youth Investment
On August 18th, 2021, Kelly Young, Education Reimagined’s President, hosted the fifth Learning Out Loud with Education Reimagined conversation, featuring guest, Karen Pittman, Co-Founder and former President and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment. View the recording of the conversation below along with the conversation summary and full, lightly edited transcript.
Conversation Summary (with timestamps)
[01:52] Kelly shares a story about her 12-day backpacking trip with her son’s Boy Scouts troop where she asks: Will their learning be recognized when they go back to school this fall? [09:23] Karen explores where meaningful learning happens and what barriers and opportunities exist to have that learning acknowledged and credentialed by a formal education system. [18:42] Karen shares what she believe K-12 educators might miss when pursuing the creation of community-based ecosystems of learning. [21:19] Karen shares what the summer learning ecosystem looks like and why it’s efforts have fallen short of what’s possible by not including K-12 education as a partner. [33:44] Karen shares if and how K-12 education can play a role in the creation of community-based ecosystems of learning. [41:35] Audience Q&A
Learn More From Topics Discussed and Resources Shared
[00:00:08] Paul: Awesome. Welcome everyone. I’m so glad to see so many faces showing up, especially as we are hitting the ground running with another new academic year here. I had the pleasure of speaking with a young learner who actually started like on August 3rd, which I thought was absolutely crazy. But I guess they apparently went on a year long a year round schedule and have shorter summers but longer winter breaks. So, if you are in the throes already, welcome and thank you for taking the time.
And if you’re not quite yet, I hope this is a good conversation to be a part of and inspires you all for your work ahead. All right. We have a good group here now. We’re gonna go ahead and get straight to it. If you haven’t joined us before for these conversations, we like to start by kind of setting the context for how to participate.
So I’m gonna go ahead and share my screen here real quick and just go over these these kind of guidelines and these norms. And I encourage you to focus on one one that you wanna be paying most attention to during the conversation. And so the five are: listen to understand and not to respond; keep an open mind, assume you can learn from everyone in the room; consider different points of view and experiences; be respectful and kind, use positive language; and be conscious to step back or step up so all who wish can contribute. And with that, I will stop sharing my screen and turn it over to Kelly to introduce us to this second series.
[00:01:52] Kelly: Excellent. Well, it’s good to see all of you, and this is our second series of Learning Out Loud, and I’m excited that we’re gonna be talking about how do we recognize and credential learning no matter where it happens and valuing the learning, especially that happens in the “out of school time” which we call the community. And this series is gonna be looking at a specific intersection, the intersection of freedom and funding.
One of the things that we’ve noticed in the last six years that we’ve been doing this, is where you see the most robust kinds of models is where you have freedom from the constraints of the current K-12 system. But we also noticed that oftentimes where you get that freedom is outside of the K-12, where funding is a lot more challenging.
So we have really put freedom and funding as this intersection. But today, because we’re talking about, we’re gonna be looking specifically at the out of school time, I would love to ask you to put in the chat, if you’re reflecting on your best, one of your best learning experiences growing up as a child. If you could just type in, you know, where did it happen and who did it happen with?
If you’re just, you know, reflecting back on just one experience. And I can say for me, one that often comes up for me because it changed the trajectory of what I was interested in and what I ended up pursuing in life was my experience with youth and government and model UN at the YMCA. That was a place where I got to fit in and because I had just changed schools and didn’t fit in and got to be a policy nerd at the age of 14. So that was my example.
So it’s great to see. Love it, folk dancing. Learning magic. Awesome. Yeah, with grandfather, these are wonderful. So you can keep putting those in the chat. I’m gonna kick us off with a little bit of a story as a teaser, which is, I just got back a couple of days ago, actually from a two week trip with the Boy Scouts with my son at the Philmont Camp in Northern New Mexico. And it was backpacking.
We backpacked for 12 days. Setting up our tents, hiking 70 miles, and all of that. And it… With this idea of learning ecosystem where learning is valued no matter where it happens, it really occurred to me, the profound learning that happened for these young boys from everywhere from I think the youngest was 14 and the oldest was 16. And I was reflecting back specifically on one of the boys who came in, real thin had not really ever backpacked or hiked much.
And here we were putting on these huge backpacks for a long march. And at first he really couldn’t do it. We had to split up his weight among a lot of the other boys, so that he could actually do it. There was crying involved. And when he… The fact that he was able to do it with the help of the other boys and the encouragement of the other boys, he gained a level of confidence that was shocking to have seen the transformation in 12 days. And not only that, but he, by the end of the trip, he was asking how he could be on leadership of the troop. And he was wondering what roles there were.
And he has decided to become the historian, the storyteller for the troop, because he was, he had been asked by his grandmother to keep a journal which he was doing. And so the boys loved that he was doing that. And they’re like, “That makes total sense.” So it just made me think how many of these boys are going back to school where their teachers will even know they did this? Will it be valued? Will they… How will they build on the confidence he’s gained, on the self knowledge he’s gained if they don’t even know about it? So it was a great experience to have walking into this conversation. And so Paul, I’m gonna let you kick us off.
[00:06:38] Paul: Thank you for sharing that, Kelly. Yeah. So for those who have been a part of these conversations earlier this summer we’re doing a tiny tweak. I’m gonna kind of be moderating the conversation between Kelly and our featured guest, Karen here, who I’m gonna introduce. And we encourage you during the conversation as insights or questions or wonderings pop up, feel free to put them in the chat. We’ll be sure to open it up for Q&A around 3:45 Eastern Time and address those questions.
And as usual, if you just want to speak your question out we’ll provide the opportunity for you to unmute yourself and do that as well. But let’s get to the main part of this conversation. And I will share the bio of Karen Pittman, who has made a career of starting organizations and initiatives that promote youth development, including co-founding the Forum for Youth Investment with Merita Irby in 1998.
And Karen served as the president and CEO of the organization until February of this year. She has since transitioned to a senior fellow role to dedicate more of her time and energy to thought leadership. And the Forum for Youth Investment itself is committed to providing ideas and services and networks that leaders need to make more intentional decisions that are good for young people.
Some of Karen’s most recent work includes her participation on the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social Emotional and Academic Development, which produced the report From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope. Her leadership role at the Science of Learning and Development Alliance, more commonly known as the SoLD Alliance and the Readiness Projects, which is a collaborative effort between the Forum for Youth Investment, the National Urban League, and the American Institutes for Research. And I’ll share links to all those things here in a second. Karen is a sociologist and a recognized leader in youth development.
She started her career at the Urban Institute, conducting the studies on social services for children and families. She later moved to the Children’s Defense Fund, launching its adolescent pregnancy prevention initiatives and helping to create its adolescent policy agenda. She is the author of three books and recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from Partners for Livable Cities, joining previous awardees such as president William Clinton and Lady Bird Johnson. Karen’s impact in youth development in the education space is unmeasurable. And we are so delighted to have her use up some of her time with us to have this conversation. So Karen, welcome.
[00:09:19] Karen Pittman: Thank you, so glad to be here.
[00:09:23] Paul: Awesome. So we’re just gonna dive straight in here because there’s a lot of ground we can cover and not as much time as we would certainly like. And I’m sure Karen will be invited for a second go around with this. But let’s start with a question that relates directly to the sessions title. Karen, for you, where does meaningful learning happen?
[00:09:47] Karen Pittman: I mean, I think the easiest answer to that is meaningful learning happens where young people have deep enough relationships and rich enough experiences to actually make meaning out of something that they can carry forward. And that can be almost anywhere. And I think just watching the chat quickly people were demonstrating that can be almost anywhere as was Kelly’s story.
[00:10:09] Paul: Yeah, absolutely. I particularly appreciated the grandfather responsive. Anytime I was with my grandpa learning what’s happening and that’s like that core relationship piece. Given that, you know, learning is, is really founded in, in relationship and it is not time bound, it is not location bound and knowing that, you know, our kind of institution, our educational institution doesn’t seem to have that view if you could wave your magic wand, what would learning look like and kind of what are the barriers to having that future become true, and what are the opportunities?
[00:10:52] Karen Pittman: That’s a big question. You know, I think we’ve gotten a glimpse at what this could look like unfortunately through COVID. And basically I think it’s to find the middle ground between this sort of wonderful aspirational phrase, you know, learning happens 24/7, learning happens anywhere, all the time and the intentional places, organizations, and systems that have some commitment to support learning and development.
Now our key one there is schools. And, you know, and our K-12 schools are so committed to learning and development that we tell kids they have to show up there for 12 years for eight or nine months of the year. I mean, that is the institution that we commit to learning and development. But it isn’t the only system in which young people find themselves. And it isn’t the only set of organizations that actually have a commitment to learning and development.
So one of the things that we’ve been doing with our Readiness Project partners and with the SoLD Alliance and certainly even with the national commission was to just try to get specific about this question of where learning happens, because if we say it happens anywhere and everywhere, that kind of lets everybody off the hook and we’re right back to where we started.
It can happen anywhere and everywhere, but schools are responsible for it. So if we’re gonna break down that conversation, we have to say, well, who else is responsible and for what, and how do they come into this space? And so I think Katherine is on the call with us and I’ll have her throw up a couple of things if she’s nimble enough to do so. We took the picture that the SoLD Commission came up with of what the sort of education ecosystem looks like.
And I don’t have that ready to put out, but it’s sort of this big amphitheater picture that sort of starts with kids, you know, are in schools with teachers. I mean, in classrooms. And then schools are surrounded by you know, other community partners like youth organizations, et cetera. And then you get to all of the folks from school boards to research organizations, to policymakers who have some influence on that education system.
And we can find that for you later on. The funders group called the Funders for Thriving Youth sort of generalized that picture and said, “Let’s not just put schools in the center, let’s name all of the kind of systems and organizations where something happens with kids.” And so what we did was to basically take that list and what you have in this picture is the list that came from that group of funders, who are really thinking more broadly about how we support your success, not just in education.
And we put them into four quadrants. And the main thing about this quadrant is how they relate to learning. So, as I said, K-12… And we sort of put it in there with the other education systems, but K-12 is the space where young people are required to show up where the system in any organizations are formally devoted to learning. And in particular to academic achievement, it’s how we have defined learning. We’ve made that mandatory and we’ve put it in that space.
That doesn’t mean other things don’t happen here, but that’s that requirement. If we go over to the other side, you have a whole bunch of voluntary organizations that are supporting learning and development. Those are community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, we talk about afterschool and summer, as you know, sort of out of school time organizations, summer jobs. Those really are contributing to learning and development in intentional ways, but young people find them voluntarily, families find them voluntarily and often have to pay for them to show up.
So it’s a different kind of a dynamic when we’re talking about these community-based learning settings. And then we often forget about, but it’s really important to acknowledge, there are other systems that young people and families interact with, some are around basic services. And there you have basically an income difference. I do all of those things, health, transportation, mental health housing.
But, you know, if I’m an affluent family, I’m buying all of those things on the market. If I’m not an affluent family, I’m getting those things through our public systems that support child welfare and housing and health. And then of course we have the protection and enforcement side, where young people tend to not show up voluntarily, but they do show up and often have sustained relationships. So we just took this sort of menu of organizations and put them into four groups. And I hope that for today’s conversation we can do two things.
One, acknowledge that even when we wanna talk about the learning and development ecosystem, that those top two are really where we’re trying to get to, you know, education re-imagined vision of equitable, learner-centered, community-based, you know, sort of learning, it happens across those.
And if we’re gonna get to equitable, we really have to understand that some young people have real barriers in getting to either of those spaces because of lack of basic services, or because they are unfortunately connected with child welfare or juvenile justice or the police, any of those are gonna really limit what their choices are.
So when I think about, going back to your question, what we would ideally be doing, we would really be helping communities both map, and then in some very simple ways measure the health of, and then identify models of what is happening in all of those systems that is supporting that big vision of, you know, sort of equitable, learner-centered, community-based work. So that everybody had that information and knowledge.
And I think that really sort of gets us to the heart of the wonderful images and pictures and stories that Education Reimagined shares and that we share through the Readiness Projects that only happens if communities are much more intentional about acknowledging and naming and supporting these places where learning happens, especially when we’re doing it with adults who have made a commitment, who have been hired or they’re volunteering, and they’re being trained with systems and settings that are set up for learning and development.
[00:17:19] Paul: Yeah. I think the groundwork you just laid is a really interesting connection point, too, because a lot of times when people enter this conversation, those who are in it will immediately say, “Well, it’s all off the rails, it’s all chaos, there’s no structure.” And so Kelly, I thought this might be a good opportunity for you to speak into that, too, with when we talk about these community-based ecosystems, why do we want structure? Why do we want a system in place to bring that alive?
[00:17:50] Kelly: Yeah. And actually that might be another question to Karen. You know, we’ve had a good chance to talk about this and Karen, I’m curious, you know, a lot of K-12 were going back from summer for many places they already have. And there might’ve been some missed opportunities during the summer, or how do you take advantage of the existing ecosystem to create equitable opportunities for kids to have quality learning experiences? But I’m curious, what are you worried that K-12 leaders might miss or might skip over in going to this idea of ecosystem given all of your experience working in these other arenas?
[00:18:42] Karen Pittman: Yeah, I think the main thing as I’ve been in these conversations is that the commitment and it really is a very genuine and important commitment, the commitment to equity, the commitment to broaden, to really sort of embrace social-emotional learning, the commitment to really sort of see and leverage the community, doesn’t always come along with an acknowledgement that there are other systems that were already doing that.
So the commitment to do it tends to come with us. So that means we have to do it. And I really want the first thing for, you know, K-12 educators to do is to say is to just start with the assumption, somebody else must have had this idea first and must have had more flexibility than we do to have done that.
Now they may not be doing it at a scale that we can see when we look out our window, we may not see it happening for every kid K-12, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening in arts collectives or afterschool or summer from it doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. And it doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been some kind of systemic effort put in place to hire and train staff, to find resources, to identify spaces, to define quality, to create, to create all of the things that systems do, to even talk about accountability.
It’s just that those things weren’t answered in a way that gets recognized in the formal way that we think about academic learning and academic accountability. So that’s really the conversation I’m hoping we can start that as we’re embracing this vision, we’re simultaneously coming at it with a level of humility that says since we’re the only, since K-12 was the only system that has had the luxury of having kids mandatorily show up and being able to pay for that from you know, sort of five through 18, we know we’re the biggest ga… We know where the biggest game in town. But that doesn’t mean we’re the only game in town.
And that doesn’t mean as Kelly said, and you said, that the flexibility of these other folks have had of not being held accountable for that, the hummus goal of educating from preschool through high school across a set of, you know, curriculum requirements that they haven’t found some more innovative ways to really get to the equitable, learner-centered, community-based goal that we have set.
[00:21:19] Kelly: And, and if I could ask another question. So you were just talking about just K-12 is mandatory, it’s funded, right? It’s… That’s it’s institution. Our out of school time gets funding in a very myriad of ways. It’s very much patchwork. But there’s also more freedom to meet a child where they are and get them connected meaningfully to learning. What have you seen during COVID and pre-COVID that really gives you, it gives the, the most it seems like it’s the closest to really developing a robust ecosystem where kids are able to navigate. And, what do you think is important about what they’ve been able to do?
[00:22:06] Karen Pittman: Yeah, I think that the again, it isn’t a complete ecosystem, but it is, but let’s talk about that afterschool, out of school time, summer ecosystem for a minute, and what’s in it. As it has been developed as a system has come in place to actually formalize and try to get those things to be equitable and available. And again, I wanna sort of acknowledge that from a human ecology perspective, we’re all in ecosystem. We don’t make them, we just make them better.
So our job in our conversation today is, how do we learn more about the ecosystems that young people are already immersed in? How do we learn more about the various adults and settings and systems that are trying to contribute to them? And then how do we bring this goal in of equitable, learner-centered, community-based and figure out how we move it forward.
There was an intentional investment starting about 20 years ago. It’s still going on, but it was a big investment that was made by the Wallace Foundation and other funders just sort of become this group of afterschool funders in creating youth development or afterschool intermediaries. Of basically trying to make a system out of this idea of, we know there are lots of things out there in the communities run by rec departments and faith organizations and churches and mom and pop shops, and, you know, all of these things.
And they’re great if you can find them. And, if you can even know what’s available was a task. Most families didn’t even know what was out there, or if you can afford them, or if you have access to them, whether that’s transportation or whatever, or if they seem to be appropriate for your kid. Because a lot of them are sort of geared towards younger kids and don’t involve adolescents, all of those reasons.
And all of those are things that schools are responsible for. When we say every kid is gonna come to school, whether or not we do it well, all of those A’s are things that schools have to be accountable for saying we’re at least trying to do those. But that natural mix of things in neighborhoods and communities, nobody was monitoring that because it was all seen as optional. So I, you know, parents will find that it’s good stuff for kids, it’s nice, but not necessary.
And so as the science started to get more robust to say, “No, this really is necessary. This is critical for young people’s development.” And it actually is critical if you’re gonna ever get the kind of success and close the kind of gaps that you see in achievement.
So once that message was there, and then frankly, once public funding started to come in place, not enough, but the 21st century learning centers, community learning centers dollars work came in and sort of made a federal commitment that then got matched by states and localities to really invest in these programs. And that started to give us more reason to develop these intermediaries.
So you’ve got them across the country with various names. You’ve got some in Providence, you’ve, yeah, you’ve got them at the statewide level. At this point, the Mott Foundation which is one of the other early funders has invested. And at some level you have a state afterschool network in all 50 states. And then you often have in localities things like the Providence After School Alliance, the Nashville After School Alliance, et cetera. Those exist.
And, I think that really is a model for us of what you can do when you make this commitment to the things that we’ve just been talking about. But you really also make a commitment to start with what’s there and try to piece these folks together to be a natural network or alliance without all trying to be the same thing.
And then the other thing that’s been really important in that space, and this is where the foreign theater investment came in 20 years ago, was once we got that plate spinning and said, “Okay, we’re now creating these networks and these alliances of community-based organizations that are committed to learning and development, that are committed to creating these kinds of quality afterschool and summer and camp settings which are staffed and funded by lots of different kinds of organizations and lots of different ways.”
Again, that’s libraries, rec departments, museums, churches, non-profit organizations, united ways. It’s, it’s a mix of folks who are doing it. But having the commitment to say, “What’s out there, how do we get more of it? Is it actually distributed?” The next question, “Well, and is it affordable?” The next question was, “is it high quality?” And the lesson that we learned in that space, which I also hope when going back Paul to your question of what would I love to see, the lesson that we were forced to take into that conversation when these networks finally got to the quality question was you had so many different players with so many different completely valid commitments to what they were doing and different language about the outcomes that they wanted to have for kids.
The only thing we could do was to back up and say, “What does an optimal setting for learning look like?” That would get you to any outcome you want. Your outcome could be employment. Your outcome could be sports. Your outcome could be arts education. Your outcome could be pregnancy prevention. We had no way of controlling the outcome or controlling the content. These are all voluntary organizations. So there was no, “this is how we’re gonna do it,” but we did have a commitment and an opportunity to say, “Based on what we know about youth development, and certainly now that we based much more on what we know about how learning happens, there are some things that you can do to optimize learning settings, regardless of what the goal is.”
And that’s now been, been, you know, that we started that with the commission and that’s now been finalized in what we call effectually the blue wheel that has come out from the SoLD Alliance and Katherine can drop that in the chat or share it. But it is these basic things that we know make for quality learning settings, which start with deep, positive relationships, developmental relationships.
Then a commitment to safety and belonging, not just pretending that it’s there, but actually asking kids, “Do you feel safe? And do you feel like you belong here?” going on to really making sure that we’ve got valid opportunities for young people to be challenged and engaged in academic or non-academic content, but some kind of rich learning experiences coupled with an intentional focus, which is where the SEL things that comes in with an intentional focus on making sure that we’re naming and getting people a chance to practice the core competencies that they need, those skills and habits and mindsets.
And then finally, you know, the commitment to, and here it’s called integrated support systems, which is sort of, you know, the lingering language from the school space. But we tried to make it as neutral as possible. But that’s really just basically a commitment to say when we see that young people need other things and for a youth organization it may be that they need tutoring in math. We have some way to go help them do it.
When we acknowledge a need or we acknowledge an asset that we can’t deliver on, we actually have some way to really support them in getting that need or that asset addressed. So that’s really you know, what I think is what’s optimal what needs to be in every setting and what we were able to do at the Forum which became the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality was to turn this into an observational assessment tool. That was, I mean, we have a thing that looks, it’s a triangle rather than a blue wheel, but so same basic ideas. There’s nothing unique about those ideas.
We’ve been talking about what makes for quality learning environments for decades. That’s just, you know, the latest configuration of the science behind them, but we basically sort of brought those ideas about what makes for quality in and got them sort of work shopped and owned by this vast array of youth development organizations so that they voluntarily say, “When we wanna do quality, we’re gonna observe ourselves and ask the question, we know what we believe in, are we doing it well?” And one of the challenges that we have, Kelly, you asked about this, why aren’t we doing it? When you’re in a high stakes accountability space like K-12 schools are, it’s really hard to take the risk to ask, “I know we’re supposed to be doing this, but are we doing it well?”
Because that graphic is asking us to do things well that we’re really not required to do. Is asking us to do things well that we know we should be doing from a youth development perspective, from an equity perspective, from an engagement perspective. But it’s not things that all show up on report cards or standardized tests or teacher evaluations. And so that’s a challenge.
When you’re over here in this other flexible, but not well-funded space and people had more opportunity to name what they thought was important, we didn’t have to sell this work to them. They already said, “Yeah, that’s what we think is important.” Now the question is, are we doing it well? How can you help us find out if we’re doing it well? Because once you told them they were doing it well, they just said, “Okay, we’re gonna need to do it better.” Nobody came in and grabbed their money away from them.
[00:31:32] Kelly: Right. Yeah. I mean, what you just laid out is this freedom and funding piece because with the funding came a lot of ties, right? And,constraints that have really narrowly defined what learning is, and you know, what our education system is accountable for delivering. And it just struck me in what you were saying that in the out-of-school time space if I go back even to the story of the Boy Scouts.
A lot of what’s happening there is kids are discovering who they are. They’re discovering what their interests are. They’re discovering what they’re good at, and they’re developing a sense of purpose, right? And without those things, we know that learning isn’t gonna happen deeply. And yet that’s not on anybody’s accountability list but for things that are required, but from what you just described, right? Everything we know about relationship, about, that it’s about kids getting to explore. It is able to happen in these spaces of freedom.
And so, as I’ve mentioned, we’ve had conversations about if you’re really gonna move to these equitable, learner-centered, community-based ecosystems, where kids are supported with advisories that have a home base, they’re able to navigate and make sense of a rich landscape of learning. The question is who is, who could be responsible for that? And, if we really look at different communities, it’s not clear, can K-12 play that role? Can outside players? How do you see that we might move from these very siloed or bifurcated systems to one where we are more holistically holding the ecosystem and young people are actually supported and navigating this?
[00:33:44] Karen Pittman: Yeah. You know, I think, unfortunately, it is clear that without Herculean efforts, K-12 probably isn’t suited to play this role. Now that doesn’t mean that they don’t currently have the accountability and the dollars and the things flowing through them. And that’s not to say that they don’t want to. I mean, I really wanna emphasize, that’s not to say that they don’t want to. It’s just that the lift is so heavy from where accountability sits right now and how that basically makes people incredibly risk averse in certain ways, to how and the structure that are all behind that to move to the nimble system that you keep describing.
And that doesn’t mean people haven’t done it, but it seems to me that we have a very steep pyramid in education from going from right spot examples of where schools have done it to examples of where districts have done it and managed to do it for every school, to examples of where states have done it. Again, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and that if you put folks on a continuum, we don’t have some folks that are making progress. But I think just the steepness of that, you know, that success story and how you, how you can scale it means that it’s probably that we can’t start there. Now, having said that, what we have to do is also not make the mistake that we made in the youth development field, which is to say, forget those guys we’re gonna go out on our. ‘Cause we’ve had zero success in building an alternative system that, eh, that we could define the outcomes for and get people… And, and get funding coming into it at a level of scale and sustainability that made sense. We haven’t had any success in getting people to build the alternative system at a scaled way, even though we can demonstrate pretty incredible levels of effectiveness. When you give us a little bit of money, we can deliver on goals you just described.
We can deliver on those goals at a much higher level. And equally important, we can come in with standards and assessments and principles and get folks to improve much faster. So we’ve got better improvement stories. We’ve got better starting places. We’ve got better sort of bright spot examples. But we have not been able to create a parallel narrative in the country about… You know, we’ve tried, is it about learning and development? Is it about schooling? And I mean, we can’t even find the right language to make a conversation that parallels it.
We used to talk… And I’m, you know, I’m 70 years old. We started with, we talked about experiential education. We’ve had so many labels that we’ve tried to put on this to get us to name and really believe that we should have this flexible, experiential, interest driven system be funded in a way that you really could get to equity and how to hold it accountable. And we haven’t had any luck. So the only choice we have is to figure out how to come back to our education partners and say, “Hey, you really do seem to be there now in wanting to commit to this new thing, how do we do it together?” to that end, I really do wanna say is, I believe this whole heartedly, it isn’t that the folks in these other expanded, experiential, whatever you wanna call those other learning systems, it isn’t that they somehow are smarter. It really is that in every single case, because you had to start with the idea that you had to recruit the kids in, that wheel that we put up was just the only way to do it. There is something lazy making about making showing up mandatory. As soon as you have to be sitting in my class at 8:45, you have to be showing up at the building. And if you leave, it’s on you. It’s not on me. It’s really hard to optimize that learning environment.
You don’t get any feedback that says, “Hey, you know, my butt’s in the chair, but I’m tuned out completely…” I mean, you can get it if you want it, but it’s just not built into how we think about accountability. These other organizations have… If they don’t do it right, kids don’t come back. Families don’t pay. Even if it’s just a small amount of money, they don’t get funding. Now that whole thing has its own problems and that they compete for funding. You know, we’ve got challenges on both sides, but I just wanna come back to when we put that wheel up, if they didn’t build relationships, and those kids didn’t feel safe and belonging and their families didn’t feel like those kids felt safe, they really felt like they belong, they wanted to go back, they didn’t. So, if we really think learning starts with relationships and engagement, they’ve had 100 years, some of them, to figure out how to lead with relationships and engagement and schools haven’t had to do that. So for me, that’s the bottom of how we get to the system, we acknowledge, this is what we wanna do, we wanna have any place that kids show up, whether it’s a school building or not, whether it’s with a certified teacher or it’s with a youth worker, we want affirmation that they feel that there’s a relationship there, that they feel safe, that they belong and that they’re engaging in something that they can really make meaning out of. And then, and that they’re gonna come back. And at that point, then we can have a conversation about how we give them credit for it. And how we make sure we’re paying the staff equitably. And how we really make sure that we’re solving the transportation problem or whatever problem. We can solve those problems.
But, you asked about, my concern is if we’re gonna try to solve those problems first, but we can’t do this because we have different pay scales and we don’t have a transportation system and those buildings aren’t accredited and we’re gonna like put all of that stuff. And that’s not the problem. The problem is, and I’ll sort of go to this phrase which I’ve been using a lot, I’ve been spending time with Hedy Chang at Attendance Works.
And, you know, we’ve now got sort of chronic absenteeism as one of the kind of low hanging fruit measures of, you know, school climate, like are kids actually showing up or are they absent? And we’ve finally gotten to the point of suggesting that chronic absenteeism may not all be about the family’s problem. There really may be something about the conditions of learning that are not that are not optimal, that are not making kids and families do everything they can to get to the building.
So having put that idea out there, I’m just gonna leave you with just simple question, if we use chronic absenteeism as a measure of the quality of the environment when attendance is mandatory, we have huge examples in every community of where young people are showing up voluntarily, and we don’t even try to count those at all. We don’t get them. We don’t know what they’re attending, we don’t measure attendance, we don’t measure attention, we don’t give any credit for it. Isn’t that backwards? And if we’re gonna talk about how we get to equitable learning, you know, they’re learner centered, community-based, you know, ecosystems, we need to be counting and measuring the whole thing, because that’s where the innovation is.
[00:41:35] Paul: Well, I mean Karen, you’re on a roll. That was fantastic. Thank you so much for that. You know, it’s funny, you mentioned where are kids showing up and just as a reference point that anyone on the call, if you haven’t heard of High School for Recording Arts in Minnesota, that’s literally their founding story. There was a recording studio. Kids were showing up at the recording studio, not the school and a light bulb went off like, what if this was the school? And things took off from there. So I’m sure there’s plenty of other examples throughout the country where things started because of that exact scenario where adults who cared for kids, saw something, had that noticingand developed and then built something from that noticing.
We’re gonna open up the floor here for anyone on the call to ask questions of Karen or Kelly or both. If you would like to use the reactions button in the bottom of your Zoom menu, you’ll see a raise hand feature down there you can do that. You can put the question in the chat if you’d like and we can read it off straight from there. Yeah, let’s just, let’s open things up here and, you know, a lot was shared and there’s a bunch of different directions we could go. So feel free to ask anything.
[00:42:53] Kelly: Or share. You know, these are live questions about how do we get there from here, knowing, you know, that these systems have different constraints and different incentives. How do we get to one that actually creates the incentives and the constraints, but bring us all these institutions and systems together and service of young people?
Doug, I’m sorry to pick on you, but I’m just, you know, as a superintendent in a new district, I’m just curious how this idea of ecosystem you know, asset mapping and one thing we didn’t mention is Karen has introduced me to the idea of youth mapping, which is where young people map the people and places that are really important to them, which adds a whole lot even to the map from places that provide… You know, that actually explicitly provide learning experiences. You know, it adds the corner store. It adds the barbershop. It can add as Karen has mentioned, unfortunately, the funeral home. So I’m curious if this is sparking anything for you, either as questions, as barriers, as opportunities.
[00:44:12] Doug: Yeah. So thanks for picking on me and also for talking a little bit for me to gather my thoughts before I have to answer, and I did have to step off for about five minutes, but I think the topic is very relevant. And I also think I guess my lens on it, hearing, you know, Karen talking about it’s very easy I think in the public education space and at my level to get distracted by the, I guess you called it the pay scale, transportation, how are we gonna do it, manage it and maybe use that as a way to just not do any of it and kind of reinforce the insular nature of what most public school districts in my experience have kind of done in the way of their operation. I would say as a comment, and this may not get at your question exactly Kelly, but I think it is a powerful first step for any district, and I’d like to think that my current district is on this trajectory from the eight months I’ve been here, to simply recognize the learning that does happen and to start acknowledging that as a potential partner with what’s happening in the building. Even if we don’t get as far as like how we’re gonna credential it, I think if we can get reasonable people to agree that A, it is happening and that B, it can be leveraged. I think that would be the first step that we would wanna take here and that any district would wanna take.
Because I think getting that buy-in then allows the conversations to, I think, evolve into what could become down the road an ecosystem. I think if you start with the ecosystem concept, it will threaten way too many people on the inside of the system and, or get derailed from things like “we could never make that work here.”
And, I think, you know, Karen’s point earlier that, before I had to step off, about formal processes, like 21st century learning grants, which I’ve been a part of in other districts I almost cringed when she said that, because my experience has been that is so highly regulated that it strips all the freedom and innovation out of it. And because, and maybe it’s changed since the last time I was involved, it requires itself to be as separate from the regular school days as possible, which is a great idea. But again, it doesn’t allow for the synergy of what’s happening currently to what could happen. I’ll shut up now. That may or may not be what you wanted to hear, but that’s my two cents.
[00:47:03] Karen Pittman: I thought that was great. And I’m glad you had a minute to collect your thoughts. You said a lot of things that I’ll try to comment on real quickly. One is you know, I cringe too with 21st century, but one of the things that’s happened over the 20 years that it’s been in place is we really had to push hard against some of the things that you said of it being set up to be, you know, those dollars were expanded because like, this is where homework help can happen.
So we had to sort of actively push back against, no, this isn’t more school. And even the language about expanded or extended versus just after school, you know, it, there’s a long conversation to have. But my point there was simply, that was one of the first ways that we get any dedicated funding coming in to this space. But it did come in with a lot of strings.
The second thing that you said is, is absolutely right, and we’ve been having this conversation with lots of folks, including the Education Reimagined folks. The ecosystem work can be scary for a whole bunch of reasons. One, it’s just not always a familiar term. Two, it can mean all kinds of things. But the little exercise that you all were asked to do at the beginning is an exercise that we could just do every day, which is this, where, you know, who, where, when, why, how, and how much did learning happen for you that was meaningful?
And not just doing it in a chat for five seconds, but actually making that a conversation and then saying, and why was that? Why was that a meaningful experience? Even doing it in your own building. I mean, if you count from when the kid gets on the bus to when they leave the ball field you know in the afterschool sports program that your school district sponsors, if you ask them in the totality of your day, not just in your academic classes, but in the totality of your day, who, where, when, why, what, you’re gonna get a lot of answers.
You know, I was just on a call with someone who basically said, “Well, we had this conversation and I had to push on it because that’s so much… Well, our teachers need this, and our teachers do that.” I said, “But, you know, if you count up the amount of time, about 40% of kids’ time is not spent in the classroom. They’re in the hallway, the bathroom, the cafeteria, they’re both in their… They’re not in an academic class. Who were the adults that are with them? What are their marching orders?
Is learning happening there? Are relationships being built there? Are the experiences good or bad? And if all this is cumulative, how can we have that conversation?” And that’s a space you can control, you can call it the school eagle, you can call it whatever you want, but that, getting that conversation about with the adults and the kids in the building.
And when we had that and sort of went through a couple of iterations, a person who was a former principal said, “My goodness, now that you’re saying this to me I’m realizing that the kids in my school who were having the most trouble in class, if they managed to keep coming to…” She was a high school principal. “If they managed to keep coming to high school, it’s because they had a relationship with somebody else in the building. and I never leveraged that relationship. I never talked to the bus driver or the cafeteria worker or the school counselor, or the nurse, whoever they were connecting to, that was giving them something that was having them come back for that other stuff that made school a safe community where they felt like somebody knew about them and belonged with them.”
Those are easy things we can do. We can also, in the sense that we just asked for these very short stories, you know, education is asking young people, you know, where is learning happening for you and make telling us what you’re learning out in the community? Your part of the, a part of a part of how you describe how you’re taking what you’re learning in school out. We can do that. So there are so many things that we can do that begin to sort of have the light bulbs go off before we go out and start to talk about how we’re going to add a scale level, knit all of these pieces together.
First, we just have to really believe that having these pieces make sense and that most people have them. And for me, the saddest part is young people and families have them, but we, they have been so convinced that the learning that’s important is the academic stuff that they get measured and tested on. It really takes a good amount of time to get them to tell you the stories and acknowledge the deeper learning that’s happening in those places.
[00:51:16] Paul: Yeah. That’s, that’s great. Brittany, I’m actually going to skip your question about just the general inquiry of like where to start because cause I think some of it was addressed and I’m actually gonna hold it for closing question that I think would be a nice time for everyone to reflect on. So I’m gonna go with Carol. Carol’s asking, “Has there ever been an inquiry into having children and parents as a movement of stakeholders to lead the way in this transformation that we, we envisioned, and what have you seen?”
[00:51:51] Kelly: Can I just say, I don’t know is Cath still on? She was here earlier, she might’ve left, but
[00:51:57] Cath: No, I’m here.
[00:51:58] Kelly: … okay. I just thought that that might be some thing, you know, when you’ve been working on co-learning spaces that are primarily designed for home schoolers, but it started to attract you know, young people and families from the conventional system. So one, I’m curious what you would say, and then Karen, I’m sure you have seen when parents and students have come together so.
[00:52:34] Cath: You know, Kelly, I hate to be a downer here, but you know, I kind of feel like the trend is going the other way. You know, I think that if you look at generation Z, they seem to be even more wanting to do the conventional route. 1- It seems like getting out into the workforce, getting a job while they’re in high school and you know, getting a college… It seems that they wanna go straight to college without any real world experience. Well, it seems, that seems to be where they’re preoccupied.
So you know, if anything , you know, I know that in COVID, there has been a lot more home schoolers and I’m hoping there’ll be a whole big push and that this will start people wanting to create this ecosystem. But, in my experience right now on the ground, I’m not, I’m not seeing a huge rush for the alternative. I’m seeing we want to recreate school while we’re waiting COVID to come down and we wanna stay in the conventional system and hedge our bets. Even in the forums I’m seeing, you know, people saying, “Well, you know, I don’t think colleges are that open to the home schoolers as we thought.” I found it a bit disconcerting, but that’s my truth.
[00:53:43] Kelly: No, it’s great. And Karen, are there things that you’ve seen?
[00:53:48] Karen Pittman: Yes, it’s small levels and you know, I’m conscious of time and I wanna get into the last question. But I would say that in general, and I think, you know, I was curious to hear the homeschooling answer, anytime we’ve removed one of those big accountability barriers there’s a little more chance thatfamilies and young people themselves are getting to sort of have more say and more voice and more confidence that, that the alternatives that they come up with that make sense to them actually could it be put on the table.
One of the places where we’ve seen innovation sort of at that family level is when kids aren’t quite old, when is in grade level reading. So like the campaign for grade level reading which a lot of, you know, about just made the assumption that obviously reading is critical, reading by third… You know, reading on grade level by third grade was a key marker of whether young people were gonna be successful. And giving young people basic opportunities to read and begin to love reading is something anybody in the community could do.
And so that’s what they did. They said, “Let’s make sure everybody in the community knows that they can play this role has the basic tools that they need to have.” And so, you know, they’re working with the laundromats and the barber shops and the grocery stores and the family daycare providers and whatever. So that all hands on deck approach. And where you’re really sort of watching to see if families are responding, and if they have ideas about how to do it, that’s a space where there was a lot of flexibility. And so you’ve had a lot of freedom and you’ve had a lot of family and community input.
[00:55:21] Kelly: Paul, do you wanna lead us out with the last question?
[00:55:25] Paul: Yeah. You know, this question about where to start comes up regardless of the context of the education conversation happening when you’re in this space of reimagining and looking at transformation where to start is one of the core questions regardless of the topic being discussed. So I wanna encourage everyone once again, to go into the chat, like where do you want to start? Whether it’s your professional role, your role as a community member. It’s any degree or level of action. Because I think one of the answers that occurs to me and this is sometimes the place to start is, you know, sitting with what we’re going after, right?
Like sitting with the enormity of it, getting comfortable inside of it and not having it be an initial reaction to go run the other direction, but to actually see the possibility there and then really reflect on the role you want to play. And so sometimes that’s a starting point, to sit with that overwhelm. Uh, Yeah, would love in the chat, uh, where do you want to start, um, after hearing some of the, the comments in this conversation and, and what, you know, uh, Education Reimagined talks about in general about this ecosystem transformation?
[00:56:24] Kelly: And Karen, and just if you wanna go out with the parting word while people are thinking about what they might write, you gave one thing that people can do, which is just allow kids to share where, how, when and what meaningful learning happened, whether in their day during the walls of the school, or extended out all day. Are there other things that you see that might be some immediate actions?
[00:56:24] Karen Pittman: Yeah, I will, I will, um, sort of elaborate on that one really quickly, which I say, I think that there is, I think any time we’re really trying to not just get folks to partner, which is, which has to happen, but in this case, just partnering without going through a pretty rigorous process of saying, we have to think differently about all this stuff. And then we have to really see and hear differently from parents and families and what’s in the community. Then we have to make some really conscious decisions about how we’re gonna change to be better ecosystem thinkers before we just go out and make the ecosystem. Like, how do we, how do we bring that knowledge into our own decisions at the things that we can control? And then turn it into action. Then I think we can come to a table and figure out how does all this stuff add up?
So I guess my first thing is, let’s really do start small. And the best way to sort of think and talk differently, I think is to tell stories. Um, and I will find it and share it later, but, uh yeah, there’s the FrameWorks Institute has really, for the past 20 years done a great job of asking, people have mental frameworks in their head and probably this, the mental framework that we have in our head is toughest as school.
So how do we really get people to challenge the default framework about what learning is and what engagement is and where it happens? ‘Cause if we can’t get people to challenge that, it’s not gonna happen. And so there’s a way to tell stories that are not just individual anecdotes, but stories that really help you personalize it, but also help you understand it and scale it. And it’s like, “Oh, how could that be possible for more kids?” And I think that’s one of the things that we need to do to not go, “Yeah, it’s happening somewhere. It’s happening everywhere, but it’s not happening for all kids.” How do we get from the bright spots to the big thing? We actually need to find a better way to talk about those bright spots that they all don’t feel like individual stars.
[00:56:24] Paul: Awesome. thank you all so much for your time. Karen, thank you for your time. This was fantastic.