People ultimately want to know if their investment in education is paying off — outcomes that go beyond a high school graduation. What does the success rate of learners look like once they leave the public education system?
Principal at Education Solutions
John Fischer is currently the Principal at Education Solutions, LLC. John sits on Education Reimagined’s Board of Directors after previously serving on the Advisory Council. John has also worked in philanthropy and served as the Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Transformation for the Vermont Agency of Education. In this interview, John discusses how learners and communities will be the drivers of large-scale, learner-centered change and how institutions can better welcome a learner-centered worldview.
Q: Can you share some of your achievements during your time at the Vermont Agency of Education and the approach you took to create change at a state level?
John: A single person doesn’t create that level of change — there was a groundswell of interest in changing how we worked with learners in K-12 and how we assessed them. The whole federal accountability system had been under discussion in Vermont from the early days of No Child Left Behind.
In fact, prior to No Child Left Behind, Vermont had a rich assessment environment based on portfolio development. Then, leading up to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), there were opportunities from the federal policy level for Vermont to innovate and create more flexible learning environments, opportunities that did not require state or federal funding nor put certification of teachers at risk.
We participated in and worked with a growing coalition of people forming a grassroots movement where educators, principals, superintendents, parents, and learners were saying, “There’s gotta be a better way.”
There were different constraints from the federal level which we worked within, but what emerged was moving towards a proficiency-based graduation policy, changes in the school quality standards, and new legislation that created the mandate for personalized learning plans. The state played a large role in risk management, but none of this would have happened if we were trying to implement it directly from the state level. You need community interest and support.
Q: We know there is an intersection between the value of learner-centered education and what will be necessary for a prepared, secure, and capable workforce. How have you thought about this intersection?
John: As learners move from middle school into high school, their career is increasingly on their minds. If it’s not on the learner’s mind, it’s certainly on their parents’ minds. Moreover, when you step out of the education sector, employers are thinking about the talent pipeline and how that will be renewed and improved.
That brings into question: What is the value proposition for public education? If you bring together employers, educators, learners, parents, and other stakeholders in the community, they want to know the value of the education the young people in the community are receiving. People are asking that question about K-12, community college, and four-year universities — and I don’t think that question is leaving any time soon.
At the university level, it’s partly driven by rising costs coupled with the fact that resources for marginalized learners have not kept pace with the level of spend required. In many cases, low and even middle-income families just can’t afford college tuition, especially if the salary following graduation cannot justify the investment. Yet, academic credentials have traditionally been a proxy for readiness for the workforce and career. Sometimes that’s a good proxy, sometimes it is purely a stand-in — but regardless, people are looking for what that proxy conveys and if there is value for them in it.
As we talk about proficiency-based graduation and learner-centered education, you’re measuring learning in many different ways, often resulting in something other than conventional grading systems. The proxy is gone. Yet, what is actually happening is more than a proxy. Learners are gaining skills that are important to employers and vital to the young people as future employees and leaders — creativity, innovation, team building, critical thinking, and problem-solving, to name a few. We know employers are already seeking these skillsets, seeking employees who are resilient and nimble. That is what learner-centered approaches deliver.
Notably, education plays a role in balancing the needs of employers as they help learners develop the skills they need for a fulfilling career. Parents and community members need to feel comfortable that the education system is adjusting to that future workforce. Additionally, taxpayers — whether individuals or businesses — want to feel like their dollars are being well-spent on an education that is preparing learners for the future. It all comes back to the education system’s promised value and delivered value.
Parents and community members need to feel comfortable that the education system is adjusting to that future workforce.
Principal at Education Solutions
Q: How do you think about audience engagement when it comes to developing demand (or allowance for) learner-centered innovation?
John: Everybody is a priority at some level, but we want to start with learners and then move out from there. Learners have a range of support systems, influencers, and public stakeholders — families, peers, and the people who support and influence them, including educators and the many types of educators we’ll see with ecosystems, from community-based organizations heads to librarians to museum staff.
As we start with the learner and move out, these circles become quite large. One thing to keep in mind is: How do you communicate and keep all of those people informed, engaged, and offering viable feedback? When engaging with any stakeholder, it’s important to have a foundation of clarity through communications.
Years ago, we didn’t see hospitals or banks with the robust communications strategies they have today. Yet, it was imperative they develop that capacity to stay in and drive their business. Education is just now starting to get to a level of proficiency in communications. And, unfortunately, this has been spurred primarily by parents’ opposition to something, whether to testing, common core, or any other topic. Despite this, building the capacity to communicate clearly and market effectively is essential for education.
Q: How can higher education institutions prepare to enroll graduates from learner-centered environments?
John: We really want to look at the data systems we use and make sure they align across K-12, higher education, and with employers — particularly when it comes to college credits and transcripts.
For instance, learners in Vermont have a flexible system where they demonstrate their proficiencies as they align with the state standard, and can also showcase their other talents and abilities. When these learners transition to post-secondary — whether it’s higher education, the military, an apprenticeship, or a career — these systems don’t always assess a person’s skills using the same metrics or data. Higher education, in particular, has not been innovative in how they accept learners without a traditional transcript, but I think that is beginning to change as they look at what their population wants and how they can be competitive. Revenue is a big driver for change in higher education.
I’d really like to see a holistic transformation and review of what higher education looks like. Third-party intermediaries are helping at the K-12 level, and I think this would be beneficial in bringing innovation to the college system. We also need to look at the data systems we use to credential learning outcomes in K-12, connect those systems to higher education, and then fully integrate higher education systems with workforce systems.
People ultimately want to know if their investment in education is paying off — outcomes that go beyond a high school graduation. What does the success rate of learners look like once they leave the public education system? Especially when we look at tax dollars, public leaders are stewards of that money and want to be able to show it is being put to good use and truly serving as an investment in the learners and the community.
Just as importantly, what does that learner’s experience look like in higher education as they go through this? Ideally, a new, innovative, and learner-centered pathway in higher education should include credit for prior learning, experiential learning, and so on. The purpose of these data sets or learning records is that someone could look at a learner’s experience, portfolio, or body of work and have an understanding of that person’s skills, knowledge, and experience. This would free us from solely basing our understanding of a person’s learning on grades, GPAs, or a transcript.
Q: What strategies or infrastructure do we need for families to be more comfortable with learner-centered education?
John: We will need a variety of demonstration sites to point to and test. This isn’t about developing one model and dropping it into every community — it’s a collection of ideas and methods based on the learner and community’s assets and needs. Of course, there will be challenges to overcome, but a learner-centered ecosystem needs to have nimbleness in it because it’s not one-size-fits-all. What happens in Denver will look different from what happens in Colorado Springs, and certainly different from Boston or a rural community in Nebraska. Having an approach that is adaptable and flexible will help the structures to be designed based on community input.
The priority should be putting learners at the center and allowing for multiple pathways to their own definition of success. We’re not creating a defined pathway that every learner has to follow or a specific selection from which they all must pick. Multiple pathways allow learners to be at the center of their journey.
We also need to make sure the initiative and its goals are clearly understood by all. If it isn’t, you’re not going to get the buy-in that is needed for widespread adoption. There needs to be a clear communication strategy that articulates why this system is more beneficial for learners than the old system. Often in education, we create complexity because we think it shows rigor and quality but in the meantime, you lose your public support. There should be concise and effective clarity in what we say to families and communities. That communication model also needs to be a two-way street, allowing for feedback and co-design with the community.
Simply put, there will need to be some political buy-in, but the parents are ultimately the decision-makers. They’re the recipients when a learner comes home at night and says, “I had a great day” or “I don’t quite understand what I’m doing at school.”