Systems and Structures: What Needs Must Be Addressed for a Learner-Centered Future

Insights   15 June 2022
By Karen Pittman


The technological capacity exists to create specific, verifiable, predictable ways that give students access to and credit for learning no matter where, when, or with whom it happens.

Karen Pittman
Founder and Partner at KP Catalysts; Senior Advisor at Education Reimagined

“How can we have learner-centered education equitably made available to every child and family who want it in the country, regardless of race, income, and zip code?”

In her most recent note, Kelly Young, President of Education Reimagined, posed this question. 

This question and the commitment to getting to its answer was what drew me to Education Reimagined and Kelly in the first place. Now, two years later, I am serving as a Senior Advisor to the organization. With my five decades of experience in the youth development world, it has been exciting to work with a K-12 focused team eager to understand the more informal, less visible architecture of community learning systems that have been built to complement (and sometimes compensate for) public schools. 

For examples of these community learning systems, we can look to national brands, like the Boys and Girls Clubs and Ys; local networks, like the Providence Afterschool Alliance and other intermediaries in the Every Hour Counts Network; or those local, regional, and national organizations focused on topics, such as STEM, the arts, or civic engagement. Many of these systems partner with their school districts to align learning goals and expand opportunities. 

Despite this, only a few have succeeded in getting their students and providers formal credit and resources. For most, this Herculean task was, in fact, not a part of their mission. It is, however, critical to the realization of The Big Idea Education Reimagined has put forth — the vision of thriving equitable learner-centered, community-based, publicly funded ecosystems. 

This is what excites me most about The Big Idea. The idea that we must invent the public infrastructure needed to support and sustain learner-centered ecosystems that fully credit learner competencies and generously resource learning settings for all young people in the community. 

As Education Reimagined seeks to catalyze this vision and empower its network of partners who have demonstrated learner-centered principles at some level to get to proof of concept as quickly as possible, KP Catalysts (of which I am a founder and Partner) is bringing its experience, connections, and emphasis on the community learning systems outside of K-12 to advance this work.

Today, I want to delve into some of the challenges and opportunities that I see in front of both organizations as we pursue this important work.

A Thorny Dilemma

First, I want to again turn to Kelly’s note where she talked about a commitment to reaching the children and families “who want [learner-center education] in the country.” I wonder how much we are contending with a want issue vs. a need issue.

I would contend most families, regardless of race, income, and zip code, actually want their children to experience agency, to develop competencies in ways that are personal, relevant, and contextualized, and to be in environments that center relationships and a child’s lived experiences. They may not have the words to describe these aims, but anyone who has experienced the wonder of the first three years of human development — before systems step in to share responsibility for the growth of that child — has an intuitive understanding of what it means to be learner-centered. 

But, there it is — systems that step in to share responsibility — this is where things get tricky. 

What happens when what parents want for their children comes up against societal requirements that they share responsibility with organizations and institutions supposedly designed to support major aspects of learning and development for all children? What happens when there are clear, traditions, constraints, mandates, or even biases around who they can and should share this responsibility with?

In fact, it is worth noting schools are not the only structured places outside the family where trained adults support learning. Childcare and OST providers, libraries and museums, faith and civic organizations, arts and culture institutions, summer programs and STEM networks, and employers all play roles. 

Yet, schools are the only system where attendance is required and where choice of school, teacher, peers, curriculum is limited.

As the dominant system, schools have not only claimed time blocks that other organizations and institutions must work around; they have also put forth narrow definitions of how, where, and with whom learning happens and linked those limited definitions to credentialing. This bundling of defining power relegates the learning that goes on outside of the school day and school walls to a secondary status of “nice-to-have but not necessary.” 

Parent surveys (and youth statements) make it very clear that they highly value the flexible, often customized, learning opportunities found in these other settings — settings they select and often pay for. At the same time, parents also value the functionality and reliability of schools. 

Schools are (or were until COVID-19) open daily, solving or reducing childcare needs for working parents. They provide transportation, food, and some basic services (like health screenings). They support social development and deliver the academic content required for formal credentials. 

Even if a parent believes their assigned school’s teachers, curricula, culture, or climate fall short of the kind of learner-centered education their children could benefit most from, without the resources, time, or information needed, most parents find themselves unable to change things for their children or advocate on behalf of others. Their needs and circumstances trump their want for something different — moreover, this is a tension often felt more significantly by families whose young people face the most disadvantage.

This dilemma is at the heart of Kelly’s very real and correct insistence that getting systems to radically change their architecture while supporting the status quo is extremely difficult, if not impossible. As she shared with me recently: 

“We are talking about a dramatic shift in the aim and function of an institution. That shift will not happen by just adding things onto the current education system. It will take outright redesign to enable the kinds of learning that respects and challenges kids, and gets them in the driver’s seat of their learning and life.”

A Focus on Infrastructure

This dilemma is why Education Reimagined’s commitment to helping communities build the infrastructure needed to create equitable, learner-centered ecosystems is so important. 

When in place, this infrastructure has the potential to give families, regardless of income, race, and zip code, the right and the resources needed to make adjustments that optimize their children’s learning. Moreover, in an ideal world, there is enough work done to cultivate appreciation in less-resourced communities for credit-producing, learner-centered education that is not tethered to the school building or schedule, that parents and young people come to believe it is their responsibility to demand these rights.

Infrastructure lessons come from varied sources. We might look to the coordination of community-based learning intermediaries, like out-of-school time networks that coordinate school-age after-school and summer learning and opportunity youth networks that coordinate education and employment opportunities for out-of-school and overaged youth. Lessons also come from the multiple types of preexisting learner-centered environments (what I would call “micro” learner-centered ecosystems), such as The Met and Iowa Big

All of these different examples must be examined to truly understand the formula for success. How do each of the elements of the learning environments that Education Reimagined champions (learner agency; socially embedded; personalized, relevant, and contextualized; open-walled; competency-based) fit together? What barriers are currently preventing them from growing? 

Because the challenge of bridging from what exists today (a lack of public infrastructure that supports learner-centered ecosystems and no expectation of one) to the vision in The Big Idea (an established public infrastructure enabling dynamic learner-centered ecosystems and demand for them), is one of scale. 

Building Momentum for the Big Push

This brings us to an important question and one that KP Catalysts is committed to addressing:

Why is it that exemplary models like Big Picture (the Met) or Urban Assembly that have incredible sustained success rates and operate — albeit creatively — within public school systems, haven’t led to more system-level changes? 

School systems, by and large, still substantively look and operate as they have for the last 100+ years. And, they are getting the outcomes they were designed to produce. We do not see more systems-level change where there are pockets of innovation because school systems are largely immune to market pressure and innovation. 

Case in point. The KP Catalysts team has spent the last four months exploring Portland, ME for our Changing the Odds Remix podcast. We’ve done so through the eyes of Margarida Celestino, a graduate of Casco Bay High School, an EL Education school. 

While Margarida’s school experience and community reveal an outstanding web of support, it became very clear that many aspects of her experience were unique to Casco Bay. The school nurse made this most evident. She serves two schools on the same campus and reflected that Casco Bay’s focus on relationships and community was not found in the other school she serves. 

What is striking about this is that even in such close proximity and with such potential, there is no innovation bleed. Even when systems embrace a learner-centered vision and have interest in moving toward The Big Idea, their tendency is to make functional changes one at a time, and they struggle to lift up and scale the learnings.


As the dominant system, schools have not only claimed time blocks that other organizations and institutions must work around; they have also put forth narrow definitions of how, where, and with whom learning happens and linked those limited definitions to credentialing.

Karen Pittman
Founder and Partner at KP Catalysts; Senior Advisor at Education Reimagined

In his recent blog posts, Christensen Institute’s Thomas Arnett talks about disruptive innovations in business as compared to that in the K-12 education space. He has previously lifted up the example of the transistor radio

As radio companies innovated, their purpose was not to replace the big, fancy home systems; it was to complement them with something portable. The manufacturers of the big systems were doing R&D on transistors, but the true innovation happened in the more nimble ecosystem created around improving the functionality of the new portable product. The quality and reliability of the transistor radio improved to the point where big box radios became obsolete.

The comparison is interesting and informative, with a few clarifications. 

Of course, public education itself is not going to become obsolete. As the Partnership for the Future of Learning emphasizes, public education reflects our commitment to our democracy, with the intent that “students build the knowledge and skills they need for their future,” and it is intended to provide “a level playing field for everyone.” While currently, that playing field is not level, public education is the only system that is designed to serve all young people in our country. 

What could become obsolete is the current rigid systems that we now associate with public education. Supportive, flexible, holistic systems that provide what families and youth need AND want could make that so.  

Likewise, unlike big box vs. portable radios, school systems and community learning ecosystems are not necessarily market competitors. 

For this reason, Arnett suggests we focus on a push to increase the functionality and reliability of learning ecosystems that have already cracked the challenge of getting students credit for non-classroom-based learning opportunities. It gives more families real choices and provides lessons and functional hacks school systems could learn and borrow from. 

However, Arnett also laments that fully aligned learning ecosystems are relatively rare, so the push to get reliable, functioning options into the water that are enticing enough for more school systems to adopt in some fashion seems like a long process. So, this approach may not result in the complete transformation of the public school system as we know it, but it could get us several steps closer to The Big Idea.

At KP Catalysts, we believe we can build momentum to support the innovation many families and school leaders want by acknowledging and assessing the capacities of community-based learning systems that are building competencies and connections that are valuable to families (and employers) but not yet getting formal credit from schools. (We’ll dig in more on these in a forthcoming piece.) 

Any conversation with these community-based learning systems will quickly surface their frustrations with trying to work with schools. Some have navigated them more successfully than others. All, however, feel they bear the weight of having to deliver the flexible programming and staffing families and young people want within constraints imposed by bureaucratic systems.

The Elephant in the Room

If we want the community-based learning systems that are already creating flexible, learner-centered opportunities that meet our kids and families where they are to have a seat at the table, we must tackle the elephant in the room — the Carnegie Unit. 

Individual schools and education networks have demonstrated the power of learner-centered environments that give students the confidence and freedom to follow their interests, foster connections, and build essential competencies at their own pace. They have significantly expanded the opening of the funnel and given their students what they need to succeed at phenomenally high rates even in the narrow ways defined by the Carnegie Unit. But, as long as grades are connected to narrow curricula requirements and seat time in school-sanctioned classes is the official currency, the lessons from these networks won’t be scaled, and the lessons from community-based systems that aren’t sanctioned to use this currency won’t be acknowledged.  

At its summit this year, the Carnegie Foundation itself acknowledged that time is an inadequate proxy for learning and that the time had come to build a new version of the Carnegie Unit. This is huge. It not only gives school systems the signal they need to unbundle learning; it gives parents and community organizations the confidence they need to push for the financial and accountability resources they need to create, scale, and get credit for powerful learning alternatives.

The technological capacity exists to create specific, verifiable, predictable ways that give students access to and credit for learning no matter where, when, or with whom it happens. 

Organizations like the XQ Institute, for example, have begun designing and field testing an integrated set of student success goals linked to portable, competency-based performance measures for students and program measures for providers including, but not limited to, schools. They are looking at ways to democratize this information — putting it in the hands of families and students, as well as formal and informal educators — so that students themselves can have more control over, and be assured of getting credit for, learning efforts wherever they happen. I’m excited that KP Catalysts is partnering with XQ Institute in this work.

Even more important, however, parents’ and community providers’ motivation to break the chokehold are at an all-time high. Surveys consistently show that parents highly value these structured, voluntary learning opportunities as an integral part of their children’s development. And, during the pandemic, communities that already had organized networks of private community-based organizations were able to galvanize solutions that leveraged the flexibility of their members to respond with people, places, and possibilities when schools closed in ways that other places could not. 

Pandemic pods provided the most empowering examples of parents working with community organizations to create relationship-rich home bases that became learning hubs for online classes and enrichment opportunities. 

It is the combination of these forces that make it possible to imagine an infrastructure responsible for maximizing alternative paths to success and certification in which money can follow the students — money for staffing and program resources, for family supports, and for quality and safety assessments.   

The best way to close the gaps between need and want, especially for families with limited resources, is to ensure they can get the functionality they need without sacrificing the learning quality they want within the school day, paid for by the school system. Individually and collectively, they will need the resources, information, confidence, and tools to access and navigate an aligned ecosystem of learning, build coherent pathways, validate quality, and advocate when needed. This is the step we must take to address the thorny word “want.”

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.