Enabling Change
Enabling Change

Next generation learning is all about everyone in the system—from students through teachers to policymakers—taking charge of their own learning, development, and work. That doesn’t happen by forcing change through mandates and compliance. It happens by creating the environment and the equity of opportunity for everyone in the system to do their best possible work.

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Kentucky's United We Learn Council is combining policy and practice so that educators and community partners can cultivate relevant and authentic learning experiences with students.

What came first, the chicken or the egg? This old adage has arguably been up for debate since the question was first posed. While it can be argued that the chicken had to be first for the egg to appear, don't all chickens in fact start out in eggs? Similarly, which is more important: having a policy that is permissive and enabling, or having solid systems and best practices in place to realize the vision of the policies?

2Revolution’s work in Kentucky with the United We Learn Council, made possible through leadership of Kentucky Department of Education and central partners including the Center for Innovation in Education’s (CIE) path breaking work is an example how we might cultivate relevant and authentic education experiences for/with students so that they demonstrate their talents and skills in ways that are valued and inspire the community. These partnerships and the commitment to students at the forefront help to make the shifts needed in order to provide Kentucky students with opportunities that would build foundational skills that are necessary in society.

We've had a long history of working to quietly help catalyze, influence, or support the implementation of policy and directly impacting practice in over 40 U.S. states. Recently, in the state of Kentucky, we've had the opportunity to do this once again.

The council, created by the Kentucky Department of Education, composed of 3 standing committees, is the result of a $3M federal grant to support innovations in the state accountability system. All of this effort and investment to change how and what schools mean was built out of a revolutionary state declaration on goals for the commonwealth's school model curriculum framework, originally crafted in the 1990's as a declaration for how schools should prepare the next generation of Kentucky residents. The more cumbersome part of bringing this to life was premised around how to take the state's model framework for schools, and turn it into performance-based credit, so kids can get transcript-bearing credit for anytime/anywhere learning happening daily. By and large, Kentucky districts didn’t walk through the door of a policy that was wide open.

In late November 2022, the United We Learn Council came together in Frankfort to lay the groundwork for what would be a series of prototypes that would move toward a more expansive learning experience for students and teachers alike. Specific to this narrative, in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), this work had been underway in the form of Local Laboratories of Learning aimed at bringing the district's Backpack of Success Skills to life: 

“The community wanted to find a way to honor all of the learning kids do in and out of classrooms, but the current assessment and accountability system was too limited to allow all learning to be honored and ultimately produces inequities that only grow in damage.”

This involved the collaboration of educators and community members to co-create opportunities for kids to learn and demonstrate that learning for credit. With that ambitious goal, there would be an opportunity to ultimately demonstrate the full spectrum of student abilities, motivations, and interests.

In partnership with the district, 2Rev decided that an inclusive community of practice, bringing together classroom teachers and community partners, would be a promising step toward realizing the bold vision of the United We Learn effort.

Our Goals Were Ambitious (Yet Simple)

  • Gain a broader understanding of where and how learning can take place.
  • Declare an increased confidence/competence with approaches to real-world teaching and learning.
  • Evidence-based integration of deeper learning principles, experiential and learner-centered approaches, and a commitment to equitable practices.
  • Improve the application of assessment models that validate experience, learning, and growth and provide a model for the system.
  • Drive greater investment in student voice and choice.
  • Generate a deeper commitment to expanding what’s possible vis a vis mastery-based crediting.
  • Utilize educators’ celebrations of learning to help deepen commitment and bring other peers into the experimentation/learning process in subsequent rounds of this work.

What Did We Actually Do?

  • Given the timing of launch, we ran a small cohort of participants, representing eight different schools (6 HS, 2 MS), and supporting eight unique partner collaborations.
  • Our learning design included:
    • In-person kick-off with teachers and community partners.
    • Bi-weekly one-on-one coaching sessions with teachers to support knowledge and skill building and collaboration (partner matching, communication support, travel logistics, etc.).
    • In-person design studio where teachers and community partners came together to learn with and from each other and ultimately found their perfect "match" based on interest.
    • Four synchronous learning opportunities leveraging 2Rev's unique learning catalog, with a focus on extended and real-world learning.
    • In-person celebration of learning to socialize, celebrate, and lift up the inquiry and progress made during our time together, and lay out specific learning to impact practice and implication of this powerful law.

What Worked?

  • Support from district leadership to ensure alignment at a system level.
  • Community partnership support from a local organization, Evolve502, enabled us to leverage existing relationships to cultivate new collaboration with community partners in an empathetic and reciprocal manner.
  • Educator buy-in—teachers who signed up for the community of practice were those who had belief in their own classroom and were willing to be pushed to try new methods related to how and what they assess students, and how student agency can be grown to reflect inherent passions and experiences students bring into each space they inhabit.
  • Deep pedagogical and leadership content: the content and learning designs offered allowed us to pull from pedagogical approaches of extended and real world-based learning and assessments.

What Lessons Will Inform Future Efforts?

  • Timing is everything: We started too late in the school year, and we were therefore competing against too many things to draw a larger cohort.
  • Clarity of who's in the room and who's not: While our teacher outreach was targeted to those who were “most ready/willing” to engage, our community partners came to the table with varying degrees of interest/experience and desires for their collaboration with JCPS educators.
  • Professional learning dispositions: In a district with many professional learning options, some mandated and others stretch opportunities, most of the teachers we encountered/engaged with were either fully committed to a long term learning experience or “done” with their “PD” hours for the year.
  • Navigating new learning in a large system: Due to the size of JCPS, many educators did not have clarity on how to structurally have kids demonstrate learning for actual class credits. Similarly, the realities of teaching and scheduling off-campus things prevented teachers from engaging kids off campus.

What’s Next and Where to Go from Here?

As we continue to do this work in Kentucky, and elsewhere in the country, the question still remains, which is more important: having a policy that is permissive and enabling, or having solid systems and best practices in place to realize the potential of the policies themselves? At 2Rev, we know our secret sauce is working hand-in-hand with practitioners who are informed, empowered, and upskilled in specific areas to bring any experiential learning to life for their classroom and their learners. The research demonstrates the biggest impact on student outcomes is not the policies or the amount of district wealth or state/federal resources (albeit, these are significant factors). Rather, it is the skill, love, and passion of the teacher directly in front of them that ultimately influences student achievement.

As we continue to engage in our inquiry of policy vs. practice, we eagerly are building more learning opportunities in Kentucky with suburban and rural districts to create more prototypes focused on credentialing anytime/anywhere learning. This work won't just be with teachers, who often have administrative and legislative bumps in the road which, at times, complicate their ability to drive this work forward. Instead, this next step in our community of practice will be focused on school leaders and district designers who have the ability and wherewithal to change, fund, and move their schools, as well as on districts and communities. Our goal is a more reciprocal, empathetic, co-created, and inclusive experience for all. The question of whether policy or pedagogical shifts is better for student outcomes becomes less an “either/or” and more of a “both” in conjunction and collaboration. The chickens and the eggs are, in actuality, one in the same.

Photo at top courtesy of Bullitt County Public Schools (Kentucky). This article originally appeared on the 2Revolutions blog on September 7, 2023. This article was updated on October 2 to better reflect the breadth of partnership behind United We Learn.

Ray James headshot

Ray James

Senior Consultant, 2Revolutions

Ray is a senior consultant for 2Revolutions. He has served as an ELA teacher, school turn-around educator, grade level chair, and director of extended learning. Most recently, Ray served as founding assistant principal at KIPP Soul Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. In this position, he was responsible for designing and implementing curriculum and building out the region’s first-ever anti-racism professional development and culture of independent reading programs. Both efforts met the urgent needs of students returning to school post-COVID. Ray is also heavily involved in community organizing for educational equity and reform within local school districts and community organizations. Ray leads a variety of different efforts at 2Rev to increase learner-centered and equitable environments in formal and informal education settings, eager to put the revolution in the hands of learners—now and forevermore.