Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic: Building Redesign Muscles for Durable, Equity-oriented Change

Photos courtesy of Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Imagine a team of teachers and school leaders reviewing recent student data from math coursework and progress assessments:

“We see a significant difference between the data for Black male scholars versus other students. What can we do to close these gaps?”

In the education reform world, we often think of pursuing a problem like this through one of two approaches: continuous improvement (“Let’s get better at doing what we’ve planned to do”) or innovation (“It’s time to do things differently”). We often do both of these things on a sporadic basis, through large-scale, formal planning processes and/or the design and launch of new programs and schools. 

COVID-19 has made it obvious that we don’t have the luxury of choosing one or the other. The education sector needs to change the conditions for its core programs AND discover new solutions to pervasive and persistent injustices. System leaders have to act with a dual focus on durable improvement of existing programs and on innovation in bold new directions, right now.

So how might we make the act of redesign in support of equity a continuous, sustainable, and repeatable practice? Last spring, the Bellwether Education and Learning Accelerator teams were in the early throes of the pandemic and compelled to explore this question. To do so, we launched a new networked learning community called the Strategy Lab, to support seven school districts representing 299 schools and serving 163,000 students. Our challenge to these districts was this: Pick one significant problem of equity in your system to tackle. We didn’t ask systems to pick a reform model or solution, or to go into a comprehensive strategic planning process. Rather, core teams committed to a common process, working to identify and engage in deep inquiry of meaningful challenges and design and execute pilots. We learned alongside them as they tackled getting back to learning while pursuing new practices that could make their work with students more equitable and the systems more resilient. 

The work has humbled us, but we’ve learned a few things about building muscles for durable, meaningful change.

Inclusion Is Not a “Nice-To-Have”: Effective, Urgent Redesign Requires Authentic Engagement With Those Closest to the Problem

In response to the question posed at the beginning of this piece, many teams would dig even more deeply into learning data to identify an action step. “Let’s double-down on intervention time using tool XX and see if that helps.” 

But what if the problem isn’t insufficient intervention? What if the data only show us part of the story? In the past, our need for speed has led us to exclude important voices from research efforts. Education leaders might justify skipping interviews or other types of engagement because “parents are too busy,” “we have data from the student survey,” or “the recent research report tells us what we need to know.” But we’ve learned that problems of equity are often far more nuanced than what quantitative data show. Developing understanding, quickly and deeply, to solve the right problem from the data means bringing together and meaningfully engaging an authentically inclusive group of people to discover and examine the systems they rely on for support and understanding the faults in those systems.

In our example, let’s assume, instead of defining a solution during the weekly data review that the team instead intentionally paused and decided to speak directly to its Black male scholars and the teachers working with them. While maintaining urgency, they undertook a set of empathy interviews (an essential part of processes like Liberatory Design): 

“In conversations with students and teachers, we’ve learned that the math program we use is not engaging Black male scholars for sustained periods of time; they find the program we’re using boring and easy to game. When they need help (from teachers or peers), scholars don’t have positive experiences asking for it.” 

Developing a richer understanding might take a little more time, but likely brings significant payoff. In one Strategy Lab district, leaders brought together teachers, families, and students to explore how to increase a sense of belonging in school. They brought these voices to their board, which increased overall understanding of the challenge and built a stronger mandate for change.

Going back to our example, the team might now pilot a very different solution to the challenge than they might have imagined simply based on the math data:

“Based on what we know now, we have a hunch that making changes to our schedule to accommodate extended individual engagement and support for Black male scholars could be impactful, let’s learn from others about how they do this.”

“Doing” Is a Good Place to Start

Mechanisms for designing change, such as strategic planning or innovation cycles, often feel daunting, complicated to do well, and hard to sustain. In an early conversation with one Strategy Lab district, one team remarked: “We want to move towards competency-based learning, but we don’t know when we’ll have time to really plan for that big of a change.”

Have we let perfect be the enemy of good? What if we prioritized the small, doable changes that could get us on a pathway for learning more about the problem? Rather than waiting until the next marking period, break, or the summer, what if teams could identify one intentional practice to start learning more about the problem? In the case of the school team this might look like the following: 

“For the next four weeks, Mr. Hynes will conduct 1:1 weekly conferences with Marcus, Samuel, and Joseph. He will use those conferences to learn more about needs and interests with a view to developing individualized homework feedback.” 

Systems can make small and intentional tweaks to the things already underway, especially when there is a new and sharper focus on achieving outcomes that advance equity. Rather than getting paralyzed with tackling everything, and armed with better understanding, teams can hone in on meaningful changes to try now.

That Strategy Lab leader? Instead of planning for planning, we encouraged them to identify a small point of trial grounded in a specific equity challenge that could help inform future stages. They did.

Pursuing Small, Incremental Changes for Some Students Can Help Move Meaningfully Towards the Transformative

Working in the context of the reform movement has often meant that change needed to be big, bold, or innovative, and discouraged incremental or smaller-scale change as not enough.  A consequence of this is that we have implemented tools, resources, and practices that are, in theory, scalable, but in practice and impact are not. 

We are reminded of a leader we worked with over the summer, during the height of reopening planning. They felt discouraged that a change they’d made didn’t feel big enough given the scope of the changes that needed to happen for system success. Our conversation together helped us to realize that what the leader saw as a small change in the scheme of their larger system was, in fact, a humongous one for the students who most needed it the intended beneficiaries of the work. 

These small changes on behalf of some students (those most in need) can set a foundation for deeper work in the longer term and could down the road lead to more comprehensive strategic planning. Returning one last time to our school team, they settled on a deeper engagement model for their Black male scholars that built directly on learnings from the pilot: 

“Based on the learning from the conferences pilot, we will begin using a ‘point person’ check-in model with all Black male scholars who are facing challenges balancing work and school. Ultimately, we want to find ways to deepen engagement for all students.”

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The COVID-19 era has taught us that small-scale change can positively change mindsets and habits, and can put systems on a path to larger scale, sustainable change. 

The Strategy Lab work has helped us recognize that redesign is a real-time process, not a single, disconnected act. The gaps in equity are more significant than our teams had imagined, as are the challenges to truly changing existing systems as designed. Yet, the passionate commitment and skills of districts gives us hope about the future. 

We’ve captured additional lessons about this change process, as well as stories from districts, in toolkit form here.


Beth Rabbitt is CEO of The Learning Accelerator and Gwen Baker is Chief Operating Officer and Partner at Bellwether Education Partners.