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Why Policy Makers Need Educators IN THE ROOM

The theme for my summer has been, don’t miss the opportunities when they are there. Don’t miss them because they are inconveniently timed and also, don’t miss them because they might come disguised as somewhat unimportant, mundane events. I have spent a lot of time in the former….choosing to be a part of critical discussions even when I would have loved to be somewhere else enjoying summer. As I reflect on those choices, I don’t have a single regret. There are some AMAZING conversations happening in our district and the innovative work we have done at CSCS and the messy learning experiences we have had are laying critical groundwork for future planning that has truly transformative potential! There will be much more to talk about in this area as the work unfolds.

Earlier in August, Corinne Neil, CSCS educator, and I had one of the latter experiences. As part of the UW School of Education action research team working on the role of conferring in creating truly personalized learning environments for students, we were invited to come to a meeting at the

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI). The research work we were a part of is being funded by a larger grant from the Federal Department of Education, and representatives from that office were at DPI for the day to assess the progress of the work. The grant is focused on data and data systems and how the state can support school districts in the collection and use of data to improve student learning. The UW research team we are collaborating with is one small part of the grant.

While meeting with members of the Federal Department of Education was a unique aspect of this meeting, I have experienced meetings like this before. They seem to go something like this…..a lot of really smart, really passionate people get together in a room and share out the smart stuff they are doing, talk about how they should collaborate more, generate some cool ideas, and unfortunately, almost nothing comes of it. Corinne shared that as an employee of an educational assessment company for several years, she too had sat in many meetings like this previously. Her role was to try to find ways for her company to capitalize on the funding that was being generated by the ideas and policies that were being talked about. So neither of us entered with high levels of optimism for the experience.

As I watched this particular experience unfold, I began to notice something that made this meeting more unique and perhaps more significant. Not because I expected something dramatic to result from this one experience, but because of the very unique position Corinne and I were in. As people reported out on their part of the work, they talked about their role at CESAs, at DPI, at district level central office, and at the University, and most of them talked about the collection, dissemination, and usage of what I see as very traditional achievement and behavioral data.

While the room was quite full, and there were a lot of different voices and perspectives represented, it became clear that Corinne and I were the only school based educators in the room, and that our message was quite adjacent to the conversation.

While we agreed that large data systems made perfect sense, and that it had potential to inform instruction, we also needed to highlight a fundamental flaw in the current implementation - the data being collected, is not the right data.

We shared that because there has been a lot of success in helping educators see the importance of making data driven decisions, the data really does have an impact on instruction and collecting the right data matters. We take our obligation to innovation in order to close the opportunity gap very seriously at Clark Street Community School. We shared that as we ask teachers to work to increase student agency as a means to engage ALL students and help them develop an identity as learners, we have to develop ways to capture when students are moving in this direction. The current data we collect rarely captures the early indicators of success. Absent good assessment of early indicators of success, it is very challenging to sustain the innovation and support educators as they wade in this unfamiliar water.

And then it was over. We shared. They listened and took notes. Some in the room even nodded and smiled. There were a few attempts by others to add some emphasis to what we said, and then the discussion returned to things much more traditional and expected, which gave me some time to ponder the question….”Why were we in this room at all?” And that, for me, was the power in what was for the most part, a uneventful experience.

We had been invited into that room, and the people who invited us knew the essence of what we were going to say. It was outside of the expectations of the agenda for the discussion for most of the people in the room, but at least a few people in the room were hoping it would be raised. As the only two people in the room who were working directly with students on a daily basis we were saying, “We are missing critical data to do our work, and we believe we can help you design better measures and better tools to get it,” and the people who are making decisions at the state level wanted others to hear that message from us.

I don’t expect our statements or our presence will have any impact on the discussions at the federal level, but our presence in the room was one of many signs I have seen lately that decision makers at the local and state level are ready to start thinking differently. We have an amazing opportunity to move the conversation forward. If we are serious about the work, we must continue to be serious about “showing up to the table” when we are invited and perhaps inviting ourselves to the table when we are overlooked!

Please share your ideas and invitations to places where you think we should be IN THE ROOM below. I look forward to hearing thoughts and engaging in richer conversations as we look for ways to scale the innovation happening here at Clark Street Community School.


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