Inclusive and Iterative Plan Drives Rhode Island Forward

Community, Leadership, State Policy

The Rhode Island Board of Education and the Rhode Island Dept. of Education recently completed Rhode Island’s 2015-2020 PK-12 Strategic Plan. The inclusive and iterative planning process was initiated by a conversation between Andrea Castañeda and Commissioner Deborah Gist.

Backstory. With 145,000 students, the state is smaller than 16 big urban school districts around the country (and about the same size as Montgomery County, Maryland or Wake County, North Carolina) but the 37 Rhode Island districts (66 total LEAs) value local control.

Gist led a number of controversial reforms including annual educator evaluations, school accountability based on student growth, and a statewide need-based funding formula. With some progress over Gist’s six year tenure the state’s EdPolicy framework rated a grade of C from Digital Learning Now.

Less controversial was her leadership on technology-enhanced teaching. After five school visits in March, it was clear that the state benefits from blended learning partnership in the Highlander Institute.

Castañeda, a member of Gist’s senior team, leads the Division of Financial Integrity and Statewide Efficiencies for the Rhode Island Department of Education. Gist, who is now in Tulsa, displayed a facility with social media unlike any previous state chief. The two framed and launched a remarkable statewide process.

Six questions drove the design of the planning process:

  • What if we started the planning process by listening?
  • What if we invited those most affected by public education to make decisions?
  • What if we treat plan writing like an engagement challenge rather than a writing challenge?
  • What if we train our community to think like designers?
  • What if we provide our community team with the staffing that we would need to do our best work?
  • What if we trust the decisions of our community?

Each step of the process was iterative and inclusive. It began with a statewide survey that garnered 11,000 responses. Over 300 citizens applied to serve on a 26 steering committee–the Ambassador Design Team. The selection process emphasized diversity on a dozen dimensions including experience, ethnicity, and role.

Castañeda recruited two superstar facilitators–Rhode Island teacher of the year David Moscarelli (@DavidMoscarelli) and recent Harvard PhD Jeremiah Newell. They explain the process in a YouTube video. The trio has embraced rapid prototyping based on constant and broad based feedback. They model and incorporate optimism, curiosity, and empathy into the process.

Andrea said, “We tried to design a process that we would want to participate in with professional facilitation, regular customized reports, total transparency, democratized decision-making, and community as policymaker.”

The plan. The plan was developed in four rounds of “rapid prototyping”; in each round the team published a draft to the public for feedback and executed revisions to the draft within two weeks of publication. Over 200 people reviewed the plan and commented on a detailed survey that asked allowed participants to rate importance and provide constructed responses.

A second prototype plan was drafted and reviewed by 400 constituents. Governor Gina Raimondo visited with the Ambassador Design Team. In preparation for prototype three, the team added expert interviews and research reviews. After 200 more responses, the design team met with a dozen experts to firm up plans in six priority areas:

  1. Early childhood education
  2. Global competency
  3. Expand personalized learning
  4. Comprehensive assessment systems with multiple measures
  5. teacher and leadership support
  6. Resources investment

Plans in the six priority areas are relatively high level but do outline the respective responsibility of the state, districts, and community partners. Throughout the process, the team has stressed the importance of equity and excellence.

My take. This approach is the most innovative planning process I’ve seen from a state or district, particularly in regards to inclusion and iteration.

My comments, most of which apply to any region of the country, include:

  1. Build a stronger innovation agenda. The work with Highlander Institute is a good start, but the region could do more to incubate new tools and schools (see chapter 6 of Smart Cities that Work for Everyone). School transformation grants, like the regional Next Generation Learning Challenges, would provide incentives, guidance and support. Rhode Island could lead development of the micro-school concept–school models that 2 teachers could adopt quickly—like next week not next year—that could be provide school-within-a-school models. A+UP in Houston is a cool example of a super innovative middle school pilot with 40 students and six museum partners. The blended model in 5th grade at West Broadway Middle School in Providence has some similarities. Making it easier for other teams to adopt blended models would help schools and districts make the shift.
  1. Strengthen tiered support. The plan doesn’t speak to school improvement but the state has a rudimentary approach. Like Houston’s Apollo program, RIDE should blend its school improvement efforts. The plan should incorporate a ‘good school promise’ — every RI family deserves access to good neighborhood schools and interesting quality options (#7).
  1. Build a global competency certification program. The plan referenced social emotional learning, work readiness, and global competencies including dual language proficiency. The state could be the first to create an appropriately broad set of student learning goals with a lightweight feedback system including a global competency certification.
  1. Create a competency-based assessment system. With support from the New England Secondary School Consortium, Rhode Island could lead the nation in building a student-driven learning system. (See Maximizing Competency Education and Blended Learning: Insights from Experts from iNACOL.)
  1. Embrace teacher leadership. Building on the Highlander Fuse Fellows, Rhode Island could expand efforts to identify and leverage teacher leaders. This approach has been critical in Washington DC (CityBridge Fellows) and Fulton County Georgia.
  1. Push HigherEd on talent development. Like most regions, Rhode Island is not particularly well served by educator preparation programs. In partnership with districts and preparation programs, the state should update hiring profiles and shift to competency-based certification and development. (See 10 elements of a talent development agenda.)
  1. Expand options and portability. Every student deserves access to college credit options (dual enrollment and AP), a half a dozen world languages, high level STEM classes, career and technical education, and a range of electives. The state should map where these programs exist, create incentives for new programs (e.g., immersive dual language feeder patterns), and coordinate a web of online and blended courses.  This will require portable funding (i.e., money follows the student). Many districts hate the idea but there is simply no way to ensure personalization and global competence with a parochial approach that limits student/family options–this is key to equity and excellence.
  1. Build next-gen CTE. Rhode Island students lack broad access to quality career and technical training. In most states, career centers and dual enrollment partnerships with technical colleges would be the solution, but not much of that infrastructure exists. Instead, RIDE could create incentives for partnerships between high schools and code schools and ‘accelerated learning’ providers such as General Assembly, Flatiron, and Udemy. High school students could graduate with skill certificates, job offers, and a portfolio of work (i.e., a web version of NYC’s P-Tech schools). These pathways wouldn’t preclude degree programs but (like career pathways in robotics) an increasing percentage of young people will work and learn simultaneously. This initiative could change high school options (and life trajectories) in a matter of months.

We share a historic opportunity to dramatically improve student learning. It requires EdLeaders to be community conversation leaders crafting a series of agreements with teachers and parents for each phase of the change process. The Rhode Island planning progress is a great example of that commitment.

If you have any association with the public delivery of services, you should pay attention to this planning process, it represents a new method and mindset. The framing questions and facilitation are noteworthy. The inclusion and iteration are remarkable.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.