ABOUT the Challenge
A deep dive into the persistent issue of fragmentation in the education system
AN ILL-SUITED APPROACH FOR IMPROVING A COMPLEX SYSTEM
While fragmentation is to some degree endemic to the structure of public education, the problem is greatly exacerbated by ways of working that are ill-suited for improving a complex social system.
Our habit in the field is to approach improvement and innovation as if it were relatively straightforward. We reach for solutions before we sufficiently investigate the problem, and we fail to test and refine those solutions before taking them to scale. The typical approach is to go straight from the data (e.g., college-going rates are low, or teacher evaluations seem inflated) to a remedy (e.g., more rigorous high school requirements, or new evaluation criteria).
A linear and laser-focused strategy works best when the consequences of change are predictable, contexts are similar, and there are a small number of easily measured and agreed upon outcomes. In education, none of that is true.
Too often, we get cosmetic changes, leading us to abandon strategies and try something new. To be sure, many of the improvement strategies pursued in recent years have moved the needle in some important ways. But it would be hard to argue that the levels of performance they produced were anywhere near what was hoped for or anywhere near what we need to ensure the future success of all students.
Unless we adopt more integrative ways of working, we may find ourselves continuing to experience the same frustrations, even as the field bets on a new set of strategies.
INTENTIONALLY ACCOUNTING FOR THE COMPLEXITIES OF THE EDUCATION SYSTEM
People working to improve the education system have all experienced the difficulties that arise from working in isolation and moving forward with untested assumptions (particularly when attempting to scale their innovations, or to set themselves up for long-term sustainability). An integrative approach is not simply a matter of continuously improving the components of the current education system. Transformative advancements, rather than incremental change, require that significantly different ways of working become the norm in a field.
An integrative strategy entails working across traditional silos, and focusing on how individuals experience the systems we want to improve. The techniques for doing so may be found among such well-established disciplines as human-centered design, systems thinking, and change management, among others. While these methods are discussed, studied, and tinkered with in education, their practice is far from widespread in the field. That will likely continue to be the case without some coordinated investments to build the capacities of people and organizations to work in ways to produce greater coherence. The shifts in mindset and culture represented are too big to think otherwise.
While there are many different strategies that can help alleviate the effects of fragmentation, the IDC has identified three guiding principles for working in more integrative ways:
Cultivating a Shared Sense of Purpose
Co-creating Inclusive Environments
Building Individual and Team Capacity that is Responsive to Change