How the ed sector helps develop the next generation of learning leaders

May 18, 2023

Imagine you are an education commissioner or the head of a small consulting firm, or in any leadership role you dream for yourself. Now, develop a theory of action for your next project. Consider: What will be unique about what you are trying to achieve? How will you ground your work in a systems approach? How will you open yourself up to the idea that leadership is not a role but a way of being?

We presented this task to our students on their last day of class at the Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) at Columbia University earlier this month. It was an assignment they had been working toward all semester: building their muscles in governance theory, systems change, stakeholder participation, measurement and knowledge management, legal research and policy development, and communication across lines of difference, while leaning on their graduate school training in law, business, policy, education, and data science.

They have learned by reading about theory and practice, by diving into case studies and hearing directly from leaders across the education sector about how they have transformed how their systems operate to be able to give every student what they need when they need it.  

More importantly, CPRL students learned by doing, applying their theoretical study to hands-on, real-world projects. Collectively, our 32 students worked on a number of projects on the national, state, and local levels. They helped system leaders rewire how they make decisions; define success; motivate action; support and scale high-quality services; solve problems; and define, generate, capture, share, and spread knowledge. 

Here’s a snapshot of CPRL’s Spring 2023 work with the ed sector in which students learned how to effect equity-focused systems change:

Studying while experimenting with systemwide innovation and transformation. 

  • Supported school districts, charter organizations, and an advisory council of education policy, industry, family partnership, and educator preparation leaders in reorienting their systems around real partnership with families and students to realize equitable, individualized education—strengthening innovation visions, strategic planning, implementation, and monitoring efforts. 
  • Collaborated with a school district’s leaders and stakeholders to implement a performance management framework to accelerate its turnaround effort following state takeover.
  • For another school district, combined research and engagement of diverse groups of stakeholders to create strategy and guidance for universal dyslexia screening and related supports.

Redefining and reimagining the governance of the teaching profession. 

  • In partnership with a group of school districts and charter organizations, proposed and developed statewide demand for legislative and policy changes focused on revamping educator certification, measurement, and accountability.
  • Overhauled the design and use of data and measurement systems to enable ongoing improvements to an education organization’s operations and that of its national network members, with a particular focus on improving recruitment, training, support, and retention of Black educators.

Establishing schools as participatory democracies. 

  • Partnered with a foundation to map a school district’s family-school partnership ecosystem and pilot strategies to build capacity to advance strategies that focus on high-quality, tech-infused literacy instruction and computational thinking.
  • Supported an effort to scale nationwide impact of family support organizations demanding genuine school-family academic partnerships by launching and supporting a Community of Practice; using improvement methodology to increase impact; and building the capacity of family engagement organizations, with a particular focus on organizations working directly with immigrant communities.

Seeding and spreading evidence-based instructional materials and adult learning systems that improve teacher practice. 

  • To support efforts to scale the nationwide impact of high quality instructional materials and curriculum-based professional learning, our CPRL team helped develop a research-based change-management model for school systems replacing existing instructional materials with high-quality instructional materials and curriculum-based professional learning to accelerate student outcomes. 
  • Evaluated an ed organization’s curriculum-based professional learning partnership with a state education department and eight school districts across the state to inform future statewide professional learning initiatives.
  • Partnered with a school district to organize, launch, facilitate, and support an advisory group focused on improving literacy instruction, and another advisory group focused on providing every student with integrated and culturally responsive digital learning experiences that broaden, deepen, and motivate learning and create home to school pathways that strengthen service provision and the web of supports provided to each student. 

Enabling philanthropies to adapt and scale what works. 

  • Analyzed the implementation and impact of a large district’s summer learning program.  
  • Lead a two-year evaluation of an initiative to promote increased learning among a large city district’s students of color from low-income households through high-quality instructional materials and curriculum-based professional learning and high-dosage tutoring.

As for how our CPRL alums will use what they learned from their CPRL experience as they pursue leadership roles in their chosen fields, their draft theories of action for their dream leadership roles give us some hopeful signs. Wrote one student, ”If I listen to others’ stories and share my own, if I ask good questions, then the members of my teams will develop an understanding of others’ perspectives, and as a result the community around me will benefit from the foundation my parents started when they moved to the U.S., and my community of first-generation Latinas will have the knowledge, tools and network to reach their own potential.”