Learning Systems: Improving Education in States and Districts

This post, co -authored by Vivian Tseng and Anu Malipatil, is the first in our eight-part blog series on using research evidence under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Check back every week for the latest installment. Also be sure to sign up for our March 7 webinar, ESSA and Research Evidence: Opportunities and Challenges for States.

Vivian Tseng, William T. Grant Foundation, and Anu Malipatil, Overdeck Family Foundation

When it comes to our state and local education systems, it’s surprising that so many of us neglect what we know about learning. What if our education systems were imbued with the same principles of discovery, observation, and experimentation that we encourage in students? What would an education system driven by a learning agenda look like?

Most of us acknowledge that learning is not just about transmitting and receiving facts. Learning is a process of accumulating knowledge and skills over time. When we watch students learn, we witness a complex journey that is fostered by exploration and experience—one made richer by active engagement with ideas and people rather than passive transmission of knowledge.

A New Era

Education policies of the past 15 years too often have been characterized by an emphasis on top-down compliance and an inclination toward silver bullet solutions.  A system that emphasizes learning and adapting over time would represent a sea change.

We know that districts and states can’t be compelled to comply with directives for which they lack capacity and support. We know that building political will and public consensus at the state and local levels is difficult if strategies are designed, adopted, or implemented without sensitivity to local needs, contexts, and priorities. If we are frank about these very real challenges, the need for learning at the system level becomes ever more stark.

An educational system that can adapt and learn from the information it assimilates—one that is as dynamic and responsive as the classrooms it comprises—can be an effective means of addressing our challenges and pursuing our goals. Such a system embraces the notion that states and districts vary considerably, and that the flexibility to learn and adapt is a good thing. Such a system also requires that states and districts uphold their responsibilities to ensure that all students learn.

Getting Started

As we enter the new year, state and district leaders are working to devise strategies to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which passes considerable authority from federal to state and local policymakers, and requires the use of research evidence in system-level efforts to increase student learning. And insofar as it departs from the most recent iteration of ESSA in its focus on states and localities as the driving force behind these efforts, ESSA may provide just the opportunity we need for building education systems that are capable of learning from data and research evidence.

The ESSA era, given its emphasis on plans developed by and for states and districts, introduces promising opportunities for the type of learning systems that can learn from successes and failures, adapt their strategies, and improve student outcomes over time. But what will it take to get there?

Using Data and Research

For one, local education agencies will need to be able to draw on local data and external research in order to understand the nature of the problems they are facing, identify areas for improvement, and explore various reform possibilities. Agencies will need to set clear improvement goals, assess progress against those goals, adjust their change efforts depending on what they learn, and then repeat the cycle of learning and doing.

Building Capacity

All of this will require new capacities. Drawing from the notion that learning is typified by exchange and discovery, agencies should seek to broaden their capabilities by building an infrastructure that supports these processes. Partnering with external intermediaries and dismantling internal silos within agencies are two approaches to developing the capacity necessary for learning systems.

We’ve seen promising examples of both of these approaches: in the Chicago Consortium on School Research’s long-time partnership with the Chicago Public Schools and, outside of education, in collaborative work between program and research offices at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Agencies can also learn from each other by being brought together to learn from their peers via networked improvement communities or other well-designed research-practice partnerships.

Working Together

The cornerstone of these systems must be collaboration. Learning systems will require dynamic engagement and better alignment between researchers, practitioners, and policymakers around research, data, experience, and shared improvement goals.  A critical component would be that the perspectives of practitioners, who have a unique vantage point on the problems that need improving, are part of the process of defining research agendas and implementing evidence-informed reforms. We’ll also need to consider the “social side of education reform.” Building networks with the requisite expertise and experience, rather than simply looking for and prescribing silver bullet solutions, will be essential to sustainable learning systems.

Moving Forward

At the same time, the work of sustaining such systems cannot be left only to those working within them. An infrastructure to support learning involves diverse groups and organizations performing a unique role. And the building blocks of this infrastructure are already being constructed.

Intermediary groups and research centers with the expertise and knowledge to support decision makers in carrying out their work can be elemental to learning systems. The Florida Center for Reading Research, for example, recently published guides to help staff at the state and local levels assemble teams, identify evidence-based programs and strategies, have informed conversations about the evidence supporting various options, and collaborate in their overall efforts to improve schools. And Education Northwest is currently developing the ESSA Navigator, a user-friendly website that will help states and districts assess the existing research evidence on interventions and their peers’ experiences with those programs.

But tools are only a starting point. We need a long-term strategy that is rooted in the needs and interests of states and localities. Funding agencies and foundations can play a vital role in supporting these strategies over time, including bringing together disparate perspectives and fostering new opportunities for exchange.

We know that the learning agenda that we’ve described here will not be a quick fix. It will require balancing urgency with patience, and freedom with responsibility. We cannot mandate solutions—we can only find and test them through smart, collaborative uses of data and research. We cannot invent the capacity to produce and use research evidence—we have to do the hard work of building capacity within the professionals and organizations engaged in the work. And if we want to improve education systems for children and families across the country, we’d be wise to take a lesson from the best classrooms and seek learning rather than compliance.

Vivian Tseng is Vice President of Programs at the William T. Grant Foundation, and Anu Malipatil is Director, Education, at the Overdeck Family Foundation


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.