Cohesion Through Collaboration

Monday, February 23, 2015 at 12:00am

Jessica Kehayes has a unique perspective on the challenges facing American schools. As executive director of the Asia Society’s Education and Leadership Division, Kehayes has helped to build connections between system leaders worldwide, and, in the process, she has recognized the shared challenges of educators operating in different environments.

“It may look different—the context may be different, there may be different political realities—but the core practitioner challenges are not wildly different, so there is a lot of opportunity for sharing and learning,” Kehayes explains.

For decades, the Asia Society has connected nations with the intent of fostering understanding and international cooperation. Today, the Asia Society’s Global Cities Education Network (GCEN) continues that work by helping educators worldwide to collaborate as they develop solutions to common challenges.

Since 2012, GCEN has connected district leaders in four American cities—Denver, Seattle, Houston, and Lexington, Kentucky—with system leaders in Hong Kong, Melbourne, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, and Toronto. In Denver, the experience has provided district leaders with the opportunity to adapt successful practices from school systems in other nations, including newly strengthened connections with teacher preparation programs and efforts to align professional development more closely with district objectives.

For Bill Kurtz, chief executive officer of the Denver School of Science and Technology, a 10-campus charter school network partnered with Denver Public Schools, many of the most valuable lessons learned through the network have pertained to system cohesion and change management.

“When we saw the coherence of the whole system, from the top to the bottom, we took away some general principles that are very important for running our system,” Kurtz explains.

An ‘Area of Growth’

Kehayes highlights system cohesion as a key area of growth for U.S. school districts. “Asian cities have had such success in recent years because they think of things as a system of learning, and they’re really thinking about all the interconnected pieces. They really look at the long-term game in terms of implementation,” Kehayes explains.

In Denver, educators have already begun to embrace more comprehensive approaches to district efforts. For instance, in a recent professional development event, trainers worked to situate the learning experience within the district’s broader goals for student achievement. “There’s a clarity of goal and strategy that then provides opportunities and choice for teachers for how to get there,” Kurtz explains.

By situating the training session within the larger district context, teachers attending the session were better equipped to make independent choices that would serve the district’s goals. “A lot of that was inspired by our recent trip to Singapore,” Kurtz notes.

While the network began as a platform for exposing system leaders to new ideas, the work has since gone much deeper.

From the beginning, U.S. educators participating in the network had the opportunity to learn first-hand about successful practices in other countries. Three years in, however, the collaboration between international partners has become more complex. “We see the nature of the conversation itself has started to shift and change, and that allows them to go deeper in what issues they’re facing, what they’re bringing to the table, and how deep they’re able to get into potential solutions,” Kehayes observes.

‘Adapt Before You Adopt’

While practices common in other countries almost always require some modifications to succeed in a different context, international partnerships offer unique perspectives and solutions for addressing shared concerns.

Often, adopting a practice from a different setting requires gradual changes in attitudes. “There’s definitely an ‘adapt before you adopt’ mindset,” Kehayes explains. “They’re not trying to copy and paste education systems. They all feel very strongly about their system, and they’re very aware of their own politics,” she continues.

In Denver, one shift underway pertains to the connection between the district and the universities that train the majority of teachers who serve in the district’s schools. In Toronto and Shanghai, universities and K-12 schools maintain strong relationships to ensure teachers enter the workforce well prepared to serve the local population. “In the U.S., we don’t always link those as tightly as other parts of the world do,” Kehayes explains.

But following discussions with leaders of other school systems and an initial start-up grant, DPS is in the early stages of improving the local student-teacher residency program as well as communication with teacher preparation programs.

Although the exact relationship between DPS and local universities will not be carbon copies of models found in other countries, the initiative still embraces the broader tenet of system-wide coherence prevalent elsewhere.

“We’re in a different context, but in terms of coherence of our system, the general principle applies: the system must be aligned to very clear goals,” Kurtz says. “I think the different contextual realities can be harder, and we are adjusting to that, but the general principle has been very helpful.”

Going Global

According to Kehayes, educators in other countries have a long tradition of looking worldwide for solutions to common concerns in educational practice. “Our colleagues in other countries are used to coming the United States to see what we’re doing, have been very energized by what they see here, and often credit the U.S. with many of their quality ideas,” she explains.

In some cases, other countries have been able to blend domestic and international practices to improve student outcomes. “What Asian systems are able to do is implement with more systemic and sustainable processes than what we’re able to do in the United States,” she explains. “We have pockets of excellence that don’t often reach all of our students. In other places, they’re able to take ideas and bring them to scale in a way we haven’t been able to.”

Although the Global Cities Education Network is still in its early years, leaders at the Asia Society anticipate a future of greater collaboration among international partners. “The only way in which the world is going to move forward is if we have a more foundational understanding of one another as people,” Kehayes explains.

According to Kurtz, the network has been one of the best vehicles for developing that understanding. “I think it’s been one of the best learning experiences I’ve had,” he says. “I think we’ve been able to have real dialogue with systems of schools across the world. It’s been a great strategic conversation.”

To learn more about the Global Cities Education Network and access reports published by the Asia Society, please visit the Global Cities Education Network Reports, the Asia Society Global Learning blog on Education Week, and the Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning on Twitter.