One of the most common questions we receive from other regions and states is around how we designed the Raising Blended Learners (RBL) year 1 ecosystem of support and which Technical Assistance (TA) Providers were involved.
We can say without a doubt that the supports provided to sites during the pre-selection phase and year 1 implementation have been invaluable — in most cases equally as important as the grant capital. In fact, while the five demonstration sites received grant capital and ecosystem support, the 15 additional Pilot Network sites kicked off pilots in year 1 with no grant capital, supported only by the TA ecosystem. Furthermore, in year two, nine of these 15 pilot sites are scaling to additional campuses, some even districtwide, with no grant funds, relying only on the TA ecosystem to support growth. We hope this paper can inspire regions and states to design support systems based on the authentic needs of the districts involved. Rather than simply replicating the ecosystem we created with RBL, we highly encourage all stakeholders interested in supporting teachers, school leaders and district staff embarking on this essential work to ensure that they set up a unique network of support for sites that meets each of their personalized needs.
In parallel to selecting the Demonstration and Pilot Network Sites, we spent much of 2015-2016 building an ecosystem of TA Providers. From successful pioneering funds before us, we knew the sites would need grant capital and support from targeted experts as they began the work of shifting the core DNA of their school systems and staff in order to implement and sustain personalized blended learning.
We also believed that an ecosystem would need to be a flexible (we underestimated how flexible), “living” system that would be both designed and refined based on our increasing understanding of and reflection on RBL team needs. We also realized that to achieve the scale and impact we hoped to see across the state and beyond, the ecosystem and associated supports needed to be designed and delivered with consistent intentionality towards building internal capacity in the district and charter network teams,, while maximizing the accessibility of and ability to share content beyond the RBL teams.
Through the 10-month consideration process, we spent time “getting to know” the applicant teams. Based on our evolving understanding of RBL team needs we developed the year 1 ecosystem of in-person support including the following TA Providers:
The intent was to provide a comprehensive set of services, free of charge, for the winning sites and seed a market of high-quality organizations in Texas who could hopefully scale their blended learning supports to the rest of the state’s districts in the future. All TA Providers went into the year 1 engagement with a set of clear objectives and even clearer readiness and willingness to be as flexible as possible to provide highly personalized services to the diverse sites. We created the RBL public resource portal early on to centralize resources, including those developed by RBL TA Providers and other high quality experts in the field, knowing that we would revisit this curated content both as a part of our own ongoing research and design and in support of our teams throughout their design and implementation work. In addition to the providers (listed above) giving direct support to the winning sites, RBL has drawn on the expertise of organizations including The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Christensen Institute, Competency Works, Educause, The Friday Institute, iNACOL, KnowledgeWorks, The Learning Accelerator, The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Rand, SRI, WestEd, and many more for thought partnership and resource development.
Despite clear and achievable objectives based on what we perceived to be the needs of each site as demonstrated in their application and early design deliverables, within the first three months of implementation support every TA Provider was faced with the need to rethink and redesign the way they were going to provide support to the sites. This was primarily due to the fact that the business plan alone did not provide enough information about the full needs of a district, especially when implementing something as transformational as student-centered blended learning. It became necessary to spend time rapid prototyping with teams to more fully understand their needs. The ability for TA providers to meet sites where they were and comfortably change from their original contract objectives was due in large part to the role of a CA Group Implementation Manager working with each site. Implementation Managers were able to connect the needs of the districts to the services TA providers supplied and vice versa, helping to best fit these services at the appropriate time.
The fact that every TA Provider was willing and able to ebb, flow and personalize their supports for each district speaks to the expertise, maturity and pure willingness to do whatever it took to support these sites in building internal capacity. Every TA Provider has told us that this was challenging and only feasible because the scale of the cohort allowed them to continue to maintain a somewhat constant allocation of resources on their end as projected to the RBL project, albeit in a completely different way per site than they may have ever imagined going into the project. TA Providers supported sites through this first year despite deviation from their original “plan” based on the actual needs of the sites. Thanks to this professionalism, flexibility and grit, the TA Providers made real, measurable progress with sites and created scalable resources to use in future engagements and honed in on a set of services they could provide to other districts beginning blended learning implementation.
Above all else, we believe an ecosystem well-matched to district needs is the best design; and in addition there are several lessons we have learned about ecosystem creation that we offer to other funders, state agencies and supporters with interest in replicating what has produced success across the RBL sites.
As we embark on year 2 and set up our ecosystem of support with these lessons in mind, we look forward to working alongside other cities, regions, and states who also designed ecosystems so we may continue to learn from the best practices of others.
For those considering how best to support districts and charter network re-design in year 1, we hope the field spends time reading more about each site’s journey, the evolution of the Year 1 RBL Ecosystem, and reflecting on the readiness, capacity, and desired outcomes in the design of ecosystem supports.
Although we clearly experienced challenges and successes in our year 1 ecosystem of TA Providers, we are sharing our experiences in the hope the field can learn from RBL to create ecosystems that accurately represent the nature of a demonstration initiative –one that is authentically built on using data as frequently as a monthly basis to determine if, where, and how supports need to change based on what sites need from service providers.
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