In my 10th and final year leading TransformEd, I find myself reflecting a lot on the journey we’ve been on. When I first jumped into the work nearly a decade ago, I couldn’t quite imagine what lay ahead. In retrospect, this journey has offered more than I could have hoped for: countless opportunities to work with brilliant, passionate colleagues in the service of a shared vision, and an incredible amount of learning along the way. Much of my learning, and the organization’s evolution over time, has been tied to key inflection points that TransformEd has navigated over the years. I’ve attempted to capture a few of those inflection points here as a way to share some of our history with fellow travelers who have joined us more recently and to express gratitude to those who have been with us throughout the last decade.
TransformEd’s first really formative partnership was with the CORE Districts of California, a network of districts serving over 1,000,000 students. The CORE Districts had received a waiver from the US Department of Education that enabled them to replace a traditional form of test-based accountability with a more holistic model that looked at students as whole people. Their new systems of accountability and continuous improvement (with emphasis on the latter), looked at students’ social-emotional development and their perceptions of the school climate alongside reading and math skills to understand how well schools were serving young people. We partnered with the CORE Districts from 2013-2018 to bring the social-emotional component of this new system to life: curating, piloting, and rolling out measures and resources for educators to support CORE’s innovative approach. By working at a scale comparable with that of most state education agencies, we learned a great deal about policy, collaboration, and systems change. One of the most exciting parts of working with the CORE Districts was the vast scale of their endeavor, and yet my team and I began to yearn for opportunities to work more closely with educators and to see the impact of the work on young people directly.
In 2016, we began partnering with NewSchools Venture Fund to support a network of innovative school leaders in expanding their definition of student success to reflect the whole child. This enabled us to work closely with school leaders who had the unique opportunity to design new school models as they formulated the plan for their new schools and in their early years of serving young people. Through this partnership we conducted, curated, and synthesized research to inform school leaders’ thinking about whole child development and to shape their school designs. Once each school was operational, we also supported leaders in collecting data that would prompt regular reflection about how their schools could improve the learning environment and support young people’s holistic development. By working hand-in-hand with school leaders in this way, we learned much about how to translate research and data into systematic improvements in how we support young people. For example, we found ways to ground our work in research while also making clear, tangible connections to the day-to-day work and rhythms of school.
Throughout our years working with the partners named above and the many other school systems we have served, we developed a growing understanding of the ways in which focusing on students’ social-emotional development could undermine the very outcomes we envisioned for young people. Specifically, if the emphasis of social-emotional learning (SEL) is on measuring a specific set of social-emotional “skills” that have been defined in narrow, white-dominant ways, then SEL reifies conformity and compliance. To that end, Dr. Dena Simmons warns that SEL without an anti-oppressive, anti-racist lens risks becoming “white supremacy with a hug.”
Further, our early focus on students’ own development seemed to suggest that the issue lay within students, when in fact it is our education systems that must change. My colleagues and I believe that this fundamental critique of SEL must be addressed in order to support equitable outcomes for all students, particularly those who are most marginalized in American society. In that spirit, we began to intentionally shift away from a focus on measuring student social-emotional skills, first by incorporating assessments of the learning environment into the work, then by approaching the work from an orientation that these data should be used to understand how the education system can shift to better support students’ developmental needs. In 2019, TransformEd updated its mission statement from one that referenced student skill development to formalize our focus on “partner[ing] with educators to support school systems in fostering the development of the whole child so that all students, particularly those from marginalized populations, can thrive.” This shift was intended to enshrine a deep belief in the importance of equity and justice at the center of our work. In that spirit, it reflects an emphasis on the school system as the unit of change, instead of the student. It also formally acknowledged that a range of other factors beyond skill-building contribute to student thriving, including strong relationships and positive learning environments.
Since 2020, TransformEd has sought to be a field leader in supporting antiracist whole child educational systems. This has reshaped and continues to reshape our work in countless ways. Over the past few years, our team has come to more closely reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the students we ultimately aim to serve, and we have devoted a significant portion of our capacity to re-examining our own ways of being with the goal of ensuring that we embody the values we stand for publicly. We are investing deeply in redesigning our programmatic work to ensure that both the content and the process of the work reflect our commitment to removing barriers to student and educator thriving, making space for the voices of those most impacted by structural oppression, and speaking up when we witness implicit or explicit bias in our work. All of this has been a journey of deep humility and vulnerability – to examine ourselves and our work so deeply is a painful, disorienting process that is also a necessary step on the path to liberation.
One reason this reflective work is so important is that we must personally embody and live out the practices we aim to support others in cultivating. Just as we are grappling with our own ways of being as we refine our collective work, we believe educators and system leaders must go through a similar process of reflection, unlearning, and transformation in order to dismantle systemic oppression within their school systems. As such, we have begun to incorporate deeper one-on-one coaching work into our systems change efforts. School systems are comprised of individual education leaders who shape policy and practice in subtle, and often unconscious, ways each day. Therefore it is crucial to support leaders in re-examining their respective behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being if we ultimately hope to change the systems of which they are a part.
In doing this deep, personal, and reflective work ourselves and with our partners, I feel we are just beginning to scratch the surface of our name: transforming education. Many of us have been taught to divide and hide parts of ourselves, to separate our inner and outer or personal and professional selves. But transformative change occurs only when we overcome this sense of division, acknowledging that the inner and the outer co-create one another. It has been a lifelong journey for me to understand this notion of integration and wholeness, and I’m hopeful that these ideas will continue to guide the work of Transforming Education for years to come. Only by knowing and embracing our deepest, most authentic selves can we hope to embody the wholeness needed to truly do transformative, whole child work.
In mathematics, the mobius strip is a single-sided surface with no boundaries. It serves as a symbol of wholeness and integration because its inner and outer sides are one and the same. This arch in Alabama Hills, California resembles a mobius strip found in the natural world. (Image Source: Canva)