Co-Production & Co-Creation Part 2: Traditional & Open Authorizing Environments

In Denver Public Schools, I had the opportunity to work with a tremendous set of folks to “break the cycle” on turnaround.  DPS has identified previous turnaround efforts as stalled or challenged due to three factors: planning/lead time, community involvement and strong designs.

In three schools, we hired two principals.  One was the interim principal, hired to lead the school through the first year of the turnaround process.  The other leader, dubbed the “Year 0 Leader”, was to be the new permanent principal of the school. Over the course of the first year the leader was charged with building community design team for a new model, engaging families and community and hiring a new staff.  

In each of the cases, formal and informal authorizing was needed.  The school board and DPS central administration had to formally approve the process and final plans.  The Teacher’s Association had to be notified in advance.  External stakeholders with informal authority were informed through multiple meetings to explain the process.  A group of concerned community advocacy groups were brought in early and often to appraise them throughout.

How did we manage the external environment to authorize these two turnaround schools? How did we build a bigger group of co-constructors and co-creators? This post is about how to think about these concepts in the broader frame.

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Co-Creation & Co-Production Part 1: Defining Terms

Part one of a four-part series on co-creation & co-production

An emergent and trendy term in education discourse, especially in family engagement spaces, are the ideas of “co-creation” and “co-production.” Some have even intoned that this work is the next generation of education work.  It is the work “to do with” rather than “to do for” or “to do to", and integral to the Open System.

It’s a big idea, fraught with challenges yet called for in our current education history and moment.  For too much of the past century of education improvement initiatives (catalogued by Jal Mehta in his book, The Allure of Order) the work of reform has been too often top-down or driven by technocrats inspired to impose a system upon others.  While there are genuine exceptions to this rule (and sometimes examples folks claim lack of input are actually embedded deeply in community participation) co-production and co-creation of education systems has not been a priority over the past century.

The Open System rejects this course of action entirely. It values open public processes, democratic governance and the merging of perspectives and power as the way to guide the system toward a better end. Built into the Guiding Principles (indeed, it is listed as Principal 1!) of the Open System site is the idea “Co-Creation & Co-Production In All Things.” I’ve been encouraged as other education advocates have begun to speak about co-creation and co-production more often, and realized I a piece that lays the theoretical and practical groundwork would be the right way to start.

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Open Ecosystems

A common question about open systems is “What is required beyond the school or district for an open system to succeed? What about the broader ecosystem?”  “Yeah, it’s great to have districts or schools work with parents in co-creation - but there is an entire civic system to consider!” How can schools and districts foster the ability of other communities entities to engage with them as part of an open ecosystem?

Early in my career at Denver Public Schools, it became quite clear to me that we could push, design and implement the best family engagement or community listening opportunity with the goal of creating an open system and it still would be limited.  We'd hold open houses at multiple times, ask folks to participate in advisory groups and hold feedback sessions until we were blue in the face, but it wasn't enough.  

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Open Practice: Community Progress Monitoring

After this first experience, the thought stirred in others and me - what if we could do this better? It wasn't a new idea at all - school conversations about performance are old hat.  But there was something different about this in an era of common data systems, district wide choice and transparent conversations about school performance. Ideas for improvement percolated. What about even more family friendly documents? What about even more prioritized support from the central office? Better coordination around external advocacy partners. The result could be a whole new dynamic between families and our schools. We could be establishing a new beachhead in engagement system - the regular and clear public accountability commitment of schools and their leaders to the community. 

The power also seemed electric from a social change perspective. You could imagine thousands of parents, all across the city during the same window in time having conversations with other parents about performance: an open network of parents exercising their right to know. Powerful.  

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Riding Slipstreams toward Open Systems

In any system or organization, there are numerous change initiatives happening all the time. This might be a new organizational initiative, a concerted effort in one region of a city or another wave of new programs to focus more targeted efforts.  I like to think of these as the “slipstreams” of energy occurring through an organization.  This piece is about how to use these change management processes that opportunities to open systems.  

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3 Truths & Unwinding Our Definition of "Community"

If we are going to build the open system, then we must be grounded in the complexity and challenges of defining community. We need to know how to be open, to whom we should be open, and to be aware of the perils of labeling community as “the other” in hopes of engaging them.

The reality is simply this - if you're an Opener charged with opening some part of a system, you're gonna have to wrestle with these truths and definitional dynamics.  All Openers need to reconcile the system's need for feedback, the dynamic nature of community itself and the imperfections of any process designed to "talk to the community."

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Now: The Open Moment

I’d like to make the (not so radical) argument that we’ve reached a serious, deep inflection point leading towards openness, from global to local systems. From the World Trade Organization to the local library, the systems that form our society’s foundation were built for another time and place —not the moment of “transparency, authenticity, access” that Dell describes. And while it may feel that the wall builders and closed system cheerleaders are winning; I’d argue there is another truth. That more and more people are thinking in a global construct of openness. That we are implementing more and more open policies that push us toward a freer exchange of ideas and power. But as the world moves toward openess, supporters of the closed system status will push back harder than ever. To break through this resistance, we must push even farther, opening elements across all of our system. And I believe the most important place to do this work in is education, right now.

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Us: The Once and Future Openers

I’ve always found it ironic that those of us in the family and community engagement space are often lonely people. Not by choice (because usually we’re extroverts) but because of the way systems usually think about family and community engagement.  

You see, within our districts, schools, and organizations, we are usually the only ones charged with the responsibility of working with families and parents. School systems typically have a handful of folks charged with this responsibility. Very rarely do they have budgets, and even more rarely do they have missions and purposes focused on the broader opening work.

How wild is it then, that the very people often charged with “building community” or working with “the people” find themselves alone in the system, fighting major battles against decades of system dispositions? Changing a system to think about openness is no small matter and it’s really the responsibility of everyone—not just one person.  

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Self: Why I (Have to) Believe in The Open System

This story begins in 1920s Mexico. My grandmother’s parents were living in Zacatecas right after the Mexican Revolution. My great-grandfather found himself embroiled in a tumultuous situation when he was accused of stealing. A noose was put around his neck and he was ready to die.  At the very last minute, a local man ran up and told everyone that my great-grandfather wasn’t the thief; the crime was committed by a recently-apprehended criminal.  

After that, my great-grandfather decided to flee Mexico and move his family to Colorado.

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Beyond Family Engagement: Toward the “Open System”

For the past three years, I’ve worked at Denver Public Schools in the Office of Family and Community Engagement.  It has been an incredible experience and as I’ve transitioned to my new role as Senior Partner, Advocacy and Alliances at A+ Colorado, I’ve wanted  to reflect a bit more on my time and work.  

I’ve come to see the work of family engagement to be a critical l force in the building of partnership and relationships between schools, districts and those they serve.  However, I’ve come to see it as something much bigger - the cracking open of closed systems into the sustaining and development of an open system.  As I’ve had the gift of working with other organizations, it has become clearer to me that we are witnessing a fundamental shift in our public education system. This transformation is bigger than family engagement: it is about public systems that are open vs. closed.

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