Agility Thriving

COVID-19 has significantly disrupted education – exacerbating many of the existing inequities within our schools. Amidst this incredible uncertainty, we have witnessed school leaders, educators, parents, families, and communities rising to the unprecedented challenge of serving students through an ongoing response. America Succeeds report, “Agility Thriving: Education Adapting in a Time of Disruption,” seeks to better understand the role of agility in successful school district responses. This report offers lessons learned and promising practices to help school communities build back to become more resilient, more adaptive, and more agile than before.

Executive Summary

“Nobody wants to show you the hours and hours of becoming. They’d rather show you the highlight of what they’ve become.” – Angela Duckworth, Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success

It’s Friday, March 13, 2020. At IDEA Public Schools in Louisiana, educators from across the district are gathered for a professional development day. Around noon, they receive news of statewide closures due to COVID-19. Students are set to return to school, in whichever ways it might be remotely delivered, by Tuesday morning. The IDEA Public Schools team has just over 36 hours to respond. What follows next is a story of incredible agility.

In a business context, agility is loosely defined as an organization’s ability to sense changes and respond accordingly to deliver value to customers. It’s not as much about a specific methodology or framework as it is about harnessing an agile mindset. According to Howard Sublett at Scrum Alliance, agile is “a desire to constantly adapt rather than following a plan, to deliver better quality, and delight customers, and is a supremely human-centric way of working. This isn’t something you can simply ‘install’. It takes time to unlearn all the things you’ve learned before. To trust in the ability of the human potential and be able to prioritize what’s most important.”

Today, agile organizations and enterprises are far better positioned to weather the uncertain and rapidly changing environment of COVID-19. The challenge is becoming an agile organization is not something that happens overnight. While agility can be learned and developed, achieving organization-wide agility is a process, often with fits and starts of progress along the way. McKinsey & Company describes this process as the shift from understanding organizations as machines to viewing them as living organisms – something that is simultaneously stable and dynamic.

Overcoming this seemingly impossible tension often means deploying a set of replicable, agile practices within the organization’s overall strategy, team structure, processes, people/talent management approach, and technology. When each of these trademark components is in place, and continually cultivated by leadership, a company operates with organization-wide agility.

America Succeeds embarked on this research to better understand what organization-wide agility looks like applied to an education context. Since 2017, we have been urging education systems to embrace the adaptability and flexibility needed to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving future of work. Agile education systems are better positioned to serve the unique needs of every student in normal times. In the face of a major disruption, they could be positioned to greatly outperform their more traditional peers.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) began tracking publicly available information about school district responses shortly after COVID-19 closures started. Within the CRPE database, it quickly became clear that many school systems were overwhelmed with meeting students’ basic needs – simply getting in touch with families, coordinating meal deliveries, and providing access to devices and hotspots. Successfully transitioning staff and students into a remote learning environment was a tall order beyond this critical work. Still, there were glimmers of hope; one of the brightest was IDEA Public Schools.

These systems were embracing organization-wide agility and reinventing long-standing approaches to teaching and learning in a rare, and necessary, moment of regulatory systemic flexibility. Through our research, we found school systems more effectively navigating the crisis by relying on clear visions and organizational values, networks of empowered teams, continuous learning mindsets, strong school-community relationships, and quick decisions to double-down on existing technology integrations.

COVID-19 has underscored the urgency of creating agile, adaptable, flexible school systems that can serve the diverse needs of families, put students at the center of their learning, and offer multiple pathways into the future of work. At America Succeeds, addressing the inequities and systemic challenges amplified by this crisis remains central to our work. However, this situation, while unprecedented, is likely not the only disruption our education system will ever face.

While schools and districts are intensely focused on the school year underway, state leaders should be looking around the corner and determining which challenges can become opportunities for their systems to become more resilient. This is not an impossible task. There are lessons to be learned and agile practices and structures that can be scaled from the systems that were more effective in responding to this crisis.

Angela Duckworth’s quote reflects our motivation for preparing and sharing this report, “Nobody wants to show you the hours and hours of becoming. They want to show you what they’ve become.” We know that highlighting these successful models helps to drive conversation and culture change. We are also committed to scaling these models through state-level policy to impact the greatest number of students so that our education system is stable and dynamic enough to weather the next major disruption. That means talking about their becoming. And we know, now more than ever, agility is the way.

“Amidst incredible uncertainty, emotional trauma, heavy pressures, and frustrating missteps are stories of heroism, strength, and resilient communities. There are thousands of school leaders and educators, alongside countless parents and families, who rose to face the many challenges of the pandemic. The brightest among these embody organization-wide agility. This report is about those stories, promising agile practices and innovations that have emerged from a monumentally challenging time.”

Stephanie Short
Report Author & Vice President of Partnerships, America Succeeds