THE BLOG
01/21/2015 11:39 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2015

The Power of Policy in K-12 Education and Beyond

When it comes to revolutionary progress, administrators -- in education and beyond -- often try to circuit policy. But as the saying goes, true progress occurs when you transform a roadblock into a stepping stone.

Why should innovation be left to the private sector? Genuine progress often drives from a multi-partner and sector approach.

When we built our John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School, we had to work with policy, not against it. From the mayor of Aurora, Illinois to local unions, the public sector had a seat at the table from the very start. Our greatest advantage was our ability to scale our big idea by rallying multiple stakeholders, as I mentioned in an earlier post. Here are some lessons learned, which I believe apply not only to the education sector, but beyond when it comes to working with government.

Don't avoid the system, change the system

As I mentioned earlier, turn your roadblocks into stepping stones. In establishing our STEM school, we originally attempted to work under pre-existing charter school legislation but faced strong opposition from the public school system, particularly its unions. So we changed our approach and wrote a new law with these unions. The law established a unique partnership model that enabled collaboration between a higher education institution and local school districts in creating a "science and mathematics partnership school." It passed unanimously in the House and Senate and paved the way for our STEM Partnership School.

It's easy to give up when traditional processes create unexpected roadblocks. It's even easier to stick with the status quo. Yet working within the system and engaging those who push back can be the most influential way to enable policy to work. This law allows Aurora University's partnership school model to be replicated across the state of Illinois -- scaling solutions better than any private sector approach alone could do!

Involvement builds (political) support

To garner political support, involve your stakeholders from the very beginning. Demonstrate the rationale and invite them to the table -- they are likely to join and be invested in your cause.
The fact that we achieved unanimous, bipartisan support for our policy sprung from a simple ingredient: involvement. We wrote the law with unions, designed the curriculum with corporations and engage school districts in running the school today. Rather than an isolated school, we are embedded in our community at all levels. This flow of constant communication and information has allowed us to generate impact at the policy level. In this sense, it was not just Aurora University creating legislation and the school -- our entire community was enabled.

Lead from the middle

What does it mean to lead from the middle? It means broadening the ground each time you hit a roadblock.

Education, like any issue, can be contentious across party lines. But each time we faced a conflict, we created a middle ground and invited people in. Why did they join us? Because the rationale was there: economic, social or political. The community benefits from students that are engaged in STEM, corporations have a talent pool to hire from and the ripple effect spreads across the city (and beyond!).

There were many points where we could have given up along the way. But we turned each win-lose into a win-win -- and not one of our partners lost. Conflict is not necessarily to be avoided -- it can enable creative, mutually beneficial solutions. This is leading from the middle.

To sum it up: don't work around policy, make policy work for you; transform your opposition into allies and build a win-win rationale for all stakeholders. Because of the inherently diverse, case-by-case nature of education, there is never a panacea -- but there's always a winning strategy that furthers progress.