Case Study: EL Education
It’s a question the education sector grapples with every day: how do we equip teachers to engage students in deep, meaningful learning on a broad scale?
Unfortunately, the answer is — with some exceptions — we don’t really know.
Even the best instructional materials are often not enough. Schools and districts spend a fortune investing in professional development for teachers.
One organization is piloting a new approach to professional development for teachers, taking a bet that an intensive, job-embedded approach paired with a specific, rigorous, engaging curriculum — and training around implementing that curriculum — can meaningfully improve teaching and learning. If it succeeds, it will be at a scale that will really matter not just for one or two schools, but for teachers and students across the country.
WHO IS EL EDUCATION?
EL Education — formerly Expeditionary Learning — is a leading K-12 education nonprofit founded in 1991 to both elevate and change the way our nation thinks about student achievement. Combining challenging work with the joy of discovery and pride in mastery, EL’s mission is to offer an education that prepares citizens with both the skills and the character necessary for success throughout college, work, and life.
One of the things that’s foundational for EL in its curriculum and work with schools is a holistic, three-dimensional approach to education and student achievement, with an emphasis on Mastery of Academic Skills and Content, High-Quality Work, and Character. Through its Whole School Model, EL partners deeply with schools and districts over a multi-year time horizon to look at the whole child and the school as a community in order to improve outcomes. This work has given EL an appreciation for what it takes to lift up not only an individual school over time, but multiple schools across a district.
For the first 20 years of its existence, EL focused on these comprehensive school reform partnerships with new and existing schools. The team developed a robust vision for teaching and learning, with coaching and professional development.
Then about 5 years ago, EL wanted to broaden its impact in the education sector — without sacrificing quality. EL was asked to develop English Language Arts curriculum for New York State, one of the first places to roll out the Common Core. EL published its open-source curriculum, and it quickly became nationally recognized. Soon after, EL was flooded with interest from schools and districts who wanted help implementing the curriculum through professional services. Suddenly, EL had an opportunity to scale its model of what good teaching should look like.
The questions EL faced were similar to those that many of our partners face: how do you scale impact and best serve students outcomes in a financially sustainable way? How do you manage change when you’ve done something really well for a long time, and you want to leverage a new opportunity?
EL was grappling with these questions and found itself at a key moment of growth and evolution. The team needed not only a solid strategic plan, but the practical skills and experience to implement it. Organizationally, EL values process and inclusivity and welcomes diverse perspectives. The team wanted an external partner that could push them beyond their typical ways of thinking. They were also looking for a group that had worked alongside dozens of colleague organizations, brought unmatched knowledge of the field and broader policy context, and had hands-on, on-the-ground experience as educators and policymakers.
That’s when they called Bellwether.
Bellwether’s Strategic Advising team provided EL with tailored, flexible service, from the outset of a five-month strategic planning process through a year of implementation support.
Here’s what Bellwether’s Strategic Advising team did:
- Created strategic planning tools and metrics to enable EL to focus on next steps for pursuing different lines of work
- Assessed EL’s options for growth best aligned to its theory of change through customer interviews, competitor analysis, and a review of performance data
- Identified clear programmatic and impact metrics
- Addressed financial sustainability to ensure EL is a viable nonprofit, through a mix of earned and philanthropic revenue, short-term investments and long-term payoffs over the course of the plan
- Worked with a diverse set of stakeholders to build buy-in for the plan
- Set up a project management office (PMO) to ensure the plan is implemented in a thoughtful, coordinated manner
WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD
There’s a lot of uncertainty when you’re implementing a big change, especially if you’ve never done it before. It’s helpful to have an external adviser who can help you tell the difference between what’s a normal part of change, and what warrants course correction; where to push, and where not to.
Implementation can be even more difficult than strategic planning. It’s when the majority of an organization’s stakeholders begin to experience changes. It’s also the place where a lot of organizations fall short. Too many lack a systematic way to ensure they’re on track and moving towards their strategic planning goals. The success of a strategic plan can often come down to effective project management.
Bellwether’s team has skilled project managers, capable of helping clients break down what might feel like a daunting plan into manageable projects with clear timelines, owners, and milestones. Through the initial strategic planning phase, Bellwether internalized EL’s high-level goals. During the subsequent implementation support phase, we helped EL cascade these goals into regional-level plans through coaching, sharing of best practices, sharing proven tools and templates, and standing up an internal project management office. Here’s how:
- We broke down goals out into an 18-month detailed roadmap for implementing the plan.
- EL initiative owners identified initiative milestones; Bellwether refined and provided an organizing structure for those milestones based on best practice.
- We outlined in the roadmap what to do, what success looks like, the governing structure that will come together regularly to define progress, and the dashboards and metrics the group would track and collect to report on whether they were on track.
- We established a communication and monitoring tool to enable board and external stakeholders and people managing plan internally a sense of what to do.
- We worked alongside EL to set up a project management office: the central hub of all separate strategic planning projects, with a manager who owned the work and was accountable for moving everything forward
APPLY WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED
There were four key lessons from our strategic advising practice that Bellwether applied in our work with EL:
Plan the work; work the plan. This one should go without saying as a fundamental tenet of strategic planning. But defining a clear theory of change, aligning around key objectives, and developing an actionable plan for implementation will move your plan from paper to reality. The decisions made during the strategic planning process will guide future choices and help you say “no” down the line.
Focus. Being opportunistic for a while is ok, but consider when your organization has enough brand recognition to focus — on a particular segment or geography, for example. You can do so much more with the same resources if you really get to know a market. For EL, we recommended that new work center on a handful of regions instead of all of the country where the team would be spread thin.
Talk money. Nonprofits often struggle to operate with financial discipline and think about the business side of things, and they often lack strong financial systems and people. That’s something Bellwether can bring to organizations: thinking about finances and talking about them in an accessible way.
Balance service and financial sustainability. You really can’t over-invest in answering this all-important question for your organization, and it’s worthwhile to spend the time and resources on a deep dive internally or working with an outside partner.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
EL is now managing its work around a set of programmatic, structural, and financial goals that are having a profound impact, from its board of directors to field staff. The organization has a dramatically different level of sophistication around data capture and analysis, and the team is now able to track metrics they at had no way of seeing a year ago. As a result of the strategic plan and implementation work, EL’s Schools Team has implemented a new leadership structure and a geographically-focused business model that’s helped scale the work without sacrificing quality.
WANT TO WORK WITH US?
“The danger of any strategic planning process is that it results in a document that sits on a shelf. Our success is testimony to Bellwether’s support in creating a really strong plan and then — critically — continuing our collaboration into the implementation phase of the plan. I can’t stress enough the value of Bellwether’s support in helping us not only to develop, but launch the plan. ”