Thought Leadership

Coherence Reshaped the Pennsylvania and Ohio Departments of Education

Dr. Debora Carrera, Executive Deputy Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Education, & Dr. Marva Kay Jones, Assistant Chief of Organizational Effectiveness, Ohio Department of Education

There’s a deep motivation that grounds the work of teachers, principals, state superintendents and education officials at all levels: improving the learning experience of the students they serve. Yet, their ambition is too often challenged by the obstacles of fragmentation. Fragmentation is the consequence of silos in communications within and between education agencies, conflicting priorities and a lack of diversity in stakeholder input—amongst a number of other issues. It prevents education leaders from implementing effective change efforts that support schools. Without coherence, leaders can unintentionally exacerbate inequality and create even more fragmented systems.

In 2018, Dr. Marva Kay Jones, Assistant Chief of Organizational Effectiveness of the Ohio Department of Education, participated in the first Coherence Lab Fellowship (CLF) cohort, and in 2020, Dr. Debora Carrera, Executive Deputy Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, joined CLF’s second cohort. The fellowship experience opened the door to new strategies to combat fragmentation in their agencies. By integrating concepts of coherence into their approaches, they began to remedy the impacts of fragmentation, including the slow rollout of policy initiatives and inefficient decision-making, and transform their agencies’ processes to be more collaborative, equity-focused, and organized. Both education leaders saw two key changes emerge from their engagement with coherence—the breakdown of organizational silos and the incorporation of more diverse stakeholder perspectives. 

Breaking Down Silos

There are natural clusters and levels within public education’s bureaucracy—the field (including teachers, administrators and schools), local school districts and state agencies—that play an important role in maintaining its overall organization. Fragmentation, however, affects these groups, internally, and the system, broadly. These struggles, including miscommunication and differing priorities, can partially be understood as silos, which significantly inhibit internal and cross-agency collaboration. Coherence tackles both challenges, tearing down these silos by cultivating trusting relationships and building focus and coordination. 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, laying bare other ongoing inequities in education, presented a clear and urgent need to revamp how Pennsylvania streamlined the development of strategies and solutions. Changing the internal culture of collaboration was an initial step for Pennsylvania to improve coordination and establish coherence within their agency. “[Coherence] is a mindset that includes design thinking that is very different from what people are accustomed to,” says Dr. Carrera. “We’re really working on modeling [coherence], and we are seeing a cultural shift.” Coherence helped leaders navigate the natural obstacles of bureaucracy to expand and diversify the people with whom they could brainstorm issues and develop solutions. 

Ohio had been facing similar communication problems that were slowing down finding solutions to problems. When local leaders were seeking information from the state agency, they were often thrown into a maze of telephone calls, being transferred from one person to another and then another. Lessons from the fellowship led to a solution: a prototype program where local districts were connected to a single point of contact at the Ohio Department of Education who could direct them to key individuals with information specific to problems they were addressing. The single point of contact streamlined communication, ensuring information was flowing more easily between districts and the state. Dr. Jones says, “As an agency, we want to do better… to get better internally so that we can serve better externally.” By improving communication, education leaders can now spend more time problem solving instead of navigating the complexities of their own internal system. 

Connecting More Diverse Stakeholder Voices to Decision-Making Processes

Decision-making processes have largely been spearheaded by higher level education officials, at the state or district levels. However, those officials can be removed from the day-to-day experience of teachers and local education leaders. The result is often improvement efforts that don’t adequately reflect the real needs of educators and administrators. Coherence requires input and involvement from teachers and other stakeholders throughout the decision-making processes to ensure equitable ways of thinking and working. This is true within the state agency or district office as well as where the staff are the stakeholders and not always included in decision-making. “When you bring in stakeholders, they will tell you the real deal,” says Dr. Jones. To build discussion across the agency, former Ohio State Superintendent, Paolo Demaria, started virtual “water cooler” listening sessions where as many as 400 stakeholders from across the agency were able to voice their concerns directly. The conversations were guided by a simple question: what do you want to chat about? It dramatically changed the culture of the agency. Interim State Superintendent, Stephanie Siddens, continues this practice, allowing more people to share how they envision education in Ohio. 

Leaders in Pennsylvania also worked to listen to more diverse perspectives. The Pennsylvania Department of Education conducted “empathy interviews,” a practice they learned during the Fellowship, gathering feedback on specific issues from agency communications to remote work. “We wanted to design questions that would allow people to share. Our role would be to listen,” says Dr. Carrera. “[After] going through the fellowship, we’re really intentional about thinking about the voices that aren’t at the table.” The Department was able to generate new and creative solutions by engaging diverse stakeholders. 

Sharing Coherence 

A coherent mindset allows education leaders to take a step back and look at their agency with a wider lens to see the areas of strength and opportunities to weave equity into everyday problem solving. Solutions are not spearheaded by any one group but the collective organization. Dr. Carrera says, “Coherence is an approach, a way of thinking, a way of learning how to collaborate and problem solve to make the best learning environments for our students.” These systems leaders have had encouraging experiences of coherence as they witnessed their department’s operations and culture transform. They are compelling testimonies to the need to share coherence’s principles and opportunities. 

If you are an education official interested in learning more about coherence and its opportunities, visit the Coherence Lab’s professional development programs HERE, or see how coherence can support your agency using the free Coherence Lab assessment tool HERE.