Thought Leadership

Using a Coherence Mindset Helped Pennsylvania Respond to COVID-19 

Isabel Rahm, Director of Leadership Academy, Council of Chief State School Officers

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed school buildings, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty. Education leaders across the country shifted into crisis response to ensure the health and safety of their students, and to get students and teachers set up for remote learning as quickly as possible. Amidst the chaos during that time, leaders at the Pennsylvania Department of Education were aided in their quick pivot by using a coherence-based mindset.  

In the fall of 2019, a team of education leaders from Pennsylvania joined the Coherence Lab Fellowship. The team was comprised of the Secretary of Education, leadership from the Department of Education, a representative from the Governor’s office, representatives from higher education, as well as district leaders. During the initial phase of the Fellowship, the team built relationships and trust with each other and with people from partner organizations. They began to explore what it means for the agency to support the field in a more meaningful way, that is more supportive and less focused on compliance. The team also used empathy interviews, a tool for understanding the perspective of those closest to the problem, to get to the root cause of some of the communication challenges that were inhibiting how they were supporting the field.  

When COVID-19 hit the following spring, lessons and insights from the Fellowship informed how Pennsylvania’s leaders were able to respond and start making decisions, create guidance for districts that hadn’t existed before, and identify the needs of the field. According to Pam Smith, former executive deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Education, “If we had not had that [coherence mindset], I don’t believe that we would have gotten as much momentum as quickly as we did to be able to respond in an authentic way to support schools throughout the Commonwealth.” 

One coherence-based strategy they used was to consider the perspectives of the people most proximate to the problem (see “Design at the Margins” Coherence Framework element). Even though pandemic-related challenges were very complex and required quick responses that had to be made with limited information, the Pennsylvania team engaged people closest to these pandemic challenges in the conversations including educators, principles, and local communities. This was by no means an easy process, but they began to be more intentional in thinking about how their solutions would actually work in the field. They would ask themselves  “Have we thought about people on the margins that are significantly impacted by the things that we’re designing and building? How does this change the landscape for education at least for the foreseeable future?” Reflecting on the coherence mindset, Secretary of Education Noe Ortega shared, “Folks just know, you reach out to stakeholders as part of our process, even when you are being asked to do something in a quick time frame.”  

Another coherence-based strategy deployed in Pennsylvania was tackling smaller pieces of a problem and making progress against discrete parts, rather than taking on the larger challenges that lack clear solutions (see “Explore Solutions” Coherence Framework element and Prototyping Tool). Smith reflected, “When it came to a point of dealing with something that was seemingly insurmountable, we were able to go to those folks and break things down into smaller, manageable pieces.” That allowed leaders at the education agency to improve how they managed their capacity and celebrate intermediate, though significant, progress. Using this approach, the team staved off burnout during the most intense phases of the response and recovery efforts, and began to chip away at bigger, more systemic problems.  

Using a coherence mindset and coherence-based strategies gave Pennsylvania leaders a shared language and shared approach to working with one another, strategies to identify and understand problems, and tools to include more voices and perspectives in decision-making, all in service of ensuring the health and safety of students and enabling the continuation of learning. At the start of the pandemic, a time when things were constantly shifting, leaders in Pennsylvania were able to ground their approach in coherence, giving the team a foundation and set of strategies to work with to solve some of their most pressing challenges.  

To learn more about Pennsylvania’s experience, click here.