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Cross Boundary Leader: Christopher Shearer (DC EPFP 94-95)

Posted By Sarah McCann, Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Cross Boundary Leader

Christopher A. Shearer

DC EPFP 94-95

 

Christopher Shearer is a Program Officer in the Education Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. He helps manage grants to improve education by advancing deeper learning—an interrelated set of academic content knowledge, higher-order thinking skills, and learning dispositions for students.

Previously, he was associate executive director of the National Geographic Society’s Education Foundation, where for more than a decade he managed grant making, policy advocacy, and public engagement. From 1993 to 1997, he was a senior staffer at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s interdisciplinary National Health & Education Consortium. Before that, he served as the executive assistant to the president of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Chris began his career as a communications associate for the Duke University-based Pew Health Professions Commission, established to help U.S. workforce, policy, and educational institutions respond to the nation’s changing health care needs and emerging models.skills, and learning dispositions for students.Hewlett Foundation. He helps manage grants to improve education by advancing deeper learning—an interrelated set of academic content knowledge, higher-order thinking skills, and learning dispositions for students.

Chris holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature and biology, and a master’s degree in English literature, both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his hometown.

Deeper Learning & Education Policy

Education is one of four standing program focus areas at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. We’re making sure kids get the knowledge and skills in school they’ll need to succeed when they graduate. This includes six competencies that, together, we call “deeper learning,” including critical-thinking, communicating and working collaboratively, in addition to rigorous academic mastery, directing one’s own learning, and developing learning mindsets.

As a program officer, my daily work is to engage with the nonprofit community to identify opportunities for funding—I think about issues like the alignment between our agenda and our grantees’ and about how Hewlett can add value to our partners beyond just the funding we provide. So, I often I work to connect people to each other, to funders, and to big ideas to make sure people have the range of resources needed to do the work they are proposing.

We at Hewlett think that if schools are going to support teachers to deliver deeper learning outcomes they need policy backing. Policy can endorse, enforce, and encourage innovation, but I think the field too often thinks of it only as an ‘enforcer,’ which can lead us into a compliance mindset. Hewlett wants to get policy to play a broader, more ‘signaling’ role to get people into a mindset of continuous improvement. So, while I work to introduce a broader set of deeper learning student outcomes through policy reform, I also strive to make policy itself a better, more useful tool. It’s not just used for identification, but for improvement; not just data, but useful data. Policy has a significant role to play in shaping the conditions and levers of the education system.

Hewlett makes grants from the national level down the cascade to the local. Our grantees are working on federal legislative reform to ensure that deeper learning is part of the explicit goals of education at the national level. We’re looking for innovative policies in assessment, teaching, and materials, as well as working across the suite of federal education legislation, trying to increase their congruence. Today, as states develop their consolidated ESSA plans they have a real opportunity to signal that these things matter and to create greater partnerships between states and districts. There’s been a real growth recently in rhetorical consensus on the importance of deeper learning, or the ‘soft skills,’ ‘essential skills,’ ‘21st century skills,’—whatever various advocates call them—and delivering on this new ‘North Star’ for students involves policy reform.

Our home state, California, is such an exciting place right now. The Golden State has recently tackled a whole suite of education policy reform, changing education goals, assessments, financing, governance, and accountability, all of which could potentially align much more with deeper learning. So, we are excited to work on this national agenda in our own backyard. And, across our work, we are increasingly trying to invest in up-and-coming leaders, people in the middle of their career now who will become leaders soon. We’re advocating for identification and support of folks to learn within their own career path, encouraging networking them with one another and creating a vanguard of leaders on diversity and equity in deeper learning. I am convinced investing in people will help the state achieve a tipping point for better student outcomes. That’s why we invested in California EPFP, and, as a former fellow in the DC program, I’m doubly glad to be able to help with it. California is a bellwether state in many ways, so we wanted to make sure it has the support it needs to help future leaders develop and maintain progress in education policy.

Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

I am a great believer in interdisciplinary perspectives and partnerships. Personally, I have moved from jobs working on workforce reform in healthcare to interdisciplinary grant-making, to connecting health care associations with education associations, to educator PD, to policy reform. I have been fortunate to tap into the rich and varied experiences that my bosses and institutions have provided me over the course of my career. For example, at IEL we brought together leading professional associations to get experts to see education as a health issue and, in turn, health as an education issue. I am super-committed to the idea that many of our nation’s market failures are partly a result of the phenomenon that one discipline alone cannot solve its own problems, cannot effectively see the whole student or citizen from just its own vantage point. So it really helps to bring together other sectors.

I regularly reference Bud Hodgkinson’s report ‘All One System’ and his philosophy that the child or community should be at the center of what we are doing. We have many layers of governance and services but they’re all accessed by the same citizen. In cross-sector work it helps to think about the learner first, not how to design the system for the adults working in it but for the students learning in it. How can we couple thinking through the various important outcomes in people’s lives without fragmenting their experiences; how can we think of them as a single client that everyone’s working for together? To approach policy development from this point of view, to think about a whole child and their whole needs, we need to consider cross-boundary leadership across all the different sectors.

In my experience, one challenge in leading across boundaries is ‘street cred.’ You need to prove you understand other sectors’ guardrails and North Stars. To some extent, you want to embrace being a generalist and get enough information and allies to be at least marginally credible within the sectors you are trying to unite.

You sometimes also have to overcome entrenched ways of thinking. If folks don’t understand how they could work together in new ways, old patterns can be pretty important barriers. Fortunately, foundations have catalytic money to think about getting around those barriers—such as funding the research necessary to clarify questions or document impact, or supporting a new staffer with cross-sector experience to foster new  discussions. And, even more importantly, we are blessed with enormous convening capacity to bring people to the table to listen, learn, and start to act. I have found that people really trust foundations to bring them to a conversation that is potentially interesting to them.

Leadership Lessons Learned

My number one leadership lesson is that you can make a difference and effect institutional and sectoral change even if you are not in the top position. No matter where you are, lead! Engage the emerging leaders who are coming up behind you and engage the established leaders above you so that you can lead from the middle. And then, if you do eventually get that top spot, you will remember how much work gets done in the middle. There’s often a difference, especially in the policy sphere, between the formal authority of the elected or appointed head and actual, transformational leadership. It’s important to work with the tools that you have and act in the position you’re in now.

My second lesson is that leaders react to big ideas. They of course have a track record of being competent on disciplinary issues and successful in project management, and have duly worked their way up to become masters of that sector domain, but often they really distinguish themselves and get to where they are by being able to recognize a powerful idea. Ideas give them great rhetorical and institutional room to act and provide a calling card to work across silos both inside their organizations and outside. So, another lesson is that you, yourself, are probably working on something really urgent and important to you that connects to a big idea. Don’t just approach leaders on the terms of policy minutiae or the near-term change metrics—surface that big idea and wield it, because leaders will respond.

EPFP Experience and Value

I was the first IEL staff member to go through EPFP. Mike Usdan and Betty Hale, who led IEL into the position of being such a strong capacity-development institution, made a decision during my tenure to also invest in the leadership development of our own staff. This is more unusual than you might think. So often, organizations do not internally do well what they successfully do externally for a living. How many teaching institutions are good at learning, for example? So, I really benefitted from IEL living its mission both inside and outside.

Through the EPFP experience I learned the power of networking. The Internet is an amazing tool, but it’s not as good as your phone. The importance of knowing people who know what, where, and when something is happening is a huge EPFP lesson that has improved my entire career. Having a networking lens allows you to get good information from people in the know and enables you to tap into the wisdom of the group to make everything better, from design to execution. EPFP also helped me cement an understanding of the vital federal role—and of federal/state relations—in policy. I’ve never been an elected official, or worked for one, but looking from the outside at policy, I believe in its power for good and that was reinforced by the technical, contextual, and networking experience provided to me by EPFP.

I have always tried to take advantage of continuous learning opportunities in my own career. EPFP is about expanding your horizons, meeting new people, and learning new ideas. The fellowship is something you take concentrated time to do in the middle of your career, but making time for that work shouldn’t be something you do just in the year of your fellowship. You won’t always have access to that kind of formal group support for learning; but, if you take those lessons to heart, you can make your career into your own ongoing ‘fellowship program.’

I’ve always viewed EPFP as an equity and diversity program. My colleagues at IEL always spoke of EPFP as helping to address the fact that, when it first began, we were seeing a nascent demographic shift in the country, but educational leadership didn’t look like the new face of America. There was opportunity and need for women and people of color in policy and leadership positions and for people with real local experience in the states and districts to get national experience and vice versa. Today, here at Hewlett, we’ve invested in re-launching California EPFP because we need diverse leaders more than ever. We urgently need people who understand the dynamic between the federal government and the states, especially with ESSA swinging the pendulum back out of the Beltway, along with all the issues related to that shift. So, this whole notion of getting together diverse leaders and arming them with a strong network and the new tools they need to take a multi-level perspective seems as live a proposition in today’s rapidly shifting environment as it was when the program was founded.


Tags:  alumni  policy 

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