Transforming the Education Sector into a Learning System: Perspectives from the Field and Recommendations for Action

Transforming the Education Sector into a Learning System: Perspectives from the Field and Recommendations for Action

By Dan Gordon and Scott Palmer.

In 2019, we made the case for why our education agenda must prioritize adopting a learning systems approach in education at all levels, and we articulated a framework for what such a system should look like and include.

More recently and in collaboration with Carnegie Corporation of New York and Lynn Olson, we attempted to answer the question of how we begin to make and accelerate these shifts, drawing on the insights and experiences of those leaders in the field doing the hard work to create a learning systems approach in their own contexts. The research for this paper reinforced an important lesson for anyone seeking to advance a learning system approach: we must be learners ourselves, adjusting our strategies in response to new information. This includes understanding how our theories are playing out in reality, including the ongoing impacts of the pandemic and the economic crisis as well as ongoing challenges to racial justice in our schools and communities. It also means looking for opportunities and mitigating risks in new laws such as the American Rescue Plan.

In this second paper, we identified the following seven main challenges with the current status of our framework’s learning systems infrastructures.


  • Challenge 1: Organizational culture and incentives do not support continuous learning and improvement.
  • Challenge 2: The structures and conditions needed to support continuous learning are not adequately developed.


  • Challenge 3: Funding for R&D in education is low, especially on the development side.
  • Challenge 4: Approaches to knowledge creation are not tailored to policy and practice needs.
  • Challenge 5: The field lacks commonly agreed-upon evidence standards and a common vocabulary.
  • Challenge 6: Approaches to diffusing knowledge do not reflect how stakeholders acquire and use information.


  • Challenge 7: The culture of data use needs to be strengthened, and concerns about data privacy and security need to be addressed.

To meaningfully advance our vision and address these gaps, we also identified six recommendations that are ripe for action. Some identify new efforts, while others would accelerate and expand efforts already underway.

  1. Define the capacities we need.
    Agree on and describe the knowledge, skills, and mindsets required for individuals at every level — federal, state, district, school, and classroom — to support a learning system.
  2. Invest more in the education R&D infrastructure.
    Use existing R&D funding and seek additional investments to improve the current infrastructure and create new capacity.
  3. Invest more in Research-Practice Partnerships.
    Expand the role high-quality RPPs play across the education system by creating new RPPs, strengthening existing ones, and connecting them through networks to drive continuous improvement.
  4. Identify, connect, and develop the field of learning system leaders.
    Create structures that support current leaders in working together to develop and enlist new leaders at all levels of the system.
  5. Capitalize on ongoing efforts to implement ESSA.
    Harness the resources and energy being applied to the implementation of ESSA to begin or advance the shift toward a learning system approach.
  6. Develop a learning systems policy framework.
    Articulate a set of model policies to help align policies and incentives to an overall vision of a learning system so that policymakers can audit their current policies and revise them where necessary.

Together, these recommendations illustrate what it will take to (begin to) achieve our ambitious vision. It will be a long, complicated, and utterly essential journey.

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A note to readers: The research and development of this second paper all predated Covid-19, but we believe the past year has in many ways only strengthened our case for prioritizing learning systems approaches. We have seen missed opportunities and stark inequities where critical infrastructure is lacking. And we have seen positive examples where leaders have leveraged existing aspects of a learning system to help navigate and at least partially mitigate the crisis and continually improve over time. We are gathering these examples to share with the field later this spring.

In the meantime, we welcome feedback on our ideas and recommendations, along with any good examples of how learning systems approaches (or the lack thereof) have been playing out since last spring. Please share both with us at or on twitter at @dangordondc.

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