These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Open Ecosystems

Part of a series on open systems in education

A common question about open systems is “What is required beyond the school or district for an open system to succeed? What about the broader ecosystem?”  “Yeah, it’s great to have districts or schools work with parents in co-creation – but there is an entire civic system to consider!”  How can schools and districts foster the ability of other communities entities to engage with them as part of an open ecosystem?

Early in my career at Denver Public Schools, it became quite clear to me that we could push, design and implement the best family engagement or community listening opportunity with the goal of creating an open system and it still would be limited.   We’d hold open houses at multiple times, ask folks to participate in advisory groups and hold feedback sessions until we were blue in the face, but it wasn’t enough.  

If you work in education these days, you will often hear people discussing the idea of “ecosystems.”  They refer to organizations working in a community around education issues.  Each group plays a different role (although sometimes there is overlap) in pushing to create change or advance an agenda.  What is an ecosystem? Dr. Mustafa Abdul-Jabbar & Dr. Barbara Kurshan discuss the way ecosystems have transformed:

Historically, innovation in the public education sector has entailed collaborative contribution(s), primarily from public sector groups and constituencies (e.g., educators, students, parents, and community members) for the advancement of communities and schools.  Today, collaboration efforts—driven not only by public sector constituencies, but also by entrepreneurs, private sector firms, and foundations—represent a landmark shift of our time.

Conceptual Framework: Public-Private Sector Interaction and Collaboration for Education from the article Educational Ecosystems: A Trend in Urban Educational Innovation by Dr. Mustafa Abdul-Jabbar, Harvard Law School and Dr. Barbara Kurshan, University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education

Recent work in some education circles has promoted “quarterback” organizations to help coordinate ecosystem efforts.   We shouldn’t be concerned with the quantity of organizations, the amount of coordination (although I do think there is a role for coordination and shared goals) or even the amount of money helping to steer efforts – the major questions we should be concerned with are: is this a closed or open ecosystem?  Is the ecosystem committed to helping the districts and networks located within to move toward openness?

Generating openness of district or schools is necessary, but not sufficient

The reality is that building a school’s or district’s internal open system capacity to work with families and communities needs to be matched by corresponding openness from external partners.  I define the open ecosystem as partnership or coordination of interactions, receptivity, and responsiveness across actors in a geographic location.  

The idea of “Open” is important to redefine in this context.  I suggest it is a willingness to partner, share power, consider new relational power dynamics and including more voices broadly.  

For example, are new quarterback organizations committed to open sharing of power and co-creation as they facilitate their agenda?  Are partner organizations helping districts understand how to co-create and engage parents and families?

Most assuredly, schools and districts must meet the necessary components of building an open system.  Educators, schools, and districts must create many opportunities for family and community engagement.  But to reach next level of open systems, an open ecosystem, to work, we need to build virtuous circles of openness within our ecosystems.  

What does a closed ecosystem look like?

A closed ecosystem occurs when either the district or school is closed to engagement or the actors surrounding the system are closed to partnership.  Distressingly, closed ecosystems are too often the norm.  They create more gatekeepers, failed partnerships and actors are in a continual state of friction.  

There are three types of closed ecosystems, which help us understand how we should diagnose and think through their implications.  

Closed-Closed.  The direst scenario is sadly too common in our education system.  In these cases, both the school systems that serve our communities and the surrounding community organizations are both operating in a closed position.  

Example: The school district releases its school quality system with no community feedback, no community feedback on the design of the report card and fails to translate the documents into multiple languages.  Community organizations don’t even know it has been released and nearly all parents have no idea the district published the material.  

Closed-Open. In this scenario, a district is not committed to building the open system.  Government agencies, nonprofits, and other entities spin around its orbit, trying to crack open pieces for engagement.  Eventually, this leads to massive conflict, isolated work, and resistance to openness and partnership across the space.

Example 1: A district is launching a new initiative and fails to build any community buy-in or participation to guide the work.  Advocacy groups and parents are used to this and become disengaged, so whatever proposal comes out is met with suspicion and or resistance.

Example 2: A local advocacy organization builds a coalition around an important issue about which parents and families have concern.   They present their findings to Board members, district officials and others to no avail.  The system isn’t interested in their feedback or finds it irrelevant.  Eventually, the parents and community organizations take their concerns to the media who publish a report highlighting the frustration and holding the district to account.  

Open-Closed. In this ecosystem, the district is attempting or committed to openness, but the actors surrounding the system are resistant to partnership.  Maybe there is a precedent that has disappointed or burned families or community partners in the past. Or perhaps there is organizational resistance based on a personality conflict.  In many cases, people often doubt (with good reason) the sincerity of the open system’s attempt to build a culture of engagement.  So even if the system is attempting or generating openness, the actors are resistant to fully partnering in openness.  

Example: A charter network is seeking to build a new community advisory panel to help them understand how to expand to a new neighborhood.  After years of pushback, mindsets have shifted inside the organization, and the leadership is deeply committed to giving power to others to shape the course of a network.  However, given the history of non-engagement and previous interactions with other closed systems, families and advocates are unwilling to partner.  

Sadly, too many efforts in our communities fall into “closed” activities or mindsets.  History of oppression and institutional discrimination create patterns where both sides fail to build the openness that would take them to the next level.  Due to these factors, a closed ecosystem prevails.  

What does an open ecosystem look like?

An open ecosystem requires open culture and practices across system actors and associated actors.  This is the “holy grail” of open system development.  

Open-Open.  In this setting, districts and schools work hand in hand in a spirit of partnership with organizations and groups who are also committed to collaboration.  The alliance can flourish as a tidal force where the give and take generates tremendous amounts of open energy between all actors.  In these systems, the openness of the education system and schools produce partnerships and new potential in other organizations.  

Example 1:  A school district is working to build a home visit system that trains educators to go out and spend time building relationship and partnership with families.  At pilot schools, the district partners with local parent organizing groups.  The parent organizers work with the leadership of the schools to take the newly activated parents from the home visitations and form parent leadership teams to work on community and local issues.  The parents present back to the Board of Education with the community organizations to advocate for a change in discipline policy.

Example 2:  A charter network creates a family leadership institute to develop parents as advocates.  The network works with a local network that includes civil rights groups so that parents in the leadership institute can work with organizations across issue areas.   These civil rights groups build a new coalition with these parents to help them understand community needs and propose new initiatives to be responsive to community concerns.  

In the open-open model, building a virtuous circle between system-level efforts to open up schools to communities and families is intentionally and consciously matched with a partnership orientation to community and civic organizations.   The community and civic organizations, will connect schools to the entire fabric of civic life and provide a vital feedback loop.  

Building the virtuous circle for an open ecosystem

I’ve sometimes described building the open system or open ecosystems as creating an “electric current.”  If the current gets blocked at any stage of the process, it could stop all the positive energy from building in the system.  A virtuous circle has the same connotation – if the circle is broken or blocked, could we lose momentum?  Will goodwill disperse?

The idea behind the open system is powerful because it is about tapping into the tremendous energy present – the power of people to demand, reinforce or resist change.  This can allow improvement efforts to truly be about co-creation and “with” rather than “on behalf of.”  In urban districts, there are tens of thousands of parents and families who have the potential to transform schools and districts.  In rural communities, a dozen voices at a school board meeting can be extremely effective.  This fundamental mindset and practice shift can adjust the course toward truly different outcomes in what we even think is possible in our schools.  

Open ecosystems should be the enablers of open systems.  What we need are ecosystem partners who are committed to shifting the stance of education districts, schools, and networks to open orientations.  Districts need partners outside who can be the “backbone” like a Flamboyan or a “brace” like Climb Higher Colorado.  We need philanthropy to fund this work, and we need outside groups to realize to spend time with districts helping them open up.  

Open ecosystems require openers inside and outside the schools and districts to partner to build collective vision and trust.   Openers must be brave, well-intentioned, and clear.  Building the internal capacity of an open system is hard enough – but venturing outside the walls of the system to partner with critical friends and frenemies is a politically fraught affair.  Openers struggle to establish and maintain outside relationships because it’s not usually popular inside one’s own organization to be assisting a party that is demanding or disapproving.  However, these are exactly the kinds of relationships we need to build open an ecosystem.  

Questions for the future

We hear so much about “ecosystems” education.  But it’s not enough to want groups to work together to achieve common goals – we must seek something different or bolder to achieve our potential for excellence in education and real partnerships between schools and families.  

Therefore, readers, I ask you the following questions for your consideration:

  • What type of system are you in right now?  Open?  Closed? Or, does it have characteristics of each? What circumstances moves your organization along the open/closed spectrum?
  • What ecosystem are you in right now?  Open?  Closed?  What type of closed?
  • How are current organizations relating to one another?  Are they reinforcing closed networks and system interactions?  Or are they attempting to build open systems?
  • Do you have some advocacy groups operating with an open mindset and others with a closed mindset?  What steps could be taken to build affiliation?
  • Is your local education system operating with an open orientation?  If not, what can you do to change this?

If you’re reading this across the state or country, I’d love to hear from you.  How does this resonate in your context or communities?  E-mail me at

This blog has been cross-posted at The Open System.