Charting a Path to Clarity in Sistema-inspired Work

First Published June 19, 2015 on the Sistema Fellowship Center Blog

One of my education systems professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently shared that “People support most what they help create.” (Cassidy 2015) For Sistema-inspired leaders and especially those who have delved into program design, applying this simple but powerful aphorism can help them chart a compelling vision for change.

Outcomes are an important piece of visionary thinking, but let us also not forget the value of leveraging people and ideas. This is how we can create economies of scale and bring programs to the next level. We know that music education produces a myriad of social, cognitive, and aesthetic outcomes and there is ample evidence to support its value, yet we seldom focus on music education as public policy. Every single Sistema program in the US and elsewhere has the potential of being an experiment of that possibility. They are producing relevant outcomes at the local level and soon enough researchers and practitioners will collaborate at the national level. The field has the potential of being successful at this practice. To reach such a level of sophistication we must pause and consider what is working and how we can multiply its effects. So my hope for this blog is to draw attention to a powerful framework that can help Sistema-inspired leaders think more deeply about their work and position their practice as relevant interventions that can lead to systemic change.

Sistema has been an influential force in arts education worldwide. As it became widely disseminated through the media and other scholarly explorations, the Venezuelan program presented us with opportunities and challenges to engage with music education as an innovation for solving a community’s deepest social needs. A leading scholar in the field of international education, noted that innovations, whichever part of the world they hail from, must be “reinvented by adaption.” And discerning the context in which we operate is key to their successful application. Equally important is that discerning leaders should know which elements to transfer and which to leave behind. Some “innovative” ideas can be “superficial and inaccurate” so we must be careful as we consider them as plausible. (Reimers 2015)

I am currently working to design a Sistema-inspired program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that will affirm the value of music-in-education. Our work is designed to serve as a platform to culture aspirations for human development in a group of inner-city elementary level students. To gain dexterity in the process of program design, I’ve been applying a tool called the “Eightfold Path” as outlined by Eugene Bardach in his book, A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving. This tool charts a clear path to conceptualize designs that can be embraced at both the social and political level. The “path” includes several steps: a definition of the problem to solve, collection of evidence pertaining to the problem, identification of alternatives that can solve the problem, criteria by which to weigh the best course of action, a projection of outcomes, examination of costs vs. benefits, and documentation through storytelling. You might have also heard of “logic models” as a parallel idea and found the tool to be useful (if you have not done so, I recommend exploring the Kellogg Foundation’s Logic Model Development Guide), but the Bardach approach posits a more contextual approach that invites practitioners to really “see” their work at work in the midst of landscapes of constant fluctuation and change. 

We tend to think of policy makers as specialized technicians sitting in an ivory tower dictating how public benefit programs should operate. The beauty of our field is that most Sistema-inspired leaders have the opportunity to take on multiple roles and so many of them might already be engaged in the practice of policy making without realizing it. From that vantage point, the practice of policy making can evolve organically as they make critical decisions in support of the communities that they serve. My hope for these leaders is that they would begin charting and documenting their path for change and inviting others to reflect upon that work. This is a critical piece of a program’s sustainability.  

The work that we are doing together across the country (over ninety programs and counting) is a testament of our collective vision for change. But we must bring this change to the next level by thinking broadly and transferring ideas and frameworks from other disciplines into our work. Sistema-inspired leaders are adapting a noble educational philosophy that posits bringing music education to the masses but we still have a long way to go to reach our goal. To be successful, we can begin by examining our own work more closely and using relevant tools to test its logic. Local programs can grow stronger when they articulate their goals clearly, establish links with like-minded programs, leverage resources in the community, and bring people together to pursue a shared vision. People will not only support most what they help create, but also what they can clearly understand.

Jose Luis received an Innovation Grant from the Sistema Fellowship Resource Center to pursue a professional program in educational leadership through Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. He currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and leads the design and management of Sistema Tulsa.

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