the learner first



An Introduction to The Learner First

the learner first.

Engage i measure i empower i transform


What is The Learner First?

The Learner First catalyzes and empowers school

districts and education systems to create deep,

systemic change which dramatically accelerates

outcomes for the learners.



The Learner First is not professional development. It’s not a program. It’s

not a cookie cutter. It is a systematic process helping schools and districts look

critically at the whole system; identify what needs to change to make it work for

every single learner; and lead deep, sustainable, transformational change all the

way through to outcomes for kids.

The Learner First uses four key ‘assumption mind shifts’ to facilitate change in

both thinking and practice throughout the system:

• The only morally defensible

target is 100% success.

• Parents are the best experts of

their own children. We foster

this inclusive expertise.

• Equal treatment leads to inequitable


• Focusing on a small number of the

most vulnerable students, we create

deep system-wide changes that

benefit everyone.

We deliver an actionable framework and process supporting decision makers

to identify the real issues, work out how to address them, implement and drive

change, and determine what’s working or not.

In the words of a school

Library Media Specialist who

works with Learner First:

“The Learner First is a change process with a goal of

100% student success. We focus on the students who

struggle the most. By lifting them, we lift everyone.”

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What we have learnt.

Our Four Drivers to Success.


• Powerful, sustainable change must be done

with people, not to them, or even for them.

Over time it must be done by them.

• By understanding each other as people, we

build cohesive school and system change

teams, creating a safe space to dig deeply

into our underlying beliefs so we can effect

genuine change for the learners who need it.


• To achieve the vision we need a clear idea

of where we are at, and an authentic way of

measuring meaningful progress.

• No more teaching to the test; authentic mixed

method assessment helps the whole system

focus on what really matters for kids, and

make it happen for them.



• Sustainable change means empowering

a critical mass of people with a process,

supporting tools, and a methodology for

understanding the real problems, working

out what to do, and driving that change all the

way through to outcomes for learners.

• At every level of the system, we guide not

just one leader but whole change teams

through The Learner First methodology. As

capability grows, change teams can make it

happen themselves.

• Genuine, effective change must be deep,

systemic, and transformational.

• We empower schools, districts, states, and

countries to create transformational change

at every level of the organizational culture

iceberg. Not just policies and programs, but

actual behaviors and practices, and – crucially

the core beliefs and assumptions that drive

those behaviors

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A Cycle of Continuous Improvement

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What’s on your mind?



Is 100% student achievement realistic?

The 100% success target is a cornerstone of The Learner First assumption mind

shift. The only morally defensible target is 100%. It is an immutable fact. We

should never accept some children are preordained for failure.

We may not achieve 100% in the first year, but we are persistent to help every

single child to thrive.




What can we expect to achieve in the first year and beyond?

Based on measured outcome evidence for The Learner First work to date, primarily

with Title One schools (or international equivalent), a school can positively

accelerate progress (i.e. more than one year’s progress in a year) for at least half of

your focal students (and, in schools who embed the process fully, greater than that).

When a school takes a particular cohort of focal students, concentrating on them

relentlessly for three consecutive years, 100% success is achievable for that group

the kids who many thought would never succeed

Some students will accelerate and be succeeding by the end of

the year; some will accelerate towards those goals and require

additional support for following years. But they will be

accelerating, not just progressing at the expected rate.

Consider, these are the learners who have experienced

the least educational success so far; they are not the

kids just below a benchmark.

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We have also found when changes are made to help the focal kids prosper

actually benefit all learners. Non-focal students in the same classes

experience gains just as meaningful, even though there is less focus on them.

The following chart illustrates accelerated improvements of 8th Graders

between Fall 2013 – Spring 2014.

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in the Mine

Our fear is, aren’t we setting ourselves up for failure by targeting

students who have struggled the most? Some of those kids really won’t

ever succeed!

Previous efforts to lift achievement have always focused on the “bubble kids”, the

learners achieving slightly below benchmark - those who require minimal additional

help to rise over the bar.

We have become insensitive to the belief that there are some kids who are just

destined to fail, so we focus on the ones we can do something with. This belief

impairs our system.

In the core of every single teacher, staff member, leader, student, and parent is a

belief that every single student has the potential to succeed and prosper.

To mine these diamonds we take those learners who nobody felt could succeed,

connect with them as people, tap into the expertise of their parents, and find out

who they are, what they love, how to engage with them,

then accelerate those students.

We know far greater success is by

choosing to accelerate the kids whose

lives can be changed the most.

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How does The Learner First approach

achieve significant shifts for kids we are

not even focusing on?

We are all shifting the whole system together, many of us without realizing it.

Here’s how it happened in classrooms:

In each classroom where a teacher has chosen to focus on just three to five focal

students, they begin a deep connection with those learners and their parents, to

know them as people, find out what interests them, what they already know, and

then work out how to create learning experiences that bond with those interests

and teach what they need and want to know next.

Focusing on a small number in one class is manageable, with the benefit of

escalating the mind shift across the class.




I hear all this talk about “changing the system”, Are you serious?!

Although we know that instructional practice is the most powerful predictor of

student outcomes, we also know teachers work within a system which forces them

to focus on a specific agenda, work in particular ways they intuitively know are

not the best for their students. Often it feels like there is nothing they can do to

change the environment.

While teachers are genuinely connecting with kids in every single classroom, major

change is happening at the “systems” level too. Principals and central

office leadership teams are interrogating every part of what

they do through the eyes of those focal kids, and asking, “How

are these policies / procedures / rules / supports helping or

hindering teachers and staff from being able progress and do

what they really need to do for these kids?”.

It is called Teamwork.

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What about standardized test scores?

When test scores are used as the sole or primary measure for evaluating

performance of students, teachers, and schools they feel pressured to “teach to

the test”. That makes both learning and teaching uninspiring for everyone – and

ineffective for most kids.

The Learner First work is using Authentic Mixed Method Assessment to track

student outcomes. Standardized test scores are but one data point used alongside

all other evidence teachers have to understand where a student is aligned on the

relevant outcome.

President Barack Obama recently called for a capping of standardized testing at

2 percent of classroom time and said the government shares responsibility for

turning tests in the be-all and end-all of American schools.

“Learning is about so much more

than just filling the right bubble,

so we’re going to work with states,

school districts, teachers and

parents to make sure that we’re not

obsessing about testing”.

President Obama

Huffpost Politics 10/24/2015

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I can see



The Lighthouse digital data

collection platform radically

changes the way teachers,

schools and districts measure and

track student and district progress

toward achieving target outcomes.

Among other features, Lighthouse allows the district to do the following:

• Determine and enter student success ratings using a range

of student success rubrics, surveys and tools, as well as

formal assessments.

• Administer student, teacher, and parent surveys across the

district for specific groups.

• Output reports demonstrating where the district and

individual is currently positioned and indicating areas that

need to be accelerated

Rather than simply entering student ratings based on a limited range of

performance indicators, teachers learn to take into account everything they

know about each individual student when determining their ratings.

This Authentic Mixed Method Assessment (AMMA) approach drives

teachers’ understanding of each student’s current position in their learning

progression, and is embedded within the Lighthouse system to guide

teachers through the rating process.

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Lighthouse is a rich and more

illuminating way to evaluate learning.

Teachers can view ratings from multiple rating periods side by side and easily

visualize each student’s progress and achievement. Knowing where each student is

currently at in the learning process helps put the emphasis on individual learners,

and also clearly identifies those students that require

a different approach in developing their learning.

With Lighthouse reports, teachers and

district leaders will always know exactly

where they are in accelerating

individual learners or the district as a

whole, allowing day-to-day progress

without ever losing sight of overall

goals. No matter what goals the

district is hoping to achieve,

Lighthouse helps make the path to

these goals clearer than ever before.

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Start me up


Ask everyone you work

with for a story on

the successes and notso-successful




“Always wanted to know

but too afraid to ask“ type


Make them your agenda

for the next few weeks.


Ask your team how much

they would like to change.

If you think they wouldn‘t

care re-think how you are

talking to them.


Ask three friends who are

not in education for a story

on their experiences and


Be prepared to listen hard.


Take all this information

and apply a simple question

of yourself: “Can I do

better for learners?“

If yes, you have our contact


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Meet the team

joanne mcEachen


Joanne is an internationally

recognized whole system education

change leader; originally from New

Zealand. She alongside, Jane Davidson,

co-founded The Learner First.

Drawing on her deep expertise in creating

change at every level of the K-12 system, Joanne

has delivered numerous keynote addresses and

professional development workshops to educators internationally from (USA,

UK, Canada, Hong Kong, Uruguay, Australia, and New Zealand), on topics such

as, Whole System Change, Educational Leadership, Authentic Assessment, and

Educational Technology.

Prior to immigrating to the United States, Joanne led several whole-country

education change initiatives as a national (Federal Government) leader for the

Ministry of Education in New Zealand. Within these roles she was responsible for

the performance and outcomes of up to 2,600 schools.

Joanne also serves as Global New Measures Director for New Pedagogies for

Deep Learning: A Global Partnership. This is a 10-country, 1,000-school initiative.

Joanne is best known for her leadership in the design and implementation of a

major national (Federal Government level) system realignment for the Ministry of

Education in New Zealand. This multi-pronged approach included targeted change

management assistance for schools, a redesign of the system for funding and

allocating professional development, and the redesign of PLCs as school cluster

Learning and Change Networks.

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Meet the team

Dr. Jane Davidson


Jane is an internationally recognized

evaluation specialist and thought

leader, best known for developing

evaluation rubrics as a methodology

for drawing conclusions about

quality and value.

She has also made significant contributions in the

areas of causal inference for qualitative and mixed methods, and in synthesis

methodologies for evaluation.

Jane works alongside leading educational system change guru Joanne McEachen

using practical educational, systems change, and evaluative know-how to create

and track genuine deep change in education systems, states, districts, and schools.

Jane is former Associate Director of the internationally recognized Evaluation

Center at Western Michigan University, where she launched and directed the

world’s first fully Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Evaluation. She was 2005 recipient

of the American Evaluation Association’s prestigious Marcia Guttentag Award.

Prior to completing her doctorate in organizational psychology and evaluation at

Claremont Graduate University, Jane worked in training and development, quality

assurance, and HR. She is also a qualified high school teacher of physics, chemistry,

and science; and taught English in Japan for four years.

Jane’s text, Evaluation Methodology Basics: The nuts and bolts of sound

evaluation (2004, Sage), has sold heavily in both the US and internationally as a

graduate text and practitioner guidebook. Her minibook, Actionable Evaluation

Basics: Getting Succinct Answers to the Most Important Questions (2012, Real

Evaluation) is also available in Spanish and – soon – French. Jane is sought after as

a speaker for her signature approach of methodologically robust but refreshingly

practical evaluation with breathtaking clarity.

She has presented keynotes and invited workshops in the US, Canada, the UK,

Singapore, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. She has led successful

workshops for AEA, CES, AES, TEI, ANZEA, and UNISA, and coauthors a popular

blog ( with another top international evaluator, Dr.

Patricia Rogers.

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Meet the team

Dr. Jennifer Mersman

Chief Data Whisperer

Jennifer Mersman is a forthright,

multifaceted practitioner who has

experience working with multiple

stakeholder groups within the public,

non-profit, and private sectors.

She takes a systems level approach to her

work, examining the interplay of factors at

the organizational, group, and individual levels.

Jennifer is skilled at taking big picture concepts and tackling them with a strong

methodological background to inform practical solutions based on solid evidence.

Jennifer is a dedicated problem solver, and believes that every obstacle to

performance originates from a problem with thinking, that can lead to perceptions

and systems that hinder people and organizations from reaching their full

potential. To affect the person or organization, one must first affect the pattern of

thinking. Jennifer’s main area of experience is in applying the logic of evaluation to

programs, personnel, and performance appraisal. Her dissertation work involved

the measurement of the beliefs, values and behaviors of organizational culture and

tying those cultural components to organizational performance.

Jennifer has published and presented on a variety of topics at professional

conferences. The context of her professional work has spanned from school

districts to the finance industry. Jennifer has taught at the university level, as well

as in primary education (K-12), including alternative class/school structures for

at risk students. Her professional background has also informed her volunteer

work within her local community. Her value for impact and long lasting positive

change can most clearly be seen in her commitment over the last several years to

be completely present as a mom to her three children. Jennifer brings a solid under

girding of training and experience to the table–filtered through her lens as a frontline

educator, coach and mentor of little world changers.

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Meet the team

Dr. Leslie Conery

Lead Change Catalyst

Leslie Conery is a creative and

results-driven leader with more

than 25 years experience developing

strong teams to meet organizational


Her experiences include developing

partnerships and working collaboratively with

public, nonprofit and privately held organizations for

the purpose of improving student learning opportunities so that all students reach

their creative and intellectual potential.

After grounding her career through teaching at the elementary and high school

levels, Leslie worked with school systems building strong professional learning

communities. She takes a systems approach to organizational development and

has experience that spans focusing on individual student learning to writing and

shaping global and national policy.

Leslie provided over 18 years of nonprofit association leadership at the

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) serving a variety of roles

including deputy Chief Executive Officer for twelve years, chair of ISTE’s global

conference and exhibition for ten years, and member of ISTE’s NETS (National

Educational Technology Standards) leadership team. Leslie has served on boards,

expert panels and advisory groups supporting innovative educators on every


Through multiple collaborations, she continues to work with educators and policymakers

globally to bring about systemic change in education. She also continues

to ground her thinking and understanding of classroom practice by working in

schools with educators focused on making sure that all students succeed.

Leslie has a Masters of Science in computer science education and a Ph.D. in

curriculum and instruction with research emphases in the areas of educational

technology and professional development. She is an accredited member of

the Partnership Brokers Association and The American Society of Association

Executives also credentials her as a Certified Association Executive.

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Meet the team

Dr. Rodney Hopson

Change Catalyst

Dr. Hopson is a principal of H&H

Strategies and Professor in the

Division of Educational Psychology,

Research Methods, and Education

Policy in the College of Education and

Human Development at George Mason


Previously, he served as Professor, Department of Educational Foundations and

Leadership in the School of Education, and teaching faculty member in the Center

for Interpretive and Qualitative Research and Honors College in the School of

Liberal Arts, Duquesne University. He received his Ph.D. from the Curry School of

Education, University of Virginia and has done post-doctoral/sabbatical studies

in the Faculty of Education, University of Namibia, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg

School of Public Health and Centre of African Studies, Cambridge University. In

leadership capacities, Hopson has served on the Board of the Directors of the

Council of Anthropology and Education, the American Evaluation Association, and

various program and committee chair roles in the American Educational Research

Association, and the Comparative and International Education Society. He served

as the 2012 President of the American Evaluation Association.

Hopson’s research and practice focuses on the analysis and impact of education

and schooling on marginalized and underrepresented groups in diverse global and

nation-states while seeking solutions to conditions these groups face. Hopson’s

research and evaluation work has been funded by school districts, universities,

philanthropic and development agencies, non-profit and community-based

organizations in the United States, Namibia, and Norway. His research and

practice work uses critical interpretive and evaluative methods to promote ways

of rebuilding schools and restoring communities for the underserved and under

resourced through emancipatory policies, practices, and praxis.

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Meet the team

Dr. Jacqueline Sakho

Change Catalyst

Dr. Roebuck Sakho is the founder and

managing partner at The Restorative

Justice Group, a think tank that

designs and evaluates restorative

justice processes, practices and

techniques to facilitate collaborative

teams of schools, academy and


Specifically, the systems change response focuses on assisting communitycentered

organizations operating at the grassroots level to build their capacity

to be active participants in the improvement process alongside schools and

researchers. The work involves designing a knowing and doing space where

schools, academy and community work in an authentically collaborative

partnership to respond to discipline disparity in traditional school settings and

non-traditional settings to create sustainable transformative improvement.

She has consulted with community leaders and school leaders in Oakland, CA;

Memphis, TN; Nashville, TN and Pittsburgh, PA responding to discipline disparity.

Dr. Roebuck Sakho continues to deepen this work by intentionally engaging

vulnerable and/or destabilized school communities in the ecological model of

systems change. She has a rich background in facilitative dialogue, program

development and transformative networking and has consulted with the Zehr

Institute for Restorative Justice at The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at

Eastern Mennonite University; Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at

Berkeley Law School; The NAACP Legal Defense Fund in partnership with Atlantic

Philanthropies, among others who are actively responding to the inequitable

delivery of discipline practices in PreK-12 schools.

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Contact us

Make contact with us today and find out how

to better support learners at your school.



With thanks for the inspiration: The Rolling Stones, The Beatles,

Molly Hatchet, Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Leonard Cohen, Tommy

Duncan and Johnny Nash.

The Learner First

Copyright 2015

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