5 Things on a Revolutionary Superintendent’s Mind
Paper’s Restart & Reimagine Discussion Series continued on November 9th, 10am PST.
Moderated by Tony Wan, managing editor at EdSurge, the distinguished panel featured:
- Dr. Susan Enfield, Superintendent, Highline Public Schools, Washington
- Dr. Kristi Wilson, Superintendent, Buckeye Elementary School District, Arizona
- Marlon Styles, Superintendent, Middletown City School District, Ohio
While we are all yearning for a return to normalcy in a general sense, it’s become clear that not everything should go back to normal after the pandemic. Our panelists, K-12 equity advocacy trailblazers, put forward some powerful ideas for the future of education:
Read the full highlights below.
1. What shouldn’t go back to normal
Dr. Susan Enfield: Distance learning should not be seen as something that we’re only needing to do in a crisis. We do have children for whom this is working and they are deserving of having that option as part of their public education menu so to speak. Also, to really affect lasting change, we can't position what we want to see differently as a response to the pandemic; we need to actually frame it differently as this is what we know is the right thing to do for children and we now have evidence that it's really important.
As an example in Highline, we have a promise to know every student by name, strength, and need so they graduate prepared for the future they choose. Because our children are not physically in buildings, we have worked with our staff to make sure that every child, every one of our 17000+ students is connected one-on-one to an adult in their school who is checking in on them weekly. That simply has to continue once we go back.
We can't keep the hesitation type mind-set that exists in K-12 education in this country; the one where we hesitate to tackle the conversation around equity and address the systemic inequities our kids have been facing for years.
We've got to get rid of that mindset; we've got to adopt that mindset that becomes an urgent matter. In the past, prior to the pandemic, we found an excuse not to send devices home to kids. We found an excuse not to really entertain the idea of creating inclusive learning environments for students. We found an excuse as to why we need to hesitate to say “oh we just need to close the achievement gap.”
I'm hoping that when we go back post-COVID, we quit talking about the achievement gap and we start addressing the systemic inequities, those that we’re underserving specifically and I'll say it—our brown and Black students in this country. We got to do something about that. What I'm hoping we do as a profession is we take action and, more importantly, have an urgent mindset and the courage to actually stop talking and start doing and really providing for the have-nots in this country, specifically our school-age kids. I'm over here in Middletown and we're already digging into it. We started knocking some of those barriers down, adjusted some of our fiscal priorities to align with our academic priorities, and created some environments where kids can be successful—plain and simple.
Dr. Kristi Wilson: We’re finding new ways to connect with each other. Our students are finding new ways to connect, our communities are finding new ways to connect. Now we need to stop talking and get to work. I think that's what the panel’s all about is finding the courage and the conviction to lead and that's what we need to start doing. I just am not going to go back to the old ways of doing things where folks are not as connected.
2. Breaking the K-12 muscle memory
Wilson: Right now we don't know all the answers, we’re still experiencing it. I think what's really important is that we don't focus on accelerating into the future with this notion that we have all the answers. We have to step back and ask questions: What are we learning, what's working, what's working in your individual communities. In our district, we're making sure that we're not afraid to ask the questions, and we're studying what is working to be better prepared for teaching and learning in the future.
I think the muscle memory of a bureaucracy like public education is strong and the tendency will be to just get pulled back into that which we knew how to do. It is going to take courage to act and do things differently.
One of the things that I see coming out of this that has the potential for us to ensure that we don't snap back to where we were in this notion of people not being bound by title and traditional role; this notion that as the adults in a school system we are going to step up collectively to do whatever it takes to educate our children, and do that in partnership with our families. And so I think there's power in that, in all of us saying it doesn't matter what my title is; it matters that I'm here to serve kids.
Styles: I think it's our own fault in education. We originally said we struggle integrating technology in the classroom. We hung our hat on that as educators for years. All of a sudden COVID showed up and we’re integrating technology like we've never done before. So the celebration of the day is the fact that post-COVID, some of the skill sets that educators have created or up-skilled or started to develop will still be in the bag of tricks. So we should have an expectation of each other that those skill sets continue to shine.
The serious question is: Who are we not serving? When we get back, we need to have the courage to be brave enough to dig into some work that you may or may not be prepared for and to start asking serious questions and being honest about the responses and the results.
We’re not serving our brown and Black students. We’re not serving students who live in poverty. We’re not students at the top end of the spectrum and giving them access to the environments that they need.
Enfield: Our colleague Lavelle Brown who's a superintendent in Ithaca speaks quite honestly about the fact that he has spoken with some of their students of color who are just fine not coming back into school. School is not a welcoming place for them. They are not known and honored for who they are and where they come from. And that has to change.
3. Once you know better, do better
Enfield: In the words of Maya Angelou, once you know better, do better. Well, guess what? We know better now and so just forever shame on us if we don't do better.
Styles: These inequities have been present for years and years. We've just for some reason in this country chosen to call it the achievement gap or the improvement process. We’ve refused to call it what it is and it took the murder of George Floyd for it to really start to surface and to start bringing some serious advocacy across this country in K-12 education. You're talking about cultural bias, social bias, organizational bias, oppressive structures that are in place in our K-12 system that really hinder the capacity and the success potential of our brown and Black students. We have to look at our practice as it relates to discipline to have a better understanding that discipline is just a response to the fact that we culturally don't understand our students so therefore we issue a consequence for the behavior they have chosen to display in our educational environment.
Enfield: One of the things that I really see coming out of this, that could be the game-changer is, to Marlon’s point, that our public education system was not set up to serve all children. It was never set up to do that. And so we've been asking a system that is set up to sort and select children by design to do the polar opposite, right, which is to serve all children equitably. Now, we have a chance to rebuild and reimagine the system in a way that does serve all children. We can actually once and for all deliver on equity through our actions and our policies and our practices and our belief systems in a way that we haven't done before. And that's the revolution that needs to happen in my opinion.
Styles: Susan mentioned something that really struck a core with me, and that's "we know better," which means you've learned something. So if you've learned something you have to act differently. So professional development is a perfect example of why we need to do things differently. We've got to start expecting out of ourselves, educators, what we expect out of our students—and that's to show growth, that's to improve, that's to accept responsibility. We've got to do differently when it comes to addressing the topic of becoming an anti-racist profession. We've got to reimagine our PD topics and go about developing some new behaviors now that we know better.
Enfield: I would add that we also need to help facilitate our teachers to own their professional learning. How can we really hear from our teachers that are identifying what their needs are for learning and shifting our system? That's going to push us at the central office, because you know we've got to plan for everything, and if you're really going to listen to your people who are on the ground doing the work, you're going to have to adjust those plans.
Wilson: The other thing that I think is equally as important is how the system, in and of itself, is overtaxed.
So I'm just going to tell you personally I have made a huge commitment to my staff to just make sure that they're taking care of themselves, because we're all perfectionists in our own way.
4. Reconciling with fiscal realities
Styles: What I would encourage folks to think about as you start taking action is to revisit your district's priorities. If you don't have those, set some. If you do have them, revisit and possibly even reset. And making sure we've got fiscal alignment as well, and really holding ourselves accountable for resource equity across our system.
If you don't have those resource priorities in place, I think you, as a superintendent, probably should do some just some reflection on why you're leading and what you stand for. Because all three of us know you have to work with your governing board, and so you as a leader will need to find that courage and that conviction to figure out what you are doing in this work and why.
Enfield: As leaders and stewards of public dollars, we have always had to be mission-driven in our budget priorities and how we allocate our resources, and that need will be even greater now. And we need to be very, very clear that we need another stimulus package. The challenges that we are going to face in this comeback will be significant. I'll give an example: we are looking at some budget reductions because of some state-funding formulas here that will have some really detrimental impacts on our system. At the same time, we know that a virtual learning environment is working for some of our students and so we want to make that a permanent option for kids in Highline. So we need to be real that for us to make some of the changes that need to be made, just shifting and reallocating resources isn't going to cut it.
There will be a need for an infusion of dollars into our education system for us to recover from this, and more importantly to help our children who need it most recover from this.
5. Hopes for the new administration
Wilson: I thought it was just fantastic, and I know Susan saw this, that in our presidential elect's acceptance speech that the first constituents that he acknowledged were educators. And I tweeted out that it was just extremely refreshing to see that. I think all of us could agree that we're looking for some advocacy and support from the office of the President.
Enfield: I have a short-term hope and then of course many longer-term hopes for what a new administration and a new secretary of education will do. My first short-term hope is that we finally get some federal guidance on how to reopen our schools in a safe and consistent manner. You know leaving these decisions up to individual school districts is just unconscionable. And the abdication of leadership at the federal and the state level over the last several months has been stunning and I don't mean stunning in a good way.
And so I think that what we're really looking for is leadership and what leadership is really about, is about service. It's about making a difference, it's about putting service and serving others above yourself. And my longer-term hope is that our children once again see leaders at the highest level of power who model service above self.
Styles: I feel very passionately about those same things. If I can add anything it would be this: we know we've got students of all walks of life, who walk into schools and they do without. They're a part of the Have Nots. And my hope is that the new administration really focuses on making sure those students that are part of the Have Nots have everything they need to be successful in life.
I also hope with this administration, that we no longer have to talk about the achievement gap and we can just start celebrating the fact that our Brown and Black students across this country are academically performing where they are able to perform, and that the system is not systemically oppressing holding them back.
And then last but not least I just hope that education, especially K-12 public education gets the respect it deserves because our educators in this country are knocking it out of the park and continuing to rise to the occasion every single time and answering the call. I just want to celebrate them, and I'm looking for that moment here coming up soon.
Note: This recap has been edited for length and clarity.