Teaching teachers

Blame game must end for schools to improve, says new dean of CU education school

PHOTO: Courtesy of CU
Kathy Schultz is the new dean of the School at Education at the University of Colorado.

BOULDER — There’s a new dean in town.

And she wants to make teaching fun and intellectual again.

Kathy Schultz, who will begin her role as dean of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Education in August, said in a wide-ranging interview with Chalkbeat that everyone needs to stop blaming each other for a broken school system and that teachers should be given more autonomy and better training based on individual needs.

Schultz currently runs the School of Education at Mills College, a liberal arts college in Oakland, Calif. She will succeed Lorrie Shepard, who led the school at CU for 15 years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you getting settled in Boulder?
It’s been great. I’ve been able to meet with Lorrie about once a month.

This is such a strong school of education. What I really want to do is build on its strengths. I want to build on all the incredible programs going on already, while bringing in my own vision to support people to move forward.

There is an incredible faculty here. And from what I know, an incredible group of students. The kinds of programs and the research agenda and community engagement that people are doing make it really strong. The scholars here are nationally and internationally recognized. There’s this very nice combination of people committed to educational research and educational practice and educational policy. That kind of combination is really rare.

What is your vision for the school?
To really flesh out what my vision is, I need to keep learning about what’s being done here. My work has been in preparing urban teachers. One of the things that’s very interesting to me is that this school is not located in an urban center. I think that presents really interesting possibilities. I will continue to be very interested in understanding what the connections can be in Denver while thinking about how to look at underserved populations in rural areas.

As a dean, I’ve become increasingly interested in education policy. I really do see this as a place where there are a lot of people working on issues. There’s an opportunity to highlight our role in participating in public conversations.

The Denver-metro area student population is changing very quickly, in part to gentrification.
That’s one of the big issues I’ve been working on in Oakland: How are we responsible to these new and changing groups of students? I think that’s very relevant here. How do we think about changing demographics? What are our responsibilities? And what are our responses?

What are the responsibilities for schools of education?
It’s really important that schools of education present themselves as in the conversation, not the experts who are going to determine the conversation. So I’d like to think of the walls as being really porous. As a school of education, we should be learning from the community and using the external resources of the community to inform the courses we’re providing. At the same time, we’re not only educating the students in our walls, but (asking), ‘How do we contribute to the larger education of the community?’ Again, this school does this a lot. More and more schools of education have that obligation: take in knowledge, but also contribute knowledge through scholarship and research and through practice like professional development for teachers and policy briefs.

Many states, including California and Colorado, are in the midst of teacher shortages. What should teacher colleges be doing to address this? What have you done?
The figures are incredible in California: Over the last 10 years there’s been a 75 percent drop in people going into teaching. So that’s been a huge concern both for the health of the teacher education programs and school districts.

One of the things CU Boulder is doing is developing a new major for undergraduates. This major is being connected to leadership and civic engagement. It’s just such a strong move for the university to be making. What this means is that when students come in as freshmen, they have opportunities to think about teaching and think of it as being closely connected to community engagement work.

I think this generation of students, of youth, is interested in making a difference and being engaged in community. I think there’s less and less of an interest in just being a teacher.

Partly that’s because teaching is being de-professionalized. It’s not intellectual work in the same way it used to be.

That’s one way to work on it: make it a better profession.

Are we asking too much of our teachers?
I think what’s important is that when you have greater demands there should be greater rewards. And I’m not just saying financial rewards — although that would help. I’m also saying, make it so that teaching continues to be a rewarding profession. There just has to be a real, greater appreciation for teachers.

One of the things that happens in education is that there is this revolving set of targets for who to blame. It’s the parents or the children who are being blamed. More recently it’s been the teachers and the teacher educators. Some people would say the truth is it’s none of those — it’s poverty.

I don’t think it’s helpful to blame any group, or even poverty. I do think poverty is an underlying cause and needs to be addressed. People can’t learn if they don’t have breakfast. But I think that rather than blaming, there has to be a focus on, ‘What are the rewards? How do you recognize the successes of teachers?’

How do you make it so it feels not like a losing, overwhelming job — because people will leave it. And they do. It’s not only that people aren’t going into teaching. It’s that people are leaving too quickly. We not only have to get more people into teaching, but we especially need to work on retaining teachers.

At Mills, we put a lot of effort into programs to support teachers through their first three or four years of teaching. If you can get teachers to stay for three to five years, it’s more likely that they’ll stay longer. It’s that revolving door that is really creating the shortage.

What was your program at Mills like?
Teachers would come together once a month. They would bring questions from their classroom. Now, it’s really structured on teachers doing practitioner research in their own classrooms. We’ve developed it so principals are supporting whole schools to do this work.

Teachers feel like professionals. They’re actually doing research. They’re feeling respected for doing it. They’re teaching is improving. And they’re talking every month with their colleagues about a puzzle they have about teaching. And collecting data about it.

What could lawmakers do to improve the teaching profession?
For schools to succeed, teaching has to be a respected profession. And I think that means we need to attract the most excited and engaged people into teaching. That includes salary and work conditions. It’s really tied to the demands on teachers.

How do we both hold high expectations and give teachers autonomy? One of the ways that teaching doesn’t feel like a profession now is when teachers are given very little autonomy and are told what to do. That’s because accountability is held at such a premium.

I think the Every Student Succeeds Act is flawed in many ways that No Child Left Behind was. But I think more local control is a good thing. And the state would do well to give more local control.

I’m for even more than local control. I’ve written a lot about how teaching is about listening to students. So when I talk about standards, I talk in a way about respecting students’ own standards. I think we need to pay lots of attention to who students are and build curriculum around that.

That’s doesn’t mean as a country we don’t have high expectations. You don’t have to have national standards to hold high expectations for everybody. This is a cliche, but there is a difference between standards and standardization.

If you were going to open up a school for the 21st century, what would it look like?
It would be open to the community and it wouldn’t be just from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. It would be porous to the community. I think students would be able to pursue their interests. It would be well-resourced. There would be structure for people who need structure.

The idea of who is a teacher would be greatly expanded. There would not only be the people who are paid to teach, but also community members would be teachers and maybe students would be teachers.

There would be very high expectations. Maybe clear graduation requirements that would be adaptable to how the world is changing. It would have plenty of technology, as well as technology free spaces so there could be different forms of creativity.

… That sounds pretty romantic.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Mills College is an all-women’s institution. It serves both genders.  

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”