Kevin: The COVID-19 pandemic and the drive for social justice have highlighted the need for meaningful change in the U.S. education system. New technologies and social realities are also impacting the aspirations of young people, and our schools have to keep up. As we look toward the future of education, we must think about how to best prepare students for a changing world, rather than simply relying on the teaching methods of the past. What methods will allow us to best assess students and reshape public education? How can we improve education when there are barriers to reform? And what should education look like going forward?
Kevin: This is What I Want To Know, and today I'm joined by Dr. Bill Daggett to find out. Dr. Bill Daggett is a career education professional with extensive experience, both in the classroom and in administration. He is the founder of two education improvement organizations; The Successful Practices Network and the International Center for Leadership in Education. He is also the creator of the Rigor/Relevance Framework and the Future-Focused Success Framework, which have become key tools in education reform efforts. Having written 26 books on education, Dr. Daggett is a frequent speaker and is recognized as one of the most important voices in the field. Today, he's here to talk to us about the direction public education needs to go to best serve all students.
Bill, welcome to the show.
Bill: Thank you, Kevin. I'm delighted to be with you, Kevin.
Kevin: Well, Bill, we've known each other for a while. One of the reasons why I wanted you on is I can't think of anyone more steeped in the operations of schools across the country than you. This is an interesting time, so I wanted to talk about it and just get your insight on where we are educationally in this country. That's going to be my first question. What's the state of education in America today?
Bill: Kevin, I've been crisscrossing the country for 30 years in the industrialized world. The last two years have been the most interesting and most challenged. We had the pandemic, Kevin, which caused enormous challenges to school districts, and we all know that. From going virtual, and feeding kids from remote locations, to mental health-related issues: the list is long. In many ways, schools are just trying to get back right now, get back to what they consider normal, to become stable.
But at the same time, the world outside of school is pushed by technology, pushed by the fact that 35% of American workers work from home permanently now, and another half of them spend a third of their time working remotely. The workplace, home and society have evolved to a new set of skills and knowledge and attributes. Where schools are right now is in this incredible tug of war. How do I stabilize the system, which almost takes you back to the past, while at the same time needing fundamental school reform? It leads us to a point where our teachers, our administrators are physically and emotionally exhausted. But at the same time, recognizing more than ever, we need change.
Kevin: We also are seeing superintendents who felt handcuffed by administration, by the status quo, and often held back on reforms. We're seeing more and more of those superintendents taking risks, which speaks to your point. This idea of education reform, which you mentioned, in many ways among many people who are in the system: it has been viewed as a bad word, a bad expression. I think that's increasingly less the case based on some of the facts that you just mentioned.
Bill: Yeah, I think you're right. I think people intellectually know that we need to reform, but emotionally are trying to figure out how do I do it during these trying times. But Kevin, just like in our personal lives, when you hit a crisis, that's usually when. As you begin to come out of that crisis, and we're coming out of the crisis, that's when you begin to say, "I’ve really got to change some things I do." I think what we'll see, Kevin, despite everybody being so tired and stressed, I think we're going to see more change in and around public education in the next two or three years than we've seen since you and I entered the profession decades ago.
Kevin: But what about the pushback? The barriers to change are the institutional bureaucratic forces that have a knee-jerk reaction to doing things differently. Even though there's this will for change among many, those forces are still strong, aren't they?
Bill: Yeah, they are. We are a deeply polarized nation right now, and we are politically polarized. The epicenter of that has moved down to school boards. With that, you've got people just hanging on saying, "Let's just do basics, stop everything else." On the other hand, you’ve got some people who are on the extreme opposite side. But the vast majority of people, Kevin, I find are in the middle.
What they recognize is, yes, we have to do strong basics. Basics are essential; they're non-negotiable. But you know what we learned during the pandemic, Kevin? We learned and the public learned that schools also feed kids. While they were out virtually, you still had to feed them. We also recognize we have a mental health crisis in this nation with our young people. I think there is a growing realization that we are about the whole child, and so I'm optimistic. While there is that real pushback and there is that real push to get back to where we used to be, I think the vast majority of the nation, both with our educators and our public, are beginning to swing and are saying, "We've got to do some things differently."
Kevin: You talk about the mental health of our students, which has dramatically been more apparent because of the pandemic. This is personal to you. You have a daughter who's had a neurological disorder. You've been involved with the special needs population in school systems around the world. You and others are pointing to that as something that has become more pronounced or more obvious as an issue that needs to be addressed. What are some of your thoughts in terms of how school districts should deal with this issue of the mental health challenges of students?
Bill: Kevin, I think we all have to take a deep step back and recognize that our kids are all very, very different. You mentioned my daughter, Audrey, who is disabled. Bonnie and I have five children, and they really run the gamut from truly gifted and talented to Audrey, who's severely disabled. To a son that has disabilities after being hit when he was 11 years old and in a coma for three months, to two of the other boys who are doing just fine. That's one family, Kevin. If we can get people to look at their own children, because I don't believe there's any family in this country where all the kids are the same: they're all different. And to think somehow that we can have a school system where we're going to have, for example, a proficiency exam at some point during the school year that will determine whether the student has been successful or not successful is ludicrous.
Kevin: Now, what about teachers in the classroom? Our education system, as you know, was based on an industrial revolution model, where kids sit in a room. They are quiet; they watch a teacher who leads them and guides the conversation. They take notes, they then take a test on it, give the teacher back what they had given them, and that's pretty much it. Now things are more interactive. We talk about project-based learning; we talk about collaboration. We talk about mastery, where kids learn at their own pace. We talk about not just the one test to measure proficiency, but see the starting point, see the growth. How should classrooms look different for teachers?
Bill: They should be very active. Kids should be working, as you just said, in small groups, for project-based learning, working in groups at a time. We've got to use technology differently. Kevin, you're aware of incredible advancements in technology that now enable us to personalize instruction. Think about any of your teachers in the performing arts. Think about any of your athletic coaches. They're on the sidelines; the kids are performing; they're active. That coach stops, helps them, coaches them. That's the change in today's classroom from providing instruction to managing learning, much like many of our academic areas have done for a long time — also, Kevin, very much like kindergarten teachers used to be able to do. But today, more and more, we pushed so many standards lower and lower, earlier and earlier in the school year and in the academic years of our students, that we took away things like structured play and so on, which wasn't just play. It was actually teaching skills through an active process.
Kevin: Well, what about this idea of if the classroom changes, then really an individual school changes? What about this notion of the role of central administration in school districts going forward?
Bill: Yeah, I see central administration having two distinct responsibilities. They still now have to set policy. But policy is like setting the lighthouse — where do we want to be — and setting broad guardrails that then the local building has to work within. But Kevin, that doesn't take very many people, that doesn't take a big central administrative staff to do that. Because then that second role, which is where they should be adding more staff, providing more expertise, is providing technical assistance back to the school, to the principal, to the teachers. But what has happened through the years is central administration became very much like departments in the U.S. DOE (Department of Education). They were the rule makers, and they thought their job was simply to monitor the rules. No, their job is to provide technical assistance. It's almost reversing the pyramid if you will.
Kevin: But how do we get there? Because some have argued that if we have two or three of the major school districts take this approach, then others will follow, or if there's an innovative or influential school district in a handful of states. How do you think is the best way to engender that type of transition?
Bill: I had the privilege for the last 18 months to chair a national commission for AASA, The School Superintendents Association, where they made a series of bold recommendations around a lot of the areas we've been discussing in this podcast. But they concluded that the recommendations would be nothing more than another report on the shelf, and we got some districts to begin to implement it. Last year, 120 districts across the country came together. It's called Learning 2025. We just added another 160 districts; we will be at 280 districts this year on that national initiative.
AASA's national conference for the next three years, which is for the superintendents, that's 13,000 superintendents in this country a part of AASA, their national conference is 3,000 superintendents — for the next three years, the entire conference is going to be built around what we are finding in what is now 280 districts? We anticipate for the '23-'24 school year that we will push that up to over 500 districts. It's got to be an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary process. Revolutions get killed in this environment. Got to be evolutionary, but it's got to be critical mass, and there's got to be safety in numbers.
Kevin: Recognizing that the big swirl is politics, the politics that we see in school boards, culture wars — while schools are trying to manage this change and even embrace some aspects of change, how do the school boards, superintendents, teachers and staff manage the social challenges and the pressures they're getting because of the politics of education?
Bill: I think again, it's in an evolutionary way, but you’ve got to build a culture. Let me give an example. We joined hands with the 280 districts with Battelle for Kids, and they have something called Portrait of a Graduate. It's a process you put a community through to think through deeply: what do they want their graduates to look like in five years? What are the skills, knowledge and attributes? You have community forums and round tables, with a wide variety of groups, as well as the educators. We're finding Battelle's had success at this for the last five, six years in hundreds of districts. They're able to get people to agree. Yeah, that's what the graduate should look like. These are the skills, knowledge and attributes, and they become very, very specific. As part of that, we have worked with McKinsey & Company, and they surveyed 18,000 companies, small, medium, and large, across every industrial sector to be very specific on the skills they think the future workforce needs across industrial lines. They've identified a series of cognitive skills, a series of self-leadership skills, a series of interpersonal skills and a series of digital-communication skills.
As we do these community forums in Portrait of a Graduate, we suggest people look at that McKinsey research. They don't have to agree with it, just look at it. But we're finding 99.9% of the people say, "That's right, we agree. That's what we want our sons and daughters to have." Once you can agree what the graduate needs to have, then the next step, and we're doing that, is what does the Portrait of the Educator look like? If that's what we want the kids to be like, what experiences are there that the educator has to provide to get the kids there? We see that, Kevin, as a two- to three-year process. I wish we could turn it over on a dime, but you can't; it takes two to three years.
Kevin: What changes need to take place with the shape of school boards to allow superintendents and school leaders to be able to do the things you're talking about? Because I've heard many superintendents, you have as well, say, "Yeah, I want to do that, but I've got to manage my board, and they're stuck in the structure that they know." It seems to me a lot of the forward-thinking, forward-looking initiative similar to what you're talking about, where you understand the profile of the graduates you want to see in five years, the profile of the educator: it requires a different level of thinking than many school board leaders who oversee schools are accustomed to.
Bill: Yeah, and that is a very, very difficult task because we have some, Kevin, fabulous, and you know them, fabulous school board members. But we have some also, I'll call them single issue board members, who just consume that superintendent's and leadership team's time, energy and focus. The state school boards associations in the various states, and many of them are somewhat in disarray right now themselves: they’ve got to provide more and more technical assistance and support to school board members when they're first elected and support to boards that become dysfunctional.
Nature of American education: we will not get rid of school boards, and I don't think we should. But we do have to teach them what it means to be a board member and not an advocate for a specific area. I think that the more the superintendent ahead of time, she or he works with that board one on one to get the majority of them to be focused on the direction that the school district should be going, keeping them focused on policy and slowly working to isolate that individual or two or three board members who are again, just using it as a stepping stone or are on a crusade. But it is a very complicated task for our school superintendents.
Kevin: How big an issue is the money issue, or is it that we're just spending it on the wrong things in our schools?
Bill: Well, I'm not saying we're spending it on the wrong things, but I mean, I want more money for schools; we all do. But here's the reality. You hardly could create a more expensive delivery system than we presently have. Part of that is because we are what I call forward-focused rather than future-focused. When a school district begins to put the budget together for next year, you know, Kevin, what they start with; they start with the existing budget and the existing contracts. Understandably so, and they say, "Okay, well, how much more money do we need next year to continue what we now have in place?" Then they say, "Well, and I'd like to get a little bit more somewhere so I could do something else," and so they want a little more money on top of that.
The standards movement has got the same problem, and I've been close to the standards movement in the country for 30 years. We never ever take a standard away; we just add more, but we don't expand the school day, school year. What's happened is we have a system, because it's forward-focused from the past, that has become overloaded, and it's got too much stuff in it. Future-focus says, and that's where the Portrait of the Graduate and so on and getting the community engaged and that, is putting that stake in the ground up three, five years out and building back from that future. Now you've got to do a little bit of both of these at the same time.
Kevin: This is what I really want to know. If you think about education in America today and in your view, think about the way it will look 10 years from now, will it be different? And if so, how?
Bill: I think it will be different. I think it will be much more application based. I think we'll begin to value experiences other than that simply of seat time. I believe we will see used the term earlier project-based learning. I think we're going to see a lot, lot more of that type of activity. We're going to move away from the heavy focus on Carnegie Unit and time. I think we're going to move away from this one definition of what we do as proficiency by a state test to much more of a growth model. What we're going to see is less uniformity and more flexibility in how it happens and when it happens and where it happens. Overall, what will get us there, Kevin, is if we can get the nation to love our kids more than all the individual special interest issues, one at a time, and to love our kids' future more than the schools of our past and focus on that.
Kevin: Wow! Bill Daggett, it's always an honor and pleasure to be with you, my friend. Thank you for joining us on What I Want To Know.
Bill: Thank you, Kevin.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want To Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education and write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media, that's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com.
I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous; thank you for joining What I Want To Know.
Dr. Bill Daggett is a career education professional with extensive experience both in the classroom and administration.
He is the founder of two education improvement organizations, the Successful Practices Network and the International Center for Leadership in Education. He is also the creator of the Rigor/Relevance Framework and the Future-Focused Success Framework, which have become key tools in education reform efforts.
Having written 26 books on education, Dr. Daggett is a frequent speaker and recognized as one of the most important voices in the field.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.