Distrust and Educational Change An Interview with Dr. Kathy Schultz

A New Audacity: I’m with Dr. Kathy Schultz, Professor and Dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She gave the keynote speech at this year’s EDiTE’s Conference on European Perspective in Transformative Education in Wroclaw, Poland. Her presentation was titled Distrust and Educational Change: Responding as Educators to Our Current Times. So, just to start, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your work, and specifically what your presentation was about for this year’s conference?

Kathy Schultz: Of course. So, I’m Kathy Schultz. As you say, I’m the Dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder and I’m also a professor. I am just about to finish my first year as Dean there. Prior to that, I was Dean at Mills College in California and a professor for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. My interest is studying in how to prepare teachers to enter into and stay in primarily urban settings. I’ve written about Listening and Silence and the current book that I’m working on is about distrust and it’s distrust that I chose to focus on the keynote at our conference with EDiTE this year.

A New Audacity: So, I have a couple question on the presentation itself and then some of the broader implications. You spoke about your experiences in Chester and the structural distrust that was created or exacerbated there. I found a lot of analogues with my experience with the Achievement School District in Memphis, TN. Can you speak a little about your experience for our readers? What were the lessons learned from your time appointed school board and, if you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

Kathy Schultz: Well, it’s a long story that will try and boil down into a few minutes. So, when I was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, I was appointed by the governor to be on a three-person school board in Chester. And Chester is one of the lowest performing and poorest districts in Pennsylvania. And so, it was a district that was taken over in the early 90s by the state.

It’s an interesting and complex district that’s very much an American story. It’s a district that’s about 90% African American and also Republican and that’s a very unusual combination in the United States. So, we replaced a Republican board appointed by a Republican governor as a Democratic board appointed by a Democratic governor. So, there were Democratic and Republican politics that were threaded throughout this whole story.

When we came in, we were distrusted immediately by some members of the community and trusted by others. In fact, it was a three-person board and the other two members were African American men and one of the community members, who’s also African American, spoke to us at the first board meeting and called us plantation owners essentially. So, that was one perception of what our role was. We were also embraced by another part of the community who was looking for change and was not happy with the prior board which had allowed a charter school, actually a for profit charter school, to take over half the district.

The problem with that is that there wasn’t enough money for the entire district. Because half the students, Kindergarten through 8th grade, were in charter schools, and charter schools are part of the public system, they were pulling too much money out of the public system. In the United States, school finances differ by state, and so…

A New Audacity: And per-pupil allocations differ…

Kathy Schultz: Right, it’s part of the funding formula, exactly. At any rate, we made a lot of progress in the district. We started eight pre-schools, we built playgrounds in every elementary school, we started libraries. We turned one charter school, not one of the for-profit schools, but another one, a failing charter school, into a public one. We convinced a group that was going to start an independent or charter school based on the arts to start it as a public school.

So, we had great success, but our failure, I would argue, is that we worked really hard with one part of the district and built trust with that part of the community, but not with the entire district and not the part of the community that was in support of the charter schools. And we didn’t work enough to build leadership with the elected board. We tried, but they weren’t immediately interested in being collaborative with us. So, in the end, when the elected board took over and a Republic governor took over the state, the school district ended up losing money quickly and undoing all the changes that we had put into place. So, that’s the short story.

A New Audacity: Wow, very interesting. So, what advice does would you have for teachers and teacher educators that are working in these institutional settings to gain trust of the teachers and/or professors and create better collaboration in working with them?

Kathy Schultz: One of the main argument in this book that I’m writing and the talk that I gave the other day for EDiTE is that it’s very important to build trust and that’s what we did. We went to churches, we went to schools, we did all sort of things in the community and talked to the community. But what we did not do was name the distrust that was there. So, that’s one of my biggest themes: it’s important to build trust and there’s lots of ways for teachers in their classrooms and teacher educators in their teacher education classrooms to build trust with students and that’s something that many of us know how to do, but I think what’s much more difficult is to identify and name the distrust that’s there. It’s not always distrust that can be addressed, but it’s important to acknowledge that it’s there and to recognize and to work and see what can be done mitigate it so that change can happen. I think if we were able to breakdown the distrust in this district, we might have been able to work with the elected board that ended up taking our place and teach them about the finances, because they weren’t really clued into the finances and to work with them to preserve some of the changes we were able to make.

A New Audacity: So, what reforms or methods of engagement would you argue would help grow trust in education?

Kathy Schultz: One of the things I am arguing is that many of the reforms that we have currently are essentially based on distrust, but I don’t think that’s acknowledged. For instance, in the United States and I suspect much of Europe, there is an increased reliance on standardized tests and fundamentally standardized tests undermine the trust of teachers to evaluate their own students and to know their students are performing. There are many other examples, most of which I know are in the United States as I don’t know European examples as well, but there are many other examples such as school takeovers where the decisions made for reform are made from the top down and the voices of teachers, of students, and even the community are not taken into account. Another example that we talk about is school turnaround is mandated from the top and usually something the community is very unhappy about, because often the community has built strong relationships with the teachers.

A New Audacity: And so, it’s imposed rather than built from the ground up.

Kathy Schultz: Right. And so, my suggestion is that policy makers recognize when there’s distrust. When the reform’s consequences, and maybe not an intended consequence, is to increase distrust, to rethink it and think about how can the reform be made with true input from the community. So, for instance, in the example that I write about in Northern California where there’s school turnaround, there were community meetings, so it’s not as if they weren’t seeking input from the community, but the community didn’t feel that the meetings were authentic. So, I think, sometimes people try and build trust, but not in authentic ways. So, they solicit feedback, but they’re always going to do what they’re going to do anyway without truly listening to the community. Listening to the community sometimes slows the process, because listening to teachers and listening to the community takes time.

A New Audacity: But it’s an important part, where it’s slow or not, it’s imperative.

Kathy Schultz:  It’s important if you want the reform to work

A New Audacity: Absolutely, you have to have buy-in.

Kathy Schultz:  Right and, you know, reforms are ideas and they’re only action when people put them into action. So, you need the people who are going to put the reforms into action to have some buy-in to it and, hopefully, some part in the creation of the reform.

A New Audacity: So, you spoke about high stakes testing in regard to the US. A big argument for Big E Education Reform, I think it’s fair to say, for high stakes tests is accountability. My question is: is it possible to disentangle accountability and this notion of distrust in education? Also, in some regards, like understanding which teachers are doing well and which are not, should they be disentangled?

Kathy Schultz: I do think that’s right, the point of standardized tests is accountability. The question is, is it really an accurate measure of how teachers are teaching or students are learning? And further, are standardized tests being used for the purposes they were intended? So, standardized tests in the United States and, again, probably most of Europe were intended to look at how, at a larger scale, districts and schools are doing and not how individual students or even individual teachers are doing. But they are a convenient way. And they might be fine for measuring at least one indicator of that [performance], but they should be one of many indicators for that. They may be fine for that purpose, but they are convenient for how students are doing and how teachers are doing, and that’s not what they’re designed for.

A New Audacity: So, it’s designed to be a diagnostic and being used as measuring stick for comparison?

Kathy Schultz: A measuring stick that carries with it punishment and the high stakes is what makes… you know, there are cheating scandals and there are ways that, all of sudden, the curriculum is shaped so that it is focused on preparing student for tests, and this is certainly true in Europe, rather than preparing students to be engaged citizens in the world or the other kinds of purposes we have for education.

A New Audacity: So, you’re a founding member of Education Deans for Justice and Equity (EDJE), which I hope is fair to say is an advocacy and/or an activist group for deans of schools of education. Can you tell us a little bit about this organization, it’s aims, and its methods of engagement and tell us how it relates to this issue of taking on distrust in educational change?

Kathy Schultz: That’s a great question. So, Education Deans for Justice and Equity is a group that a colleague and I founded just a little bit over a year ago. The idea was think about the collective power that we have as deans to respond to the current educational climate and policies in the United States. So, the first meeting was last summer. There was a meeting last fall. There’s a very small steering committee of the group and we wrote a letter to the new president as President Trump came into office. It was a letter that was sent around to get as many signatures as we could. We got about 300 deans to sign it. The letter is basically asking that the new administration and congress pay attention to educational research, to ask them to pay attention to issues of social justice, and to remember the purposes of education: to provide educational opportunity to all students. Basically, we were laying out some ways that they could think about some issues and the opportunity to engage in dialogue with educational leaders and researcher and to not only listen to the foundation/corporate world that tends be leading education in the United States.

A New Audacity: Did you happen to hear a response from either the administration itself or the general public or stakeholder organizations interested in the letter?

Kathy Schultz: There was a lot of conversations about the letter. You know, we didn’t send it just as a personal letter, it was an open letter. It was published in the Washington Post. A number of us had interviews. Was there was result? I don’t know. It was a statement and at that point a lot of groups were making statements and we felt like it was important to put our stake in the ground and say, “Here’s where we stand and this is what we think was important.”

A New Audacity: What are your upcoming plans?

Kathy Schultz: Well, so, there’s this meeting this summer and I think the plan will be to decide as a group what the next action to take is. I think there are a number of different issues that are important. It might be about new immigrant students, it might be about something else. We’ll see what they do.

[Update: By the time of publication, EDJE met and agreed to a meeting near the end of the 2017. Additionally, they decided to work on a follow up letter with specific proposals that should be public in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned.]

A New Audacity: You find yourself in some very tumultuous situations in education in both policy and practice, Chester, Beirut, Northern California, and now Denver. For myself, your story relating the issues in Northern California brought back a flood of memories in Memphis. I can imagine that these situations could difficult to deal with at a personal level from time to time. What advice would you give for dealing with this on a personal level for some of our active and activist educators and academics?

Kathy Schultz: I think it’s important to remember to take collective action. I think this really relates back to the Education Deans for Justice and Equity. I think, sometimes as academic and sometimes as individuals and activists, people can feel lonely in what they’re doing. They feel like they are facing big issues alone. I think finding people to take collective action is probably the most important, I would say.

A New Audacity: Finding support and being supportive.

Kathy Schultz: Right, and also remembering that your voice is louder when it’s the voice of many rather than a single voice. You know, one of the things that’s great now is the easy access to people through social media and through the internet. So, your colleagues working on these sorts of issues can and should be local, but they can also be national and international.

A New Audacity: Thanks for your time and being here today. I just have two more questions: What’s the name of your book and when should we expect it?

Kathy Schultz: Of course! And thanks for a thoughtful interview. The tentative title is Distrust and Educational Change and it should be out next spring.


This Interview has been lightly edited for clarity, readability, and length.

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