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October 2015 | Volume 57 | Number 10
The Elephant (and Donkey) in the Room
From the classroom to the U.S. Department of Education and now to ASCD, Deb Delisle has spent her career devoted to educators and the work that they do each day to support students.
What were your proudest accomplishments in your role as U.S. assistant secretary of education?
It was important to me to bring the voice of practitioners into policy conversations and also to change the office of elementary and secondary education to be a better partner with states as opposed to acting as compliance officers. One of the ways this was accomplished was designing an office of state support so states would have one primary contact at the Department of Education to serve as a problem solver and a thought partner with them.
Which of your accomplishments at the state level in Ohio would you most like to see enacted nationwide?
The engagement of stakeholders, and I'll use one specific example. When we were writing our Race to the Top application, we didn't win in the first round. So, during the second round, we changed the strategy and engaged about 100 stakeholders from 70 different organizations from across the state. When we won, we were poised to do the work really well—stakeholders already knew what the money was going to be spent on and what our primary objectives were.
Nationwide, as ESEA becomes reauthorized, it's essential for states to determine how best to engage a comprehensive array of stakeholders in the design of their state's accountability system.
What do you believe is the greatest strength of public education?
It has the potential to be a great equity equalizer, ensuring that all kids in America have an equal shot at success and a productive life. Because public education involves all kids, it has an opportunity to promote great diversity not only in the composition of its students but also in getting kids exposed to a wide array of different experiences, especially when schools throw open their classroom doors to learning about the world.
If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing in public education, what would it be?
I wish public education had a more positive reputation. What's fascinating to me is that people who have kids in public schools generally love their schools. When people do not have direct interaction with their schools, they naturally have questions about their success. Schools should serve as the heart of the community. I wish that schools and communities would embrace one another and interact in robust ways to assist students and their families and energize the community.
How can ASCD help improve that reputation?
By promoting a greater understanding of the whole child approach to education. People in communities don't always naturally see what their role is, but if they understand the whole child approach, they recognize that there's a place for them to support students, teachers, and principals in schools. That could be through community nonprofit organizations that help families in need, by supporting teachers in the classrooms, or by providing internships and mentorships. We need to think about all the things it takes to support kids in their learning and growing.
In interviews, you frequently talk about how you see the achievement gap as an "opportunity gap." Can you explain the difference?
Oftentimes when people talk about the achievement gap, it comes down to the child, like it's the child's fault. If only the kid learned more, we'd be better off. If only the student worked harder, we'd be better off. In fact, it's really more of an adult issue. What opportunities do we provide to kids to thrive and succeed? Some students, particularly students of color or students in poverty, don't have access to the opportunities that we would want for our own kids. They may be in schools with fewer AP courses, fewer opportunities for art and music, or fewer opportunities for meaningful experiences outside of school. Those are all opportunity gaps. I believe that so many of our students would achieve at higher levels if they were provided with the same opportunities that we would want for our own kids.
What is one bold prediction you have for education in the next five years?
A greater interest in and commitment to meeting the needs of every child will demand highly personalized learning environments. This will result in students having more opportunities to design their own learning pathways. In five years, we will see this take root, leading to scaling up in subsequent years.
Describe your vision for ASCD in one sentence.
To be recognized as the global leader in defining and supporting highly effective learning systems.
How does ASCD define highly effective learning systems?
It goes back to the whole child. When I think about highly effective learning systems, I think about everything affiliated with that system—the adults, the students, the instruction, the learning experiences that are offered, the opportunities for community involvement, the organizational structures. It's all of that. It's about personalizing education so it's meaningful for each child and it's about providing the supports to help students face the challenges they have outside of the classroom.
What first attracted you to ASCD?
I've always had an absolute love for supporting teachers and principals. It has been at the heart of the work I've done, starting early on with a focus on professional development and curriculum development. ASCD has a rich history of incredible products, so I've always read ASCD books and Educational Leadership. It thrills me to be part of a cadre of highly talented individuals who work collaboratively to support teachers, principals, and superintendents in the work of educating all kids.
The whole child approach to education is also a central focus for me. The work I've done has always been more holistic in nature in terms of thinking about meetings kids' needs. To be with an organization that continues to evolve its concept of educating the whole child just sings to my heart. Because of the questioning of accountability and how we assess student learning, I think that our focus on the whole child will resonate with so many people. I think it's the golden ticket to transforming America's education system.
How will your experience prepare you to lead an association that serves educators in so many roles?
I've walked in all of their shoes. I've been a teacher and a principal, I've worked in central office, and I've been a superintendent, so I understand the complexities of teaching and learning. I understand the interplay of providing teachers and leaders with the support structures and resources they need to meet the changing demands of education and to meet the complexities of teaching and learning.
Is there a student who stood out to you in your career or who changed your perspective on life?
Many years ago, when I was a middle school teacher in Connecticut, Hurricane Hugo came up the southeastern seaboard and devastated many areas, including the coast of South Carolina. I remember how moved one of my students, Eric, was after watching it on the news. I stopped my lessons and had the kids research South Carolina; they found out that it was one of the poorest states in the country. So we brainstormed ways to help. The kids wanted to write letters, but Eric came out and said, "Who would we write to? They don't have mailboxes anymore." And I thought it was really profound.
Through research, Eric found that the Red Cross or FEMA usually replaces all the essentials—toiletries, cooking utensils, clothes. But he was really concerned about what would happen to little kids who felt unsafe. So, with a couple of other 6th graders, he created a program called Project Kid to Kid to collect stuffed animals and send them to kids in South Carolina. It started as a middle school project and eventually found its way across the district. Eric enlisted the help of parents to make sure that the stuffed animals were brand new or clean, and he decided that the kids had to write a note and attach it to each of the 4,000 or 5,000 stuffed animals. One of my favorite moments was when one of the students asked, "Should we put our school's name and address on the notes?" And Eric stood up in the classroom, without my prompting, and said, "No, we shouldn't put our names on it. You should never expect anything in return." And I thought it was such an incredible, powerful lesson about kids acting upon their caring. I know sometimes people say kids don't care, but in reality, sometimes we just don't provide the opportunities for kids to act upon their caring.
Who is your biggest professional role model or influence?
Bill Purkey, who is the author of a book called Invitational Education, which I still reference. It's about the invitations that we send out to kids every single day through the physical environment, the way we interact with them, and what we say to them. The book has been a great catalyst for me to think about the importance of culture and building relationships with kids.
Now to the burning questions. You're stuck on a deserted island with two books—which ones do you choose?
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. It's a wonderful children's story whose main character sets out to achieve three goals: travel the world, live in a house by the sea, and do something to make the world more beautiful. This is a book I have read over and over as it has a timeless quality that resonates with what is important in my life—especially the last goal.
Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner. The book explores what is required to ensure that our students are developing their capacities to be innovators. While this book speaks to the heart of my education philosophy, I would also hope that an innovator somewhere would be designing a way to rescue me from the island.
Do you have a favorite sports team?
Without a doubt, Ohio State football. Go, Buckeyes! Oh, and I always root for Cleveland teams, because there's always going to be next year.
What was your favorite subject in school?
I gravitated toward English language arts because I love writing and the power of words.
Is there an inspirational quote that you live by?
What we offer to our students tells them what it is that we value.
What final thought do you want to communicate to educators?
I want them to know that I honor the work they do every single day. It's complex, and it's not for the faint-hearted. I really want them to know that ASCD has their best interests at heart.
Copyright © 2015 by ASCD
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