Back view of high school students raising hands on a class


The Moral Imperative of Public Education

After a challenging year for students, parents, and educators, Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee sees potential for more equitable schools and classrooms

In college, Mike Magee studied political science and liberation theology, learning about social and political reform movements across the world. “I come from a Jesuit family, so I’m sure that influenced my thinking,” Magee says. “I got obsessed intellectually with the relationship between language and social change.” Magee continued exploring that intersection by earning a PhD in English, teaching literature and philosophy at Haverford College, Wheaton College, and Rhode Island School of Design, and writing a book about pragmatism, art, and democracy.

Today, Magee focuses on a different kind of social movement. In 2007, he left academia to work with the Mayor of Cumberland, Rhode Island, on a series of initiatives in early childhood education and school reform. After building a network of successful public charter schools, Magee became the CEO of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit coalition of diverse, reform-minded superintendents and district leaders from across the country. Over the past year, Magee and his colleagues have brought together dozens of school leaders serving millions of students to help coordinate responses to the coronavirus pandemic and draw useful lessons from a difficult time.

“The Herculean challenge for us as we welcome the majority of students back to in-person learning is creating the capacity to assess where they are and what they need,” Magee tells The Elective. “We have to personalize that to the greatest extent possible, since everyone’s experience over the last year has been different.”

I spoke with Magee about his path into public education, his impressions of what worked and didn’t over the past year, and his post-pandemic hopes for the future of schooling.

Headshot photograph of Mike Magee, smiling and standing in a doorway

Chiefs for Change

You had a very solid career as an academic before diving headfirst into K–12 education policy by going to work in a mayor’s office. What prompted that shift?

My thinking at the time was very local. I had young kids and didn’t feel like there were public schools in Rhode Island that were going to give my children the kind of educational experience I wanted for them. I grew up and started my school career in North Carolina at a time when schools there were more integrated than they'd ever been before or have been since. That had a very profound effect on me. I wanted that kind of rich experience for my own kids.

I certainly could have bought my way into a variety of good academic experiences for them, but there were no spaces where they could go to school with students whose experiences and cultures were very different from their own. Rhode Island is a very diverse state, but it’s also very segregated. Neighborhood schools here, like everywhere else in the county, were built on the back of segregated housing. So the opportunity to build out a network of regional public schools where students could get supported academically and have a really rich cultural experience was exciting for me.

To this day, my girls’ best friends are young people they never would have met anywhere other than these schools. That’s sad on one hand,  because it speaks to how segregated our society still is, but it also suggests some exciting possibilities for public education in the U.S. I’ve been involved in politics my whole life and I’ve seen up close the way politics can either enable social change or thwart it, enable justice or thwart it. Creating those schools in Rhode Island was just a powerful opportunity to make a difference in my own state.

Now you have the chance to make a difference on a much wider scale at Chiefs for Change. What does the organization do?

We bring together state and district leaders from all over the country who are committed to strengthening their schools and learning from one another. We create a space where excellent leaders can come together and talk through big issues with their peers. Since the pandemic began, we’ve had 70 leaders come together in a community of practice, talking every two weeks about their challenges and the lessons they’ve learned.

It has been a great opportunity for us to support a huge number of systems and students. Where are people seeing success with online efforts? How are we going to still attend to the need for children to have social and emotional supports when they can’t be inside school buildings? How do we maintain strong relationships through this hard year, and what are we going to do when we bring them back into classrooms? We’ve gotten deep in the weeds of those issues. Any time we see one of our members doing something that we see as high impact for kids, we create a forum to talk about it and share it as widely as we can.

Of all the things schools have done to keep students on track this year, what worked? Are there changes we made in response to the pandemic that should become permanent?

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve seen people slowly but surely figuring out ways to use online learning to expand access to excellent courses. With everyone suddenly online, you can dramatically expand access to challenging classes like AP. I think in many places this had been an aspiration for a long time, especially a desire to expand AP to more Black students. But it was very resource-dependent work, and not every school had the capacity to do it. But now with everyone taking AP courses online, there was an opportunity to say, “Let’s give access to this more broadly.”

That work is unfinished, certainly, but we’ve seen some really exciting possibilities. We need to build on that. In a targeted and equitable way, let’s keep online learning in place as the world reopens. Let’s make sure that challenging coursework is never again unavailable to any student simply because of where they live.

At the same time, we also need to be clear-eyed about things that can’t be done well in the online space. Early literacy is extraordinarily difficult to do online. Those students need to be face-to-face with teachers in a high-touch environment. And we need to be honest about that. If we can’t be honest about what online can’t do, then we can’t responsibly expand what online can do.

A teacher wearing a mask stands in front of a laptop in a classroom with four students, one with their hand raised

John Moore/Getty Images

Third grade teacher Cara Denison speaks to students while live streaming her class via Google Meet at Rogers International School on November 19, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut.

We’re seeing historic investment in schools with all of the federal recovery money allocated to education over the past year, and more is still pending. How should districts think about spending those funds for maximum impact?

There are a few truths I would point to in terms of how folks can spend those dollars well. One smart way is on one-time infrastructure investments that over the long term will be great for kids. Closing the digital divide is a really good example of that. I think there’s a historic opportunity for everyone to approach the problem in a big way, and we’re seeing districts treating broadband access as a public utility. They're really trying to create permanent, sustainable solutions that mean every low-income student in their system has ongoing access to high-speed internet. They’re treating it as a long-term mandate.

The second idea is to pilot things you know will be good for kids that require a proof point in order to advocate for sustainable state and local funding. You use one-time federal dollars to make a case for more permanent investments. And I think we’re seeing a combination of those two approaches.

In terms of permanent infrastructure, we’re not just talking about hardware. Our members want to make much better use of postsecondary outcomes data. College completion, income, career success—the long-range outcomes in students’ lives. Accessing and organizing that data is an infrastructure challenge. Most districts don’t have the means to collect that data in a way that is useful in the design of their systems and schools. In practically every district in America, students who go directly from high school into the workforce disappear from the radar. They don’t exist for the purpose of school design. We don’t know where they went or how they did,  so we can’t map their K–12 experience based on their outcomes. If we had that data, it would have a profound effect on the way district leaders design and run their high schools. How we build that infrastructure is a big open question that needs to be resolved, and that would be a great use of these federal dollars.

How do you make the case for those big changes?

I think about that all the time in terms of what changes behavior at the local level and what doesn't. I think a lot of it comes down to stories. Even if the research is strong on a particular topic, it’s rarely as compelling locally as you wish it was. People need to hear about their local examples to be convinced.

Take the idea about outcomes data. I can say that we know from the research that strong adult relationships lead to better postsecondary outcomes for students. It’s true, but that research insight is not very convincing to people on the local level. But if I say, “This student from your local high school got these supports throughout his academic career, then earned a high-quality credential and is now earning a family-sustaining wage,” that resonates. To have counselors and teachers and principals know that story, know that student—that’s infinitely more compelling.

I’ll go back to the AP access issue. I think in order to make the case for that, we need to pilot it, we do need to show its efficacy. And then people need to discuss at a local level what happens when we give more students access to AP. What happens to them? What happens to their peers? We need to hear those stories and share them. That needs to drive a local conversation if we’re going to move the work forward.

You’re a parent who has been very involved in your daughters’ schooling. How do you think the past year, with so many kids learning at home, will affect the relationship between schools and parents?

We need to take advantage of the promise of this moment. Parents across all lines of difference have had this unprecedented opportunity to look over their students’ shoulders and see exactly what’s happening in terms of instruction, and they’ve also been more engaged in their own students' learning than they’ve ever been before—sometimes at great personal difficulty.

All families should be properly indignant about how inequitable services and supports were this year. And I think the digital divide is probably the best example of that. My hope is that parents will help us leverage what online has made possible in terms of access to better and higher-quality learning. I hope this experience has emboldened parents to demand more, based on the fact that they are so clearly key and core partners in their children’s learning.

Four headshot photographs in a two by two grid

Chiefs for Change (all)

(clockwise from top left) Aleesia Johnson, Errick Greene, LaTonya Goffney, and Sonja Santelises

What do you see on the education landscape that gives you hope for the years ahead?

One of the most inspirational things I've seen this year is that, within our Chiefs for Change community, many of our leaders have spoken about equity and student support with such powerful moral authority. That’s true even around some of the academic and technical aspects of their districts and systems.

We have a group of Black leaders within Chiefs for Change—I’m thinking of Aleesia Johnson in Indianapolis, Errick Greene in Jackson, Mississippi, LaTonya Goffney in Houston-Aldine ISD, and Sonja Santelises in Baltimore— who all happen to be using the Great Minds ELA curriculum. They speak about access to that content—about the need for high-quality, culturally relevant content and assessments aligned to that content—with such deep conviction and with a moral frame. And I think that that’s powerful.

There is a moral component to public education in America that we need to not shy away from. That’s tricky to do in an inclusive way, but that’s the challenge of leadership.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.