“Time to Embrace Some Disruptive Education”
After seeing the pandemic's toll on schools up close, Dan Domenech, executive director of The School Superintendents Association, thinks now is the time to make long-overdue changes
School superintendents have a wide range of responsibilities, from setting curriculum to creating bus schedules. They also must contend with local politics and serving students, parents, and teachers while reporting to a school board that answers to voters. “You’re the public face of the school district,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association. “Superintendents are under incredible pressure.”
The covid-19 pandemic has added to the intensity, forcing district leaders to make high-stakes decisions about education and public health with limited information. Domenech and his colleagues have been convening superintendents since the start of the pandemic, helping them sort through complex safety guidance and figure out the most effective way to keep students learning through months of classroom shutdowns. “I’m holding hands with superintendents every day,” Domenech said. “Whatever superintendents have done, there has been a segment of their community that has been critical.”
Domenech understands what public scrutiny feels like. He became a superintendent early in his career, taking over a New York district mired in a financial scandal and working to regain public confidence. That experience gave him a deep appreciation for the mix of political and educational challenges that superintendents must balance. Now in his 14th year with The School Superintendents Association, Domenech encourages his members to find joy in the work, even when it feels thankless. “Whatever you do, you better like it,” he said. “In my 54 years as an educator, I have looked forward to every day.”
Domenech spoke with The Elective about how district leaders have weathered the pandemic, what they’re doing to help students and schools recover, and the changes he wants to see in the education landscape.
What have the last 18 months been like for school superintendents?
It’s been a tough, pretty terrible year for school superintendents. They’re under incredible pressure, and not just from covid. It started with the pandemic, then add on the racial unrest that took place last summer and continued throughout the year, then add on all the politics around reopening—vaccines, masks, remote learning—and it put a lot of district leaders in a no-win situation.
Whatever superintendents have done, there has been a segment of their community that has been critical or in some cases outright abusive. Superintendents have retired; they’ve quit because they just couldn’t take it. The stress and pressure on their families—in some cases having their families threatened! And there are superintendents who have been fired over pandemic policies. This is the largest exit of superintendents I’ve seen in all my years.
Our organization is doing everything that we can to support them and provide opportunities to share ideas and help reduce the stress they’re facing. We’re always reminding them always that their first obligation is the safety of their students and their staff.
Do you see some energy for change coming out of this incredibly difficult year and a half?
It’s a great opportunity to rethink education as we know it. Our society is very comfortable with disruption in business or technology, but this is the time to embrace some disruptive education. I think what we’re finally seeing because of the pandemic is an opportunity for school districts to leave behind the things they’ve always done and move toward the things that should be done in a 21st-century educational system.
The way we organize our schools by grade level, for example. Do all 10th graders learn the same way? No, of course not. But our schools are based on a 19th-century model, with everyone the same age learning in the same classroom. Or the requirement that school begin in September and end in June and have 180 days of instructional time; the requirement that kids be in school for a set number of hours to get credit; the idea that a classroom teacher sits in front of a room with 25 kids all day.
Let’s do away with all of these requirements. Let’s rethink the calendar, rethink the credit-hour model, and move to a community classroom situation—not just a teacher talking to 25 kids, but a teacher’s aide, a student teacher, an outside expert, all working alongside the teacher. Not a sage-on-the-stage model, but one where teachers are directors or engineers of a much richer learning process. Give students a greater voice, a greater engagement in their learning, and a lot more flexibility in how we deliver it. Change how the education process works to make it more in line with personalized learning for all of our students.
That will mean revitalizing the education workforce. We have a serious teacher shortage in this country, and a serious shortage of teachers of color. We have a shortage of teachers from diverse families and backgrounds. It’s time to diversify the people and the work.
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Has the experience of remote learning, moving classes online on a massive scale, opened any new possibilities for how school districts will use technology?
I think we made great progress on the thing that has prompted the most criticism, and that’s remote learning. We saw those programs grow and improve, and now a lot more districts offer virtual academies for students. There was a percentage of students that did really well with virtual learning—they can learn at their own pace, they can move as quickly as they want to move. That’s something a lot of districts want to preserve.
The ideal is to take each child where they’re at and move from that point forward, and technology can help. It can make personalized learning a reality on a much bigger scale. Even though remote learning was poor through much of the past year, it has steadily gotten better. And the reality is that virtual learning can be an asset to the regular school process. It can help kids catch up, help them keep learning on weekends, during vacation periods. So there are significant changes we’re seeing as a result of this, very good changes.
I think it’s probably an expectation now for districts to provide a laptop for every student. There are still many homes without internet access and that’s a bigger problem, but there’s a lot of movement to solve that. The covid relief funds have gone a long way toward correcting that, and the FCC acquired additional funding to be able to provide homes with internet access when they can’t afford it.
There was a tremendous lack of equity in online access when the pandemic began, and the solution was to provide schools and districts and students with what they needed to move forward. We’re seeing that happen.
Are there other areas where covid relief funding has given schools a chance to make progress on long-standing problems? Have you seen district leaders doing creative things with that money?
We’ve created our American Rescue Plan Committee, which is 20 superintendents who are representative of the country as whole. We meet monthly, recording what those districts are doing with the covid recovery money and what issues they’re confronting.
By and large, districts are using the dollars to provide for facilities costs—upgrading ventilation and air quality, which the CDC recommends to keep schools safe. A good portion of the money went to support a summer school year like we’ve never had. Summer school is usually for high school kids who failed a course, but this summer it was for a much broader group of students, from kindergarten to 12th grade, trying to make up for lost time. Some districts even hired summer camps to provide summer school, so the kids were getting both experiences.
There’s also a greater awareness on the part of superintendents about the social and emotional needs of kids. These children have gone through a lot over the past year and a half. So when they come back to the classroom, it can’t just be, “Open your textbook to page 54 and let’s pick up where we left off.” It has to be, “How are you doing? How is your family doing? What has this experience been like for you?” That’s a major change in the education process, to focus much more on emotional health instead of just academics.
People in general don’t learn if there are emotional issues that get in the way. We’ve seen many superintendents hire additional guidance personnel or work with community-based organizations to provide counseling services to help their children confront the issues they’re bringing back to school.
"I envision that, as we move forward, there’s going to be greater realization of assessment as a tool for learning. Teachers absolutely need to have it so they can move learning forward."
What role should testing and assessments play as students return to the classroom? How are we going to measure the impact of the last 18 months on students’ learning?
Assessment is a critical part of instruction. We need to know where the children are at any point in time. But I think the big difference here is to separate assessment from accountability. The latter is a tool to hold teachers and schools accountable for the work they do, and that’s important. But we’re talking about assessment as part of the teaching process. You don’t teach without giving children a quiz or a test after the lesson. You need to know who learned the material and who didn’t. I envision that, as we move forward, there’s going to be greater realization of assessment as a tool for learning. Teachers absolutely need to have it so they can move learning forward.
The danger is when you push that assessment process simply for the purpose of accountability. We’re going into the third school year affected by the pandemic, and you’re going to hold teachers and schools accountable for what happened? That doesn’t make sense. Assessments need to continue so they can inform us about what needs to be done. But let’s not start holding schools and teaching and principals accountable because their kids are not where they’re supposed to be after three years of disrupted schooling.
Are you feeling hopeful as we begin to emerge from the covid crisis? What gives you some optimism for the future?
I have never seen education on the front page and in the news as much as I have for the last year and a half. I’ve never seen so many parents become so appreciative of schools and teachers, when all of a sudden they had to become the teacher in their own households. They’re thinking, “How can teachers do it all day for 20 or 30 kids in a class?” I’ve never seen so many people realize that education is also childcare and how important that factor is for so many families in America and for the economy.
We’ve seen just how important it is for children to be in school. It was incredible how children across the country reacted when they finally got to go back to school and could see their friends again. All of a sudden, kids couldn’t wait to go to school! That’s something I don’t think many of us had seen before.
I think the country as a whole has realized the importance of education. There isn’t a day that the president doesn’t talk about the importance of education, and that’s not something that was typical in years past. That’s the silver lining in the pandemic—we finally appreciate the value of education.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.