Creating the conditions so all students can, and do, succeed
August 18, 2020
The Change Agent
Gary Soto Consultant to Superintendents in CA, AZ and TX; National Educator Award Recipient; one of the authors of Crimes Against Learning: Solving the Serial Failure of School Reform; former elementary/secondary teacher and administrator
To examine the elements that hinder change in education and shift attention towards the true purpose of school.
How do we define transformation in education and what challenges lay ahead? Guest Gary Soto provides an extensive dialogue on what schools need to focus on in order to become truly transformational.
Host Bio: Dr. Chris Balow is the Chief Academic Officer at SchoolMint. Dr. Balow has a Ph.D in Educational Psychology and served for 33 years as an educator in various roles with focuses on literacy, mental health, and the behavioral and emotional growth of students. He has worked the last 6 years in the educational technology field to promote student success on a larger scale.
ChangeAgents in K-12 is presented by SchoolMint and features top educators, practitioners, and leaders sharing research and experiences as well as stories of hope, opportunity and student success. This interview was recorded in the spring of 2020 during the time of wide and extended school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Yeah. And, and you still look like a young man and, but you know, over 44 years, that is so much ground to cover, but I want to give everyone a flavor of, of what Gary's been doing over these 44 years. So Gary is the recipient of the national educator award for helping reshape American education. He's also one of the authors of a book called crimes against learning, solving the serial failure of school reform, a book which I've read and very much helped me, which is helping to guide educational leaders towards significant student achievement for all learners, then hopes that he can work with visionary leaders that have the same belief. So Gary has done a lot of different things in education. He's a former elementary and secondary teacher, not many folks cross those boundaries. That's interesting, and a district administrator and he's, he's worked with pre K 12 districts in schools throughout the country. And he focuses on transformational reform, which increases student achievement while creating a culture that values what's important. He's a powerful speaker for all stakeholders and Gary provides insights that often makes the difference for the whole system. You know, Gary is the founder and CEO of GDS consulting and he works with dozens, if not hundreds of districts across the country. And it's also interesting that Gary is a former police commissioner and human services commissioner in Los Angeles County. That's fascinating and was past president of the board of directors of one of the largest civil rights organizations in the country. He was honored with a lifetime achievement award for advancing the human rights of millions of Americans. And I could go on and on, uh, but let's, let's stop there once again, Gary, thanks for being with us.
Okay. So, um, let's start with a few questions. So as I've, you know, I read your book crimes against learning and conversations that you and I have had personally, your work to me is, is synonymous with transformation. That's a word that you hear a lot about in education and for you, how, how do you that in our educational system?
I, you know, I, I think that a lot of people, um, try to define it in different ways and, and I would, uh, it's unfortunate cause it's one of those words that a lot of people don't really understand what it actually means. And I think, uh, the first thing we need to do is to actually define the purpose of schools. Um, so I believe the purpose of schools is to ensure that all students are equipped with the knowledge, the skills and the conceptual competencies. They need to be prepared for college and career and success as they leave school. That's another, um, few words there that a lot of people don't understand what they mean by college and career ready. So I think one of the first things we need to examine is our beliefs and affirm that all students can and deserve to succeed. If we can affirm that all students can succeed and master those challenging standards out there, then we are compelled to seek and provide the conditions required for that success. So kind of in other words, once we define what we want students to know and be able to do another term of words, that we've heard a lot, that decision needs to drive all actions and operations within that school system. So although easier said than done, it defines that the end, what you want kids to know and be able to do, needs to drive all the means, which are all the operations and decisions that you make. And so school systems seem to fall into three categories. They're either traditional systems or schools, and traditional are things that we continue to do while we get the same results. That was kind of the basis of the book crimes against learning the crime is we have the research of what needs to happen yet. Our kids that are sort of captive in our classrooms, aren't getting what the research is asking us to do. The second level of, of schools and systems is transitional. That is in between traditional and schools beginning to do some changes. And I, I think honestly, it's where most of the schools are. They hold on to some very traditional operational standards and then they tried some new things, but quite honestly, the inertia of the traditional system kills anything new that they try. And then the third is kind of where the word transformational comes and that's actually, the bottom line is defining what you want your end to be like in every single decision you make is driven by that and in mind. And so that level is the most challenging and the most difficult and very, very few school systems can be considered totally transformational in my opinion.
Yeah. Well, that's a really, uh, interesting way to categorize schools and, and, you know, I, I personally spent well over 30 years in schools and in many States across the country and the traditional schools, and you talked about that word inertia that really resonates with me. And what do you see and what have you in your work with so many districts across the country, what are those headwinds that, that really forestall change that that districts are running into?
Well, uh, the first one is I'm not believing in kids, so let's, let's start there with a belief system. You know, when, when I ask, you know, in fact I was in a conference once then doing a keynote and I asked the 900 superintendents in the audience, how many of you believe that all kids can learn? And of course, what do you think? The number of hands that went up, if there were 900, there were 900 hands that went up, right? And so I will ask them, then all you 900 people that raised their hands that said that you believe that all kids can learn. Then, then I want to see your data. I want to see how many of your kids who were not proficient in English language at third grade are still in the same level in the ninth grade. I want to see how many of your kids failed. The state standardized test yet are getting A's and B's in the classroom. I want to see how many kids failed in the classroom yet. Um, really met or exceeded standards on standardized tests. Right? I want to see how many kids went into special ed on the track of graduating with a diploma and ended up getting certificates instead of diplomas. And when you start adding those up and seeing the data there, it's hard for anyone to raise their hand to say, Oh, I believe that all kids can learn. So the belief system is huge in terms of that. So that's the first thing. And I think the other thing quite well, two other things is one. They don't know what they don't know. They really know somewhat of the research, but they're not quite sure how to execute it. And then if they do try to execute it, the third thing that keeps people from doing the things that they need to do is they start it. They'll get complaints about it within the first year, and then they back off of, of where they need to go. And so that lack of accountability of holding people to the fire, that this is what we need to do really stops them from getting to the places that they should be.
Yeah. That's, that's so interesting. So we can give lip service to the notion that, that we believe all kids can learn, but when the data tells us that they aren't learning, obviously something's not working, right. It's not working. That is yes, yes. Yeah. You, you, you made note of, they, they sometimes don't know what they, they, they don't know what they don't know. And do you find, as you've worked with district leaders across the country, that there's sometimes a tendency to go after the shiny object and not really understand, and you referenced this too around effective implementation and so forth, and then things fall flat.
Well, there's no doubt that they go after the shiny object on there. And sometimes the, that object can, can be under the research, that thing that they need to do, however, how they go about implementing it is not going to get them where they need to go. A good example would be if they are trying to implement what the research has shared all over and in terms of an instructional delivery strategy, direct interactive instruction, let's say they decide to do that, which is absolutely key the way they, they way they implement it without comprehensive coaching with, without that, that coaching, that includes demonstration. That includes co-planned co-teaching that includes extensive feedback and, and a delivery system that is held by rubrics not much will change. So although they try the silver bullet, sometimes they're trying things, uh, in a way that is going to be defeating to them in the end.
Sure, sure. Another interesting thing you mentioned was around accountability and, and complaints come in around some new solid initiative. And so that I've seen that personally. And where do you stand in terms of teacher buy in? I hear a lot of administrators say, well, I've got to get buy in from everybody.
Well, I, I, you know what? I asked that question, I asked them, I put a list on the, on a, like a whiteboard or on a PowerPoint or whatever, wherever I'm presenting. And I will list, uh, five terms, I'll list, uh, uh, belief in students. And buy-in, I will also list a list actions. I will also list data and I will also, uh, list a few other things that I ask them to put those in order of what they think they need to do in order to get the job done. The first thing that people say they must start with is the belief, uh, where all kids can learn and, and, uh, that whole belief system, they say, we have to start there. Well, the bottom line and what the research is very clear on is you will never get anyone, everyone there. And if you start there, you'll never start. And so it is the data that first tells you, where are your matches and gaps. And then once you do that, it's the research of what actions need to be done. And so once you start on those actions, the bottom line is you should get results. Once you get results, then adults in the system or the community begin to believe in their kids. If that makes sense. So in reality, the belief of believing in kids is the last thing that happens after you get results. Unfortunately, after visionary leaders begin to implement the things that they need to be doing, they will hear from a few very vocal non-supportive educators that don't want to make change happen. And those few voices will turn a school board and or a leader to head back to the way it's always been done. And that's the, that's the, the crime and all the things that we do in education.
Yeah. Well, that's so interesting. So it sounds like what I'm hearing is that a visionary leader is someone that's understands. There's going to be these cynics that you may never change, but try to get people to at least be skeptical, implement well, and let let's look at the data.
Yes. The data drives the data is your friend. And we've said that over and over and over. Uh, I don't, I, I'm not sure many of those, uh, and I don't call them leaders management, uh, people that are supposedly leaders, uh, really understand what that meaning is
I would say in, in my experience at 44 years, by the way, and that I I'm really proud to say I am a former kindergarten teacher. So that's amazing. That is amazing. I can get in front of a thousand kindergarten teachers. And I say, I am a former kindergarten teacher and all of them sign and relief. Like finally, we can believe in someone. So yeah, I talked, Hey, one, three, four, five, six elementary principals, secondary principal. So yeah, I ha I sort of have that credibility, but, but in all the districts I've worked in and as large as, as large as, you know, uh, 700,000 students to as small as, uh, 400 students, I would say calm. And the first thing is, many of them do not know or have established with their student achievement goals are in student achievement. I include also, um, SEL social, emotional learning goals. So, uh, an example of that, Chris is if I ask a group of 50 administrators, take out a piece of paper and please write your student achievement goals. So many of them will look at me like, well, what do you mean? And I'll say, well, what's on your website, what's on your, what's on your, uh, your direction for, for teachers or for parents in terms of student achievement goals. And they begin to write, which is interesting. I ask them not to look at anyone else's paper, which is interesting. They, they, then they then, uh, I then have them share out. And what I find is two things in common, one, they're all different. So if I have a school with 50 educators in one school, all of them are different. If I have a district with 25 administrators, they're all different. And, and so that in itself is an issue. The second thing that they have in common is they all want kids to improve, but the way they want and kids improve are not very measurable. So when you look at that is if they don't have a common end in mind, uh, you know, I asked where are they going? Ha how do they even know what to spend on? How do they know to, to focus on professional development or coaching? So, uh, again, number one, uh, have the end in mind, what are your student achievement goals? I would say,
Let me ask you that after number one there, Gary. So do you find that many districts are doing an in depth needs analysis as, as they look at, you know, uh, strategic plans and so forth. And to me that kind of speaks to this notion of what the goals are. You have to kind of know where the gaps are too.
I think, I think the strategic planning that's been going on in district for many, many years is just that a plan, a plan that doesn't kind of get them anywhere if they don't have an end in mind. And an example of an end in mind can be as simple as a Lexile level. So if we're saying that all graduates of a high school in order to be ready to meet the challenges of the, of a college and career, they need to be at a 1300 Lexile level. That's the goal there. And if a, if an eighth grader going into high school needs to be at a 10 50 Lexile level of fifth grade, or going to middle school, sixth grade needs to be at a 925 Lexile level in order to, by the time they leave the system at the 12th grade, our 1300 Lexile. Now, how do they get Lexile with the wonderful company of, uh, that are out there working with, uh, with different businesses out there have identified that the, that the bottom line Lexile reading ability is 1300. So that's a start of a goal. And, and to have individual measurable, measurable goals, like every student will increase by 150 Lexile points each year. So, so annual growth targets is also a biggie there, when I talk about student Achievement goals.
I, I would guess that, um, you know, we have, we honestly have left academics and if swung over to the, uh, the MTS multiple tiered system of support, a behavior pyramid, we've swung over there. So S is the big thing, but, but PBIF, can't be left alone. It has to be in concert with academics. So they sort of left the tier one, two, three components of the academic period, uh, pyramid. So I think that's a crucial piece and they're very explicit bullets that are in tier three to a two, and one that, that they're missing, I would say a design and implement the conditions.
Okay. And yeah, that, that's interesting around PBIS and, and, uh, academics. You know, the, the research is pretty clear that you, you need to address, uh, systematically both behavior and academics at the same time. And, and SEL of course, overlays that as well.
And I think that that lends itself to the third thing, which is, which is two words called tangible and intangible, tangible results are your academic results from standardized tests. You're, you're testing assessments in the schools, your attendance, your grading policies, uh, discipline, data results. Those are tangible and tangible. Are your SEL in tangible are how, how are your kids feeling? How do they feel about learning? Um, what are their fears in schools? Uh, do they feel good about themselves and, and the same type of inquiries that you're asking kids, you're asking staff. So when you're talking about SEL, SEL is not just students, it is adults as well, making all stakeholders feel like they're a contributing part of where the end and success is in that district. So it's a balance of tangible and intangible. That's crucial.
Yeah. Interesting. And it seems that that the climate and culture of a school is sort of almost like Maslow's hierarchy that it's foundational for student learning and engagement and kids good about themselves, and a sense of efficacy.
I agree on that, but that, that kind of shoots into that whole notion of even working on culture or, um, uh, you, you might look at, I've worked with a few, uh, site leaders that truly believe in that culture feel good piece to it there, but if the kids can't read, you know, the success of equity equity is about being able to compete against all other kids around the world. So if we don't have that combination of academics and culture, not much will change. I will say this though, a very strong, positive culture will get people to begin to buy in to some of the more difficult decisions and actions they're going to have to make.
Yeah. So much. And I'm reading some new research myself recently, and, you know, it's not about feeling good. A positive climate is established through very clear expectations, high accountability for kids and being fair with discipline. And, but also be taking time to listen and support kids.
Absolutely. And that's, that's the thing that I have with all the districts that are putting a lot of money into the social justice platform. The social justice platform is very crucial, but we can't just focus on the cultural part. You you'll read a lot of the articles out there about social justice, the seven keys, and they'll have student achievement as one of those seven. Well, you know, to me, student achievement is at the top. It drives everything else. And I go back to that statement, if your kids feel good about themselves, but cannot read, you know, we're giving that's a disservice to the kids for their future.
Well, I, I would, I, like I mentioned before, um, one of the weakest things happening across the nation is, uh, our inability to hold people accountable. Um, but, uh, the only way you can hold people accountable, let's say you decide, uh, to, to have student achievement goals. And those student achievement goals will drive all the actions and, and the operations of a school. You can't hold people accountable just by having those acts. Those, those goals, you have to provide the training the time, the need for collaboration and planning and order to hold people accountable. So once you provide what they need in order to be successful, then you can hold them accountable. But, but the bottom line is every adult in the system needs to be accountable. If they get a paycheck from a district, the reason they get a paycheck from the district is that district reflects learning. And if isn't happening, you kind of wonder the purpose of how people are being compensated. So accountability is a huge piece. And I think the very last thing is to continue to Uplevel Uplevel monitor, monitor op level. I've always said that even though, um, this is kind of an interesting term or phrase I use is you gotta stay on people like dust on a pickup. You really have to stay on them. Uh, once you allow them to veer off, they tend to veer right back into doing the same things that haven't worked before.
Yeah, that's, that's so, so interesting. And, and so it sounds like that accountability paired with lots of progress monitoring data together can, can really help schools, uh, begin the transformation process. Awesome. Well, besides let's change gears a little bit here, Gary, and besides ensuring a clean, healthy environment, what suggestions do you offer to districts in their planning and implement implementations during, uh, the current COVID-19 pandemic?
Wow, Chris, this is, this is a biggie right now, and this is where, um, all the focus is on schools. Well, besides the fact that they are, uh, schools across America are going to be hurting by the cut in, in their budgets is the most devastating thing to happen. So we're, we're finding kids not being in a, in a educational setting for, uh, five months. People will argue with me and say, well, they are there during homeschooling or distant learning. But the bottom line is, um, this pandemic for school districts to jump into that mode of reaction, right, for safety reasons, if it was the right thing to do. But if there's a silver lining to this, uh, very unfortunate situation, um, this really could give us the opportunity to think out of the box and the way we operate our schools. So I think it's imperative that the, uh, we look at the research and we support the research of blended learning, and it needs to be understood by all adult staff members. So districts are immediately jumping toward distance learning platforms without an emphasis on the importance of direct face to face instruction. That must accompany the online experience. One will not work without the other, and that's crucial. And so a lot of districts are looking at, uh, having staggered learning sessions, you know, whether it's 20% of their enrollment in, in the school day at one time or 50%. But those students that are physically in the school need to be provided with very effective instruction that will lead to very specific targeted standards mastery of those standards. So it's, it's really gonna take a gradual type release or direct interactive instruction strategy, um, who is researched by the way is irrefutable when it comes to learning, especially for those marginalized kids who have lost a lot of learning time, uh, in this tragic, uh, pandemic. And so, you know, I understand the need to, to find ways to protect kids. Absolutely. But when kids return and graduate or return, boy, we need to start changing the way we do business and how we're delivering instruction to them.
Yeah. All the recommendations you've given seem to be of even higher priority. And I've heard a lot about this notion that kids were going to be in a hybrid learning model where kids will spend a few weeks at home and a few weeks in class. And, and how will teachers, um, establish some form of continuity and coherence for the students.
Right. I agree. Totally agree on that. So I will, we'll see what that blended approach, uh, looks like. I, I, um, it will be the visionary superintendents that will end up doing the best with their staffs out there. Yeah.
I think, uh, they really have no choice in terms of if they really want to meet the needs of their kids. Um, there are so many visionary leaders out there that that will continue to do what's right for kids. However, unfortunately I must say this and in my travels across the country, um, there are too many management personnel out there that believe that their current, uh, student, uh, and I will say dismal scores are as good as they'll Albert get that that's, that's the most frustrating thing out there. So we have adults that don't quite believe that all kids can learn. That that zip code expectation is, is, is going to really hurt kid at kids. And it has for kids for many, many years. So I will say in many cases, it's not the fault of many of them truly. If we believe that all kids can learn, right. If we believe all kids can learn, we need to transfer that same belief to adults. All adults in our system can and will learn. So they will need sound professional development along with comprehensive coaching that will help them through this journey for improvement. And like I say, visionary educators out there, uh, we'll find the funding to make this happen. But, uh, but I, I honestly, I have a lot of hope in terms of that, but hope has to be a part of the reality as well.
Sure. And I was reading a while back and I think this speaks what you were saying that teacher efficacy or the, that belief system is so powerful in student outcomes. And that way, even though it's not a skill or something you learn, it's, it's a belief that has this amazing impact is what you're saying.
Um, a good question in terms of what I, what I have been doing, um, out there with school districts and individual schools. I, I think, uh, it, it falls into kind of three areas. And I would say the first one is, um, I have been serving as a coach for superintendents and his, or her cabinet level members helping them, uh, continuing to make progress for academic and emotional growth. So I sort of help help them to, uh, support, creating a system where the end does drive the means. What does that look like? Sort of helping them establish an audit of what's working. What's not working, it's been successful for, uh, those superintendents that really want to make change happen. And by the way, even visionary superintendents are very, very supportive of having a leadership coach. So that's a huge piece there, but, um, I would say the second thing that I'm doing that has increased my time, the notion of putting the investment in coaching of principals, you know, that's huge in terms of supporting a comprehensive coaching for site principals. So I actually go on site with principals, do an analysis of what's working. What's not working at their site. We come up with an action plan and we deliver that action plan to the best that we can order to get that balance of tangible and intangible results. And then the third thing that I continued to do is continue with my keynotes. So addressing educators, I think my 44 years of experience, um, uh, gives me the credibility to deliver a much needed message. And, and some people have described it as me being sort of like a velvet hammer. Um, I come across, um, with the notion that I am the voice of kids, but, but with that, I come across with confidence and a combination of my humility to saying that it's important that I don't know all the answers, and I want to find those answers with them. And that combination is, is, uh, a great, um, um, two, uh, very phenomenal pieces of what leadership is, uh, it's their key assets for any leader out there. So I've been enjoying that, that sort of gives me the entree to go into a district and work with their leaders. But, um, you know, I will say this been in the business for 44 years. Uh, I knew at the age of five, I wanted to be a teacher. And that, that passion kind of has never left me. And I just am very blessed. I'm very honored, uh, to be working with thousands of educators who are truly making a positive difference for many kids out there. So, um, I'm loving my job.
Absolutely amazing Gary. And what I know of you, not only from this podcast, but from other personal interactions, you are a transformational change agent, and what's always impressed me is, you know, you call balls and strikes. You're you just provide honest analysis and interpretation and sometimes the news isn't good, but people need to hear it and you deliver it in such a way that motivates people. I mean, that, that's my perception. So it's just so amazing. Well, I thank you very, very much.
I am so honored to work with so many schools that are, that are truly making a difference out there. So many leaders that are truly making a difference out there. And I just hope, uh, that I'm going to be working with schools and their systems for quite a long time, despite the fact that I've been in the business for 44 years.
Well, quite, quite amazing. Well, I know you and your energy level, you're not slowing down. And I would encourage everyone listening to, to check out Gary's book crimes against learning. It's a fabulous book, so many great learnings in there and, and, and check out Gary's website, GDS consulting, if you're interested as well.
Awesome. Well, Gary, thanks so much for sharing all your insights and wisdom and 44 years of experience. But before I let you go, we always play a little game with our guests called this or that. And it's very simple. I'm just going to say two things and you tell us which of them you prefer. And if you wish you can add some color commentary to why you might prefer one thing over the other. And I won't get too personal there, they're pretty innocuous. So let's start with an easy one dog or cat,
Uh, I believe in and, uh, getting, uh, your loving pet from a shelter. So I have lately though, been so interested in having a kitty with my dog, which is sort of interesting, cause I never thought I was a cat person.
Most definitely small gathering despite the fact that I'm out there and I can speak in front of thousands of people I'm I can also be an introvert. So, um, I'd rather have a small gathering to get to know people, but, um, I am comfortable in the big settings, but, but I'd say small gathering.
Right, exactly. You know, a cool story to that is that I, when I won my national award, Michael Jackson sang at the award ceremony and met him prior to that. And I actually had met him prior to even that, because I was actually on, on a dance program where, when he was 11 years old on T V. So I actually told him I was very nervous. He wanted me to moonwalk to him to get this check. I told him, I can't possibly do that. I'm too nervous to do that. And he says, yes, I understand. I'm nervous too. You know? So a lot of people that are out there, uh, have, have a tendency to also be introverted.
Oh my gosh. Well, I, again, the sense I am going to, well, my God I've been craving a good burger, but I am, I am Latino and my mother was the best taco maker. So I would say a taco but made with homemade flour tortillas.
Oh, again, another value change there. It's definitely the countryside. It's definitely the, uh, outdoors. It's definitely the adventure of, uh, being in wonderful outdoor places, uh, with fresh air. Awesome. And our final
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