Interview with former Sacramento schools chief, author of ‘Wildflowers: A School Superintendent’s Challenge to America,’ on educating the ‘whole child’
Conor Williams | October 8, 2018
The present erosion of American democratic institutions has a range of ugly consequences — anxiety, distrust, polarization, etc. But most concretely, our current political catastrophe has produced heavy gridlock. Creative, productive policymaking is at an all-time low — including in education.
The 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act ended the No Child Left Behind era of education policymaking, and the staggering struggles of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have largely stalled national education policy discourse.
Jonathan Raymond’s Wildflowers: A School Superintendent’s Challenge to America, offers an opening bid on where we might turn next for that thoughtful policymaking. Raymond is currently president of the Stuart Foundation, a family foundation dedicated to improving children’s lives through education. But Wildflowers draws heavily on his prior work as the school superintendent in Sacramento. The book explores a holistic way of thinking about children’s learning and development — known as whole child education — and how our current education system can discourage that approach.
What drove you to write the book?
It started with my journey, my story, and particularly people from my time in Sacramento. In some ways, it’s context-specific. But my journey to find whole child education and to see its value for children, adults, and the community was really powerful.
I knew that I needed to do something else. I was seeing some of the frustrations at the systems level — the ups and downs of funding, the throwing down of mandates to the district level — I knew what that caused. I knew there was another way. I knew that I had a story to share and to tell.
I hoped it could inspire people. It’s a story about leadership, about how educating and developing children and putting children at the middle requires leaders to have a sense of purpose, a sense of what their beliefs and values are, and the courage to be able to act on those.
I wanted to provide a manifesto for how to lead whole child education systems. This work is hard, and sometimes it is exhausting, but it can also be exhilarating. And it will change you. It takes understanding that there will always be realities trying to knock you off course, but when you have a vision and you can mobilize and inspire people to join you on this journey, that it can live beyond you.
Sketch the journey for us — how has your view of education changed?
I didn’t learn whole child education in school. I didn’t take a class on it. I didn’t write a thesis on it. I learned about whole child education through my own three children and their experiences in the public education system. I learned from the children that I had the fortune to serve. My own journey through public education also helped to shape and grow how I think about education today. I was — and am — a wildflower myself.
And you’re right — I did change. When I finished my training and started in district administration, I think that I was very much in that reform mode. My eyes had, in some ways, been trained to see education through that reformer lens. And certainly there were things that I did that would probably be fairly consistent with that playbook.
But, along the way, I was also very mindful. So a lot of the things that I talk about in the book are those moments when I saw things and was confronted with challenges that made me realize my ability to make changes, as a superintendent.
For instance, in the book, I talk about how I didn’t come to Sacramento to “green” schools or to change the ways kids ate, but when your kids come home and say, “Dad, did you know that our school serves corn dogs for breakfast?”
My point is that children have a way of seeing things as they really are — often without the lenses that adults use. They can teach us a lot if we’re willing to listen and come at things with fresh eyes. To be humble. To be curious.
When you realize that 75 percent of the children who come to school every day [in Sacramento] come from homes that live in poverty, then you realize that what we feed them in school is what they eat. It doesn’t take too long to figure out that if we really want to meet kids where they are, then we have to address that need. So that’s food. But then it’s making sure they have access to health care and glasses and summer programs and afterschool opportunities and relevant experiences to see how and what their learning matters in the world.
When you talk about whole child education, about kids’ “heads, hearts, and hands,” what do you mean?
If we think about educating children holistically, we really do want to stimulate their heads, their minds. We want to give them access and exposure to rich curriculum and academic learning and knowledge. We want to give them the skills and tools to be prepared, competent, curious, and active in today’s world.
We also want to make sure that learning is real and relevant in the context of their world today. So students can get their hands in it and it engages, inspires, and connects with them. That’s what I mean: learning they can touch, feel, use — it comes alive for them.
Finally, true learning does come from the heart. Ideas and thoughts come from what we feel. Engaging the heart really does open up the student and the child to give them the full dimensions of learning. By engaging the heart, we teach empathy, we teach that people learn differently, and that that diversity is really the way the world is.
So that’s what I mean. It’s that integration. What I came to see — and why I wrote the book — is what Carrie Wilson at Mills Teachers College shared, “the road to improving public education lies at the intersection of empathy and academic learning.” That’s where change happens.
In Wildflowers, you cite John Dewey, one of my intellectual heroes, to illustrate whole child thinking about education. Dewey’s sometimes presented as an alternative to education reform — holistic thinking about child development and student achievement is sometimes counterpoised as incompatible with reforms focused on measuring and raising student achievement.
Dewey provided an overall frame for how children learn and develop. The heart of his approach was really the purpose of education: to produce successful and engaged community members and citizens who could engage with democracy. What I find fascinating about the whole reform effort is, it’s really forgotten that we live in a very large, complex system. Advocating one reform over another causes ripples that impact other parts across that system.
We’ve lost that holistic lens. We’ve also lost the true purpose of learning and education. It shouldn’t have to come down to a supposed difference between using data to drive improvement and authentically and warmly greeting children as they come to school every day. It doesn’t have to be an either/or. But reformers have framed it that way.
Dewey and others, like Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori, who had a grounding in child development, understood that the ecosystem in which children learn is a key part of how education becomes successful.
What’s the big vision that we hold now?
You tell me. How should we advance the whole child approach in public education?
It starts with a broad vision, a North Star. Sir Ken Robinson talks about it as the responsibility of the adults at all levels in the system to create the conditions in which all children can thrive. Start by putting children at the center of every question. What is it going to take for every child to succeed? What does he or she need?
The answer starts with giving children a voice.
The best example: high schools in America today. High schools are really hard places — when you look at the traditional reform or turnaround models, they often avoid high schools because they’re so hard. The reason? We don’t give children a voice. I don’t think we really bother to ask students what inspires them, what excites them, how do they want to learn, when do they want to learn, where do they want to learn.
If we asked, if we gave students — and, by extension, teachers — more of a say, we’d start to create a system that’s really about meeting all of children’s needs.
We need school-based leaders that understand that, that cultivate the kinds of learning cultures where this kind of learning and voice can thrive. And they need the support of superintendents who understand that their job is about providing supports so that the climate and cultures in schools reflect needs defined by those communities.
This is what it means to lead a system that’s about educating and developing the whole child: I’m setting the conditions. Deputy superintendents are helping build them. Principals are cultivating those conditions for their teachers and community. Teachers are creating them for their students and their families. And we keep going back up to the state policymaker levels and to folks like myself, now, in philanthropy. We all have a role in helping to create the conditions that can advance whole child education.
And that advancement, again, can look very different, depending on the needs of different communities. That’s OK! It’s not about a one-size-fits-all playbook.
What are some of the least productive parts of our thinking about public education in the United States? Most productive?
We don’t do a good job at engaging and empowering our communities. In general, large bureaucracies aren’t good at that. That’s taken a toll.
If, like Dewey, you see public education’s purpose as to produce a class of individuals able to be active citizens who can help advance democracy, this disengagement has had a spiraling downward effect. That lack of engagement and connection has fostered a lack of investment, support, and pressure back from the community. That’s led to a systemic erosion of public education.
For instance, in places where you have — as in California — divested funding from the local communities, where the vast majority of public education dollars come from state revenues, it’s further disconnected community ownership of schools. That’s had a negative effect.
Schools’ higher purpose has gotten more and more clouded. Take No Child Left Behind’s well-intended, but also misguided, focus on academic standards and high-stakes testing. That resulted in the erosion of other subjects like history, arts, and even some of the natural sciences. That created further disengagement of students, families, and communities, which further eroded public support for education.
But the trend line in progressive circles is to push up from the local level for equity reasons, right? Local funding tends to mirror and exacerbate the structural and financial inequities between communities.
No question it’s one of the tensions. I think we’re seeing it here in California with the big movement towards more local control of state education funding. Three to five years in now, we’re seeing that the biggest impediment is districts’ ability to authentically engage their families and their communities around their planning work.
It’s largely an effort that’s controlled by bureaucracies, which have more of a compliance mentality than a curious, creative, collaborative mentality.
Wildflowers is full of reminders from earlier iterations of public education. Where should we look for inspiration?
Ted Dintersmith’s book, What School Could Be, is full of examples of places where you find really engaged, connected, passionate young people learning with committed adults who treat their jobs like they’re craftspeople learning to perfect their craft. There’s a lot of places like that, where learning is on fire and kids are engulfed in learning. I don’t know that we have to point to one specific model.
Whole child education isn’t something new. It isn’t that we have to invent something else or launch another quick reform piece — e.g., if we just get rid of seniority, if we only paid teachers more.
There are holistic models and pockets and examples of where you have adults setting the conditions for learning. This idea of heads, hands, and hearts emanated from Waldorf and Montessori, models that were built around a child and/or youth developmental lens, that truly understood how children learn.
Do we believe that all children can learn? If we do, what are we going to do about that? This is where the whole equity frame comes in. Certain children face more challenges and have other needs. To meet those needs sometimes requires more resources, more attention from adults, and different approaches. Wildflowers provides some examples.
In many ways it is a “back to the future” conversation. Which makes it a lot easier for people to understand. We’ve done this. We’ve been there. We can absolutely do it again.
See previous 74 interviews: Civil rights activist Dr. Howard Fuller talks equity in education, Harvard professor Karen Mapp talks family engagement, former U.S. Department of Education secretary John King talks the Trump administration, and more. The full archive is right here.
Conor P. Williams is a fellow at The Century Foundation. Previously, Williams was the founding director of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. He began his career as a first-grade teacher in Brooklyn. He holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a master’s in science for teachers from Pace University, and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College. His two children attend a public charter school in Washington, D.C.