Monday, May 4, 2015

Dr. Tony Smith - Former OUSD Superintendent Now State Superintendent of Education, Illinois

By Sam Piha

Sam Piha

Oakland Unified School District lost a superb superintendent when Tony Smith left in 2013. He recently resurfaced as new State Superintendent of Education in Illinois this April 2015.

Below we share an interview we did with Dr. Smith when he was in Oakland. You can also view this interview in a 2-part video with Dr. Smith by clicking here and here

Q: The LIAS learning principles were not intended to apply to strictly afterschool settings. In your experience, how are these principles, when taken together, relevant to young people’s learning? 
Dr. Tony Smith, State Superintendent of Education, Illinois
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A: I think the principles about learning and afterschool time are really about engaging the whole child, which is what I think good educators do and good school systems should be thinking about all the time. The research that has been happening reminds us that young people are active learners in the larger world around them and that we, as adults and communities, must support young people in their learning as they become more pro-socially integrated into the life of our communities.

Q: How are these LIAS principles related to what we are doing in school reform efforts? 
A: The guiding principles that have been pushed forward recently in the afterschool time are helping us think more about the whole child, about community schools, and connecting the world that our young people and families live in with the school house. We have to get much more thoughtful by engaging with community. We want to advance reform so that it’s not just about school reform, its about changing our notions of learning, engaging and inviting a fuller experience for what learning can be. The afterschool time is really pushing that and helping change ideas about what we should be doing inside of school.  

Q: We are focusing our efforts on the idea of improving our approaches to how children learn. Do you see this as an important shift in how we talk about learning in afterschool and summer programs? 
A: The really exciting part of what’s coming from brain research and our knowledge of how young people learn is that we need to change the daily experience inside of school and also remember that kids are in school for only a very short amount of their time. So how are we supporting young people to know, learn, and be productive citizens? 

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Adults  have to start thinking differently. All of us need to stay close to learning theory and realize that there is more to learn about learning. If we can continue to basically teach and help people who are responsible for education know that they have to be learners themselves, I think that helps us change the conversation. I think staying grounded in the research and talking about the ideas of learning help to change the conversation over time. Then, with more evidence, we can change our behaviors and begin saying, “Hey the whole community should be the learning environment”. We should have more structured opportunities for kids to take the lead on stuff and bring what they’re learning outside of the school back in. That way, I think educators can be the learners also.  

Q: Can you speak to one or more of the LIAS principles that most resonate for you when you think about creating learning environments and activities for kids? 
A: I think the guiding principles are essential. I think it’s so important to have a set of core ideas that you can work around. The way these principles have been compiled are really important. 

Obviously the work of being in a relationship with people, working deeply on stuff, really stuff you care about, matters.  The principle that is fundamentally important to me though is about expanding horizons, about the opportunity for young people to see possible futures. Sometimes, particularly in the urban setting or quite frankly in any setting, young people don’t have folks around them that are helping to expand the notions of what’s possible for them, who are looking into their eyes and saying, “I see greatness in you, and I see more than you see in yourself right now”. 

I think that afterschool time should offer those opportunities. Those in afterschool are less tethered to the school building, can do other stuff, can get further a field and actually get into some uncomfortable and different situations that provoke “huh, I never really thought about it like that”, or maybe “I could”, or “I really liked when we went there”. I think that when you have young people who only know a few square blocks, exposing them to new things can be fundamentally transformative. All of the other guiding principles are really important, but taking seriously that we have a responsibility to encourage, activate, and energize notions of possible futures, expanding horizons, that’s the one where I really think afterschool is uniquely and importantly positioned to do. 

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Q:What happens when we structure youth programs without paying attention to these learning principles? 
A: I think when we don’t pay attention to what really works for young people - about developing mastery, about caring about things, about working closely with others - then we create the conditions for young people to disengage.  This idea of young people dropping out of high school is a slow process of pushing kids out of the system.  If we don’t pay attention to what we know works for human beings, what we’re learning about human development, and all the learning research, then we’re responsible for making it less likely that young people realize their potential, that they’re connected, that they take leadership in positive ways.  

Young people are powerful and they want to have agency and exert energy on the world. Unless we’re helping them do that, working together, and helping with some boundaries,  I think we’re responsible for young people checking out and being outside of the system. 

Q: Which principle do you ultimately want every student to walk away with, more than any other principle?
A: At the end of the day, there’s no excuse for a young person or anybody not developing mastery over time. Many of these principles are facilitating conditions to develop mastery over time.  If in fact we don’t hold ourselves as a community, as adults, as educators, responsible for ensuring that people develop mastery, then we’ve failed in our responsibility. Having some sense of strength and agency is critical for every young person. It is not about seat time, it is about competence. It’s not about how long you did it, it’s about how well you do it. And we need to find ways to help every young person be great at something. 

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