Helping our K-12 Education System Advance Toward a More Equitable Future

A Conversation with Dr. Carissa Moffat Miller, CEO of the Council of Chief State School Officers
Carissa Moffat Miller
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“There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
— C.S. Lewis

That quote from British author C.S. Lewis inspires me about many things in life, but it’s especially relevant as I think about the future of our K-12 education system.

For me, that future is one where an equitable system ensures that all students are equipped to succeed in college or career with agency over their lives and opportunities for economic mobility and prosperity — particularly students in low-income communities and Black and Latino students who often face systemic barriers that prevent them from achieving their ambitions.

As I shared in a previous post, I believe in the resiliency of our K-12 system and its ability to reinvent itself for the better. Despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic, I’m convinced that far better days are ahead.

Those disruptions led to herculean efforts from teachers, school staff, school district officials, and state education leaders to keep our students on the path to success. We’re already seeing signs of recovery with over 99 percent of K-12 students now learning in person.

Yet, unfinished learning, which the World Bank estimates could cost this generation of students worldwide $17 trillion in lifetime earnings, teacher burnout with 55 percent of educators saying they will leave the profession sooner than they had planned, and the emotional and mental health needs of students remain to be resolved.

State education officials are tackling these recovery issues with the help of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a nationwide, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization guiding those leaders through the impactful and equitable use of federal recovery funds for schools. CCSSO is also a grantee and partner of the foundation.

To learn more about this state-level work, I had a conversation with Dr. Carissa Moffat Miller, Chief Executive Officer of CCSSO, and I encourage you to read about it below. Carissa’s insights shed light on how state education officials are advancing our K-12 system toward a more equitable future and using this moment in time to not only put in place recovery efforts but approaches to strengthen education for the long-term and put students on a positive trajectory.

Allan: Thanks so much for speaking with me, Carissa. To dive right in, no part of our K-12 education system was spared from the incredible disruption caused by the pandemic. Students, teachers, school leaders, and others are still experiencing burnout and trauma. What are you hearing from your members about steps state leaders are taking towards an equitable recovery in K-12 education, and what are some existing and new challenges that have emerged?

Carissa: I want to acknowledge that I don’t think we’re post-pandemic. It’s going to be something we’re grappling with for quite a while. The things that we did that first year or even the first six months evolved into the next six months. I told the chiefs they made history. They had to figure out a playbook when there wasn’t one. There was no history we could rely on. That’s the same for teachers, district leaders, and everybody in the education system with what they’ve done.

We are still managing health testing protocols, school operations, and fluctuating conditions. We just hosted our legislative conference and one of the things that came out is that recovery from crisis is about getting back to the point where we were, but that’s not enough. We want to do more than that. We’re seeing chiefs use rescue plan dollars to provide better opportunities to get students on track, even students who were struggling before the pandemic. That’s what I'm hopeful about. Our chiefs are still dealing with some of the immediacy issues but are having a lot of conversations about innovation, improvement, and what we can use dollars for to look toward the future.

Allan: You mentioned the federal relief funds states are receiving to address the impact of the pandemic. What bright spots are you seeing in innovation, modernization of systems, and reinvention in state recovery plans?

Carissa: What I’m seeing is a focus on how we sustain those future benefits. Thinking back to when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ended, we saw a lot of the good curtailed. I'm encouraged about the things states are putting into place that can be long-term sustained efforts. States like Tennessee, Missouri, and Maryland are using federal funds to do “grow-your-own” programs that ease costs for high school students or paraprofessionals to enter the teaching profession. Those are things that states are also investing in and putting in programs.

North Dakota is using some of its funds to support $10,000 in teacher-led projects every three months to integrate new instructional strategies. Those new strategies and methods are things that can live on beyond what we’re seeing.

With the instructional materials and professional development network that CCSSO runs with a variety of states, we’re seeing the integration of those high-quality instructional materials in platforms states use to distribute to districts. Rhode Island is using that to implement its new state reading law. We’re seeing high dosage tutoring in Oklahoma open to all eighth-grade students for algebra readiness. There is a lot of conversation now about how we address middle school math issues, which is a huge priority.

There are summer programs I find interesting. There is one in New Hampshire that helps students from low-income families with the financial resources to go to recreation camp. The New Hampshire Department of Education did this in coordination with camps and school-age summer programs. These partnerships will withstand the test of time.

Allan: That’s so true – the new partnerships forged through this pandemic carry enormous potential. Speaking of keeping students on a learning path despite disruptions, education after high school is critical for economic mobility, yet there are over one million fewer students enrolled in college today than before the pandemic began. As we think beyond the K-12 experience, what approaches should states be considering to ensure that students don’t lose momentum through their transition from high school to college?

Carissa: We are the pathway from K-12 to higher education and care about that, and I’ve seen the numbers. As a parent of a college student, I’ve seen the struggle with connectedness on campus. It’s unachievable for so many. When I think about affordability for college, it's not something we address, but what are ways our system can make it more possible.

I look at the apprenticeship program that Tennessee has gotten approved for teaching. It’s the first in the nation, a statewide program modeled after a “grow-your-own” program in Fresno, California. It captures both students and people who are paraprofessionals and need to be able to make a living while they are doing this.

Missouri is placing more trained advisors and counselors in high schools in rural areas to provide individualized college and career support. As someone who came from a graduating class of 19 people, I know how important my counselor was. My parents didn’t go to college, and my counselor had to help navigate that for me. Those positions are critical in K-12.

Oklahoma is using federal funds to provide additional opportunities to retake the ACT, SAT, and PSAT — if those are admissions requirements — so students can do better. These are just a few examples of ways K-12 plays a role, but we all could certainly do more.

Allan: If you were to look ahead three-to-five years from now, what would you say a successful recovery in K-12 education looks like?

Carissa: I think about what we learned from the pandemic about time and how to use time more efficiently. I find myself being impatient about certain things that used to take much longer when we can get them done in a shorter time. That is a lot of what we learned in education. How do we find different pathways for students to reach their competencies? That was one of the most incredible things done by teachers, and they should both get credit for it and get the latitude to keep doing those things.

Snapping back into systems that had boundaries on the way we get students to competencies is one of the things we have to fight against because there will be a tendency to want to move back to that.

Fundamentally, our goal is to have an education system that focuses on student-specific needs, provides high-quality education, and is able to leverage all that technology that we came to rely on in the pandemic and make it more modernized and equitable. I don’t think we ever shoot too high. These are our kids and the generation that follows us. The more we invest in this and the more we do, the better off everyone will be.

Allan: I agree. What are some other ways that philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others can be supportive of states’ efforts around innovation and equity in K-12 education moving forward?

Carissa: The role of philanthropy to me is research, innovation, and an accelerant. It’s looking at an idea and saying, "How can we move this faster and how do we scale things that would take us much longer to do?" There isn’t one best way to do something, but if we know the end goal, we have an opportunity to build different pathways to get to that goal. There are multiple ways we can provide high-quality materials for students. There are multiple ways to figure out how to assess students and understand where they need to be. That accelerant that philanthropy provides is incredibly valuable to our system, and we are grateful that it allows us to be able to support states.

Allan: One final question about the health of leadership in education. How are people doing, having navigated all of this?

Carissa: People are tired and are looking toward a summer break to recharge. But we’ve learned a lot about the time spent with each other, which goes back to my point about maximizing our time. People want to spend time with their colleagues talking about things, but it’s also an opportunity to have health and well-being. Some of those things we might have taken for granted or thought were a luxury really are a necessity.

We have tried to provide a variety of opportunities where chiefs can connect or have a safe space. We do Wednesday calls and sometimes chiefs get on and just need to know that someone else out there is dealing with that. That sometimes can be just what they need. In our role and the ecosystem, it’s all our responsibility to provide that kind of structure and support for the individuals you’re talking about because everybody is still fatigued and wants to look toward the horizon but needs that bolstering.

Allan: Carissa, thank you for the time together, and thank you for your leadership and partnership. We deeply appreciate all the work that you are doing and the perspectives you have shared.

Carissa: Thank you, Allan. I appreciate it.

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) is a nonpartisan, nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, the Bureau of Indian Education and the five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions. CCSSO is committed to ensuring that all students participating in our public education system -- regardless of background -- graduate prepared for college, careers, and life.

CCSSO is a grantee and partner of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.