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Cross-Boundary Leader: M. Rene Islas (DC EPFP 01-02)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Cross-Boundary Leader

M. René Islas (DC EPFP 01-02)

M. René Islas (DC EPFP 01-02) is the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), an organization that supports and develops policies and practices that encourage and respond to the diverse expressions of gifts and talents in children and youth from all cultures, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic groups. Prior to joining NAGC, Islas served as senior vice president of Learning Forward, where he launched the Center for Results to support leaders in education in developing systems to improve teacher effectiveness.

Islas has had a long career in education policy at the federal, state, and local levels, and has served as senior vice president of B&D Consulting, where he launched their K-12 education practice, and as special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Education and chief of staff to the Assistant Secretary of Education in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Working with Gifted Children

My organization, the National Association for Gifted Children, supports and celebrates the gifts and talents of children and youth, but there are many misconceptions and stereotypes out there about these students. A common one is that gifted children can do everything on their own because they have above-average skills or ability in different areas, and many people assume that they will achieve their full potential just by being in a classroom. This isn’t the case; gifted children need to be supported, taught, and challenged to achieve, and not just left alone to do their work.

People also sometimes assume that giftedness doesn’t exist among every population of students, which leads to a lack of diversity among those that identified as gifted and participate in gifted and talented programs. There are many factors that play a part in some students not being identified as gifted: being overlooked by teachers and parents, cultural and linguistic barriers, and even assessment instruments that can sometimes not be 100 percent valid or reliable in identifying gifted students. To overcome this, we’re looking harder across the landscape to find talent among all populations through universal screenings and increased rigor for all students.

Improving Teacher Preparation and Professional Learning

In my role at the Learning Forward Center for Results, I focused on improving teacher preparation and professional learning and supports for effective instruction. Hands down, the most important factor in increasing student achievement is the teacher, so ensuring they are well prepared and have the supports they need to be successful will lead to the success of their students. My mentor, former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, said that student success is all about the interaction between students and their teachers. In fact, the job of everyone at a school, from bus drivers to janitors to attendance officers, is to make sure that interaction is optimal. And when teachers are at the top of their game in terms of content knowledge, preparation, and professional development, students will respond to that and grow in terms of their own learning and understanding of subjects.

The Policymaking Process

In my time at the U.S. Department of Education, I was able to experience the policymaking process firsthand. One of the biggest lessons I learned was that when you set high goals and expectations, you’ll get so much further than you expected. For example, when we set out to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the early 2000s, we focused on the line that ended up becoming the name of the law: No Child Left Behind. Some would argue that is unattainable—to ensure that no child is left behind academically—but we started out with that mission and let it guide us through the policymaking process.

Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

Whenever we’re talking about equity in service of children, regardless of their backgrounds, we have to look at all of the various factors in their lives that influence success, whether that’s school, home life, their communities, or their health and well-being. Because those factors are in different areas, you have to be willing to work across those different sectors—education, social work, health—to truly make a difference. The principle of cross-boundary leadership that EPFP has always focused on is something that we as advocates and policymakers need to be sure we are doing every day.

That being said, there can be many challenges to leading across boundaries. One of the biggest barriers can be people’s beliefs. Individuals come to the table with their own beliefs that aren’t necessarily negative or intentionally hurtful, but by being kind and not addressing those differences, you can limit the potential or opportunities that children have. That’s why it’s important for us to work together across boundaries to find solutions to these institutional and cultural challenges that do exist. Leading across boundaries can help to change people’s beliefs or open their eyes to new ideas that can help to overcome these challenges.

Leadership Lessons Learned

A big blessing in my career has been having great mentors. I don’t think I could have progressed through my early career and had the opportunities that I did without those mentors. One of my mentors, Christopher Cross, sponsored me to participate in EPFP when he was CEO of the Center for Basic Education. He encouraged and believed in me and knew what I could accomplish, and he wanted to support the type of learning and development that EPFP provided. That experience led me to finding others who have been important parts of my career, like Henry Johnson, who is a North Carolina EPFP alum and still a close friend a mentor. EPFP, like many of my other roles, has allowed me to find mentors who have similar values as me, but who are also willing to challenge what I know and encourage me to do more.

EPFP Experience

When I was an EPFP Fellow, I was focusing on teacher effectiveness. EPFP gave me the opportunity to test my knowledge and thoughts about policy in a safe environment that encouraged me to explore and develop my opinions on a given topic with my cohort. EPFP also helped me create lasting relationships both in the general education space and in my area of interest. I can think of many friends I made through EPFP with whom I’ve stayed connected, whether it’s walking around town or speaking on a panel together.

I think EPFP really does achieve its objectives to help Fellows develop their understanding, knowledge, and expertise in policy, leadership, and networking. The program is especially great for those who want to get into education policy early in their career, because it gives them a strong base in those three areas and allows them to grow during the Fellowship but also flourish beyond it.



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