EPFP Alumni Stories
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Welcome to the EPFP Alumni Stories! Here we highlight the work of EPFP alumni around the country by featuring guest blog posts about our three pillars: Policy, Leadership, and Networking. For more information or to report abuse of this feature, please contact the EPFP national program staff at epfp@iel.org.

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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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Cross-Boundary Leader: Lars Johnson (MN EPFP 14-15)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Cross-Boundary Leader

Lars Johnson (MN EPFP 14-15)

Lars Johnson is a strategy fellow at Education Evolving and program director at the Labrador Foundation. At Education Evolving, his research is currently focused on identifying policy barriers to school innovation. At the Labrador Foundation, Lars leads a grantmaking program targeted at advancing innovative school designs and teacher leadership. Johnson attended the Minnesota New Country School, a teacher-powered charter school in rural Minnesota, and the experience inspired him to pursue a career in education policy. Prior to his education policy pursuits, Lars founded and led a software development consultancy, where he built apps and websites for think tanks, foundations, and government agencies.

Inspired by Teacher-Powered Schools

My own experiences in school had a huge influence on my life and my career. I attended a very traditional middle school, but the environment wasn’t good for me academically or socially. For high school, I attended a project-based, teacher-powered school, the Minnesota New Country School, where I was allowed and encouraged to direct my energy into the interests I had, which at the time were largely around music and computer programming. In retrospect, I see that the school model that worked so well for me had emerged because a group of teachers came together to figure out how to best serve their students. There was a direct link between the teacher-powered decision making at the school and the pedagogical experience that kept me so engaged.

A teacher-powered school is one where a collective group of teachers has real decision-making authority in at least one area of autonomy. At Education Evolving, we’ve identified 15 areas of autonomy, such as budget, curriculum, pedagogy, and recruitment, that educators at teacher-powered schools have a say in. This doesn’t mean these schools are big, unruly “autonomous collectives” where teachers reject leadership and principals altogether; it’s more of a shift in where the ultimate decision-making authority lies. In practice, many teacher-powered schools choose to have a principal or co-school leaders, similar to the way a law firm is led by a group of partners who choose a managing partner. Teacher-powered schools can be either charter or district schools—we see about a fifty-fifty split between the two—and teachers can gain and hold their collective autonomy in a number of ways, such as through a collective bargaining agreement or through a contract with their charter authorizer or district central office. We believe that groups of teachers should be the ultimate decision-making authority in schools because they’re in classrooms with students every day and understand students’ unique needs.

Improving the Quality of the Teaching Profession

I believe the most important issue in education policy today is the quality of the job of teaching, and whether talented young people perceive it as a potential career. Many leaders and policymakers are preoccupied with the “quality of teachers” but not the quality of teaching as a career, which has been a huge detriment to the profession. If teaching is seen as a scripted, assembly-line job (as it often is, especially in large urban districts), it will be difficult to recruit and retain the top-notch educators that students deserve. We need to raise the status of the profession as a whole and give educators more freedom to engage their students in the classroom.

We recently presented an award for advancements in research on teacher-powered schools to Richard Ingersoll at the University of Pennsylvania, who’s a leading expert on teacher retention and recruitment. His research identified the number one reason why teachers leave the classroom as the lack of professional autonomy over their roles and schools. We see this lack of power in data and our interactions with teachers quite often. Teacher-powered schools address this by giving teachers real authority; in turn, the teachers facilitate better learning for students. I think this is a big reason why we’ve seen this movement grow: teachers are fed up with accountability models where they are responsible for what they can’t control.

Federal Education Policy in Rural America

In 2015, I co-wrote a report on federal education policy in rural America. Implementing policy effectively in rural districts can be a challenge in a number of ways. For example, rural districts are often held to the same program application and reporting requirements as large urban districts, but they may have only one or two administrators in the office to handle all of the paperwork burdens of state and federal programs. In the report, we make the recommendation that rural districts be given consolidated reporting processes in which they can submit reports on multiple programs and grants through a central template. Another way to ease the administrative burden on rural districts would be to allow several to apply for competitive grants together as a team and share the reporting responsibilities among them.

Technology also has a special and important role to play in rural America. It can be difficult to recruit teachers and administrators or offer a diverse array of course options in more remote areas. One solution would be to offer more project-based learning or online learning opportunities when remote geographies make it difficult to bring in specialists in certain subject area. However, this is made difficult by the lack of broadband internet access in rural areas. This has improved over the last few years, but the lack of technology infrastructure still poses a challenge to providing diverse educational opportunities to rural students.

Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

I think an important part of cross-boundary leadership is staying focused on the objectives at hand and setting aside labels and preconceived notions. For example, at Education Evolving, we work with teacher leaders from both the charter and district sectors of public education. Sometimes they carry negative narratives about each other, but we try to get everyone to focus on the end goal: giving teachers decision-making authority in schools so they can meet the unique needs of the students they serve. When teachers see that the sector in which a school lies doesn’t imply anything about teacher roles, or the school’s learning program, or the extent of positive student-teacher relationships, those borders and stereotypes seem to dissolve.

This example demonstrates some of the challenges presented in cross-boundary leadership. Working with a wide spectrum of stakeholders in the education sector has shown me how deeply ideological convictions are held by some individuals. Even in a field like public education, where positions don’t divide as neatly along party lines, convictions run deep, from the need for innovation versus the need to replicate what works to the importance of math and science versus the importance of the arts. Managing these different beliefs and finding a common ground can be challenging.

Leadership Lessons Learned

I think leadership is largely about associating with talented people who are pulling in the same direction as you are—and then knowing when to stay quiet and let work continue on its present course and when to speak up and nudge the wheel in a new direction. Leadership is less about being consistently active and more about knowing when to speak up. Ideally, every member of a team would possess leadership qualities, not just a single person.

EPFP Experience

My time as an EPFP Fellow was a wonderful opportunity to look into the work lives of people from all corners of the K-12 policy world. I think EPFP provides Fellows and alumni with exposure to new ideas, as well as networking opportunities with new people. In a world where so many of us get deep into particular tasks or issue areas in our jobs, it’s nice to step back and discuss K-12 at a more macro level with other invested, intelligent folks.



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Cross-Boundary Leader: Rachel Gwaltney (DC EPFP 11-12)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Monday, January 4, 2016


Cross-Boundary Leader

Rachel Gwaltney (DC EPFP 11-12)

Rachel Gwaltney is the Director of Policy and Partnerships at the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), a national nonprofit organization focused on closing the achievement gap through high-quality summer learning for all children and youth. In this role, she leads development and implementation of services, projects, and partnerships that strengthen summer learning policy and build capacity of state and national leaders and organizations. Prior to joining NSLA, Gwaltney served as Chief of Programs for Higher Achievement, an organization that focuses on closing the opportunity gap for middle school youth. She has recently held roles at District of Columbia Public Schools, Data Quality Campaign, and Horizons National.

Summer Learning Awareness and Policy

NSLA encompasses a broad definition of summer learning activities; it can be anything from summer school and library programs to community-based organizations and parks and recreation programs. Our focus has been on improving quality, access, and demand for these programs through advocacy activities at the federal, state, and local levels. We also advance our mission through grassroots efforts, training, and technical assistance with program providers, which elevates the quality of summer learning efforts in the field.

My work centers on advocacy at the state and federal levels: helping policymakers understand the effect of summer learning on student achievement and success. For example, NSLA has developed and shared lots of research on the impact of summer learning programs on low-income students and communities, and how the achievement gap grows when youth don’t have equitable access to these types of programs.

Growing summer learning programs can be difficult because there is only one dedicated federal funding stream for afterschool learning, and it’s shared among multiple types of education providers (the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program). We believe it’s really important to keep investing in that funding stream at the federal level because it is a critical investment in equitable opportunities that schools and communities provide to their students. Even better, community-based entities often leverage that funding into additional private dollars and in-kind resources, all of which are invested into student success. We want policymakers to know that there is a huge demand for summer learning programs and we need more funding to continue working to meet that demand.

Summer Learning Partnerships

Partnerships are also an important part of making summer learning a priority. We’ve been working closely with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to advance summer learning as a strategy to help kids stay on track with literacy and to reduce retention of students in third grade. We are seeing more programs incorporate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) into their activities too, so finding partnerships to enhance quality and bring new resources to the field are important.

The programs and partnerships we represent go beyond just academics. NSLA’s mission is to “ensure that every child is safe, healthy, and engaged in learning during the summer,” so we also support programs in parks and recreation, physical activity and sports, camping, and environmental science and nature learning. There’s great research out there on the positive health outcomes for youth involved in summer activities with structured physical activity and nutrition components, and the negative consequences for children who lack these resources.

Nutrition and summer food service is a big part of NSLA’s work as well. With the reauthorization of the Summer Food Service Program, we hope to ensure that kids have access not only to healthy and consistent meals, but also to learning opportunities during the summer. Many students in low-income communities are eligible for free and reduced-price meals during the school year, but only one-sixth of those same kids receive meals during the summer. We’re working with providers and districts to find additional providers to serve meals when school isn’t in session. It’s also a great opportunity to connect more kids to summer learning programs; kids who are getting summer meals may not be in summer school, but they can still access enrichment opportunities in libraries or through other community organizations.

Opportunities and Challenges for Summer Learning

One of our greatest opportunities is that the summer learning network is becoming savvier about quality. We’re able to highlight many different programs and how they accomplish summer learning and non-academic goals through their quality of service. Higher quality programs allow us to really show positive outcomes, both academic and nonacademic. We have a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the impact of summer learning on closing the opportunity and achievement gaps.

A major challenge to our collective work is the difficult funding environment. Many summer learning programs struggle with sustainability as we see an increased demand for programs but not increased funding. We need to make sure that resources go to the communities and kids who need them most.

Another challenge is reaching kids in rural areas. Even in low-income urban areas, it’s easier to get kids to a central location for programs. This is much harder to do in rural areas, where kids, families, schools, and communities are much more spread out. To meet this need, we’re working with rural leaders and organizations to build an understanding of why summer learning programs are important and determine how to use resources like technology to make programs available to more kids.

Cross-Boundary Leadership

My role at NSLA focuses on connecting our organization to other sectors that are also focused on youth. Part of that effort is finding state and national organizations to partner with in order to advance our work. We try to work broadly and collaboratively with these different sectors, and we work with many different organizations, from the USDA and child hunger groups on the summer meals component, to the afterschool community and national parks and rec associations on physical activity programs. In addition, we look outside education to broaden the summer learning scope, such as working with health and human services programs, and the business sector on summer youth employment.

Leadership Lessons Learned

I’ve always tried to remember that students are at the center of what we do, and everything we do should have an impact on youth. It can be easy to get caught up with the needs of adults or communities or budgets, but kids are still graduating who are not ready for college or the workforce, so we need to take that seriously as leaders.

I’ve also learned that it is important to make the time and space for meaningful collaboration. So many opportunities for collaboration get left on the table because it is hard to do. It takes extra time and effort and we don’t always feel we’re getting the most out of it at the time, but more often than not, it pays off in huge dividends down the road.

EPFP Experience and Value

EPFP was a great turning point in my career. I came into the program after more than 10 years of working on the program side, but I had always been interested in advocacy. I thought EPFP would be a good opportunity to see if I wanted to shift my focus to policy. I really enjoyed our conversations about a variety of issues within the education sector, and the chance to think more broadly about the work I was doing, the students I was serving, and the impact I was making on the education landscape. Hearing the perspectives of the many types of professionals in my cohort—lobbyists, principals, leaders from national organizations—was especially meaningful to me. My time as a Fellow was a great experience that inspired me to get a graduate degree in public policy and join the larger conversation on public education.

I think EPFP is valuable in helping people build a strong network. I’ve kept in touch with many of the people I met through EPFP and have worked with a few of them since our cohort year. The program also gives Fellows a window into what policy looks like on the ground and how it aligns with the work they are doing. Understanding the scope and breadth of education policy and what it really looks like has been useful in my career and EPFP gave me a great background in that.


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Cross-Boundary Leader: James Ford (NC EPFP 14-15)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Monday, December 7, 2015


Cross-Boundary Leader

James Ford (NC EPFP 14-15)

James Ford is the 2014 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and teaches ninth-grade world history in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. During his year as Teacher of the Year, he traveled around North Carolina as an ambassador for more than 95,000 teachers in the state, and served as an advisor to the State Board of Education and a board member of the North Carolina Public School Forum. He was also named the 2013 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Teacher of the Year and the 2013 North Carolina Southwest Regional Teacher of the Year. Ford originally intended to pursue a career in journalism, but became a teacher after working as a truancy intervention specialist and the director of a teen center for at-risk youth.

Teacher of the Year Opportunities

The most interesting experience for me as Teacher of the Year was sitting on the State Board of Education. It was fascinating to go from learning about policy as a classroom teacher to advising the state board that helps to create that policy. I enjoyed seeing what these ideas look like and how they change as they go through the pipeline.

Traveling around the state showed me a lot and revealed that teaching looks very different depending on where you are. There are so many moving parts that affect teaching and education, from geography to constituency to district funding levels, and the challenge and opportunity is that there is no one way to do it right. Many teachers across North Carolina are digging deep into their trick bag and pulling out all the stops to make sure their students are achieving, and it was wonderful to have the chance to see the multitude of ways this plays out in different classrooms and schools. The fact that we all do the same job but are able to do it in such different ways is magical.

Working in a Diverse, Urban High School

I think the most surprising thing about the students that I work with is that they are absolutely brilliant. They come to us not being devoid of knowledge, but embodying and exhibiting unique skill sets and talents that are often overlooked in a school setting. Some students may have deficiencies and, in part because they are in an urban school, they often get written off as being behind or not being able to achieve, which affects how they see themselves as students. In reality, they are very gifted and grateful for educators who see the best in them, who challenge them, who care about them, and who really demonstrate true love for them as a person and their well-being.

Working in this environment comes with challenges as well, including the effects of a high concentration of poverty around our school. We also deal with the inherent challenges of educational equity on a daily basis, as many of these students don’t necessarily have the same level of opportunity as their peers. I think we need to collectively do a better job of accounting for what happens outside the classroom and how that impacts what happens inside to ensure these students have the best opportunity to succeed.

Entering the Teaching Profession

Despite all of the baggage that comes with becoming a teacher—low pay, scarce resources, lack of regard and respect—I felt called to it, and it has proven to be one of the best decisions I’ve made. I fell in love with something I didn’t know I had a desire for; it doesn’t feel like work to me. There are a lot of things that might dissuade people from entering the profession, but at the end of the day, it’s about fulfilling your personal calling. If that calling is to serve children through education, then you should chase after it with reckless abandon.

Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

I think leading across boundaries is being able to get along with people from different sectors and remaining focused on your goal. Successful leadership also involves learning how to disagree without being disagreeable or disrespectful and leading by example. I really feel like something I was able to accomplish as Teacher of the Year was to be a connector in a polarizing atmosphere in state politics. I didn’t play into the divisiveness and was able to have candid, friendly, and respectful conversations with people who may not have shared my political beliefs.

A big challenge in leadership is that not everyone is solution-oriented. For some people, their objective is to stick to their position come hell or high water, even if it might not move the conversation forward. For me, the objective is to help kids and entertain ideas of how to do that, even if they might diverge from my own views. Leadership is about give and take, and at the end of the day, we all have to compromise to reach shared goals.

Leadership Lessons Learned

The biggest leadership lesson I’ve learned is to define my principles and live them. In the classroom, I believe this is especially critical when teaching content. It’s important to pull out lessons and highlight the central ideas and principles to students. Outside the classroom, it’s about figuring out how you can fulfill your principles while still being willing to compromise.

EPFP Experience and Value

EPFP totally changed my outlook on education. I quickly realized that it was an excellent opportunity for teachers to better understand what shapes the world we work in. It was great being in the company of the people who made decisions that impacted my work and learning more about the process behind those decisions. From the very first session, I felt empowered because I was able to talk candidly, provide my perspective as a teacher, and ask questions; I felt like I could go into a room with anyone and have a sophisticated conversation about education policy. I know that I’m now a better educator because of the well-rounded knowledge I gained during my experience as an EPFP Fellow.

I truly believe that EPFP has the potential to transform the role of teachers. “Teacher leader” is a buzzword in education, but not many programs adequately prepare teachers for that position. EPFP positions teachers who have ambition to learn, know, and do more to be lifted into the leadership space and to have the opportunity to take on leadership roles. I think if more teachers participated in EPFP, it could become a program that transforms who teachers are and what teaching is.


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Cross-Boundary Leader: Aimee Rogstad Guidera (DC EPFP 97-98)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Thursday, November 19, 2015


Cross-Boundary Leader

Aimee Rogstad Guidera (DC EPFP 97-98)

Aimee Rogstad Guidera is President and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), a national nonprofit organization leading the effort to empower educators, students, parents, and policymakers with the information they need to make the best decisions to improve student outcomes. Prior to founding DQC in 2005, Guidera served as the director of the Washington, DC, office of the National Center for Educational Achievement. She also served as the vice president of programs for the National Alliance of Business, worked in the education division of the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices, and taught for the Japanese Ministry of Education. Named one of TIME’s 12 Education Activists of 2012, Guidera is a Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow and serves on the board of directors for the Institute for Educational Leadership and the Friends of the Hennepin County (Minnesota) Library.

The Importance of Data

We believe at the Data Quality Campaign that when students, parents, educators, and policymakers have the right data in the right format at the right time, students achieve their best. We have the data infrastructure in place now to transform education for every child in this country. But there is a lot that needs to happen for this goal to be a reality.

One big misconception is that data is just a test score, but in reality, it is so much more. The richer the information we’re able to access, the more we can use it to improve student and system performance with the goal of boosting student achievement. Data includes everything from course patterns and grades to interventions, attendance, and comprehension to what teachers collect in the moment as students understand content.

Data becomes more powerful when you connect data points together and show a richer picture of how a student is progressing. When used well, it can change decisions and actions and, most importantly, results. Every state now has the ability to collect the data necessary to inform decision-making about the teaching and learning process to positively impact students’ lives, and it’s important that we do this in a way that supports every student. When we empower everyone with a stake in education with the information they need in the format they need it, we get results.

Data doesn’t change anything unless it’s answering a question someone has and is presented in a way that is tailored to people’s needs. At DQC, we’re working with policymakers to help them start conversations around data and frame data to answer questions. The most important thing is to build demand for data and information that is useful. I think the biggest culture change in education is using data not as a compliance or accountability tool but for continuous improvement and answering people’s questions in order to improve decision-making and ideas.

Data Privacy

We collect data to improve our decision-making in every aspect of life, from choosing a restaurant to picking a textbook. The more we use data, the more we wonder who has access to this personal information, how it is maintained, how it is used, and what security measures are in place to protect it.

Three years ago, there was only one piece of state legislation passed regarding student data privacy. This year, 46 states introduced 182 bills on the topic. It’s a very important conversation that we need to have, and I think many of the legitimate concerns emanate from the lack of transparency about what types of data are collected, how it’s collected and stored, and how it will be used to improve schools and benefit students.

The most important thing we can do is build trust among students, parents, educators, and the public that this information is being used well, is kept secure, and adds value to education reform. At DQC, we provide guidance, support, and assistance to policymakers about how to leverage the power of data in the service of student learning. One part of this work is the analysis of state legislation and the increased activity in Congress about student data privacy.

Leadership in Education

Our field needs strong leadership and leaders who aren’t afraid to be creative and innovative. One of the reasons I’m hopeful for the future of the education sector is the quality of individuals who have chosen to enter this field, especially in leadership positions across schools, systems, nonprofits, and the government. The amazing quality of individuals in education has increased over the 25 years I’ve been in this field, and that changes everything. These individuals bring passion, commitment, and laser-like focus on what this conversation needs to be about. They bring the innovation that education needs in order to reflect on what is and isn’t working and to be open to new ideas.

Programs like the Pahara Fellowship and EPFP help to provide forums for leaders to come together and reflect on what the field needs, what it takes to be a strong and successful leader, and to learn what others are doing. These venues not only create vibrancy and help people who want to try new things, but they also encourage leaders to work across traditional silos and collaborate.

Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

One of the big themes of my work at DQC is the need for data to follow individuals wherever they go across systems, state lines, and sectors. For example, if we want to know if a high school is adequately preparing its graduates for adult life, we need feedback from postsecondary and workforce systems about how many graduates go on to get jobs, the wages they earn, and if they need remediation classes.

It’s so important that we break down silos and have conversations across systems and sectors to better understand what we’re all trying to do and how we can help each other help prepare students for life. This effort needs cross-sector leadership, collaboration, and governance so policies are aligned and not duplicative to meet needs at every turning point to prepare students for success. I think we’re getting to this point in policy conversations as we realize that schools can’t do that by themselves. Communities, families, and other partners play a major role and we need to think more holistically about how these sectors can work together as an aligned and integrated system to ensure our fellow citizens are prepared for an increasingly competitive global economy.

Leadership Lessons Learned

I think leadership really boils down to harnessing the power of people to work toward a common goal. Nothing is more rewarding than working collaboratively with a team of talented, committed, passionate individuals on a shared effort that leads to measurable impact. You can have all kinds of systems or management tools in place, but if you don’t have a well-functioning team, then nothing works. The key to having a successful team is not only hiring great people but supporting them as they go along. This includes having transparency around desired goals and expectations, building trust through a strong commitment to openness, and recognizing and celebrating excellence at every point, not just when the results are achieved. Effective leadership is about supporting the team along the journey, not just getting to the destination. It makes the process much more enjoyable for everyone that way!

EPFP Experience and Value

I loved my EPFP experience for many reasons. Many of us are conscious of representing our organizations when we interact with others, so it was liberating to have a space where people could gather, learn, and discuss questions in their own voice. As a fellow, I developed leadership and management skills and tools that I still use today. It really allowed me to build a better understanding of my field, particularly through learning from my peers. The networking opportunities were terrific as well, and I’m still in touch with many of the folks in my cohort. EPFP alumni are a powerful group, and the network is what makes it exciting to join in the program and become close with your cohort.

The program has grown so much over its 52 years, but all of the people who have participated have a shared experience and the opportunity to continue learning from each other. The ability to interact with other leaders and develop your own skills and knowledge is immeasurably important to individuals, and EPFP is integral in ensuring we are able to continue supporting and growing critical talent in the education field. I believe so deeply in the value of the EPFP program that, over the past 15 years and in three organizations, I have made participation in the DC EPFP program part of our professional development strategy.


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