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Leaders & Lessons: A Conversation with Former Maryland State Superintendent Dr. Lillian Lowery

January 19, 2016

This past fall I began a series of conversations with education leaders who have deep insight into the process of putting policy into practice. Their perspectives are rooted in experience – gathered over many years and across multiple vantage points within our education system – and they offer lessons for us all.

Since my first conversation with Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist, the education policy landscape has shifted significantly. The newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has replaced the goals and sanctions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with more flexibility for states. I see this as a significant opportunity for states to take renewed ownership of their policies that drive toward improving outcomes for all students, but in this new policy era it is critical that we to listen to those who have the wisdom and experience that can inform policy and practice moving forward.

That is why I am thrilled to have Dr. Lillian Lowery as my guest in this post. Dr. Lowery has served in key roles in nearly every facet of our education system. She has been a teacher, a principal, a superintendent and led state education systems in both Delaware and Maryland. She has also led and implemented some of the most significant educational initiatives of the past decade, including securing a Race to the Top grant and transitioning to the Common Core State Standards and new assessments. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan accurately described her career as one devoted to “bettering public education and working to ensure our teachers and students have the tools they need for success.”  She currently serves as President and Chief Executive of FutureReady Columbus, a non-profit organization specializing in early childhood education in Ohio.

Gavin Payne: Dr. Lowery, thank you so much for joining me. I want to start our conversation with a few reflective questions. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself before you led not one, but two state departments of education?

Dr. Lillian Lowery: In both Delaware and Maryland, we focused on the work and the people who would implement the work of change, which for the most part meant educators. I think that was right, but I also believe that we should have been far more deliberate about how we engaged parents and the community at large.

I say that because everyone could agree with the aspirational goal of improved student achievement, making sure that our students graduated from high school ready for college or a career. But once implementation began, we started to lose those who were anxious about the changes being made and we were left trying to play catch-up.

For example, I walked into Maryland when they were already two years into the transformational change around Race to the Top and the [NCLB] flexibility waiver. When teachers and educators at the local level began pushing back on implementation, those were the voices that were most loudly heard by parents, communities and state leaders. And so we were always one day behind trying to reestablish protocols and remind people of the plans that had been agreed to. We should have really begun with a huge public service campaign with community members and parents to explain to them why, in both quantitative and qualitative data, the changes that we were about to embark on were necessary.

GP: I completely agree. It’s not enough to just implement policy well. Everyone needs to understand what is happening and why. That is a tough balance to strike, but it’s a necessary one. Are there other lessons from your time at the state level that you are carrying over into your new role leading FutureReady Columbus?

LL: One lesson is that pacing matters. With both Race to the Top and our [NCLB] flexibility waiver, there were really tight, finite timelines. And so we entered the work with a sense of urgency and the sense that we were being held accountable at the federal level to implement our timelines exactly the way we had written them down. But sometimes we have to listen to the people in the field about how we pace the work. I think what I take from that experience is this fundamental principle: We’ll get there, but we have to bring people along with us. Otherwise, we lose people who are well-intentioned and who believe in the work.

The other thing that is paramount in this work—because we are dealing with our most precious human resources, which are our children and their futures—is to build relationships and establish trust among constituents. We build trust and establish better relationships when we hear what people are saying to us and acknowledge it.

Another really important lesson I learned is to build a plan with the people who will implement it, instead of building a plan and then saying, “This is the blueprint. You can just sign right here on the dotted line, and we’ll get started.” That is disrespectful. Our educators are professionals, so it is important to work collaboratively with those who will directly implement improvement initiatives to build those frameworks for change.

GP: I find that to be so valuable from someone who has worked to implement a great deal of change in your career. In thinking about the changes you’ve led at the state level, were there instances where new dynamics emerged that forced you to think differently or change your approach?

LL: With Race to the Top, we became concerned that all our good plans could fall apart in implementation because people asked for help and we misunderstood their needs.

For example, in implementing the Common Core, teachers across the state of Maryland said, “We need more time.” And what they meant was, “We need more time to get familiar with these standards so that we can build resources and lesson plans and prepare our students for the rigor. We like the standards. We think that they give back ownership of student learning to the student. But give us some more time to get comfortable with them. We need more time to share professional development opportunities and best practices.” And when I finally understood that, it gave me what I needed to address their concerns and move forward. We didn’t slow down the actual work of implementation but were able to be more thoughtful about the accountability that was aligned to the work.

GP: In the many roles you’ve played throughout your career, you have always focused on building a bridge to opportunity for all students. In your view, what will it take to narrow the achievement gap? Where should state leaders focus their efforts to address this persistent and important issue?

LL: It’s more than an achievement gap. We talk about achievement gaps, but for some of our target populations, it’s bigger than achievement—it can also be an expectations gap. A lot of people don’t expect some students to learn and to do well. The achievement gap is born out of a lot of things, and I think one of those things is that expectations are low for many of our kids.

In my career, I’ve learned that closing the achievement—and expectations!—gaps starts with ages 0-5. Data show that what happens to children in that age range absolutely matters. In the state of Maryland, we had “Judy Centers,” which provide early education for children living in poverty, as well as a one-stop shop for parents and families to obtain services: dental care, medical care, job placement, coaching. It’s really family-centric.

We also must expose students and families to possibilities for career and college, including apprenticeship and internship opportunities when students get to middle and high school. We need to show why the educational improvement opportunities we offer are vitally important to their children and their futures.

Another priority is to better understand and use formative assessments. We do a disservice to students who are on grade level or above grade level if we hold them back when they are ready to move on. We need to better use data from formative assessments and to be more flexible in letting children move at their pace and not our pace.

Another focus area is flexible professional development for educators based on actual data. As educators, we often talk about using data in terms of the students, but it’s also important to think about data in terms of how we train our educators. Additionally, I’ve seen that if we can get teachers comfortable with the right technologies – like blended learning, it will help them better customize learning opportunities for students and for their own professional development.

All of these points tie together into a comprehensive way of thinking that exposes children and families to their options, provides a better understanding of formative assessments and how we can use them for both students and educators and continues to educate parents, the communities, and educators.  

Educators, state leaders, parents, and communities, must expect a certain level of rigor and performance if we want to close the achievement gap. Accurate data can help set those expectations and provide the information needed to make decisions.

GP:  Let’s talk more about data. The reality is that we need better information – both in our K-12 system and in higher education – while having an honest, inclusive conversation about how it’s being gathered and what it’s being used for. In your role as a state education leader, how did you prioritize data and how it was applied?

LL: Maryland was really smart to build a data dashboard based on policy questions. Parents were asking, “Why are you collecting data on my students?” So we said, “Let’s get out in front of this and help communities understand why we’re collecting these data.” We created 14 policy questions that covered graduation rates, proficiency rates through transitions, what kinds of jobs students were going on to—it wasn’t just about school, it was more aspirational. We needed these data so we could inform economic development and inform our students about job opportunities. The public understood that. We have to talk about data in ways that make sense to people – about why we want data, and what we’re going to do with it.

GP: Such an important point: no one wants to collect data for the sake of data. We gather information to make sure we deliver against what we promise and what our obligation is to our students. I think that approach – particularly the explanation component – is so important.

So this is one of my favorite questions. If you had to choose five words to describe the key(s) to improving education for all students, which five would you choose?

LL:  Access. Expectations. Data. Risk. Courage.

We’ve talked about access, expectations, and data. As for risk, I believe we have to create an environment like in any other sector where people experiment, like scientists in labs. When some things fail, we can then say, “Oh well, let’s go back. That hypothesis didn’t work.” In education we’re supposed to be perfect. There’s a lot of: If I don’t get the A, then I’ve done something wrong. We have to be able to experiment with blended and personalized learning. And if it fails, that’s okay. Let’s learn from it and move on.

When I think about courage, I think about our policymakers and leaders and the decisions they make for students and educators. Without courage, we could take some giant steps backwards. And I’m really anxious about that. We have to fight the good fight.

GP:  Yes, we do. Thank you, Dr. Lowery, for your thoughts and continued leadership. 

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