A retrospective interview with Stephen Fink on teaching, leadership, and lessons for eliminating the achievement gap

on Jun 18, 2018


On June 30, 2018, Dr. Stephen Fink, executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL), transitions leadership of the Center to Max Silverman, currently the organization’s deputy director. In this interview, Dr. Fink reflects on the past 17 years and the continuing mission of teachers and leaders everywhere to eliminate the achievement gap.

CEL: When you founded the Center for Educational Leadership in 2001, what were you hoping to accomplish and have you accomplished it?

Stephen Fink: In the broadest sense, we were hoping to improve educational outcomes for all students particularly those who have been historically underserved, and in the process, close long-standing academic achievement gaps that continue to divide our students based on race, class, language and disability. Of the myriad strategies to address this challenge our approach involved strengthening school and school district leaders’ instructional leadership practice.

We also wanted to become a strong regional provider of leadership support to Washington state school districts. It is important to remember that the Center for Educational Leadership grew initially out of an initiative directly from the University of Washington president’s office in direct response to school district leaders in the Puget Sound region of Washington wanting the UW to play a stronger role in support of their practice.

I also had a vision of growing CEL into a national provider of teacher, school and district leadership support, and of the organization becoming a thought leader in that area. Part and parcel with this vision was creating a learning organization internally by attracting smart people who could push each other’s thinking.

I would say that we have absolutely accomplished becoming a strong regional provider, a strong national provider, a thought leader, and a learning organization.

In terms of what might be left to accomplish is the age-old question about how we know that we have actually helped improve educational outcomes for all students. Truthfully, I think it is still a work in progress. We are trying to figure out the best way to gather impact data. We also have to figure out what metrics make the most sense.

What we have focused on is using research and understanding what research shows in terms of specific leadership practices that have improved teaching and learning. We go after those leadership practices in our work and so, realistically, we need to get better at documenting those kinds of practices and the impact we are making on that.

What was the state of teaching and leadership in 2001 and what has gone well for teachers and leaders since then?

Stephen Fink: There have been many major policy initiatives over the last 17 years that influenced the lives of teachers and leaders every day. However, in some ways there really is not a whole lot of difference between now and 17 years ago.

Seventeen years ago, we still had glaring achievement gaps across the state of Washington and across every state of the country. Some students were achieving very well with high outcomes and yet we continued to have students that were not achieving so well. It was always that kind of nagging challenge to educators: How do we get all of our kids to achieve at very high levels? Which is why our very earliest mission was around closing that achievement gap. Therefore, in that sense, the macro problem that educators were facing in 2001 is sort of the same problem that they are facing now.

However, achievement gaps actually have been improving over that time. It is interesting that the NAEP data both suggests the improvement trend continues and shows that there are challenges ahead.

Because of some consequential research studies over that time, it has been widely accepted that leadership matters. Everybody knew in 2001 that teaching matters. We had a theory that leadership matters almost as much and that has now been borne out by the research.

Since that time, foundations like the Gates Foundation and the Wallace Foundation have made big investments in supporting teacher leadership development, principal pipelines and things like that. Over those 17 years it became more widely accepted that authentic professional learning is really the only way to improve practice in the long term. That is why lots of investment is going in that direction. We made many strides in understanding how to affect professional learning. At the same time, it remains a daunting challenge.

Were there any bright spots in the major policy initiatives that you think affected the improvement of teaching or leadership?

Stephen Fink: From a purely sort of macro standpoint, I think all of those policy initiatives — from No Child Left Behind, to Race to the Top and all of the investment in teacher evaluation — shined a spotlight on the importance of public education. They shined a spotlight on the fact that historically — and this goes back two hundred years — we have had many students not achieving at high levels. In fact, when public education was founded in this country, it was not founded on the premise that all kids should be learning at high levels. It was actually founded on a very different premise that education was good for some kids but not all kids. There was a labor market that allowed that premise to take hold. Therefore, I think No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top accentuated that if this country is going to have a strong, informed citizenship, a strong democracy, and can compete economically in a global environment, then we have to vastly ramp up our game in terms of improving outcomes for all kids.

While those policy shifts did shine that spotlight, I also think those policy shifts on various micro levels probably did as much to damage and impede real improvement work. It has certainly left other things needing to be accomplished.

In your mind, will ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) make progress on the improvement work?

Stephen Fink: Interestingly, I think ESSA is an attempt to shift the accountability movement that started with No Child Left Behind and continued to evolve with Race to the Top.

While the accountability movement has positive attributes — and I do not want to sell those short, it also created a punitive environment that in some cases placed more emphasis on misleading metrics than on real improvement. So in effect, accountability served to delay real improvement.

Now ESSA comes along and we have to wonder, will ESSA get at real improvement? I don’t know. It is better structured to get at real improvement. However, it is important again politically speaking to understand that what really is at the heart of ESSA as much as anything is to decentralize the federal role and re-emphasize the state role in education. How all 50 states can move away from heavy-handed accountability while putting in policies to support real improvement is an open question.

One of the high points of ESSA in my mind is the substantial language around Title II funding of professional learning. The group that I have been associated with called the Redesign PD Partnership, which the Gates Foundation funded and Learning Forward facilitated, worked hard around this. Learning Forward as an organization worked hard to ensure that there would be language in ESSA around professional learning funds for public education. Amply funded professional learning provides a great lever for improvement work and so in that sense ESSA holds a greater opportunity for improvement work than Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind. But it remains to be seen how it will play out and how the relationship between the federal government and all 50 states will play out.

Do you feel like ESSA’s language emphasizing professional learning is a change from where we were in 2001?

Stephen Fink: I do. We have always had professional development. We have been spending lots of money on professional development forever and The Mirage report that came out three years ago really shined a light on that. Although the report examined a rather limited case study of three districts, it is still instructive.

What has evolved is an understanding of what real professional learning requires in terms of investments of time and resources and various systems and structures of support. The field is better informed around that now than it was. But we have always recognized that we need to invest in professional development. Today there is a greater appreciation for what professional learning looks like.

What else do we know today about improving teaching and instructional leadership that we did not know in 2001?

Stephen Fink: We had a theory of action in 2001 that I believe has been borne out particularly in the last five to 10 years that high-quality teaching and leadership are the most important factors in improving the achievement of students. Expertise matters.

In our first book from 2011, Leading for Instructional Improvement, we spelled out that teachers and leaders need to develop deep instructional expertise. Knowing that you cannot teach what you do not know, and you cannot lead what you do not know, leads into the whole professional learning conversation.

Another important difference between now and 2001 for both CEL and the field in general is that we did not have frameworks that can accelerate the development of a shared vision and specific practices that improve student learning. We now have our own frameworks such as the 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning™, the 4 Dimensions of Instructional Leadership™, and the Principal Support Framework which form the basis, and a really useful mental map, of where and how to support professional learning.

What would you say are the puzzles facing leaders in school systems today around professional learning?

Stephen Fink: The puzzle that we have in 2018 is the same puzzle we had in 2001, which is scalability.

I have been in many school classrooms across the country where students were achieving at high levels, where teaching was really quite powerful, and good things were happening to support the academic, social and emotional growth of students. However, in many cases they were sort of islands. Districts have yet to figure out how to scale that level of practice so that all teachers are teaching at that high level across the system.

At the end of the day one puzzle is how to figure out how to accelerate professional learning for teachers and leaders to develop expertise. It gets back to the whole professional learning conversation which is no small challenge.

The kind of systems and structures support to scale high-quality professional learning across the system requires an enormous investment, an investment that people at the policy level and the public level have not made. People see so much money going into public education that there are those who think that educators have all the money they need. That is another puzzle.

An extension of the money puzzle has to do with the policy shifts we spoke about earlier. With Race to the Top, millions of dollars were spent teaching principals how to be more reliable and calibrated around checking off boxes on teachers’ teacher evaluation forms, but that did nothing to get at actually improving teaching performance. So the big puzzle is how to mobilize the investments, the smart thinking, and the policy environment to support and scale professional learning.

By investments, obviously there is the money piece. What about the time element? It seems like true systemic change involves a lot of time.

Stephen Fink: Exactly right. It is a long-term commitment of time and it is important to recognize that time is money in many cases but not all cases.

Time could be just as much a creative enterprise in figuring out how to use the time that is within the day, the week and the year. So it is both. Traditionally, time has been thought of as we need to pay for a certain amount of teacher time so that we can pay for the professional learning. That is certainly true. But there are ways to shape the school calendar, the school day, the school week, and how professionals work together within the current resources that are available to make better use of time.

The question actually raises a great point. Learning a new practice and being able to firmly embed that practice into one’s daily work is not something that happens over a week or a month. It happens over a longer period.

Leaders need to be very thoughtful about their focus on professional learning and actually creating the necessary scaffolds, rather than inundating teachers with so many different topics and themes of professional learning. When leaders organize professional learning as the “topic du jour,” it is no surprise that teachers can make better use of their time doing something else. By focusing on one topic one month and switching to another topic in another month, leaders do a total disservice to what is required for professional learning to take hold.

Do leaders need to get out of month-by-month thinking and think more about year-by-year planning?

Stephen Fink: Don’t get me wrong. Certainly, within the course of the year leaders and teachers should have professional learning plans that are embedding learning into teachers’ daily practice.

They should be working iteratively so that over the course of a month or two or three, they see learning growth around practice. But leaders need to be very thoughtful about how many topics and how many different things they put in place. Think about anybody. Whether you are learning to play the piano or you are learning a new sport or a new art or whatever, it really takes time to incorporate the new knowledge and skills into your daily work.

It sounds like leaders need to think about how to incorporate change into daily practice. Do you have other recommendations for leaders whether they are aspiring leaders or they have been in a system for a while?

Stephen Fink: I would say to aspiring leaders in particular that leadership really does matter. Yet, everything I say for an aspiring leader is something that I have had to remind myself of over the last 42 years.

The work of a leader is consequential and the research supports that. However, improvement work is not a sprint, it is a marathon and we need to see it that way.

One of the things I always tell aspiring leaders is that at the heart of it, leadership is mission work that requires a huge investment of time. People who want to go into a principalship or a superintendency or whatever should know that it is not a 40- or 50-hour-a-week job, it’s much more. I really believe it requires the same kind of mindset as missionary work. It requires one to think of it as a calling and one’s life work versus simply a profession. It is a profession — don’t get me wrong — but it is larger than that.

I tell folks that as a leader when you stop learning, then you will no longer be effective.

Finally, as an effective leader you always need to focus on results, but at the same time be guided by a strong moral and ethical compass, unwavering values of honesty and integrity, all the while never losing sight of the importance of “heart.”

The real gift of leadership is one’s ability to mobilize the energy within, and that requires both a head and a heart connection. It’s important to keep a balance of both.

As a leader, you have certainly modeled continuous learning throughout your career. Earlier you mentioned a book you coauthored in 2011. You have a new book coming out later this year. What can you tell us about it?

Stephen Fink: Yes, I am really excited about its release.

The first book that Anneke Markholt and I coauthored, Leading for Instructional Improvement, was focused on the idea of expertise – that leaders cannot lead what they do not know and that they need to develop an instructional eye. We foregrounded our 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning framework and shared a number of useful examples and artifacts on how leaders lead for high-quality instruction.

We focus the new book on what do leaders need to do day in and day out to support professional learning. It is really about the whole conversation we are having of what does professional learning mean. Understanding that professional learning is the key to improving practice, which in turn is a key to improving outcomes for all kids.

The new book answers the question of what is the leader’s role in improving professional learning. We seize upon the good work that CEL has been doing, in particular the work that my coauthors Anneke Markholt and Joanna Michaelson have led.

We build the book around a case study of a middle school principal who is supporting professional learning in mathematics. It does a beautiful job of underscoring the complexity of just what is required to scale up learning — even at an individual school level or at an individual department level — so that teachers can improve outcomes in mathematics for all of their students.

I am hopeful that the field will find it a useful book and one that is highly practical. Like our first book, we will again include lots of tools and artifacts that will help principals and teacher leaders, and I hope policymakers too. If we can get the policymakers to actually have the stamina to read a book like this, they would understand what is required in terms of investments for professional learning.

Thank you for being a strong helmsman for CEL. As you reflect back on the last 17 years, what makes you most proud?

Stephen Fink: When CEL came into being, I was not sure how long of a journey it was going to be — I never anticipated 17 years, I can assure you that. At the time, I was at an intersection of either becoming a school superintendent — I had been an assistant superintendent — or starting this organization. I knew that at my core, I wanted to have an impact. I wanted CEL to have an impact.

I am most proud that by a variety of metrics and case studies and anecdotes and many great responses we have received from people we work with across the country, that we really have indeed made an impact on the practice of thousands of teachers and leaders across the country and in all different kinds of districts. We have been as effective in small rural districts — whether in the heart of Central Louisiana or Eastern Washington — as we have been in large urban districts such as Seattle or New York City or Miami. We have worked with some of the largest districts in the country.

A subset of impact has been our contribution of thought leadership to the field. We have developed content that has been read all over the world. We know that our 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning and our 4 Dimensions of Instructional Leadership have been downloaded thousands of times and in countries far and wide. I am particularly proud of that.

I am also proud that we have been able to financially sustain ourselves in a highly competitive professional development provider market.  As a self-sustaining university center we operate without a university subsidy, financially give back to the university, and continue to grow as a center. The fact that we have been able to retain a high percentage of our contracts from year to year, while generating new contracts each year speaks to the quality of our work.

Finally, in the head and heart of our learning organization, I have striven to create a good place to work where we attract great people, where we push each other’s thinking, and where we learn together.

At the end of the day, the greatest gift has been getting to sit back and see the quality of our people and the work that they do!

About the author

At the Center for Educational Leadership we partner with courageous leaders in classrooms, schools and the systems that support them to eliminate educational inequities by creating cultures of rigorous teaching, learning and leading. Our vision is transformed schools empowering all students regardless of background to create limitless futures for themselves, their families, their communities, and the world.
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