Valeria Silva and Bernadeia Johnson are experienced educators and new superintendents. Silva became superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools in December, and Johnson assumes the top job in Minneapolis on July 1. Johnson will be part of the panel discussion on education reform at the June 10 Minnesota Meeting.
Both superintendents have made closing the achievement gap one of their top priorities. With that in mind, we asked them to respond to an admittedly hypothetical question: If, through a stroke of the pen, you could do three things to close the achievement gap, what would they be?
Johnson: That’s a hard question because there are so many things we could do to help improve student performance. What do I leave out? First, I would drastically address how we identify, prepare, place, mentor, support and hold teachers accountable. It’s unfortunate, but too many colleges and universities are turning out teachers who are not prepared for today’s classrooms. That’s why I think programs like the Bush Foundation’s Teacher Effectiveness Initiative are so important.
Silva: I agree; we must do more with teacher preparedness. We must intervene and provide the tools they need to succeed because they are not being prepared to handle classrooms that have 25 students with different needs. So, what happens? They teach to the middle. The top kids don’t get the stimulation they need to stay engaged, and the kids who are struggling don’t get the help they need to progress.
Silva: I’d require more time and more days per student in academic programs. That’s not the same thing as saying we need a longer school year. That isn’t necessary for every student. But for kids who are struggling, summer school and community education programs should be a must, not an option.
Johnson: I would remove some of the restraints that come with school funding sources. Right now we have funding streams that come into the district that require specific set asides for programs that we know are not making a difference. These resources could be used more effectively, including investing in more academic time for the students who need it.
Silva: Resources is my No. 3, but I’m talking about more than money. We need people and services. Many of our families are struggling. They lack health insurance, or they can’t afford the prescription medication their kids needs. And unfortunately, many of the wrap-around services, such as school nurses, mental health and chemical dependency counselors have been cut.
Johnson: I would enact a stronger, standards-based curriculum. Issues like accountability and school governance mean nothing if you’re not teaching kids the things they need to know. The strongest charter schools have very strong curriculums with tightly aligned assessments. Programs and textbooks are not the same thing as a curriculum.