Erik B, Superintendent @ Menlo Park City School District
If I'm to needle the system a little bit, I would ask the question, "Is it really teaching if students aren't learning?"
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of the Menlo Park City School District, having recently served as Assistant Superintendent and Principal of the district's Hillview Middle School, a model 21st Century School and 2015 California Gold Ribbon School. Under Erik’s leadership, schools have closed the achievement gap and broadened the support and opportunities afforded students at a very vulnerable time in their lives: adolescence. Erik has been named Middle Grades Principal of the Year for the Association of California School Administrators and one of three finalists for the NASSP National Middle Grades Principals in 2014. Erik was also selected as the 2013 Multiplier of the Year in Education by the Wiseman Group. Erik leads workshops for parents on raising teens and also consults with schools and districts regarding a myriad of educational and leadership topics including school redesign, technology implementation, RtI2, Asset Development, Design Thinking, and Innovation. As Co-Founder of The SchoolFWD Foundation, Erik is the thought leader behind our mission to bring design solutions to leaders ready to make lasting change in their schools and districts.
Erik was interviewed as part of our #EdLeader series by REENVISIONED Co-Founder & Executive Director, Dr. Erin Raab.
Tell me a little about you and your journey in education.
I knew when I was 14 years old - as a sophomore or freshman in high school - that I wanted to get into education. As the son of a single mom who was raising me by herself, school was an important place of respite, support, and vision. In school I could see my future as beyond the world that I lived in at the time; and, at school I was surrounded by really great, impactful, positive, encouraging people.
Because of that, I knew I would feel fulfilled if I were able to give back to other kids in ways that I was given to. So that's how the vision started.
I went to a school in Ohio where you could actually major in education, and I participated in a really innovative teacher education program that got us in the classroom our freshman year of college. So for the four years of my college experience I was doing observation, and then student teaching in a small rural school district in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Kids would travel over an hour to school and over an hour home from school every day because our school district spanned so many square miles. You know, people outside of rural America don't understand how far people travel and under what conditions they sort of seek their education. It was a really powerful experience.
I got to student teach in the elementary school, the middle school, and the high school of this school district. The principal of the school, the high school, was the professor chair of the program that I was in, so it was a really unique experience. He's still on the board of the Coalition of Essential Schools and was a personal friend of Debbie Meier. And so I was just inoculated into this mindset and this world of school reform, Coalition of Essential School, and Jonathan Kozol. They ask the important questions:
Who are we here for? Are our kids really learning? What is the role of equity and justice in a public education that serves our society?
When I was graduating from college, the woman who I had student taught for my senior year was taking a year off to have a baby, and so they asked me to come in and be the teacher. So I got a job in Appalachia right out of college. This was a place that took the first two days of deer season off. They didn't have school because: one, that was oftentimes the only time that fathers would have good one-on-one time with their kids - boys and girls; and, two, if we tried to have school, we would have very few kids that would actually be there as most of them were out hunting with their fathers. For many of our families that was the source of protein they would get for the first four months of the year. It gives you a sense of what it was like. I remember when a student came to me and said, "Hey, Mr. B, we're castrating the bull today. Do you want to come see it?" during third period. And I was like, "Uh, no, thank you." And then fourth period he brought a jar of the results into my classroom.
So, you know, it was a wonderful eye-opening experience for me on so many levels. But anyway, after that year I had the opportunity to go to grad school at Stanford and decided to do that. It was called the APA - Administrative Policy Analysis at the time, now it's the POLS program. I had a great experience but was shocked that, you know, of the 16 people in our program, I was the only teacher in the program. I just was shocked at how many people were engaged in the educational policy conversation who didn't have any experience IN education— and I'm not taking anything away from them.
At the end of the year I felt my skills were going to be best used to go back to the classroom. So I got a job teaching senior English and speech and debate at a school district in Campbell, California, and that's where I planted my roots. I became very interested and focused on the needs of our Hispanic and Spanish-speaking students. About 30 percent of our student population was Hispanic, and they were, by and large, the kids who were not performing well, not going on to college, not engaged in school.
But I found, having moved into the role of activities director, dean, and then vice principal of this school, that I really did not have the ability to connect with them. As hard as I worked and as much as I cared, my ability to be seen as legitimate in their eyes was hampered by the fact that I was white, I wasn't an immigrant, and that while I did grow up in poverty, it was not in abject poverty, but as a part of the working poor, they didn't perceive me as having a shared experience. I could not change of those things. The only thing I could change was the fact that I didn't speak their home language. So I decided to take a year off and learn Spanish. I sold everything that I owned, which wasn't much at the time and I moved to Lima, Peru and did volunteer work and took Spanish classes.
That really changed my life in a lot of ways and my perspective, and I came back even more emboldened to make a difference. I got a job again as a vice principal, but this time at the middle-school level in a different district with different needs, and was promoted to Principal, then Assistant Superintendent and now Superintendent - the rest, so to speak, is history.
My focus is on closing achievement gap. So the two areas of focus have been how we use data, and the structure of our schools. We want to ensure that teachers aren't just teaching, but that students are learning.
If I'm to needle the system a little bit, I would ask the question, "Is it really teaching if students aren't learning?"
And that's not to say that teachers aren't working hard, but if students aren't learning, are we really accomplishing anything? In terms of approach, I’ve found design thinking and innovation principles to be very impactful. They gave me a framework to do the work that I was already doing. Design thinking articulated a process and mindsets that allowed innovative change to materialize efficiently, quickly, and in ways that had lasting impact.
So I've moved into a superintendent role, and I hope to change the world.
Here we go!
Yeah, here we go.
Did you know that in Russian the word for teaching and learning is one word? And so all the Vygotskian theory, they translate it as “teaching” and “learning”, but when he was talking about teaching, it meant also the learning — or talking about learning was also the teaching, which I think is really interesting.
Oh, that's very cool. I did not know that.
Okay, so take a moment to think about a kid that you care about. When you're ready, just tell me about that child - what their personality is like, who they are...
So I’m going to choose two kids - my own son and the daughter of our close friend, who also takes care of our kids a lot. My wife and I, are very close with a couple who are immigrants, a Spanish-speaking family, and we had kids at the same time. Their daughter and our son are two weeks apart. Their family had a huge impact in our kids growing up, their mom in particular. She did a lot of childcare for us, and she did so in Spanish because we’re raising our kids bilingual and bi-cultural. We also helped out a lot with their daughter and she was at our house a lot. Our kids grew up sleeping in the same crib, playing together, and going to each other's birthday parties.
But we live in two different communities and, because of that, they go to different schools. It's not as though her school is bad, and it's not as though our school is like perfect, but what's shocking to me is, having had such similar experiences growing up and living ten miles from each other, really, the results of how much they learn, how quickly they learn, and the resources that are available to them are so dramatic. It is a reminder for me that, first of all, the early learning experience is critical. I know that she's so far ahead not of the other white kids in her class, but so far ahead of the other brown kids in her class. But she's also so far behind the white kids in her class. It's a function of finance, of parent education level — her mother, I believe, finished two years of secondary school, and her father finished just up until eighth grade. Whereas my wife and I both have graduate degrees. So they make very little money. They don't have a high academic vocabulary at home. They try to read to their daughter at home, but to the degree that, in comparison to what the experience of my own son, it's just different. Unpacking that in the education system and then teaching and supporting to make up for that gap takes a lot of very focused, significant, intentional work.
Tell me the two kids' names and just like three quick things to describe each of them as their personalities.
So Zach*, our son, is precocious, loves to learn, and feels very confident. Isabel* is equally as precocious, but not nearly as confident in her learning ability. Outside of learning, she's a very confident girl, but when it comes to school and learning, she's not nearly as confident. (*Names are pseudonyms.)
When you think about them grown up, when they're like in their 30s, out of school, starting their life as adults, what do you hope for them then? Would it be the same or different things? What would make it a good or successful life?
Well, what I hope for Isabel is that she has the same opportunities that my son does when they graduate — not that she chooses the same thing necessarily.
I want Isabel to be able to choose whatever makes her heart sing.
I don't want her to have limited choices as compared to my son simply because of the disadvantages that she had no control over. And then on the flipside I hope that my son graduates with an appreciation of all the choices that he has.
In some ways I think that if given the right mindsets throughout her educational experience, her home life is actually an advantage to her, and Zach's upbringing, my own son's, is to some degree a disadvantage. And so,
I would love to be able to teach Zach the lessons that she's learned, without him necessarily having to live through the challenges that she has no control over.
I was a latchkey kid. I was a first-generation college graduate from my immediate family, and having grown up to a single mom and in the working poor, Because of how I grew up, I was able to appreciate what I had and achieve beyond my family's dreams and expectations, and to some degree, beyond my own dreams as a child. I didn't even know enough to dream what I dreamed later on.
Four college degrees later, all paid for by me, I am grateful for what I learned by not being given every opportunity in the world, and I worry that my son will not learn those lessons. I’m trying to figure out as a parent, "How do I teach them? How do I teach those lessons to my children without necessarily having them go through the hardship that I went through?" Even though I was protected from many things - I'm not singing a song of sorrow. But my son is growing up around a highly educated, high-achieving, high-income community. I'm very aware and very sensitive to what my role is as a parent as he continues to get older.
In your ideal world — and this doesn't have to be totally related to reality now — what would the role of school be in helping Zach and Isabel achieve the good life that you'd like them to have later on?
So for Isabel, I really want her schools and her teachers to be focused on this idea of, “if she's not learning, then I'm not teaching”. She was in a different school that was almost completely Hispanic and had really large class sizes for her kindergarten year. She's now in a new school, a public school that I think has smaller class sizes, and it's more diverse in the sense that it's not just largely Hispanic. I'm more confident they have the resources to give her what she needs, but I put the responsibility on the schools to make up for what she doesn't get by traveling, and what she doesn't get by academic language at home, and what she doesn't get by her parents not having the time or energy to read to her, or not feeling the ability to help her in her math and English when it gets to that point. I put the responsibility on the school to provide those resources. For Zach and Isabel, I also put the hope, the desire on the school — maybe not the responsibility, but the hope and desire - to empower them to be resilient, to not always give them the answer, to not hold their hand.
I want them to not only experience failure, but to embrace failure, to not run away from failure, and to feel what it feels like to overcome that.
I don't want schools to solve all their problems for them. I want them to give them challenging personal experiences and learning experiences and then let them struggle and process what it felt like to struggle, and sort of engage in that metacognition of, "How did you get from challenge, through the difficulty, and out of it, and what did you learn from that experience?"
So that's what I really want schools to do.
I also expect schools to not bore them to death,
and if my children, or Isabel, leave at the end of the year liking learning less than when they started, then I blame the school.
Because I believe that we're fundamentally wired to love learning.
Do you think that schools will play the role that you ideally want them to for both of the kids?
I don't know. I don't know.
In what ways do you fear no, and in what ways do you think it will?
I believe that schools and public education in general are too slow to change and, as a result, you can have an ineffective teacher in a second-grade class, and if that teacher's ineffective and the school hasn't found a way to get them to be effective, then those children in that class have lost their second-grade year - and you don't get it back. I believe Zach loses less than Isabel does in a bad year or in a bad experience with one teacher because she has so much more to lose by not gaining than Zach does.
Do you think, broadly — and I know this is a huge question. Do you think, broadly, U.S. schools are doing what you think it should for all children?
And why not? Or in what ways not, and why not? I think that's two questions.
I think because they're too slow to change.
I think that the profession of teaching and the role of education in our society, particularly around the politics of it, has diminished over time. And I also believe that it started with a lack of respect for what the role of education is.
We know that when the founders of public education got together to expand it so all children could attend, they were all white men, and they tried to figure out how we were going to create a system that served the economic and civic interests of the society. They purposefully decided that they were going to focus on women as teachers, who at the time were much less educated and not as respected in a professional sense; that they were going to pay low salaries; and that they were not necessarily going to require a high level of education in order to accomplish this dream of a public education system that served the economy and the civic life of our society.
As a result, we're still living with the trickle down of those decisions, right? Teachers are treated as labor and unfortunately often behave as labor, as opposed to a professional force. Teachers are paid poorly in most communities and while people who are current parents feel that they have a responsibility and that our tax dollars should be spent for quality education, our entire society — including the childless single people, or couples, or folks who no longer have children at an age that they would be in school — by and large do not see their responsibility, and the benefits to the community, of funding schools at a level that we could actually treat teachers as professionals.
The rules that have been created as a result of this system stifle innovation and we within education perpetuate it because we have a hard time seeing an alternate reality.
We spend a lot of time, and a lot of energy, and a lot of money fiddling around the edges and never really getting at the heart and soul of why and how education could be and look different than it does now.
Broadly speaking, I think those are the reasons why schools are not going to do what I would hope they would do for kids like Isabel. Where schools don't do it for kids like Zach, their parents, who are like me, will ensure that they get those experiences, that knowledge, those kills, and those mindsets outside of school.
Do you think people agree with you on what the role of school should be?
I would say the fact that Donald Trump is our president, and he nominated Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education are example number one that people don't agree with me, right?
Having said that, I actually do think that Betsy DeVos is onto something when she talks about the need for parents to have more choice. The problem is that people of means are choosing to go outside of public education and now public education really isn't for kids whose parents are in positions of power and authority, which, by and large is determined by money.
And so let's be clear: Betsy DeVos, who is a billionaire, not only did not attend public schools herself but did not send her kids to public schools. So she doesn't see public schools as a function of serving the greater good of the community, right? She sees it as a function of serving the market, and parents being the customer.
Now, I also see that to some degree, but I believe that by allowing the system to be creative, and allowing the system to meet the needs to members that make up that community, will then ensure a quality education not just for Betsy DeVos's kids, but also for our kids of color, our kids who come from low-income homes, and our kids whose native language is something other than English.
It’s not just that it’s a government system. Look at the medical field that government has a huge role in and it innovates much more quickly than the field of education. You look at transportation. Transportation evolves much more quickly than the field of education, and arguably it has a ton of reliance upon government. But you look at education, and it just doesn't innovate at the speed that it needs to to serve kids now, and it has a very short memory. Education has a very short memory.
That part is true.
So we don't tend to learn from our mistakes. We need to spend some time as a nation talking about why we send our children to school. Maybe the election of Donald Trump and the appointment of somebody like Betsy DeVos will be the catalyst for having the conversation of, "What do we believe is the role of public education today?"
We need to have that conversation as a nation. We need to re-examine what we expect public schools to do, and whose responsibility it is to pay for it, and what role parents serve in it, and what role students serve in it, and how we're going to evolve the professions related to education, such that we get better results, and people don't have a problem sending their tax dollars to make schools great again.
Can I just hashtag REENVISIONED right there? Yes? :)
How does the work you do as Superintendent align with your idea of the purpose of school?
There are a lot of really good ideas, really good programs, and really good systems that we are creating in our district. But those are not the solution. The solution is what got us those, and that is being a place where innovation can occur, right? You can come and see what we're doing, and I can try to package it and sell it to you, but that isn't what changes things. What changes things is giving you the visitor or you the practitioner in some other place the flexibility, the freedom, and the mindset, the expectation, and the resources to innovate. Good ideas are going to be exchanged all over, and it's not the program you pick. It's not even the teacher you hire. It's about putting a culture in place where innovation can occur, and then empowering, hiring, and training people to be innovative. Because innovation is about solving problems, and we've got more than our fair share of problems in education.
We have to give the people who are in education the opportunity to innovate to solve those problems, and to use data to ensure that they're solving them well.
And by data I also mean empathy – the qualitative and quantitative data - and engaging in the continuous cycles of improvement. That's the answer, not the program, not the material, not the book, not the whatever.
It's the culture, and when you create a culture where innovation can occur, innovators happen.
Problems get solved when they have the right data to ensure that they're on the right track.
I love it. Thank you.
10,000 Stories. One Shared Vision.
REENVISIONED is a national movement to redefine the purpose of school. We believe schools should foster flourishing individuals and a thriving democratic society. But what does it mean to thrive or flourish?
To answer this, we're building the world's largest collection of stories about what it means to live good lives and the role schools should play in helping create them: 10,000 stories from people across the country. We'll use the stories to learn about our shared values and dreams and to create a new vision for why we send our children to school.
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