Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Former New Mexico Schools Chief Hanna Skandera on Coronavirus

By Rick Hess — May 07, 2020 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we’ll be looking to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Hanna Skandera, the current editor-in-chief of The Line magazine, previously served for seven years as New Mexico’s secretary of education. Hanna has also served as undersecretary of education in California, deputy education commissioner of Florida, and deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education. I reached out to get her take on what the coronavirus is likely to mean for education going forward. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick: As a former state chief, what would you encourage folks in state leadership to be focused on when it comes to education right now?

Hanna: There are three things I would focus on as a state leader: First, state leadership should develop continuity of learning plans for all districts to ensure seamless transitions for unforeseen situations—like the one we’re currently experiencing. These plans are helpful not only in the immediate moment, but they also set the foundation for what education could look like in the future. Second, we must have robust and comprehensive back-to-school plans for when we are able to return to brick-and-mortar learning environments and have the ability to toggle back and forth seamlessly. And third, while it is critical to ensure all students are receiving quality instruction right now, this is an opportunity to seek system changes where appropriate, while not sidestepping the existing ones. Each state chief should identify one “big bet” to prioritize and leverage innovatively, potentially using the key levers of time, talent, technology, or funding. With creative solutions, we may find alternatives to our existing approaches that will propel us to provide more effective experiences for students in the future.

Rick: What are the challenges with distance learning and getting back to school? How are you thinking about the state and local roles in getting up and running?

Hanna: Much of the onus on implementation will be on local districts. State leaders’ role will be providing much-needed guidance and flexibility on policy when appropriate and incentivizing the activities we believe will result in the best outcomes for students. Leaders should grapple with the question of how we best embed high expectations for all students while giving flexibility to local leaders to accommodate local dynamics.

Rick: What should people understand about how the next couple of months are going to unfold?

Hanna: As a former state chief, I recognize that we are quite literally in a fluid situation and lacking much of the information we wish we had to inform our decisionmaking. As such, we must recognize the evolving nature and the strain it puts on issuing guidance that will likely need to adjust. One challenge is that the future is not simply a back to school. Rather, I anticipate that we will need to toggle between brick-and-mortar instruction and distance learning while maintaining a high-quality experience for students. In order to do this successfully, there is an increased importance on the community working together. Parents play a vital role as supporting educators in the home, and our community collaboration is critical to provide a robust response to meet all student needs. For example, churches or other community organizations could start providing the additional food service schools have been taking on so that schools can refocus on what they uniquely are positioned to provide: education.

Rick: What do states need to do right now? And what should they definitely not do?

Hanna: As I mentioned earlier, state leadership should focus on three things: a continuity-of-learning plan, a back-to-school plan, and the prioritization of a “big bet” to positively impact student outcomes. In order to do these three things well, one of the first actions states must take is to conduct a comprehensive needs assessment that determines what they have now—for example, access to connectivity and devices—and identifies existing gaps. Over the next few months, and maybe even years, we will need to revisit these needs assessments to evaluate how we have closed those gaps and succeeded against our priorities. Further, states should revisit their overall communications strategy to ensure families and students receive necessary information as our situation evolves and mitigate the spread of misinformation.

Rick: Are there any state-level challenges that people don’t seem to be focused on enough?

Hanna: My thoughts are twofold: First, there are a series of policy challenges ahead of us that we have yet to discuss at length. For example, while people are rethinking school calendars and schedules, we need to redefine the value of time and how we capture it at the state-policy level. What constitutes attendance and completion? How does that relate to the funding of schools, accountability, and compliance? Second, I believe we have a significant challenge ahead of us when it comes to student transitions. States and districts must have a plan for ensuring all students matriculate in the fall and robust dropout-prevention and -recovery plans.

Rick: As folks wrestle with budget shortfalls and complications, do you have any thoughts on addressing this?

Hanna: There are definitely budget shortfalls on the horizon, and one of the most challenging complications is the level of uncertainty. While we may not know exactly what the budget shortfalls will look like, states and districts can use this time to identify clear priorities, eliminate what is not positively impacting student outcomes, and incentivize what’s most important. This will enable states to make swift decisions when necessary.

Rick: What places have most impressed you with how they’ve responded to the coronavirus challenge in education?

Hanna: I’ve been particularly impressed by how the Denver School of Science and Technology has innovatively adjusted in this new environment. They have utilized their talent to maximize the efficacy of their remote learning plans—instead of simply putting their existing class structures online, they have identified the strongest teachers in each grade level to lead instruction for all students on new material and additional teachers to support students individually. They searched far and wide to ensure they have been in touch with all families and that each student has the resources to successfully participate in distance learning (including sending laptops to Mexico to make it happen!). They conduct a wellness assessment for students and families each week, and their efforts have resulted in a 98 percent attendance rate throughout the pandemic. While this is all exciting to hear, they are also asking themselves the critical questions about how to adjust long-term methods to serve students best in our new situation.

Rick: Amid all this uncertainty, leaders clearly need to appreciate all that schools have been asked to do. At the same time, clear-eyed leadership is needed more than ever. How should state leaders think about assessing the performance of their schools and systems?

Hanna: You are right that leaders must appreciate all that schools have been asked to do—this is a new set of considerations for everyone. Parents, perhaps more than ever, need to engage in their student’s educational experience and be informed about how their student is performing. This is critical to enabling a parent to make an informed choice for their student. We must also recognize that we will continue to have struggling schools and we increasingly need options that are targeted to meet students’ unique needs. To that end, it is not a time to pause entirely on assessment and accountability. The current situation may force our hand to adjust our measures of evaluation, and, personally, I think it is beyond time that we push our thinking to include new ideas.

Rick: What else should Washington and the Department of Education be doing that they’re not already?

Hanna: I appreciate that the focus to date has been on flexibility where appropriate and identifying resources to support the ongoing challenges of our states and districts. If we are to leverage this situation as an opportunity, the desire for innovation and creativity to solve our challenges can stem from Washington, especially as we enter an environment where schools must be able to seamlessly toggle between brick-and-mortar and distance learning for the foreseeable future. Washington and the Department of Education should prioritize three things: First, provide the flexibility that states and districts need, while still acknowledging that every child can learn, and holding states accountable for how they spend their dollars and maintain high expectations for all students. Second, minimize bureaucracy and actively reduce red tape to ensure efficiency during this challenging time. And third, incentivize innovation to propel states and districts to leverage broader impacts in the future.

Rick: OK, last question. Ending on an upbeat note, what has impressed you most about how you’ve seen America’s educators and families respond to COVID-19?

Hanna: Suddenly, our communities are on the front lines, and everyone is needed to serve our students well. Undeniably, our educators—at all levels—have been resilient, including our families who are now educating students as well! I’ve seen new partnerships emerge, and people step up to support our students in ways we never anticipated. While it is challenging, as a nation, our communities are rising up and coming together to make the best of the situation. It is encouraging to witness and gives me hope of what is yet to come when we work together.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.