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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Who Is Judy Seltz...And What Will She Do With ASCD?

By Peter DeWitt — August 07, 2014 10 min read
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Education is too often what happens to us, in a prescribed space and at a prescribed time. We’ve all heard that kids leave the 21st century behind when they enter a school building and unplug from their personal technology for six hours.” Judy Seltz

New leaders will tell you that they get nervous about the job. It doesn’t matter whether the leader is moving from one school to another, from the classroom to the principal’s office, or into a superintendent’s role; there is a time when insecurities can take over and make even the most prepared leader question whether they are ready for the job.

Now imagine that the leader is taking over an organization that represents 100’s of thousands of members who live in over 140 countries across several different continents? How do new leaders continue to create a community of learners during a time when education seems to be so fractured? Not only are we surrounded by anti-reform movements, reform movements and everyone in between, we see states adopting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), some states kicking the Common Core to the curb, and others who never wanted to touch the CCSS.

Trying to wade her way through this is the new leader of ASCD. Executive Director Judy Seltz just took over the position from Gene Carter, who recently retired. The following is an interview I had with her.

PD: How did you first get into education?

JS: I am genetically hardwired for education. My grandparents met in New York City as a principal and a teacher. My mother ran a national organization that promoted service learning programs throughout the United States and was on the school board in the town I grew up in. Following in her footsteps, my brother was also on the school board in Vermont, and it doesn’t end there: Of my three kids and their spouses, three are college professors, one is a high school teacher, and one leads a nonprofit for the arts.

As for me, I started my career in education as a kindergarten and 1st grade teacher, served eight years on my local school board in Alexandria, Virginia, and then went to law school and edited two legal publications on special education law. After that, I wound up at ASCD.

I believe to my core that education--that is, access to quality learning--is the only way we can be a true democracy and the only way that nations will thrive both individually and in a global community. Education is the best route out of poverty; it is how children learn how to be part of a civil society. I believe that education opens doors to words, to language, to reading, to music, to drama, to science, and to exploration. That makes teachers the heroes and heroines of our society. Everything we do that helps teachers be more effective with their students helps ensure our collective future.

PD: What role has ASCD been able to play in the field of education?

JS: ASCD has been fortunate enough to have a role in education for more than 70 years, and, during my time here I have been thrilled to see how we’ve developed. Our membership is spread across nearly 140 countries, and we have truly built a strong global community with dedicated advocates striving for excellence in all areas of learning, teaching, and leading.

Through our conferences, online courses, books, newsletters, and Educational Leadership magazine--as well as ASCD Faculty helping districts with professional development and curriculum implementation and our policy team working to influence the way lawmakers set the path for our nation’s future--we have the opportunity to touch so many areas of education and consider it our mission to ensure the success of each child.

PD: How do you see that role changing?

JS: I think we change by remaining flexible, by never losing touch with educators’ evolving needs, and by proactively developing innovative solutions. For example, our books unit launched the short format ASCD Arias series in 2013--which now has 20 titles. The series is built on the question “What keeps you up at night?” We know educators today have more demands for their time than they can count, so these books were designed to be read in one or two sittings and provide immediately implementable strategies to address their most urgent questions and concerns.

Beyond that example, I think we’ll continue to evolve by increasing access to our programs, products, and services. That includes the number of online and on-demand professional development resources we offer, our regional Professional Development Institutes that travel to where the educators are, and our ASCD Professional Learning Services team that travels across the globe to bring top-notch professional development to educators. This also includes our communications team, which enables educators everywhere to connect with ASCD through its industry-leading social media efforts. You can connect with us anytime, across the globe, by following @ASCD on Twitter and also through our Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram accounts.

Most important, I think we will continue to evolve as a connector--a connector of people with people and a connector of people with resources. Information now flows in so many directions that we are constantly growing as a web of communities learning from and with each other.

PD: Edcamps are a new form of free professional development created by educators for educators that are being organized around the country, which means that educators are hungry for something different. How will ASCD evolve with this new form of professional development?

JS: That’s a great question, Peter, and I think that Edcamps demonstrate an increased sense of collaboration in professional learning and a willingness on the part of educators to take charge of new opportunities. ASCD is well known for our Annual Conference and Exhibit Show and the various other conferences and institutes we host throughout the year, but beyond those events we’ve made an effort to provide professional learning opportunities that take into consideration the new realities in education: connected educators, accessibility of information, and tighter budgets for both finances and time.

One successful new program is our #ASCDL2L Twitter chats that we hold on the first Tuesday of each month. These chats are moderated by one of our ASCD Emerging Leaders and feature an ASCD author--for example, Grant Wiggins, Carol Ann Tomlinson, and Mark Barnes have participated in recent editions--who provides expertise to answer the important questions educators have. With these chats, we have effectively engaged a nationwide educator audience online and enabled educators at all levels to share thoughts on leadership and instructional topics, connect with ASCD experts, and learn from the larger community.

We also have a robust selection of online PD offerings that individual educators can participate in, including our free webinar series and PD Online courses. Each webinar is archived after the live version and the PD Online courses can be accessed at any time and from anywhere. Both the webinars and the courses enable self-paced learning that any educator can take control of, and topics include technology, ELL instruction, Common Core, literacy, STEM, and so many others that today’s educators are grappling with.

We’ve also incorporated the “unconference” concept into our meetings, so attendees can create their own learning environment and take advantage of the opportunity to learn about a topic of their choosing.

PD: Professional Development in many districts has changed from sharing good practices to compliance because of district-wide initiatives. What is the proper role of professional development for teachers?

JS: The best professional learning is research-based, customized, and job-embedded. When educators are introduced to professional learning plans that feature these three factors, they’re more effective. When educators are more effective, student achievement increases. Our end goal is always student success.

Research supports an environment of differentiated professional learning, risk taking, and collaborative relationships. Since no two districts, schools, or educators are the same, learning plans must be customized to suit individual needs and goals. When ASCD consults with a district through ASCD Professional Learning Services, the first questions we ask are what the district needs and what we can do for them. The only right way is what’s right for them.

The job-embedded aspect is perhaps most important--and probably most overlooked. While an inservice day, a workshop, or an online course will inevitably inspire a few good ideas and start some conversations between educators, real change comes from sustained professional development that’s part of an educator’s daily routine and led by their peers. When professional learning feels like something extra that’s tacked on to meet a compliance standard, nobody benefits.

PD: The Whole Child Initiative is nearly 10 years old now - what are the new developments? Are there any updates or recent accomplishments?

JS: We have lots of good news to report on the whole child front. One recent project is our Whole Child State Snapshots, which measure how well all 50 states are supporting the five whole child tenets--that children must be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged--and provide action steps for educators, parents, and community members.

Our team also worked with the CDC to develop the new Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model for coordinated school health, which strengthens a unified and collaborative approach to learning and health and incorporates key social and emotional recommendations.

The Whole Child Resolution, cosponsored by Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Rodney Davis (R-IL), was recently introduced in the House of Representatives. Our policy team helped draft the resolution language, and we’re excited about this important step toward developing policies that effectively promote each student’s long-term learning, development, and success. To see what this looks like in practice, I encourage educators to review the example set by Tacoma (Wash.) Public Schools, where deputy superintendent (and ASCD board member) Joshua Garcia has led the creation of multimetric accountability systems that are aligned with four goals: academic excellence and the elimination of disparities among student groups; partnerships that engage parents, community, and staff; early academic success; and safe learning environments.

PD: There is a lot of debate around the Common Core. How does ASCD find a balance between working with states that have embraced it and those who are throwing it out?

JS: First and foremost, our focus is on enabling educators to do the best job they can so their students are successful, no matter what standards are in place. If a state has adopted the Common Core standards, we will do everything we can to get those educators prepared and help those schools and districts with implementation. Between the professional learning fieldwork the ASCD Professional Learning Services Faculty has conducted with districts nationwide, our Virtual Learning Network webinars on the Common Core, Annual Conference sessions, books, newsletters, and more, we’ve developed many ways to see districts through this transitional period.

And everything I’ve just said about Common Core states applies in exactly the same way to states that haven’t adopted the standards and those that have made the decision to turn away from the CCSS. We also work in states such as Texas and Nebraska, which do not use the Common Core State Standards. Our whole child team, ASCD Faculty, authors, and experts provide the full spectrum of backgrounds and perspectives on Common Core and every other issue in education. Regardless of the standards or accountability measures a particular district is using, our focus in on building educator effectiveness, increasing local capacity, and helping each school become a successful learning environment.

PD: Where do you see education in 10 years?

JS: I’d differentiate learning and education. Learning happens everywhere, all the time, planned and unplanned. All children are innate learners--they are explorers first of their physical world, and later, of the world of language and ideas. And we continue to learn through adulthood, not because we are required to, but because most of us are curious and inquisitive.

Education is too often what happens to us, in a prescribed space and at a prescribed time. We’ve all heard that kids leave the 21st century behind when they enter a school building and unplug from their personal technology for six hours. I would like to think that in 10 years, education and learning have merged--that the line between the two is blurred.

Technology will be the environment for learning; people will no longer regard it as a separate “tool.” Schools, and the communities they serve, will be aligned in their goals for their young people, and will work together to ensure the best outcomes for all kids.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.