Charlottesville Summit, 30 Years Later: Tony Evers on the Governors’ Gathering That Changed Education, the Good & Bad of Testing and What Equity Really Means
In honor of the 1989 Education Summit that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, involving 49 out of 50 governors who gathered to discuss the education of American children, the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program has partnered with to produce a series of Q&A interviews with influential leaders in politics, education, and advocacy. These interviews aim to reflect on the impact of the summit and the future of public education. The interviews were conducted over the phone, transcribed, and edited for clarity and length. While some questions were asked to all participants, they were also specifically queried about their careers and backgrounds. The leaders offer their insights on why the summit was a significant event, the strengths and weaknesses of education policy, and what it takes to drive further progress for students. All the interviews can be found here.
Tony Evers, the 46th governor of Wisconsin and a career educator, was elected in 2018. He was the first state superintendent in the United States to become a state’s chief executive. Having lived in Wisconsin his entire life, Evers has served as a teacher, principal, district superintendent, deputy state superintendent, and president of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
In this interview, Evers highlights the importance of education leaders addressing the factors that affect student learning outside of school, such as poverty, affordable housing, healthcare, and mass transit. He also discusses the role of the federal government and expresses his optimism for the future of American public education due to the growing consensus on social and emotional learning.
When reflecting on your career and your leadership in education in Wisconsin, what do you consider the greatest accomplishments that resulted from the 1989 Education Summit and the standards-based reforms that followed?
At that time, I was working as a school superintendent, and I vividly remember how extraordinary the summit was. In our federal constitution, public education is essentially absent as a state responsibility. Thus, bringing 49 out of the 50 governors together for this purpose was a significant event. It allowed states to come together and discuss not only the expectations for our schools but also for our children. The summit included discussions on early childhood education, a topic that hadn’t received much attention at the national level before.
Bringing people together and establishing consistent expectations for states and children was an excellent starting point. It was a response to the challenges highlighted in "A Nation at Risk," and it gave governors and other leaders across the country an opportunity to envision what public education should look like. Collaboration among people and states on these issues is crucial. Given that children move from state to state or district to district, having some level of consistency is essential.
In terms of practical implications, have there been any positive outcomes resulting from the standards-based policy agenda in Wisconsin?
Absolutely. Whether you’re in Milwaukee or Cadott, Wisconsin, whether it’s a large or small school district, children should face the same expectations and high standards based on their developmental abilities at different grade and age levels. This makes sense, and it is what parents and children expect. Having 49 out of the 50 states working together on these issues was a significant achievement. Of course, there are areas where we could have made different decisions, but ultimately, establishing consistent expectations was a huge step forward.
Recognizing that these consistent expectations across communities have laid the groundwork for improvement, what are the most important lessons you have learned from the past 30 years of standards-based education reform? Are there any unintended consequences that need addressing?
I believe one positive outcome regarding assessments is that we have improved our ability to measure student progress, and tests have become more meaningful as a result. This has also driven advancements in testing technology. However, the downside is that as we became more accurate in measuring, we quickly shifted to high-stakes testing. This approach did not serve us well because we started to assume that these tests provided more information than they actually did. Consequently, we made decisions about labeling students and schools based on a somewhat fragile connection. That was an area where we fell short.
Additionally, the issue of resources has always been a challenge. Some areas in our state already had limited resources, and when we added more responsibilities to local systems, they struggled financially and in other capacities to handle the load. While federal contributions to schools are important, they are not the main resource. There were things we could have done differently to address these issues and provide better support.
When considering the future of education and political leadership, the question arises: what must be done to attain both educational excellence and fairness in the next 30 years?
First and foremost, we must comprehend the true meaning of fairness. It is not synonymous with equality. In the realm of education, equity simply means that if a child requires extra support due to circumstances in their life, they should receive it, regardless of the additional cost involved. This understanding is starting to take root. Furthermore, we are beginning to recognize the detrimental impact of poverty and other factors, such as race, on young children. We now have a better understanding of the social-emotional needs of children than ever before. While I believe that educators and education systems can do more and improve, as a governor, I must emphasize that factors like housing, healthcare, and transportation also play a significant role in a child’s education. We must connect the dots and acknowledge how various issues, including criminal justice reform, directly affect children.
This includes ensuring that our teachers are culturally sensitive in their approach to teaching. We must also provide high-quality resources that proactively address issues of culture and race. All of these aspects must be in place in the educational system, including the necessary resources. However, if we neglect to address the aforementioned issues, which have traditionally been seen as separate from children’s learning, we will not succeed.
We have a strong tradition of local leadership in education. How do we define the role of state leadership and state policies in improving educational outcomes? What unique opportunities does the state have to make a difference?
The role of state leadership is paramount. That is one of the reasons why I ran for state superintendent and governor. The state plays a significant part in improving educational outcomes. While it is crucial to collaborate with local education agencies, we must also stay attuned to what is happening in classrooms where teachers are guiding 20 to 30 students.
However, unless we provide leadership at the state level, I do not believe we can create a future where all children receive a high-quality education. Some aspects of education transcend local leadership.
For instance, affordable housing relies on the federal government being actively involved. Ensuring good health outcomes for all people in our state, particularly children, also has a federal impact. The same goes for issues like mass transit and criminal justice reform – these areas likely have a greater reliance on federal support than education does.
As state leaders, whether we are state superintendents, governors, or legislators, we must understand the importance of connecting the dots. This means ensuring affordable housing so that children are not constantly uprooted and changing schools multiple times a year with their families. If we fail to recognize the impact of violence on certain communities or how extreme poverty hinders learning, we will not succeed either.
What gives you the most hope in this work?
The good news is that there are nonpartisan issues that profoundly affect the lives of children and contribute to their success. Throughout my campaign and beyond, I have had the privilege of speaking with teachers from all over the state, and their dedication to ensuring that all children receive a high-quality education is truly inspiring. I also see a growing understanding of what it truly means to connect the dots and how this directly impacts children.
The focus on social and emotional learning has revolutionized the discussion about preparing children for school, and this shift has had positive effects. We now recognize that early childhood education is essential in preparing children for school. We have learned so much more, and it is not solely about what should be taught at each grade level.
For example, although the implementation of Common Core was intended to give teachers more creativity and ownership in the classroom, it did not quite achieve that goal. However, for the most part, I believe it was a step in the right direction. The next step involves understanding how social and emotional learning affects young children and even adults.
By prioritizing education in this way, we can work towards a future where every child receives an excellent education centered on equity and fairness.
Ross Wiener serves as the vice president and executive director of the Education and Society Program at the Aspen Institute.
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