50 Years Leading Systemic Change: A Conversation with Peter McWalters

Q&A   24 June 2020
By Peter McWalters, Big Picture Learning

 

We can’t have a system give us 15 minutes of fame and expect overnight transformation. When this happens, as it does over and over again, people claim “we tried it, and it didn’t work”—when the truth is, you never tried it at all.

Peter McWalters
Board Chair, Big Picture Learning

Peter McWalters is currently the Chair of the Big Picture Learning Board, a former trustee of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment (NCIEA), former president of the Council of the Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and a consultant to Education Reimagined. 

With over 50 years of experience within the education system, Peter has served in the roles of ESL teacher, social studies teacher, alternative middle school advisor and team leader, magnet school program planner, strategic planner, budget director, labor/management collaborator, and superintendent, as well as Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education for the state of Rhode Island (1992-2009). As Peter likes to say when introducing himself to learner-centered leaders, he is “the system.”

Having served in all of these roles, Peter’s expertise in education is extensive, drawing from significant contributions to school finance system reform; designing and implementing legislatively-motivated accountability systems; the improvement of education for students with disabilities; establishing grade-level content standards; leading the transition to individual professional improvement plans; and early childhood education advocacy.

Peter holds a degree in history and philosophy from Boston College; a master’s degree of public administration and certificate of advanced studies in education administration from the State University of New York, Brockport; and he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines.

Education Reimagined had the privilege of speaking with Peter for an extensive systems-level conversation about the challenges and opportunities for learner-centered transformation across the country.


Q: What was your entry point to becoming an educator?

Peter: Ironically, I was not trained as an educator. I came in from the side. I obtained a history and philosophy degree from Boston College. I was a Vietnam War resistor. I served in the Peace Corps after college. But, when I came back to the United States after my service, the nation was still facing a shortage of teachers. 

Rochester, NY—a city that had gone through the race riots of the mid-60’s and was struggling through a substantial demographic and socio-cultural change—was actively recruiting minority candidates and alternative route candidates like myself who were provisionally certified. I knew I was in an archaic, struggling system; however, despite this, there was a great deal of energy and a sense of possibility.

I can’t tell you how important that was. If I had been somewhere that was resisting change and trying to recreate yesterday in response to the Civil Rights Movement, I may have experienced a less radical career path.

Luckily, I was surrounded by equally committed, engaged, more informed, and competent colleagues who were ready to challenge the system in order to serve their kids well. So, I felt like I started off in a system that was going to transform rapidly.

Q: How did you look to bring about change during your time in Rochester?

Peter: The history of Rochester School District’s efforts to create change is a long one. And, the story of my involvement in those efforts is just as long. I started in 1970 and by ‘71, I was in an experimental Junior High leading an advisory. I was responsible for the students in my advisory’s program of study, fostering parent participation, tracking outcomes across elective mini-courses, and program completion (promotion).

By 1980, the Board had recruited Rochester’s first African American Superintendent, Laval Wilson, who promoted me to Supervising Director of Resource Allocation and Strategic Planning, and from whom I learned much about administration, community engagement, and leadership.

But, it was in 1987 when Adam Urbanski (President of the Rochester Teachers Association and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers at the time) and myself (now Superintendent of Rochester School District) signed a three-year contract that opened up the opportunity to reposition the whole education conversation to be a shared responsibility between practitioners, parents, and the system.

 

The good news was that there were many hundreds, if not thousands, of Rhode Islanders who knew better…They were ready for change.

Peter McWalters
Board Chair, Big Picture Learning

For practitioners, we introduced mentor and lead teachers, peer review personnel evaluation protocols, additional shared planning time, embedded professional development, and site-level shared governance that included parents. 

The contract basically offered more practitioner access to program design, collegial support, and shared responsibility in exchange for accepting and owning the responsibility of being an advisor, knowing the kids, and individually and collectively supporting each child to the point of program completion. To put it simply, practitioners owed each child the outcome of graduating and developing within them the capacity for future success.

That contract received national attention. But, robust capacity building takes more than three years to develop. In the contract negotiated after I left Rochester in 1991, many of the capacity building pieces we put in place—like time for collaboration, peer support and professional development, a culture of taking ownership in knowing and supporting each and every child, and a sense of shared responsibility and reciprocal accountability—quickly eroded in the name of budget cuts. 

The district needed to use that time to reflect as a community and continue to improve, but (like what happens to too many other good-faith attempts at substantial transformation) leadership turnover, declining city budget capacity, and what I would now call institutional racism, as well as exacerbating socio-economic urban isolation, shifted their focus to new strategies and ideas.

Q: What was some of the early resistance to change you faced and what resistance persists today?

Peter: When I left Rochester and went to Providence, RI, as the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, I received two very different messages: the inner city systems needed to be dealt with but, on the whole, the system was doing fine. 

The good news was that there were many hundreds, if not thousands, of Rhode Islanders who knew better—from teachers, parents, urban and suburban residents, people of color, and people of privilege to business leaders, community activists, and legislators. They were ready for change.

I spent my first two years listening, connecting, and building a multidimensional coalition of Rhode Island’s own who were leading and moving before I got there. I simply gave this nascent coalition voice. The need, demand, and vision were already there.

Significantly, individual State Board of Education members, State Legislative Committee Chairs, stakeholder planning and design Commissions, and many district-level practitioner change agents supported, carried, and shared the work and call to action. The serve “all kids” agenda was now public policy. 

 

What blocked us then and continues to block transformational efforts today is the inertia of the system.

Peter McWalters
Board Chair, Big Picture Learning

By 1997, five years after listening and coalition building, we landed a state Reform Bill that set in motion much of what the next dozen years of reform looked like in many good-faith state efforts. 

But, like many states’ efforts, we had only seen incremental changes that have not moved the needle much. Particularly for underserved populations of color, those with socio-economic disadvantage, and those experiencing concentrated segregation, this work was not transformative. We maintained normative cultural values, zero-sum opportunity, institutional racism, personal and cultural biases, and socio-economic power.

What blocked us then and continues to block transformational efforts today is the inertia of the system. Education Reimagined talks about this all the time, and it’s very real. The purpose of the current system is to keep doing what it was doing yesterday. That’s a universal given within any large, institutional system.

A good example of this came from a recent school visit I made where they had a good design and good leadership, but because the old system was serving some kids very well, those parents had no interest in going down a new road.

These large systems have normative biases built into them where your socioeconomic status, racial identity, and cultural background predetermine your odds for success. And, because enough powerful people—or, less powerful but privileged and/or biased people—fall on the side where the odds are in their favor, resistance to change is often greater than the will or capacity to make that change happen. 

 

When we have a system that is seen as a zero-sum game and assumes only some kids can learn, we seem to always decide the winners and losers along racial and class lines.

Peter McWalters
Board Chair, Big Picture Learning

I gave a speech in 1980 to the Rochester school board and pointedly said, “We can educate any child we choose to educate.” I used that word “choose” because once we decide that every child has the right to an education, there’s nothing that should stop us from being able to provide that. But, when we have a system that is seen as a zero-sum game and assumes only some kids can learn, we seem to always decide the winners and losers along racial and class lines.

This divide—along with the resistance within labor management relationships, power structures between principals and teachers, the segregation of communities, and the finance structures that further exacerbate this segregation—all adds up to this huge barrier. 

Each of these resisting structures is supported by the larger ecosystem—teacher preparation programs, the standards movement, education that is content (rather than context) driven, the accountability infrastructure where test scores drive funding, curriculum development, and more. Each of these structures feeds into and perpetuates the “isms” (e.g. racism, classism) the conventional system claims to fight against. 

 

There’s a capacity for leadership in education that goes beyond the conventional system. We have plenty of community leaders, including within youth development programs, who see themselves as part of the larger education ecosystem.

Peter McWalters
Board Chair, Big Picture Learning

With that as the backdrop, any of us who ever have a glimmer of hope that we’ll get something going—and do real capacity building for transformation—know it’s going to take time.

To build the capacity and work from a place of “always improving”—because nothing any of us are doing right now is great, it’s all nascent—we need the stability and transparency over a long enough time period to make a difference. And, we need critical friends, colleagues, and community members who ensure we continue improving and build greater and greater buy-in. That is the kind of sustained effort I have seldom seen happen.

What I see as the bottom line of that resistance is embedded in our nation’s most recent conversation about racial injustice. One part of that conversation is about the systemic racism that is a normative value within our systems. We often hear people support change efforts with no intention of helping make that change happen, and in many respects, actually acting against it. Real transformation will require real action from all of us.

Q: You talk about the importance of community involvement—particularly anyone who isn’t conventionally considered “inside” the education system. What matters to you about community involvement?

Peter: I’ve been talking about systems-level change a lot, and that’s because I don’t think this education conversation should ever start by talking about a school. It’s so much bigger than that. We’re being invited to start the conversation at the community level where schooling is part of the support system. It is not unilaterally governed by the educators. 

Think about the local, state, and federal money that is not in education but is meant to support children (i.e. other human and child development services). If all of this money wasn’t seen as unrelated and was instead part of a comprehensive child development protocol—making the line between school, the Boys and Girls Club, etc., invisible—imagine how we might redefine what learning looks like.

There’s a capacity for leadership in education that goes beyond the conventional system. We have plenty of community leaders, including within youth development programs, who see themselves as part of the larger education ecosystem. And, it is their voices—supported by parent wishes and demands and joined with educators who are engaged in and committed to transformational work—that will push the lever(s) that cause the larger socio-political system to respond.

The response will be activated by an increasing consumer demand that develops in light of witnessing the growing success of those very students who have historically been and currently are the least well-served. 

 

We need to be patient, listen, and collect the voices of the community. We need to do that not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because so much of what we need to change doesn’t exist yet and we haven’t had a chance to test it. 

Peter McWalters
Board Chair, Big Picture Learning

I like this idea of going to child development centers—where some of the best instructors I know are—and finding ways to connect them with the parent, church, and business communities, integrating all of these sectors into the conversation about how we support the learning and development of our kids.

We have to recognize this work is about getting a coalition of leaders that stretches beyond the education system as we know it today because if we only rely on people within the conventional system, we simply won’t build enough capacity to see this transformation sustain itself. I’m asking for current political leadership to demonstrate their trust in a community’s intentions and positing that local leaders, when listened to and supported, can enact powerful change.

Q: What gives you renewed hope and the inspiration to continue advocating and working for learner-centered transformation?

Peter: I feel like the door is more wide open than it’s ever been. It’s like listening to everybody now who all of a sudden get Black Lives Matter. It feels just like the movement for same sex marriage. It was dismissed forever and then all of a sudden, something happened and that change happened with it.

So, that’s where I’m at right now with education. But, we need to find those communities that are saying they’re ready to rethink something and quickly determine how we will support those conversations, without coming in with predetermined answers. We need to be patient, listen, and collect the voices of the community. We need to do that not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because so much of what we need to change doesn’t exist yet and we haven’t had a chance to test it. 

We’re looking for state-sanctioned degrees of freedom that allow a system to test a new set of outcomes, new ways of financing education, new ways to certify teachers, new ways of credentialing learning, and more. We have images of what’s possible, but none of us have it down. And, if we get those degrees of freedom and run with them, we need to acknowledge that it’s not going to work right away. We have to constantly search and learn for ways to improve.

We can’t have a system give us 15 minutes of fame and expect overnight transformation. When this happens, as it does over and over again, people claim “we tried it, and it didn’t work”—when the truth is, you never tried it at all. You barely even got started.

We don’t stay with it. We don’t put in place continuous improvement strategies that allow for reflection, sharing, celebration, documentation, iteration, and the overall building of a new knowledge base that is embedded in every teacher, student, parent, and community member.

That, to me, is what’s never been there. And without that, we could blow this opportunity, too. But, I’ve never seen more doors open and minds ready for something new than what I see right now. So, we have to figure out how that becomes something real.

That invites us into a conversation where a call for real equity, inclusion, access, and shared responsibility is alive and happening. And, in this moment of opportunity, we need to respond with actions that are led inclusively—listening and seeing others like we’ve never quite heard or seen them before.

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