George Lucas Educational Foundation

Milton Chen: A Conversation with Brenda Welburn

The executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education talks about the real stakeholders in school systems — the students.

October 19, 2006
Credit: Edutopia

I recently spent a day in Washington, DC, getting advice from educational leaders on how the types of media produced by GLEF -- documentaries, multimedia Web content, magazine articles, books -- can be organized for greater use in the process of school change. Bonnie Benjamin-Phariss, of Microsoft founder Paul Allen's Vulcan Productions, and I visited with the leadership of national educational groups representing local school boards, state school boards, secondary school principals, and superintendents. I came away from those conversations very encouraged by a developing national consensus about the future direction of our schools.

I'll report on just one of those conversations, with Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. A warm and vivacious individual, Welburn patiently explained how the functions of state school boards and local school boards differ.

Though local school board members are nearly all elected, governors appoint about two-thirds of NASBE's members. State boards of education are responsible for setting the vision for their state's schools through key policies on, for example, curriculum standards, graduation requirements, teacher licensing, and accreditation of teacher-training programs. And state boards are in the position of reconstituting failing districts under No Child Left Behind Act regulations.

NASBE serves as the professional-development arm for state school board members, providing training on policy making and study topics determined each year, such as early-childhood education, English-language learning, and the turnaround of failing school districts. For someone who operates at a high level of policy making, Welburn has a remarkable passion for improving the lives of individual students, especially students of color who are not well served by today's school systems.

Credit: Brenda Welburn

I asked Welburn which stakeholder group our media efforts should concentrate on: Superintendents? School board members? Teachers? Principals? Welburn said the focus should be on the real stakeholders in school systems -- the students. "Focus on the child," she said. "If we start with the child -- and I'll use the example of my own daughter -- from a very young age, she wanted to act and perform. Maybe a voice class in the eleventh grade would have been better than a chemistry class."

"If we truly looked at what a child needs and is interested in," Welburn added, "we would design his or her school experience around that; if students want to major in art, they need a portfolio based on their high school work for admission to many four-year institutions with good art programs. Schools should identify what children are passionate about, what they love to do, and then show what teachers need to know to support that through the school and college years. " (Welburn's daughter is now a successful television personality on Real Simple, a PBS program seen nationally.)

Welburn believes schools need to "educate the whole child in the arts, civic learning, global learning. The purpose of schooling is more than just reading, writing, computing. School boards need to understand what students need to know and be able to do. And then we need to mesh that with policies that direct the training and licensing of principals and teachers."

She also encouraged us as media makers to show how the school day and year should be restructured (a topic of an earlier column) in order to have schools accomplish these higher goals. Welburn cited two key findings from a Johns Hopkins study on summer learning loss: Students from all socioeconomic groups regress in their mathematics learning over three months of summer vacation, but middle-income kids actually increase their reading levels during the summer, while low-income kids fall further behind.

Welburn noted that more than 50 percent of all African American and Latino students drop out of high school, and the figures are even greater for African American males, especially in urban areas. She and others we met that day plaintively asked, if this statistic has been well-documented for many years, what prevents us as a nation from focusing our attention and resources on supporting these boys and providing them with a high-quality, engaging education?

The student-dropout rate is an indictment not of the individual students, teachers, and administrators but of unresponsive systems and brittle policies. We need to think in new ways about how schools, families, and communities can address this crisis. With leaders such as Brenda Welburn and the others I met that day, there is hope for America's schools.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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