The Key to Equity in Education
School Leadership That Understands Equal Access
by Dr. Rod Berger
Dr. Jim Vaszauskas has been Superintendent of Mansfield Independent School District in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area in Texas since 2013. Running Mansfield ISD is a big task with more than 40 campuses serving over 33,000 students covering the city of Mansfield and portions of Grand Prairie, Arlington, and Burleson.
It’s a progressive district that boasted a 2014 – 2016 Apple Distinguished Program for its advanced use of 10,000 iPads. The program creates innovative and tangible learning environments with the main objective of promoting academic accomplishment. Focusing on data-driven instruction and individualized pathways for college and career readiness, Jim and his leadership team have made Mansfield ISD one of the fastest growing districts in the region.
I was lucky to have Jim carve out some time from his busy schedule to chat with me about topics surrounding education. Starting with the subject of equity, Jim made an immediate association to levels of access. Many kids have limited access to transportation options for new STEM or fine arts academy programs. Jim and his team tackle the transport issue head on by adding transportation experts to the discussions from the beginning planning and construction phases of projects.
Rigor in education is another hot topic that Jim believes needs very specific standards and parameters. Mansfield ISD adheres to strict rigor guidelines, including the required Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards (TEKS) that the district follows. The focus on rigor guidelines has increased the percentage of students reading at or above grade level significantly in the course of a year.
Jim knew at an early age that he wanted to be an educator and he spent the first 20 years of his career as a teacher and athletics coach before moving into his first administration role. Now he is pushing data-driven, personalized instruction in a large, progressive district in his home state.
It appears as if Jim is right where he needs to be.
Dr. Rod Berger: Jim, I’ve appreciated having conversations with superintendents around the country recently and hearing about their growing focus on equity and rigor in their districts.
I want to start with that, getting an understanding of where you place equity. If you’re looking at prioritizing district initiatives, how do you look at equity and improving the experience for your students, as well as the faculty and teachers who are supporting their learning.
Dr. Jim Vaszauskas: When I did my doctoral work, social justice was a real push by the professors. We learned that you really can’t have equity unless you include access. In Texas, where I work, we can’t really have a conversation about equity if we don’t allow access.
For example, school choice is something that we’re hearing quite a bit about. For us, that would mean taking one of our buildings and making it a STEM academy or taking one of our buildings and having it be a Fine Arts academy.
If we do that, how do we provide access for our students who may have transportation needs? That’s a real question that we’re having in our district right now because we’re doing those very things. We’re opening a STEM academy this year and one of the things that we discussed was how to provide access to the kids who may not have the financial wherewithal to provide their own transportation.
For us, equity means that you have equal opportunity, but access is a real key part of that.
RB: Tell me about the communication with the district and, more importantly, the community members. I imagine that it is a challenge to try to be all things to all people and also be progressive in moving education within your district in a way that we hope for in a 21st century environment.
Tell me about the thought process around the communicating and the messaging regarding why you’re doing something as a district and the impact of it. Then how you will support those that you know you can’t serve because of some inherent challenges within the lives of those students and what you want to do to help solve and bridge those challenges.
JV: We’re building an early literacy and numeracy center for our children. In our district, literacy is a big thing for us. One of our guiding statements on our strategic plan is that all of our students will be reading on grade level or higher by the time that they enter the third grade.
We were at 82% at the end of last year. We’ve increased that to 86%. That means that 86% of our kids right now are reading on grade level or higher. We have some that are reading right on the second-grade level right where they need to be. We also have second graders who are reading on the eighth-grade level.
What we know about that 14% that we still haven’t reached is that they come to us with unique challenges, with pretty consistent challenges. One of those challenges is mobility. We might be their third school in three years. We might be their third school this year.
We also know that there’s such a poverty gap for students who live in poverty with a number of experiences they have. This is really more about experiences.
We can’t provide those exact services on the far western side of our district or on the far eastern side of our district. So what we’re trying to do is provide opportunities for these kids to come and experience that facility once it’s up and operational. We’re in the design phase right now.
As we’re having our discussion with parents about what this facility looks like, we’re listening to their desires about how they can be a part of this. We’re also involving our transportation people in the discussion about how to get kids to the school to experience it.
The discussion can’t just be the superintendent and a couple of people in a room. It has to be parents, principals, transportation people and the construction manager all in a room all talking about the very thing that you just mentioned.
We’re trying to broaden the conversation to hear from different stakeholders so we can try to meet the needs of our kids.
RB: We’re seeing a lot of transparency in the way we’re trying to understand student learning in the classroom, and increasing engagement and understanding. We’re seeing transparency with the parents and caregivers of these students in classrooms, and then the ways in which they can complete that feedback loop with their teachers.
What role does that play in the efforts that you’re making to provide an opening into what is going on in the classroom in a positive and engaging way that can support all the other initiatives that you have? People feel that they understand the beat and the pulse of the district in a way they hadn’t in the past.
JV: So much of our conversation is about trying to get and understand an operational definition of the topics. For example, when we started this conversation, you mentioned rigor. I love to have conversations with people and ask them, “What does rigor mean to you?”
What you will find is that it’s a very qualitative definition and what you define as rigor as may not be anywhere close to what I define as rigor.
It’s important to give a clear operational definition of what rigor means to our teachers and to the people in the room so we can come at it from a very logical standpoint. Mansfield has defined rigor as being the TEKS, which are the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards that we’re required to teach.
We consider rigor to be three things:
It’s on-grade level or slightly higher content. So if you’re a third-grade teacher, you should be teaching third-grade content or higher.
It’s taught in the way that it’s assessed. Math is a great example. If you’re teaching 2 plus 2 equals 4, you’re just teaching the numbers on the page. But, it’s being assessed in a manner where it’s a word problem: If Jim has two basketballs and Amy has two basketballs and Billy has three footballs, how many basketballs do Jim and Amy have together? You have to choose the operation there. You have to eliminate extraneous information and we want it to be taught like it’s tested.
Finally, in every TEKS there are verbs which are action words which drive us. We want to teach the verbs.
Those three things are content taught in context and taught to the cognitive level.
It’s important that when we’re having conversations with teachers and administrators and parents, we have an operational definition of the topic we’re talking about. What is access? What is equity? What is rigor?
Part of my job is to have those conversations. Let’s have the same target. And if we can define it and make it easy to know we’re certainly more likely to get there.
RB: Is part of it educating the parent base in how to identify it themselves? If they’re going to be advocates for you and for the teachers who are working with their children, they need to understand what we’re all looking at. To understand that, they need a general understanding of what rigor is in your district and schools. This is what teachers understand it to be and how the students experience that, and here’s what we want you to see from a parents’ perspective.
JV: That’s absolutely the truth. I was born and raised in West Texas and back in those days, we used to take long driving trips. I can remember looking out the front window and seeing what appeared to be water on the highway miles and miles in front of us. And we never got to that water because it was just a mirage. As we got closer, it moved further away or it totally disappeared.
If you don’t have a clear operational definition of rigor, how do you know when you get there? Is it just a mirage?
At some point, you have to be able to look at something and go, “This is rigorous. This is acceptable. I don’t need to change this.” That’s the key to the operational definition.
In our conversations with parents, we’re saying “Yes, this is rigorous. We don’t need to make this any harder because it’s already there for where your child is right now in his or her development.” Parents are relieved because there’s pressure that it might be a mirage. That you just never get there.
I believe that rigor has to be definable and you have to know when you’re there. And when you’re there, that’s a good thing.
RB: It’s that repeated exposure over time. If we can expose parents to what good learning looks like and what the experience of learning looks like, they will be more engaged and they will have a better understanding of that.
When you and I were growing up, districts thought that the less they speak to parents the better. Parents just wanted to know they’re doing things. And so, they checked in quarterly or sent home a flier.
But it’s a different day and age in education and it seems as if we cannot communicate enough. I have two little children who are not even kindergarten age. At their daycare school we get updated every day on what’s going on. If something looks amiss or they’re using something that’s outdated, we’re on top of that.
There’s a new culture of parents entering in K-12. We want to know all the time what’s going on, not because we want to be overlooking the process but because we want to be involved. We want to understand our kids’ education in a way that is different than what we experienced as children.
JV: I would agree completely with what you’re saying. I would tie it back to the Internet age, the social media. It’s funny for someone of my generation who grew up when there were rotary dial phones on the wall. To catch somebody, you had to dial the number and hope that they were home and were willing to talk to you.
Now, there’s instantaneous communication. That’s one of the things that I think we need to be doing a better job of, and that’s why I’m having conversations with Steve (Wandler). It’s about clearly communicating and engaging parents.
How do we do that in the age of the Internet and how do we that in the age of Facebook or Nextdoor or those powerful social media platforms? And how do we do it with people who have grown up in that social environment of immediate feedback. That’s a real challenge for public schools.
That’s what’s exciting to me about the direction some businesses and organizations are going now. They’re providing platforms for us to really meet the parents where they’re most comfortable. That’s critical.
RB: I know you’re talking about Steve Wandler, co-founder of FreshGrade. So that begs a question: When you’re thinking about that in a world where your students are actively communicating their learning, what do you think the benefit is to the educator?
I think back to my work in education. The ability for an educator to have that real-time personal relationship with a student where you’re capturing these amazing moments and tying it to the rigor that you spoke of earlier, that would make me feel more engaged as an educator.
JV: To me, the power of this platform that we’re talking about with Steve is giving the student the ability to reflect on her or his own learning and explain to their parents where they are and the direction that we need to go.
Parent conferences used to be where the teacher would explain where the student was. The teacher would have to have tons of data and pieces of work and artifacts that they could share with the parents. Many of these artifacts might have occurred six weeks ago or eight weeks ago.
In today’s world, eight weeks ago is ancient. Now, we have that immediate ability to reflect. The student reflecting on where she or he is in their learning and what the goals are.
That’s what’s exciting about where we’re going with parent and student engagement and conferences. I think it will be less work on the teacher because instead of the teacher preparing for 22 or 24 conferences ─ or if it’s a secondary teacher, 120 conferences ─ the teacher is going in as the facilitator where the student is leading the discussion about his or her own learning with the parent. That’s very exciting.
It will be less work on the teachers and it will be more meaningful to the parent. It forces the student to reflect and set goals, and those are two huge skills.
RB: When you were a student growing up, could you have ever envisioned that you would be the steward of a district or a school at this level? Was this part of the original dream for you? And what was it about your educational experience that suggested that “I really want to do this” or “I want to go in and make changes that I wish would have occurred when I was in school”?
JV: I knew at a very early age that I wanted to be a teacher and a basketball coach. I was really impacted by my high school English teachers; and my coaches had a tremendous impact on me.
I knew when I was 19 years old that I wanted to teach and coach. And I did that for 20 years before I moved into administration. I had some friends who were administrators who encouraged me to move into administration.
The opportunity to serve as the superintendent in Mansfield, which is such a progressive district, is a dream come true. We’re moving forward in a lot of really unique and interesting ways and I’m excited about the potential. Our kids are phenomenal and I’ve never been more bullish on education than I am right now.
The bottom line is that we have to do a better job as a profession of engaging our parents with real-time information. That’s the world we live in and that’s the direction that I want to move this district.
RB: I talk to a lot of superintendents and there are a lot of pressure points on leaders like you. You’ve displayed a poise and a calm confidence that I’m sure the district benefits from. I’m sure that the audience can feel that as well.
It’s really needed. There are a lot of different things going on in education. To be able to take all that in and understand where the value propositions are and where they are not is really needed in district leadership.
About Dr. Jim Vaszauskas
Dr. Jim Vaszauskas joined the Mansfield Independent School District, located south of Dallas and Ft. Worth, in May of 2009 as the associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. In February 2013, he was named Interim Superintendent. The board promoted him to Superintendent of Schools that next July.
He served as an English teacher and coach for the first 20 years of his career and then moved into administrative roles including positions as assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent, associate superintendent, and superintendent.
Dr. Vaszauskas earned his Bachelor of Science Degree from Baylor University, his Master of Arts from Texas Wesleyan University, and his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Stephen F. Austin State University. He holds lifetime State Board of Educator Certification in English, health and physical education, is certified by the State of Texas as a principal and as a superintendent. He has also completed the National Superintendent Certification through The School Superintendents Association (AASA).
Follow Dr. Jim Vaszauskas on Twitter
This article was originally published in the Huffington Post by Dr. Rod Berger