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IEL President Reflects on Organization's Impact at 50 Years

This spring, the Institute for Educational Leadership, one of the most enduring education policy and leadership organizations in the nation, celebrated its 50th anniversary. Its work focused on leadership, workforce development, and building partnerships between schools and communities, has helped shape national, state, and local policies that impact children and their families. IEL's signature program—the Education Policy Fellowship Program—operates in 12 states and the District of Columbia, and has prepared thousands of leaders across the country, including the likes of June Atkinson, the state superintendent in North Carolina, and Hilda Solis, who served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Barack Obama.

 I spoke recently with Martin J. Blank, IEL's president, about the organization's history, impact, and future plans. 

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Q: When the organization was founded in 1964, what were the pressing education issues of the day and how are they still relevant now?

A: IEL was organized at the same time that the nation was really first beginning to look at the challenges of educating poor and disadvantaged children in a more serious way. The Institute emerged from the cauldron of federal investments through the War on Poverty, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Medicare and Medicaid and other efforts that recognized poverty's impact on young people and relationship between poverty and the well-being of children. Harold "Doc" Howe, [who was the U.S. Commissioner of Education under President Lyndon B. Johnson] together with Ed Meade at the Ford Foundation, realized there was a need in the federal establishment for people who understood local education systems. They established the Washington Interns in Education program, which brought people to Washington who were intended to bring local expertise to federal government and then, in turn, bring that experience back to their local communities. WIE, as it was known, ran for 12-15 years as a national program. In the 1970s, someone said, 'Why can't we do this here in Illinois?' From that came the idea that we would shift from WIE to the Education Policy Fellows Program as a state-based leadership and professional development experience for midcareer leaders in education.

Q: What distinguishes the Education Policy Fellowship Program from the myriad leadership programs that have come and gone over the years?

A: In the fractious world of education policy, there are few spaces where people can learn together about the rationales and the strategies that people are proposing for getting better results for kids. We can discuss whether it's choice, charters, standards, or community schools that are best at producing good outcomes for children. Education leaders should have a space to explore those perspectives and theories together in a leadership space, rather than an action space. I think there is a huge demand for more of this.

Q: What's been the secret sauce of this leadership program?

A: We set it up as a partnership with state-based organizations so that there is a real vested interest at that level. It's a fee-based program and has sustained itself with some foundation funding, but it really sustains itself because sponsors see the value of making this investment. It's about educating cadres of leaders, but it also strengthens these leaders' networks as they move up and on. The independence we've maintained has kept it flexible and responsive. We've had funding to bring more minorities, special education specialists, and overall, we've operated with a flexible national curriculum that is relevant to what happens at the local level where the real issues and real people are.

Q: What do you see as being the most pressing education leadership issues in 2014?

A: I think we have substantially underinvested in leadership preparation for school administrators and principals. The job of leading a public school system today is one of the most challenging you can find. With all the demands of interest groups, and political leadership, and the complexity of bringing along teachers and principals to embrace and implement major changes, there needs to be much more development of leaders at all levels along the way. Look at how the military does it. They invest in people at every level. K-12 needs the same approach. We are also failing to address the equity question clearly and sharply and aren't doing enough to recognize the extraordinary impact of shifting demographics in our society and in our schools. We watch as our country's student population becomes more and more diverse, but the leadership is not changing to reflect that diversity.

Q: So how do you think we can better support superintendents and other K-12 leaders to address the overwhelming challenges they are asked to tackle?

A: We need much more interdisciplinary development around the education of our children. The health system, the mental health system, and the juvenile justice system, to name a few, they all interact with public school systems. Schools are the linchpin. We need the interdisciplinary development so people feel the shared responsibility for the needs of children. That is the only way we can mobilize the resources we need to get the success that we want. That kind of cross-boundary leadership is at the heart of everything IEL does.

Q: When you hear and see the ongoing debates now over new standards, assessments, teacher effectiveness, equity in schools, to name the most high-profile issues at the moment, often people on all sides of those issues argue that their position is in the best interest of children. Who do you think has the most valid stake to this claim?

A: The way we do public policy in this country tends to encourage different perspectives and points of view. And that's a great thing. But the difference now is that we can't seem to reach consensus to move forward. This is really limiting our ability to be as effective and do the right thing for young people who face multiple issues and challenges for their success. Are we creating the conditions for success on the ground for schools and communities to have success with the common core and the new assessments, for example? I don't think there's nearly enough of that kind of dialogue going on. For us, there is always truth on both sides.

Q: When did IEL take up the mantle for community schools, a deep commitment that has not wavered through the various waves/and brands of education reform? Are more places investing in this now?

A: In 2001, a coalition that focused on efforts to bring leaders from various sectors that serve children became, officially, the Coalition for Community Schools. What IEL brought to that was its cross-boundary philosophy and we had deep roots in school systems. We brought relationships with youth development organizations. We had the capacity to reach out to a much broader network of groups. We were viewed as impartial in that space. Even in the midst of NCLB, Arne Duncan [then the Chicago schools chief] set a goal of 100 community schools in Chicago. While the national focus was on standards and accountability, people locally saw the need for this. It was not the best environment for doing this work, but we grew in spite of it. There is now the growing recognition that standards, assessment, and accountability systems by themselves will not suffice. You have to balance the other side of the scale. You need to pay attention to equity issues not just inside the school but outside of it too. In Philadelphia, a child dies at school and we ask, "Is it the right thing to have no trained health professional in a building when we spend so much money on health care?" Our philosophy is that we can't just work on a single issue.

Q: IEL has long focused on issues around workforce development and helping schools and communities build bridges for students making difficult transitions to careers, additional education, and adulthood. What's the latest in that arena?

A: We've had a workforce development center for many years. Most recently, we've focused on questions of 'how do you support the transitions of young people to career or postsecondary success' with the key emphasis being on the transition piece. In 10 sites, we have mentoring programs to address needs of young people with disabilities. We have approached this with the view that all young children need many things and young people with disabilities need all of the same kinds of supports plus a little more. We're also focusing on building tools and resources to bring together schools, juvenile justice agencies, and mental health providers to work together to help young people who are coming out of juvenile justice systems make successful transitions.

Q: Any newer areas of focus for IEL you want to highlight?

A: In more recent years, we have put family engagement and the role of families on our agenda. We've now created a network of family engagement leaders in more than 100 school districts in the country. These people are doing really important work and they need a space to interact with their peers for ideas and support. Usually, families and communities are at the bottom of the list of education reform priorities and we think that's just an incorrect way of thinking about improving public education.

Q: What is next for IEL? Where do you still see the most need for its work?

A:  We want to continue to be a place that creates an impartial place for serious dialogue about education. That means expanding the fellows program to more sites, using the influence of our community schools coalition to build more partnerships and relationships between schools and community organizations. We want to do more to get leaders who are worried about transition and workforce issues to deepen their connections to public schools.

Photo: Martin J. Blank, president of the Institute of Educational Leadership. Photo courtesy of IEL.

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