Straight Up Conversation: Gov. Jeb Bush on Leadership in the Time of Coronavirus
Gov. Jeb Bush has been a leader on efforts to improve schooling for more than two decades. He has mentored a generation of governors, carried the banner for reforms including school choice and accountaility, and launched ExcelinEd, a hugely influential voice in the world of K-12 schooling. During his tenure in office and in the many years since, Gov. Bush has wrestled with the practical challenges of how elected leaders can help make schools work for kids. I reached out to see how he is thinking about coronavirus and education.
— Rick Hess
Rick: As the focus of the education community shifts from dealing with the immediate aftermath of closing schools to thinking about how to reopen, state leaders have a lot to weigh. How are you advising governors and state leaders to think about reopening schools and colleges in their states?
Gov. Bush: First and foremost, schools have to open with the health and safety of our students and teachers being paramount. But they have to open, or we will have huge economic, health, and social challenges. My advice has been to be creative, listen carefully to the leaders at the school level—but staying quarantined is not an option.
Secondly, leaders must have the humility to know what they don't know and clearly communicate the uncertainties that exist. They need to anticipate the potential setbacks and problems and prepare for them.
I would advise governors to consider using all available options as they work to reopen schools. These include in-person classrooms, blended in-person and virtual learning, hybrid/asynchronous schedules and full-time virtual learning. There are hundreds of details to think about, and fortunately, governors have the power to make policy changes to navigate these challenges and help schools and students get back on track.
ExcelinEd has done an analysis and guidance document to help state leaders plan the best approach for their systems.
Rick: In states where some places are safer than others, what's involved if a governor decides to reopen schools in part of their state, while keeping them closed in another part that was hit harder by the virus?
Bush: Again, my view is the schools have to open, but how to do that should be driven from the bottom up. There is always a fine line that state leaders must walk between supporting local decisionmaking in education and setting statewide expectations for quality and equity.
ExcelinEd's survey found that a vast majority of state leaders indicated they were going to allow local districts to determine their reopening schedules. However, several respondents are considering reopening school campuses early statewide or requiring a phased-in reopening schedule that would open campuses earlier than a normal fall schedule.
State leaders also said they are considering several different options for grouping students and teachers. Nearly all respondents report considering hybrid learning models of in-person and online learning and staggered attendance schedules.
It's critical to note that the abrupt and widespread need for remote learning during this pandemic has magnified many of the inequities that currently exist in our education systems. It's also shown us there have not been many clear expectations for how to best support effective instruction, either in-person or remote.
States that are able to set clear expectations and support districts, schools, and educators in providing high-quality instruction—whether it's delivered online, in-person, or a blend of the two—will be poised to better understand where to target resources that ensure equity and improve outcomes for all students. This may require expanded professional development, revisions to teacher evaluations, and/or better access to high-quality curricular and technology resources.
Rick: Looking forward, how should governors be leading the planning on all this?
Bush: Governors should seize the opportunity to make big changes in times of disruption that are impossible to make when things are going fine. Faced with declining revenues, they should take the opportunity to get rid of what's not working. They should fund priorities first. If a state has a pension problem, now is the time to make structural changes. Think big and be bold. The pandemic has exposed many weaknesses in our education systems, and the time and the opportunity to address them is now.
Workforce readiness is a great example, and I know it is a priority for a lot of governors as well. For more than a decade, the skills gap in the American economy has been growing in an alarming way—along with the sheer number of unfilled jobs requiring specific knowledge, skills, and credentials. During this pandemic, the gap will continue to grow unless action is taken.
Governors can take steps to ensure that student pathways are strategically aligned with labor-market needs and are leveraged to help states in their long-term economic recovery. State leaders may be tempted to invest heavily in short-term programs leading to high-demand (and often low-wage) jobs to quickly reverse unemployment trends. While states must help their citizens get back to work quickly, the most effective approaches will include strategic investments in high-quality education-to-workforce strategies designed to prepare citizens for family-sustaining careers in the post-COVID economy rather than simply filling jobs.
Rick: As a former governor, what else do you think Washington and the Department of Education should be doing right now?
Bush: We are a bottom-up country, and that's one of our greatest and most enduring strengths. We're 50 unique and individual states, growing and thriving in different ways. The states are "incubators of democracy," because that's where great ideas are developed and tried—and where citizens have a strong voice in shaping their future.
To be candid, Washington's role is to support innovation. Let the states and communities lead and determine what is best for their families. Governors and state legislatures can, and often do, act quickly to solve problems. I encourage them to jump in with bold ideas that can get their education systems moving forward, even better than before.
Rick: How do you think this big experiment in remote learning has gone?
Bush: Some states made tremendous strides to ensure that while campuses were closed, schools stayed open. Other states shut down learning. They cut off opportunities. In the name of equity, they stopped all kids from receiving instruction. That is shameful.
Rick: As someone who has thought a lot about the role of technology in education, what do you think about how the shift to virtual learning is going?
Bush: We knew there was a digital divide in this country, but the pandemic has exposed how wide it is. Only a third of rural homes have broadband; low-income families typically lack access to internet-enabled devices, preferring smartphones instead. There are some states, like Florida, and many public charter school networks, that quickly figured it out, ramping up digital access and providing devices. But there are other places that have essentially put a stop to learning for some students, like Oregon and Michigan, and that is not right.
Going forward, every student in every community should have a device and access to the internet. Every district should practice and plan for distance learning days. Teachers should understand how to use distance learning tools effectively. And students with special needs and English-learners should not fall through the cracks.
Yes, schools should use technology. However, I don't believe we need or should strive for a future where every student is sitting alone at a laptop, receiving remote instruction all day long. But I do believe in new models of education that empower teachers to prepare kids to have more ownership of how they study and learn; where the goal is mastery; where digital learning and digital skills are a component of that learning; and where time is the variable and learning is the constant. Those models will better prepare our kids for the wired future that we know already exists.
Rick: What places have most impressed you with how they've responded to the coronavirus challenge in education?
Bush: There are so many examples!
Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is a great example of getting it right, learning from mistakes, being held accountable, and having a relentless dedication to serving students and teachers. Florida has benefited from 20 years of innovation and state leaders not being afraid to try new things. FLVS was designed to serve all students—public, private, and home education—and it works. At the start of the pandemic, FLVS was used to train public school teachers and is helping other states, like Alaska, bring high-quality online education to students.
In my home county, Miami-Dade, the school district has been preparing for the possibility of school closures for a long time. The district also provided additional professional development for teachers and a support hotline to help teachers, students, and parents with the transition to distance learning.
States and districts that already recognized a need to offer blended and online learning to students have not missed a beat during this pandemic. Lindsay Unified in California launched a community Wi-Fi network to make sure students have internet access. In Kansas, every Shawnee Mission elementary student has an iPad, and high school students are issued a MacBook Air to help continue learning outside school walls. Also in Kansas, Olathe public schools are providing comprehensive social and emotional learning resources to parents and students during this time of uncertainty.
Success Academy in New York City was also ready and able to take classes completely virtual and keep all students on track with schedules, consistent parent communication, and engaging online learning videos made by teachers.
Rick: How should governors and state leaders think about assessing the performance of their schools and systems?
Bush: I think state leaders ought to move the planned spring assessments to the fall. We must understand how much learning loss has occurred while campuses have been closed. And we need to assess what worked while distance learning was being implemented and refined. You measure what you care about, and we value student learning.
At the end of the day, state leaders must "own" student learning. By that I mean that no matter what is happening—a pandemic, hurricanes, blizzards, floods, and the like—learning is always supported, available, and accessible for all students.
Rick: You've been a pioneer in school accountability for more than two decades. With state tests canceled, how should accountability work right now? What are the right measures to be looking at, and the right ways to be using them?
Bush: Looking ahead, it will be critical for states to measure in the fall, with the goal of understanding where students are and the scope of learning loss. I sincerely hope it's not as large as has been predicted, but educators won't know without measuring.
Ideally, states should link supports and resources to a fall assessment. With the student score report, parents and students should receive information detailing the options available to help students get to where they need to be. For example, parents with students that test below grade level in reading or math could get dedicated funding to allow them to find the supplemental tutoring that works for their child. The student could get summer enrichment funding to continue to catch up next summer.
I've often said that what gets measured gets done. Especially after this national pandemic caused school campuses to close, we must know exactly where each student stands in their learning journey so we can best help them succeed in school and beyond.
Rick: OK, last question. Ending on an upbeat note, what has impressed you most about how you've seen America's educators and families respond to COVID-19?
Bush: First and foremost, my heartfelt thanks goes out to all the people serving on the front lines. And to the teachers who have continued to be the spark that ignites knowledge for our kids, even at a distance over the last few months.
Teachers really are stepping up, and I'd like to share a few awesome stories I've read:
High school history teacher Gabriel Elias—who teaches at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va.— films an informational video for students, streamed live on Facebook, and says that connection to students is so important.
Tammy Edinger teaches 8th grade at Elmhurst Elementary School in Toledo, Ohio. She's taken her students to the nation's capital for nearly a decade. Since they can't physically make the trip this year, she created a virtual trip.
Voncile Campbell is a math teacher at Bow Elementary-Middle School in Detroit and reads bedtime stories every night for kids.
There are thousands of stories like these, reinforcing that "bottom up" spirit of the American people. The South Carolina Department of Education stationed 3,000 school buses with Wi-Fi access across the state for student use. Business also stepped up to provide internet access to kids and teachers, so kudos to Charter Communications, Comcast/Xfinity, and AT&T, to name a few.
ExcelinEd has been tracking and sharing state and local innovative solutions. It's an impressive array of efforts that tells me education is changing fast, in bigger and better ways than most of us might imagine.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.