Superintendent Dr. Shari L. Camhi Discusses Equity in Education and More on Podcast
"How Can We Drive Meaningful Change in Our School Systems?"
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The pandemic created an opportunity to change the way we serve a new generation of learners. But how can we drive meaningful reforms in U.S. school districts, including those that are resistant to change? What can we do to introduce engaging curricula that prepares students for rewarding careers? What is the secret to building an agile infrastructure that makes change possible?
In this episode, Kevin turns to Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, and Dr. Shari Camhi, Superintendent of Schools for Baldwin Union Free School District, to understand how we can bring innovation and change to our school systems.
Kevin: Dr. Shari Camhi is the superintendent of Baldwin Union Free School District, and the president-elect of AASA, the School Superintendent Association. She started her career teaching in New York City, and her experience includes nearly 20 years in public school administration. Dr. Camhi is well known for her innovative, student-centered approach to education. Under her leadership, Baldwin's graduation rate has increased to 97%. She's been recognized by Ed Week as a leader to learn from and by the National School Public Relations Association as a new superintendent to watch. Dr. Camhi, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate you coming on to the show.
Dr. Camhi: You're very welcome. I'm excited to be here.
Kevin: So, I've read a lot about you, and you've had an incredible career. And I want to go back because I like our viewers and listeners to understand what motivates educators. You started as a teacher in New York City. And what was that like when you really started out?
Dr. Camhi: So, I started out as a teacher in New York City, frighteningly back in the '80s. I will say that my expectations as a teacher, going back then, as my expectations are now have not changed. I spent time in private industry. And I think that's an important context as well. I've been in and out of public education for my entire career. I've spent time in public education as a teacher and as an administrator. But I've also spent time in private industry, mostly in the educational technology world. I've also lived overseas working at the university level. So, it's not a conventional path, by any stretch of the imagination, but I think that gives me a different perspective than many educators.
Kevin: What drives you to keep that going? You said you're protesting change in all these years, a lot of people get burned out, a lot of people move on. How do you keep it going?
Dr. Camhi: I would say that the drive really comes from two things. It comes from my experience as a student, as a kid. I would describe my experience as fine. I was not the smartest kid in my class, and I was certainly not the smartest kid in my school. And when I started my doctoral program, I finally figured out why. And my children, my own children had a good experience in school. But I would say to you that two of the saddest days of my life were days that I had to teach my own children how to play the game of school. And by that I mean, their strengths of critical thinking and problem solving and digging deeper, were not strengths that were appreciated, or I don't want to say valued, but they weren't appreciated, and they weren't nourished. And the idea that standardized tests and multiple-choice tests measure success is such a limited view that we have to change that. If this past year and a half does not prove that, I do not know what will prove that.
Kevin: Which leads me to talk about your new role as the leader of AASA, which is the Superintendents Association. And for those who are listening, there are 13,000 school districts or more in the country, right around 13,000, maybe a little bit more. Ten thousand of those school districts are a member of AASA. It is by far the preeminent association that speaks for superintendents. And Dr. Camhi, you are the incoming president. You mentioned the standardized test, you know, the way we've gone about it, it's not really good for kids in terms of their future?
Dr. Camhi: I could not agree with you more. You know, it's interesting, because there is a group of folks out there that believe that without those kinds of tests, we actually fail in the area of equity. But I think that's a really narrow focus. What I have found is that our students that, on paper, do not excel, they don't excel because of the way they are assessed. And when you broaden the way that you look at student achievement, you open up the opportunities for every other child. And so what I hope will become a national conversation is really twofold. One is that we need to be more innovative in the way we approach education. We need to think about the experience, in school and out of school. We need to broaden the opportunities for students. You know, we talk about equity, and equity has a lot of different definitions. For me, equity is all about opportunity and creating opportunities for students. And those opportunities are going to be different for every student. So, to be able to consider creating multiple opportunities, so that regardless of who you are, as a young learner, there is a place for you to be successful.
Kevin: Yeah. And as you mentioned, critical thinking, problem-solving, skill development, being able to work in a group with peers, those are things that are different from the robotic, multiple-choice, check the box, how do we get there? How do we get more and more school leaders to embrace approaches that highlight those characteristics?
Dr. Camhi: So, I think the first two places that we need to start is in our state education departments because they dictate policy, and policy dictates the assessments and the accountability. And we need them to think differently about how they judge how well we're doing. You know that teachers are very proud of the work they do. And they are going to make sure that they are successful. And if the way that their success is measured is by standardized tests, then they are going to make sure their kids do well by standardized tests. The question is, what if standardized tests actually measure? And they certainly do not measure the ability of a student to be an engineer. They don't measure a student's ability to develop relationships or to communicate effectively.
So, I would say stop number one is our state education departments and looking at policy. I would say the second place that we really need to look at is higher education. Higher education is where we go for preparing our next generation of teachers, and they really need to be thinking about what are the skills that students need to be successful post-high school, post-college? And how do we prepare our teachers to create those opportunities for students. In Baldwin, for example, we hire new teachers every year, and they participate in a four-year cohort program, where we basically retrain them from the beginning. And when I say retrain, I mean everything from mindset to practice.
Kevin: How do they respond to this new training once they get beyond sort of this shock of, "Wait a minute, I thought I was ready."
Dr. Camhi: So, I am not sure that any teacher who comes out is ready. It is scary to be a teacher for the first time. I would say a couple things. Number one, because they are in a cohort, I think they feel very supported. They have each other as well as us. So, that definitely works. But I also think that they recognize the success they have with the tools they're learning. I can tell you that after every session, the teachers, especially in the beginning, right? First-year, they start out, they are like deer in headlights, they're frightened. And by the end of the first week, they are best friends, they're going out to lunch with each other, they're laughing, they're smiling, they feel more comfortable immediately. But they learn these methodologies, they see success with the methodologies. And that develops confidence. And so that is exactly what we need them to do. More than anything, they have fun. And when you have fun, you create an emotional environment that allows the learning to happen.
Kevin: Like you, I believe that the last year and a half has been a reset, in many ways for the world, and for individuals in the world. How's this reset going to impact education?
Dr. Camhi: I hope that there are several areas that have become common practice. So, the first is the way we use technology. For many years, we figured out how to fit technology in the way we taught. And I will tell you that does not work. Instead, what we really needed to do, and I think we have finally, not only figured it out but I think we've put it in practice is technology offers to us a different way of doing things. Technology is a great platform for collaborating. Technology is a great platform for creative thinking and for conjecturing. And so I think, and I actually do believe that the way we use technology will stick. So, that's a good thing.
Kevin: You haven't run away from innovation, you haven't run away from doing things differently in your district, you've run to the lion, and I think many people feel that's why you'll be a great leader, AASA. But how do you counsel your colleagues to overcome the fear of innovation, the fear of doing it differently?
Dr. Camhi: I am not here to prepare my students for my past, I am here to prepare them for their future. If we are not proactive in the way that we work with our students, then, you know, what exactly are we preparing them for? It is about being communicative with your public. It's about having a vision. It is about developing partnerships with universities and with businesses. Because first, you have to understand what future they're walking into. And then you need to plan for that future.
Kevin: Is our current structure, the classroom setting, the setup of schools, the organization, the school district hierarchy, is it built for the future? And if not, how would you change it?
Dr. Camhi: What I would love to see is I would love to see, and I believe that the latest initiative with AASA, with learning 2025 report that has just come out, I think that we need to identify those districts that are doing really innovative work. I don't mean good work, because there's a lot of districts doing really, really good work. It's all in your definition of good, right? But if you're thinking futuristic, you're thinking of learning toward the future, identify the districts that are doing that, fund them fully, and make them the examples for everybody else. Because it's really hard to think of a new idea. And it's really hard when you're in the middle of doing management stuff all the time to plan for the future. So, you know, my hope going forward is that those districts that are doing really good work are exemplified and are spotlighted so that we can all learn from them.
Kevin: So, this is the last question. This is what I really want to know. I'll give you some tongue twisters here. You know, as a superintendent of your district, how do you measure success?
Dr. Camhi: My measurement of success in many respects is simple. When I go into a classroom, if there's so much learning going on that the teacher doesn't know that I walked in, I'm happy because those kids are deeply engaged, my teachers are deeply engaged. If my students talk about experiences that they had, whether it's with a business partner, or in their classrooms with their teachers, that brings them joy and a love of learning and deeper understanding, not only of content but of skills that they can speak well, and they can conjecture, and they can create an argument for something that is a complex idea, then I know that we are successful. So, the short answer to your question is, I want my students to wake up every morning, push their parents out of the way and say, "Mom, Dad, I need to get to school today, because I'm excited for the most amazing day ahead of me," then, I know we're successful.
Kevin: Dr. Shari Camhi, I love the way you think. And I appreciate you joining the show. You keep doing what you're doing for the kids.
Dr. Camhi: Thank you. Thanks for spreading the word. I appreciate it.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want To Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining, "What I Want To Know."
Dr. Shari Camhi is the Superintendent of Baldwin Union Free School District and the president-elect of The School Superintendents Association (AASA). She started her career teaching in New York City and has 20 years of experience in public school administration. Shari is well-known for her innovative, student-centered approach to education. Since 2014, Baldwin’s graduation rate increased to 97 percent under her leadership.