Carissa Moffat Miller, CEO of the Council of Chief State School Officers: Imagining a Modernized K-12 System
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.
The lingering effects from sheltering in place and school closure on America’s young students and the public school system remain a key cause of concern for educators, parents, and policy makers. Learning loss, declining enrollments and increases in behavioral problems are just a few of the issues that education leaders at the local, state and national levels are grappling with.
Here today to give us a better understanding of these challenges and potential solutions is Dr. Carissa Moffat Miller, chief executive officer of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Drawing on her deep experience with education policy at the state and national levels, Carissa leads the Council’s efforts to help states deliver equitable education opportunities to every student.
Carissa was named head of the Council in 2018, becoming the first woman to lead it in its 90-year history. Prior to joining the Council, she served as a deputy superintendent at the Idaho State Department of Education and led the implementation of statewide online testing for the Idaho State Board of Education. Thanks so much for joining us here today, Carissa.
Carissa Moffat Miller: It’s great to be with you, Van. Thank you for inviting me.
Van: Well, why don’t we start with you giving us an overview of the Council and your role there?
Carissa: Yeah, I’ve been at the Council a little over ten years. I served in a deputy role here and now I’m the CEO of the organization. And just for those outside the K-12 system, we are a membership and advocacy organization that supports state education leaders. So, that’s anyone who has been elected or appointed in any of the states, D.C., the territories, Bureau of Indian Education, and the Department of Defense.
When we think about our role in this larger ecosystem, we think about it as collective impact, about the important role that states and state leaders play to ensure a high-quality education for all kids in K-12.
Van: You have to tell me, what is it like to lead your membership? You mentioned some are elected, some of the superintendents are appointed, and others grew up in the ranks. I mean, what is it like to facilitate that type of membership in a discussion of policy and advocacy?
Carissa: Yeah, I think the key thing for us as an organization — and we’ve been around, as you said, for more than 90 years,– is really focusing on the things that we can agree on. There’s a number of areas that we may disagree on the approach, but at the end of the day, all of my members are looking for how we actually make sure kids have an environment to learn in, that they’re learning, and that they have a great path for the future.
Van: Well, that’s a good transition point to my next question, which is, as I mentioned in my opening, the education system, especially the K-12 system, has been undergoing a lot in the past few years. How would you characterize the state of recovery from all of that that has gone on?
Carissa: You know, the upheaval the past years has really been disruptive, and I think we’d be remiss in thinking that it didn’t have a bigger impact on getting students back on track, and it will take time to do that. But this disruption has also created an opportunity for us to think about things differently, and I think you and I are going to talk about that.
It’s changed the landscape of work — how I work, how we work in our organization — but it’s also given state chiefs an opportunity to change the ecosystem of school, and so I look forward to talking about that. I want to give us kind of a summary of where we’re at and what happened in K-12 for the funding that was put in place and what has been put into helping students recover from the pandemic.
So, for the past three years, states have received approximately $190 billion in K-12 education through what’s called the Elementary Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, ESSER — we like to have acronyms — and it was designed to address pandemic relief and recovery in schools. We had three separate traunches of that. The first one was really about PPE and getting schools open and all of that. Then the second set was really more about how we get back to the learning environment and recovery from what were some pretty long spells that students were not able to be in school. There’s about 10% of that amount, or $19 billion, that was set aside by state education agencies. Of that $19 billion, what we know about that was $4.3 billion was spent on tutoring and accelerated learning, $3 billion was spent on out-of-school time learning — it could have been after-school learning or could have been summer school — $1.4 billion was spent for curriculum instruction, and $1.2 billion was for high-quality digital learning. That doesn’t include the $191 billion that went to districts that were used in some of the same kind of priorities.
We know that this money is not here for long-term, it was to make sure that we’re moving students forward and, you know, I look forward to talking to you about that, but we’re also looking at how we sustain some of the programs where we’ve seen some real possibilities for students to recover in fast ways. We know there were gaps among learning for students even before the pandemic, and I think we can take some of those lessons learned and also try to address the learning gaps as we’re going forward.
Van: Would you have any examples of, for example, you mentioned the tutoring and accelerated learning. What are some examples that may be working right now?
Carissa: Yeah, I’ll highlight just a few states. Colorado, for example, had a high-impact tutoring program that provided 35,000 hours of additional high-impact tutoring for K-12 students. In Nebraska, we saw that they bought into a math program, Zearn, that they used ESSER state funds to do, and allowed districts to do a small buy-in for that. They saw over that time 2.5 times growth on math assessments compared to non-frequent users of that particular program.
So, some of those key things that were investments with a real focus, we’re seeing some real payoff in.
Van: In the healthcare field, one of the things that changed and never reverted back was the adoption of telehealth and telemedicine. It was roughly at around ten or twelve percent adoption, and over the pandemic, of course, it went up to eighty percent and it’s never going to come back. So, as you think of some of these trials with different approaches, is there an appetite for ingesting those new processes into the system, or will it just go away after the funds go away?
Carissa: I think this is an historic amount of money that was infused in K-12, and so there’s no expectation that we would ask for this kind of money or that kind of money would stay. What’s happening in this last year is a real evaluation of the kinds of programs where we are seeing the impact, because some things were put in place as a short-term fix — and we knew that was a short-term fix — and then we have to evaluate what do we need to continue to see those increases?
So, for example some of the funding was used to increase staff to do additional kinds of things, and I think we have to really look at whether the increase continues from there. But sometimes these were made into one-time investments as well. Like, investing in Zearn may not be an ongoing cost, there may be lesser costs, and so we’re able to continue to see some of the real benefits going forward.
Van: Understandably, there’s been a lot of attention paid to learning loss. What’s your assessment of that situation, and how do you see it impacting higher education, or frankly, later on when they enter the workforce?
Carissa: We should say that there absolutely was learning loss. What we’re seeing right now in this period of time, we’re starting to see some of the results come out from state testing, and we’re starting to see incremental increases, particularly around English language arts. We know that there’s still a focus we need to have in the mathematics, but those are really promising things when we’re starting to see some more rapid gains, and those are the kinds of things that we want to continue to look at.
When you talk about both the workforce and higher ed, I’ll give you another state example, and that’s Missouri. They had a post-secondary advising initiative that demonstrated a 10.5% increase in college enrollment for the participating schools. So, you know, you learn a lot from those kinds of programs that will then continue on as we go into that. I’d say, too, on the connection with higher ed and the workforce, we’re seeing a real strong focus on what we consider P-20 career readiness continuum. It’s this transition for students into post-secondary education and careers, and we have a good number of states who are creating individualized graduation plans, which includes advising and dual and concurrent enrollment and other strategies to support the transition for students into college and careers. So, I think we all have to think about this a little differently, and that includes being partners among higher ed workforce and K-12.
Van: Carissa, I’m curious. Let’s say a good practice comes out of Missouri or another state. For example, you mentioned P-20 readiness. How does that innovation or that learning or that practice begin to cross state borders for adoption?
Carissa: I think that’s one of the big roles that we play as an organization. We not only serve as a membership and advocacy organization, but we spend a lot of time making sure that states are aware of what’s going on across the country, and we try to learn from each other.
We come together three times a year, and we talk about the kinds of emerging issues that are happening. We also do a once-a-month call with our state chiefs, and they’re able to share ideas back and forth. So, anytime something is really positive, like Missouri’s example, we would probably highlight that and share out the lessons learned, and also state chiefs would have an opportunity to talk to their colleague in Missouri and ask her more about how she put that together but how you contextualize it for the state that you’re in. So, we try to foster that.
Van: That’s a wonderful role for the council. So, we’ve talked on this podcast previously about how education needs to keep pace with the rate of change. I mean, I think no matter which homepage we go to, there’s talk about AI, and how that’s affecting our current life and our future life. I was wondering how you’re seeing the K-12 system. What are some bright spots in terms of modernizing public education?
Carissa: Thanks for that question. We hosted a summit back in March on Imagining More and how we can modernize the public education system. We brought a group of chiefs together, experts in the field — people who represent parents, students, teachers — and just put it on the table: what do we need to do to think about this? There’s a wide-ranging conversation, a lot of ideas, a lot of ways to think about how we move the system forward.
Just recently, about a month ago, we published a report called Imagining More: How State Education Agencies Can Modernize the K-12 System. What we’ve done is we’ve taken the key ideas about what we know to set the conditions and what the appropriate state role is for that. When we think about this, we think about what the key thing is for the systems level, because we don’t fill the role for every single part of the ecosystem. We ask ourselves, what’s the important role that the state plays? And a lot of that is about setting the conditions for this kind of modernizing.
For example, we looked into where do kids learn? How do they learn? The kinds of ways in which we use time? How we count credits for students? An example for this might be New Hampshire — and there’s a number of examples in the report that I mentioned as well — they’ve embraced a theory called Learn Everywhere. It’s a program that works closely with community providers and provides opportunities for kids to learn and demonstrate their learning outside of the classroom. This connection to higher ed will mean that we need to work in close partnership on the transferability of this new learning and how we actually count this new learning.
Van: For those who are not so familiar with how state education agencies work, what is the structure? Maybe you could just overview how state agencies act on behalf of all the local schools.
Carissa: It varies by state based on state laws and how the structure works. But generally, a state education agency oversees both the policies and practices that would need to be met by the districts in the school system. They’re also usually responsible for determining the kinds of funding, including state funding and they administer federal funding dollars and help districts figure out how to best apply those kinds of things. But for the most part, most states will tell you they support local control and that the decisions about how to teach, the kinds of curriculum to use, and how they go about their day-to-day delivering for the outcomes that the state sets are really up to the school and the district.
Van: So, what is an example of a condition? Like you said, the role of the state agency or state system is to set the right conditions. Are you talking about incentives or is it more technical assistance?
Carissa: Yeah, it could be. For example, states will often put out waivers for districts if a district wanted to try something new and they needed some breathing room from some of the responsibilities that they had that year in order to try out a new way of learning. A state would be the one that would help clear the path for that and help monitor to make sure that kids are still getting what they need, but done in a different way.
I think also it’s really important for state leaders to be clear about the kinds of things that they want to see, like setting up the outcomes for students. After the pandemic, we heard from a lot of students and parents about wanting different ways to learn. Remote did not work for everyone, but there were some students who really saw an opportunity to engage in school in a different way than they had before. And so I think a lot more opportunities for kids to have a personalized learning experience that could include things from virtual to still being in person…those are the kinds of things that the state will help set an opportunity for.
Van: I see that that makes sense and I see how that ties back to this concept of giving permission to modernize or experiment with these concepts.
Carissa: Or maybe clearing the way to allow, because sometimes I think we set up systems that have a number of barriers, a number of reporting requirements, or ‘you must do something this way.’ So, I think it’s about clearing a path for districts who are ready to take the next step to offer opportunities.
Van: That makes a lot of sense. So, when you and your superintendents think about student readiness for the world of work, what do those discussions focus on?
Carissa: I think the best way to describe that is a good number of states have a vision for student learning. It’s either called a portrait of a graduate or a portrait of a learner. And these are really important pieces that talk about both access for students, opportunities, and how they are academically. The states will spend an inordinate amount of time with stakeholders — with parents, with students, with everyone in the community, everyone in the state — building out an idea of, like, what do we want to make sure that our kids who graduate from high school have and know and are able to do? So, things like the content mastery, but also critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills…that’s part of the overall picture when we talk about student readiness. You’ll see that in a good number of states right now as to how they’re pointing towards ‘this is what we’re driving towards and we figure out what we need to do to get students to that place.’
I think the other thing that we’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about, particularly since the pandemic, has been around conditions for student learning. This goes back to what we were just talking about. It’s setting an environment where students are able to be successful. Student mental health and well-being has been a real concern since the pandemic and so it is really important for us to build support structures in place so that students have good mental health and well-being in schools.
Another thing we talk about is all of our partners. We don’t live in an isolated K-12 world and then we never think about what happens. I mean, the goal here is to make sure that students are ready for higher education, for the workforce, for whatever it is that they go into. So, the partnerships between higher education, philanthropy, business and industry, across our government agencies, parents and family…all those things are critical for figuring out what we think about when we think about even the modernizing.
You can’t just pull on one thread and not expect it to touch everything in this fabric of our ecosystem.
Van: Well, talking about partnership, I sit on the Council on Competitiveness and there’s always a focus on K-12 education in addition to higher education. What do you advise employers — especially those who are super interested in the STEM and STEAM types of skills — who want to help with K-12 preparedness for their local, regional, national or global economic roles?
Carissa: I’m always incredibly appreciative, and I know our state leaders are as well, on folks who want to be a part of the movement forward. I’d say that the conversation about work-based learning opportunities, registered apprenticeships, those are always a great opportunity to strengthen learning and careers and prepare students for the future. In a number of states they’ve created these partnerships and I think it’s been beneficial on both ends, right? A partnership that helps the business, but also brings our students along is a really important piece of that. I’d also encourage business and industry to connect with your state education chief. It’s worth a conversation to ask what are the opportunities here and what are you working on and how can we play a role in this? How can we open up the opportunities for work-based learning, apprenticeships, some of those kinds of things that we’re working towards in K-12.
Van: Carissa, I want to ask you, what’s ahead in the next one year or maybe three years for you as the head of this council?
Carissa: I think the modernizing work is a key priority for us right now, and how we actually start to structure what it is that we’re going to pressure test against. I mentioned some of the ways in which we’re thinking about that. We also just started a new school year, so chiefs are thinking about that and how we continue to provide some of the key things that we saw during the pandemic that really helped accelerate learning for students and the things that we did that will help continue to have mental health and well-being be on the forefront. So those are the, I’d say, the key things for us as we move into this next year.
Van: I’m very excited that those are your two focus areas. I mean, that resonates even as a parent. Any last insights you’d like to share with our audience? It’s full of folks who are in the workforce world, higher education world and policymakers.
Carissa: Well, you know, when I think about it, even from just our organizational perspective, I think about the possibilities that we just didn’t ever think were true, right? We’ve moved to a mostly remote organization. When I came here ten years ago, I could never have imagined that we would have done that. In fact, I moved to DC across the country for my first job here. So, the idea that we are recruiting people around the country now allows us to serve our members better. We serve people all across the country and the best way to do that is to have people in communities across this country to actually understand what it’s like to live across the country.
I’ve always had this philosophy about openings inside our organization, about reframing the way you look at things. We were not unlike many places for work where we had the great resignation where people moved on to other jobs. We were kind of all just shuffling the deck chairs for a while. We had a lot of openings and I have a firm belief that you take the time to make sure that you figure out what you need in a position for the organization at that moment. I don’t just fill positions. That’s the luxury we have as a nonprofit. You know, when I worked at the state level, sometimes that was a lot more complicated. Here we can decide, and that pays off dividends in huge amounts.
We have two new positions in this organization that we’ve never had before and it’s modernizing the way we work inside of our organization. We have a lot of technology use and finding a way to connect all that technology towards our main goals has been something we’ve been working on for a long time and now we’re just starting to see the pay off because we think about it differently, and we brought in the right talent to do that.
Van: Well, fabulous. Thank you so much, Carissa, for being with us today. We certainly learned a lot about the K-12 system and the important role of your members in shaping the world of K-12 education.
Carissa: Thank you, Van. I appreciate you having me here and look forward to chatting with you more on the board we mutually serve on.
Van: I look forward to seeing you there. I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.