Season 2, Episode 4 Part 1: Recovery in Rural America Through the Lens of North Dakota
Jim Cowen: This is Jim Cowen from the Collaborative for Student Success, and this is the “Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery” podcast. Each week, we travel the country on a kind of “road trip” to talk about the ways federal recovery dollars are being used in states to reshape education. Along the way, we’re holding up the best examples with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.
Our guest today is Kirsten Baesler, state school superintendent for the great state of North Dakota. I believe that you are the longest serving state school superintendent in North Dakota history. Is that correct?
Kirsten Baesler: That is correct. I’m finishing my 10th year in office.
Jim Cowen: That’s awesome. And is that across all states, too? Are you the longest serving?
Kirsten Baesler: I’m the longest serving chief of all of our memberships. So, all 50 states, D.C., our Department of Defense schools, BIE schools, our five jurisdictional areas. So yes, the longest serving chief in all of those. It’s an honor. I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve seen a lot of people; my colleagues come and go. We’re still all friends. I’ve developed a lot of friendships. Some of them are in the positions that I met them in, and most are not.
Jim Cowen: You’re also the brand-new president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which is the national organization representing the public officials who head all of the state departments of elementary and secondary education in the country and the Department of Defense Education Activity and a host of extra state jurisdictions as well. So that was as of last week, correct?
Kirsten Baesler: That’s correct. I was president-elect for a year, and I assumed the office of president at the closing of our meeting that just concluded in Austin, Texas last week on Friday. But I’m excited about it. I have a great group of people that I’m working with, and I’m really excited about the upcoming year.
Jim Cowen: Awesome. Well, Kirsten, before you were superintendent, you were in the Bismarck Public School system for more than 20 years, right?
Kirsten Baesler: Correct.
Jim Cowen: You were vice principal, you were a classroom teacher, but you also served on the, is it the Mandan School board?
Kirsten Baesler: It’s Mandan. Yep. Named after the Mandan Indians, just right across the river from our capital city of Bismarck is a community of about 125,000 people, so one of our larger school districts. But yeah, it was really exciting for me to close out my day as an educator—as you said, I was a classroom teacher, a building vice principal, worked in the district office there for a while integrating computer science and technology into our K-12 system—and get in my car, drive across the bridge and sit down at the board table and assume the hat and role of the president of the school board. And then, of course, go home at night and become a parent. So, it all kind of intertwined. I felt like it was a really, really solid way to learn about education top to bottom.
Jim Cowen: I’m excited to have our conversation in two parts. During this episode, we’re going to dive into the unique aspects of learning and rural communities during the pandemic and the role local school boards play in our education system and how we can support those leaders. Then, in part two, we’ll continue our conversation about local school board members and how the innovative approach being taken in North Dakota can be scaled across the country.
So, I want to start off with a little bit of your experience and the status you have now within North Dakota and your thoughts there, and then talk a little bit about your role with CCSSO.
Kirsten Baesler: Sure.
Jim Cowen: So, we’ve been “touring” the country, I’m using air quotes to say we’ve been touring the nation, to see how these federal recovery dollars have been being used for students in schools. And, you know, obviously we’ve had a lot of work with you all and your great team in North Dakota, but also, you know, across the country where we’re trying to hold up the examples of really good stuff happening in the face of the pandemic and all of the recovery that happens after it. Give me a sense of like how it is in North Dakota right now. Like what are you hopeful about? What are you worried about?
Kirsten Baesler: Yeah, sure. So, you know, being the state chief for 10 years gives me a perspective that many other state chiefs don’t have. Having spent, you know, the previous 20 plus years in classrooms in our state and school buildings and district leadership gives me a perspective that was affirmed when I became the state chief. There are fabulous successful efforts that are happening in every building across this state, and I would say this nation. And so, when I was in those roles and then coming to the state chief, I was really excited about the opportunity to suddenly have the funding that was necessary because we had the pockets of success. We knew what was working, but we were limited. The state was limited, districts were limited, buildings were limited, and classrooms were limited by the amount of effort that they could do because of funding.
And so, I am really optimistic. That’s how we used our first portion of our ESSER funding, was to take those strategies that we knew worked and we wanted to expand and scale and grow, and we used our first round of investment to scale those. We have strategies, particularly with our Native American students we saw some really great gains just prior to the pandemic in not only our graduation rate among our Native American students, but even our math proficiency and our ELA proficiency with strategies that we’ve developed. So, we were able to really double down on that investing in our teachers to use relevant curriculum, the high-quality instructional materials that were relevant to those students in our classrooms. So, we use that. I’m excited about that.
I’m concerned that isn’t going to happen fast enough. So that’s what I’m seeing in North Dakota is that we are recovering, but let’s face it, our students lost a lot of learning time. We were, as you know, Jim, we were back in school in brick-and-mortar buildings for the most part in June of 2020. We opened up for summer school and in the fall of 2020, we opened up the majority of our buildings. Just a few, like one or two buildings, were not opened up the full day, but we had interruptions in there. Either we had to close school because the staff had gotten COVID, or there was an outbreak in the community. And so, I think that says to me that regardless of us being open with our brick-and-mortar schools, two-and-a-half years of disruption was significant and our NAEP scores weren’t where we wanted them to be. They dropped drastically just like the rest of the nation.
So that’s what concerns me is that we’re not going to be able to deploy new strategies or existing strategies at the scale that they need to be deployed to meet the needs of all of our students in our state.
Jim Cowen: North Dakota is a very rural community. You’ve got a lot of beautiful land. I’m curious, like what are the really inherent problems with that? I know you have a very strong and vibrant Native American community. What are the particular challenges that you deal with in a state like North Dakota?
Kirsten Baesler: So, yes, you’re right. We have schools that have 15,000 students in them. And we have school districts—a total of fourteen K-12 [districts]. So, the diversity, we have school districts that are located, you know, connected by major airlines, American, United, Delta, you name it, they are connected. They have Starbucks on every corner, if you will. And then we have school districts that are 150 miles from the nearest McDonald’s or Walmart. And so, the asset that we have in North Dakota is we are well-connected as far as broadband. Within two weeks of the pandemic, March 13th, we had 98% of our students connected with high-speed internet in their homes and so that was a plus. That’s the benefit.
The deficit is that learning is a relationship transaction, right? Learning is not just simply transactional. It involves human beings, and it involves emotions. And so, when you are that isolated geographically, and then to compound the geographic isolation with a pandemic where you are just limited to your home for any period of time, that is the challenge that we have. So, how do we create community of learning when you are working in a virtual environment? And that virtual environment didn’t go away for us. It existed before the pandemic, and it is existing after the pandemic because many of our students rely on, whether it be telehealth or tele-instruction, they rely on that virtual delivery of mental health, behavioral health supports, as well as instructional supports. Many of our students are learning in virtual classrooms a calculus class or a statistics class because they don’t have a teacher that is licensed to teach statistics. But they want to take it, so they’re taking it virtually. So again, that is an ongoing problem that we will need to continue to solve, and problem solve for is creating community in a virtual environment.
Jim Cowen: I’m thinking of this, I’m putting my hat on from a former job of around natural disasters and disaster preparedness, and the most prepared communities were the ones that when the disaster strikes, whatever they were doing before comes in handy during the disaster. In other words, you’re already doing a lot of virtual learning. You’re already very well-connected by the sheer band of the geography that you’re dealing with. Therefore, you’re better prepared when it actually becomes a necessity. Where others may not have that.
Kirsten Baesler: Exactly. That’s well stated. Exactly. Our school districts that made the transition during the pandemic were those that were already working in that virtual environment, that were engaging with telehealth, medical services, engaging in the distance learning opportunities from other larger school districts. It was also the school districts that had invested in helping their teachers learn how to teach in a virtual environment, the pedagogy that is absolutely necessary to teach in that virtual environment. To spend just as much time creating community in a virtual classroom as you did the first two weeks of school creating community within your classroom environment at a brick-and-mortar. And we did have a head start on that in some of our school districts, but those school districts that weren’t creating learner agency and personalized competency-based learning plans for all of their students, they really struggled. So, there’s, you know, there’s the glass half full, the silver lining in every cloud. The pandemic has caused all of those districts that weren’t investing in that, the opportunity to say, “Hey, this is important.” And it was important during the pandemic, but it’s also important to this generation of students and it’s necessary for North Dakota students that are geographically isolated.
Jim Cowen: Is there a change in how parents are looking at education given everything that’s happened over the last three years?
Kirsten Baesler: Absolutely it is. We have 115 other languages other than English spoken in our classrooms across the state. So, we’re not as homogenous as people think we are. We do have that diversity, especially with many of our new Americans and refugee resettlements, but, for the most part, education is a real high priority for all of our parents and all of our families in North Dakota. It’s a high priority for our legislators, but when you have a front row seat as a parent to that classroom because it’s happening at your kitchen table, our parents became even more engaged. Our families became more engaged because they actually saw lessons that were being taught.
I would say the most specific example, before the pandemic, we had started to dip our toe into embracing the science of reading and really using science to ensure that we are teaching reading in a scientifically proven way. And so, for the most part, our families just trusted that all of our schools were teaching reading in that way or in that matter, helping students sound out words. But I think some of our parents were able to see firsthand that “they’re teaching some queuing methods. And from what I know, or I’ve heard, or I’ve read about teaching, reading that way isn’t good anymore.” So, it empowered our teachers to say to our school teachers and to our school leaders, “Hey, what do you know about this?” which in turn gave our school leaders the opportunity to feel supported by those families and say, “we’re going to make some changes in our curriculum. We’re going to make some changes in the professional development for our school.” And it has created a better sense of teamwork and a bridge between family and home that didn’t exist before.
Jim Cowen: We have a platform that we call the EduRecoveryHub, which you know about, we’ve featured some of the practices that you’ve been pursuing in North Dakota. There’s one that we particularly love, which is around school board governance and training, and we’ve written about it, we’ve helped you put a video about it. So, I’m teeing this up because I’d love to hear you talk about it and where you hope this goes.
Kirsten Baesler: Absolutely. So, we talked a little bit about my personal story of being a classroom educator, building leader, district engaged, and me being a school board member and that school board work and that experience [was] the best preparation that I could have had in becoming a state chief. It prepared me the best because I had all of the educational background. I knew all of the pedagogy; I knew the curriculum. I knew what assessments were about. All of those things are super helpful when you become a state education leader. But when I became a school board member, I realized in a more profound way, how important good policy and good funding decisions are in order to secure student outcomes. You are never going to have good classrooms without good policy and good funding decisions. And so, I brought that experience to this role as the state chief and understanding how important when I was a school board president and my fellow eight board members, we made policy decisions and funding decisions that affected every one of our buildings in the district and every one of our classrooms.
When adults with that much authority and that much influence and power are making decisions that aren’t based on student outcomes, you have a system that can go in the ditch pretty quickly. But when that board is focused on making good policy decisions and good funding decisions that are rooted in student outcomes, and they are committed to monitoring the progress that those student outcome goals are making, then you have the entire ship rowing in the same direction, if you will. The entire boat is rowing in the same direction, and your superintendent isn’t forced to satisfy the goals of the board and, oh yeah, satisfy the student outcome goals of the state and the nation.
So, knowing that and focusing on that, I used a portion of the North Dakota SEA set-aside funds to stand up a program that I modeled after Texas Lone Star Governance. We customized it to fit North Dakota based on North Dakota’s portrait of a graduate, North Dakota’s six outcome goals that we had established as priorities for our state. We’re taking that training into our school districts and providing those board members training about yes, how to read data and how to learn more about your student outcome data, but more importantly than just learning how to read data, how do you use that data to set your goals and support your school leaders, superintendent, and their executive team. Not only support them but hold them accountable to those student outcome goals. So [I’m] really excited about that. We had seven initial school boards that were on the inaugural cohort training. We have another 12 that they’ve approved for grant funding. We will have another 11 that will be using some different funding this next semester. And at the end of this school year, over 20% of our boards will have engaged in this training and ongoing coaching. And simply said, Jim, student outcomes won’t change until adult behaviors change. And that starts with the board.
Jim Cowen: I love the idea. Two questions around that. One, how do you want to measure success with this? Like I would see naturally you want this implemented across the board. What’s going to tell you that this is working?
Kirsten Baesler: Because it’s rooted in student outcomes. I’m going to tell you that it’s working. The ultimate measurement is our student outcome score. So, reading, writing, mathematics, high school graduation, choice ready graduates. Those are the metrics that we’re using. Closing the gap for our students with disabilities, students living in poverty, Native American students. Those are going to be the student outcomes and that has to be what our ultimate measure is. But, as you know, along the way there’s a lot of inputs that are necessary in order to achieve those student outcomes. So, the inputs are number one, how many of our school boards have been trained? But that is, that is absolutely an input. We will measure the output of, have we moved the needle on what our board’s talking about when we evaluate the agendas of our school board meetings? Currently, 90% of our school board agendas are focused on buildings, budgets, operations, things that are not student outcome focused. And less than 10% of that board time is spent focusing on student outcomes. When we see the evaluation of those agendas, when we start to code the time and how they’re spending their meeting time, when that shifts to having boards talk with their leaders about student outcomes and the progress that they’re making on student outcomes, that will be the measure for the output of our investment.
Jim Cowen: Why is that? I mean, I guess it’s a probably a fairly easy question to answer, because you see this across the country, like the school boards being focusing on the buses, the lunch system, the, you know, issue [du jour] that falls into everything but how are students doing? Is that just because most school boards just aren’t trained?
Kirsten Baesler: Every school board member, I’m going to say, you know maybe there’s an exception, but I’m going to say every school board member that I belong to—and when I was a school board member myself, I was involved in our state level association, our regional level, and the national association—I have yet to run across a school board member that is not deeply committed to making a difference. And as is every teacher, every building leader, every person that is involved in education, but while we invest in professional development on helping even our paraprofessionals do a better job, our bus drivers, our child nutrition, and then you go to our classroom teachers, our building leaders, our superintendents. We invest in professional development and training to help them get better about the things that they need to do that are part of their mission of why they became an educator. Yet we are investing zero time and money into helping the ultimate leaders of every district in our state become better at what they do. We don’t provide the training for them. We don’t provide the information or the professional development. We don’t invest in them the way that we invest at every other level of the system, and that has to change.
Jim Cowen: That wraps part one of our conversation with North Dakota superintendent Kirsten Baesler. Tune in next week for part two of our conversation where we’ll tackle ways in which school board trainings may be scaled, as well as other observations Kirsten has as the new President of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Jim Cowen: This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success. Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery. Where each week, we showcase ways federal recovery funds are reshaping schools by talking to the people doing the hard work to educate America’s kids. Reach out to us at EduRecoveryHub.org/RouteK12 or follow us on Twitter at our handle @StudentSuccess.
About Jim Cowen
Jim is the the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends strong K-12 policies that benefit all students.