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‘We must change to meet the needs of every student.’ — A conversation with Eric Davis of the State Board of Education

Lessons from the past school year. Plans for the year ahead. In this special report, EdNC looks at how the pandemic impacted education and what that means for the future. Read the rest of the series here.

What was it like to be a state education leader during an unprecedented school year? We interviewed three of those leaders — Rebecca Planchard, Eric Davis, and Thomas Stith — to hear their reflections on the pandemic and thoughts about the future of education.

Below is our interview with Eric Davis, chair of the State Board of Education. Davis has served in this role since September 2018 and previously served as chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education. We discussed what the future might hold for K-12 education, what’s brining him hope right now, and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sorrells: Let’s start with you introducing yourself and telling me a little bit about what the role as chair of the State Board has been like over the last year and a half or so.

Davis: My name is Eric Davis. I’m a member of the State Board of Education and currently serve as chair of the Board. It’s a wonderful role, first of all because I get to work with colleagues from all over the state who represent just the very best in North Carolina. It’s a great opportunity to give back to a terrific state that, frankly, gave me a great start in life through the public school system and has really blessed my family in this regard.

It’s also a great opportunity to work with some terrific educators, folks who just give their heart and soul every day for our students. And that was no more apparent than last March when the pandemic struck. What that created, besides the stress and the uncertainty and the fear, was a terrific opportunity to see the very best in our educators. And they sure rose to the occasion — when there was no playbook, there was no curriculum, there was no lesson plan — you had to create it.

And what I saw then and see now is that what our educators did was … they rededicated themselves to being students, and they learned their craft all over again. And they did it in a spirit of real teamwork.

Eric Davis, State Board of Education

Recently, I was listening to a teacher describe what they wanted to keep after this pandemic. And the honest vulnerability — she said, ‘Before the pandemic, if I found something that really worked well, I might not always share it, because we all want to have the best classroom.’ She said, ‘Not anymore.’ It’s less about being a little better than the next teacher, it’s more about helping the team, supporting each other. And that generosity and compassion is just what makes our education system work.

So, I think while the pandemic has highlighted the stresses and the fault lines and the challenges that our education system has, boy has it ever highlighted the spirit of charity and commitment to each other that is so important in educating our children.

Sorrells: Looking in the rearview mirror, since March 2020, what are some things that you think have gone well when it comes to K-12 education?

Davis: Well, clearly the response. The first few months was just completely: How do we respond? And a great example is the school nutrition workers in every school in every district, the bus drivers, custodians, our own nutrition staff here at DPI (Department of Public Instruction) and just the countless volunteers who pitched in just to feed our students. That was an unbelievable effort that continues to this day. And the creativity — working within and sometimes in spite of the regulations that prohibit and inhibit our ability to support our students. That was just an unbelievable effort.

And then the various ways that our teachers stayed connected to their students was just unbelievable, especially when you think about students who, besides having their education interrupted, faced a future of their parents losing their jobs, likely losing their home, all sorts of instabilities and stressors that they shouldn’t have had to face as children. But they did, and they faced them courageously, and our teachers really helped. In so many cases, just being a listening ear. Checking in each morning, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ and genuinely finding out about the challenges the students faced, and then providing support and solutions and just being a caring adult. I think those are just unbelievable.

Another great example is how teachers figured out how to deliver instruction despite the barriers. Our DPI staff did a wonderful job of using television and other sorts of resources that in the past we might not have used. Teachers who recognized their students don’t have broadband access and did not let that deter their commitment to provide instructional materials and communication with their students. I think many times when our buses, although they weren’t carrying students like we want them to, would come over that hill on some two-lane road somewhere, delivering those instructional materials and meals, they were delivered more than materials and meals. They were delivering our commitment to those students and giving them hope that we’ll make it through this and have a brighter future on the other end.

Sorrells: Looking back, is there anything you wish had gone differently or things you would have done differently in hindsight?

Davis: First, I would have preferred that our schools and our students and our teachers had been better prepared. The pandemic exposed the stresses that we were aware of were in the system, and it made them worse. But the fact that there were those pre-existing challenges made it that much more difficult.

The easiest one to describe is the fact that we don’t have every home connected to the internet. But it goes way beyond that. It goes to the fact that we have children who don’t get the proper health care that they need. We’ve got a systemic situation that us education leaders own, that the system is designed to serve the students that it’s serving well. And yet, we’ve got far too many students that we’re not serving well enough. And that’s no fault of our teachers, it’s no fault of the parents, and it’s certainly no fault of the student. The system has to change. And changing the system is not in any way a blame of anyone.

But we as the leaders of education system bear the responsibility to first change ourselves by opening our minds and recognizing that, in order to better meet the needs of our students, we’ve got to be willing to do things differently.

Some good examples: We heard recently about how our course structure inhibits the ability to deliver experiences to our students. We’ve heard examples of our accountability system, while it emphasizes the content that we want our students to learn, it doesn’t emphasize fully enough the skills that we want our students to have. Our human capital system doesn’t provide adequate support or opportunity for teachers to increase their skills and their craft and progress in their careers and send a message of value and importance. We’ve got to change that, while at the same time sustaining the things that are working now, because so many students are being really well served.

It’s that opportunity that we face — to sustain what’s working while boldly changing what we must change to meet the needs of every student.

Eric Davis, State Board of Education

Sorrells: Now looking to the future, how, if at all, do you think education will be changed for better or for worse coming out of the pandemic?

Davis: In some regards, we’ve learned so much during the pandemic that we need to keep doing. One Math 1 teacher told me this experience … Math 1 is that hurdle that so many of our students struggle with toward graduation. I imagine many of our students dread Math 1. So this Math 1 teacher said, at the beginning of the school year, I was aware of the challenges and constant negativity that is so pervasive in our society. I decided at the beginning of every one of my classes, I’m going to start with an “OP” moment — “Only Positive.”

He said it started slow and gradually picked up steam until it became not only the most enjoyable, but perhaps the most important part of my class. Because not only did I get a chance to share, but our students shared, and they heard from each other and they started reflecting differently about their experiences. Someone shined a ray of sunshine on what’s often a dark and gloomy day. It gave them hope. He touched their heart. And that’s the first step to touching their mind. And he said, ‘That’s what I want to keep doing. I’m going to do that whether it is pandemic or not.’ So learnings like that, which sound so simple and sometimes maybe are discounted, are so important.

And then there’s a host of other things that are more education-specific. We now have students with tools. And we develop skills as educators to be able to more personally connect with every student where they are at in their education journey and bring them forward. One of the things I hope changes is that we disconnect the time-bound restrictions that we currently have in our education system. That we move to a competency-based, mastery-of-skill-based at the rate that the student can progress at efficiently, effectively, and to their benefit, not to our benefit as an adult.

Which means there’s going to be some students that because of where they’re at, we need to start in a different place and perhaps need to move slower. For other students, we need to start at a different place and perhaps move faster. But we can tailor what we’re doing to the individual needs of the student, and in doing so meet the needs of all students. It’s much harder, it’s much more challenging, which means we’ve got to support our teachers that much more with resources, skills, professional development, listening to them, and understanding what the opportunities and challenges are.

But I think that’s one of the real opportunities we have with this pandemic is to make the education journey much more personalized, because at the end of the day, the core of education is an adult connecting with a child. So let’s connect with each child.

Sorrells: That seems like something that was becoming front of mind before the pandemic and might be accelerated because of it, similar to broadband.

Davis: It is vitally important that we make urgent, rapid progress, not just to complete the unfinished learning that was interrupted during the pandemic, but that we prepare for the next one. There’s another crisis coming. It’s just life and the complex world we live in. It’s coming. And if we don’t take this opportunity to better prepare and progress and reduce those fault lines, then we will have failed.

This is a great opportunity to not only make amends for the unfinished work of the past year, but to prepare for the future.

Eric Davis, State Board of Education

Sorrells: What are some of your goals or hopes for next school year, things you would want to see happen?

Davis: First of all, I want our students back in our schools. There’s no better place for our students to learn than in our schools, with their classmates, and with their teachers. So that’s number one.

And then two, I hope that in the rush to get back to some degree of normalcy and stability, we don’t try to go back to what we were doing — we go forward, bringing along the things that work well and need to continue to work, but that we have the courage to move forward and continue to learn how to change and adapt and deliver a better education to children.

I’m hopeful that in the fall, we’ll make continued progress on the opportunity to reach all children and to demonstrate the calm, thoughtful, adult way of resolving our differences. And helping our children see that by resolving our differences in that fashion, that we’re leading by example and helping them take advantage of the differences we have in our society as a strength.

So beyond just catching up on unfinished learning, I’m hopeful that we’ll make progress in working together better as one people.

Sorrells: As an education leader, what is your biggest lesson learned from the last year, if you had to narrow it down?

Davis: I’ve learned a lot. It’s hard to pick one. But I think that maybe it’s more of a reminder — that there really wasn’t one leadership moment. The real challenges, the same challenge our students and teachers face, is the daily grind of moving forward in the midst of sometimes overwhelming frustration and negativity. And believing in ourselves that we can do hard things.

I was out running one morning, and I came across a sidewalk chalk art that I’m sure one of our students did. And that’s exactly what it said, ‘We can do hard things.’ And sometimes those things are thrust upon us, like this pandemic. And the way we do hard things is we take care of each other. Sometimes we choose to do hard things because it’s the right thing to do. And it makes us better, and it progresses us down toward that path of the better union.

I think our opportunity is to embrace change, embrace unity and commitment to each other … and to celebrate the hard times as chances to grow. The most growth occurs under the hottest sun, so let’s take advantage of it.

Eric Davis, State Board of Education

Sorrells: In trying to give folks a sense of what it was like to be in your shoes last year when all those decisions were being made, can you share an example of both a tough moment of leadership and a bright moment of leadership from the last year or so?

Davis: The toughest moment was the daily grind. Getting going each day, having no idea what the challenges were that were coming. And certainly having no idea what the answers were. And yet working with folks that maybe had a different opinion or I disagreed with.

In fact, that was the high point — working with folks that had a different opinion and who thought of a different answer. And the high was finding the better answer or the better solution or the path through the uncertainty. But those situations get amplified when under pressure and under stress in the midst of uncertainty and fear. And this experience certainly has been one of all that.

I’m also just really grateful to be a North Carolinian. There’s not another place I want to live, I want to raise children, I want to have a family, work. We’re so blessed. I think part of our opportunity, in the midst of all the struggle and all the challenge, is to take a breath and remember where we are, who we are, and caring for our neighbor.

Sorrells: What is bringing you hope right now?

Davis: May and June are graduation months. And there’s nothing better than graduation. When you look in the eyes of those young students who are now becoming adults, and they’re going to take whatever that next journey of career or public service or college. That just gives me hope for the future.

And when I see the dedication and commitment of our teachers, principals, and superintendents. I’m telling you, there’s no harder job in the world than being a superintendent of a public school system, and we’ve got some of the best. They are unbelievable. Their steadfastness and their courage and their commitment and their patience, especially with us parents.

And what also gives me hope is our parents, our family members. It’s unbelievable, the rallying around our students that families and parents and others have done. And it’s of course for their own, because we want to take care of our own, but also, most often, it’s for their neighbors. That’s giving me beyond hope — optimism.

I think whatever trials and sufferings we’re going through now are not worth comparing with where we’re going and what we’re going to get to, and the better future that our students are going to have. So that gives me great optimism.

Eric Davis, State Board of Education

Sorrells: Is there anything else you want to discuss that I didn’t ask about?

Davis: I’m grateful for all those who are so dedicated to educating our children. There’s nothing more important we do as a people than educate our children. It’ll determine how we secure our nation, what kind of prosperity we all enjoy. It’s just morally the most important thing we can do.

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and previously worked as chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.