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How One State Is Talking About School Improvement (Opinion)

North Dakota state schools Superintendent Kirsten Baesler is the nation’s longest-serving state chief. She’s been in the role since 2013, following 24 years as an elementary teacher, media specialist, and vice principal in the Bismarck public schools. She’s also served as president of her local school board and is currently the president of the board of directors for the Council of Chief State School Officers. Given that she’s pretty much seen it all, it seemed a good time to check in on what’s changed, the challenges of rural education, and post-pandemic absenteeism and academic recovery.

—Rick

Rick: You’ve been North Dakota’s state superintendent since the start of 2013. What’s changed the most about your job over the past decade?

Kirsten: When I took office, everything was focused on making students college-ready. Now, we take a much more balanced approach that prepares students with real-world skills, such as critical thinking and career training. We’ve also become more committed to transitioning not just to school choice but to student choice, which allows students to craft a personalized and tailored journey through K–12. Plus, we’ve gone from family involvement—i.e., one-way communication to inform families how they could help their schools—to family engagement, which is a two-way process. In other words, there is much more focus on delivering what families want and on building a true partnership with families.

Rick: You’ve led North Dakota through the pandemic and its recovery. Where do things stand today?

Kirsten: North Dakota has made significant progress in improving student outcomes after the pandemic. We led most of the nation in reopening schools in June 2020 for summer school, and 98 percent of our students attended in-person learning five days a week by December 2020. All of our schools were open five days a week by August 2021. We’re closely monitoring academic recovery, reporting how our schools are spending the federal COVID-recovery funds and observing the impacts those funds are having. We are not where we were in 2019, but the last two years have seen us trending strongly in the right direction.

Rick: We tend to hear more about the travails in big cities and coastal states. What have been some of the challenges of pandemic recovery in a state like North Dakota?

Kirsten: Because of our state’s political preferences, there was significant pressure to reopen schools quickly for in-person learning. Doing that in a safe and effective manner was a challenge. Supply-chain issues were real. Access to materials to improve school buildings was limited. Even access to instructional materials was a challenge. Additionally, federal aid is based on student numbers. We have a relatively small number of students at 130,000, but we also have 168 school districts—a relatively large number—that must establish and sustain the same number of programs and recovery efforts. In other words, we have less money to do the same work spread over many administrative units. We also have a very, very small state department staff, so everyone is wearing multiple hats to administer many programs.

Rick: Post-pandemic, what are you seeing in terms of achievement and absenteeism?

Kirsten: As part of our accountability plan, North Dakota administers annual surveys to measure student engagement, which we think is a leading indicator of absenteeism. Our post-COVID data on student engagement has declined from pre-COVID levels, and our attendance has fallen off with it. This is why we’re focusing intently on efforts that we began before the pandemic: moving toward personalized, competency-based learning to motivate learners to build their own agency. Schools that were leading in this work before the pandemic saw less academic decline and fewer absenteeism problems when we returned to in-person learning. We have seen a significant increase in the number of school districts implementing personalized/competency-based learning, which results in stronger student engagement.

Rick: You’ve launched some initiatives intended to help with school staffing. Can you say a bit about them?

Kirsten: In 2019, we initiated the Grow Your Own program, which allows paraprofessionals to become special education teachers, using federal funds. This later expanded into a comprehensive recruitment and retention initiative. We expanded our support to other teacher-shortage areas and increased collaborations with educator preparation providers, all funded by pandemic-recovery grants. After initial success, we pursued financial sustainability by securing a $3 million legislative appropriation and adopting the federal registered-apprenticeship model. This year, we were the only state education agency to obtain a competitive $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor that is solely dedicated to registered teacher apprenticeships. And we obtained approval for K–12 registered apprenticeships for principals, launching the first program of its kind in the nation, with the potential for other states to follow suit.

Rick: What would success look like for these efforts? When will we know whether they worked?

Kirsten: The ultimate success means every child gets the teacher they need and deserve. We’ve grown from one education preparation partner that is eligible for apprenticeship programs to 10 partners. The paraprofessionals that were part of our first ESSER-funded Para-to-Teacher pathway program are now all teaching in North Dakota schools. We anticipate graduating up to 700 new teachers within the next two and a half years. Our three ESSER-funded programs will produce approximately 200 new teachers, our state-funded program around 250, and our teacher-apprenticeship program about 250. These new teachers will have a significant impact on our statewide teacher shortage. In addition, we currently have 10 principal-candidates in our K–12 principal-apprenticeship program. While recruiting teachers through Grow Your Own and apprenticeships is vital, retaining them is equally important. Local teacher-candidates in rural communities bring commitment and passion. They already work with students and love the area in which they live.

Rick: Especially as an elected state chief, what have you found useful in negotiating the culture clashes that burned so hot in the past few years?

Kirsten: We have a program for training and supporting school board members called the North Dakota Be Legendary School Board Institute, which has helped to provide successful strategies to negate or at least minimize culture war issues. We want every adult in the system to understand that the only reason schools exist is to ensure students have what they need to be successful in life. Period. Solely focusing on student outcomes unifies the conversation among adults. When school boards and communities talk about their students’ 3rd grade reading skills—or how they’re doing in 8th grade math—they have little time to focus on ancillary and more emotional topics that don’t contribute directly to improving our students’ basic academic skills. At the end of the day, every adult should feel good about the work they’ve done if they’ve made decisions based upon the best interests of students in their academic journey—not what’s best for adults.

Rick: You’ve been leading North Dakota for more than a decade. What’s the one bit of advice you’re most inclined to offer new leaders?

Kirsten: Keep your sole focus on student outcomes. Put students first in everything you do. Keep the main thing the main thing. Don’t get distracted from that mission and get pulled into a rabbit hole. If we can develop young people as citizens with a solid command of academics and who have respect, courage, compassion, integrity, a sense of responsibility, and an appreciation of the unique nature of this great nation, we will have done our jobs.

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