In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a staff member of the Kentucky School Advocate.
This month’s conversation is with Ed Massey, Boone County Board of Education member, a past President of the Kentucky School Boards Association and now, President of the National School Boards Association. Massey, who was inaugurated in April, is the first Kentuckian to serve as an officer on NSBA’s Board of Directors. In this article, Massey discusses how he prepared for this role and what his goals are for the next year.
Q. We spoke two years ago when you became secretary/treasurer of NSBA, which put you in line for the presidency. What did you learn during those two years and how has that helped prepare you for your role as president?
A. I’ve become much more acquainted with the missions and objectives of the National School Boards Association and its role as it relates to state associations and local school boards. We must draw together our resources as state associations and as a national association to combat the attacks on public education, because many of the anti-public education groups have solidified their resources and have made a very strong attack against what our objectives are. We certainly want to make sure that all American children have equal opportunities to succeed through the public education environment.
I also learned that the higher up you go in any association, you learn better how the organization operates and you become more cognizant of the positives – and the negatives. And in these two years prior to becoming president, we have aligned our goals and objectives, we have a new strategic plan in place and our ultimate goal is working with and through state associations for the betterment of public education. We’re getting back to working with our state associations in a more concentric way to carry our message to Capitol Hill.
Q. What have you chosen as the theme for your presidency?
A. It is Adaptive Leadership: Moving Education Forward. The basis for it comes from the work my school district did when we went to the Executive Educators’ Institute on Leadership at Harvard. We talked about adaptive change versus technical change.
Adaptive change is being able to recognize that you are in a constantly changing environment and that you cannot continue to do the things the way you’ve always done them and continue to maintain the same success rate. So you have to adapt your principles, you have to adapt your implementation of your policies and procedures. You can maintain your common goals and objectives, but the way you meet them is going to change based on federal policy, state policy, even local district policy. And really, that’s the ultimate form of local control.
Issues continuously arise within our communities, within our schools, and the only way we can maintain success for students is not to become so rigid that we’re averse to change. We can have some adaptive change, and that has to be led. There has to be solid leadership for that change to move forward.
Adaptive change has turned out to be the perfect theme for my year because NSBA will be selecting a new executive director to move our association forward. And of course, built around our strategic objective and the profile we’ve established, we will select someone who will continue to bring us together and move forward in that common cause.
Q. As a school board member in Boone County, you’ve been through the process of selecting a superintendent before. Has that experience prepared you in any way for searching for a new NSBA executive director? (Current Executive Director Anne Bryant is retiring.)
A. I have been through it twice and I was chairman of the search committee both times. It has prepared me, but this is on a much grander scale and a much larger board.
I think the difference between the two is that a superintendent is asked to implement the state and government policies and focus on student achievement under the current guidelines and standards, whereas at the national level, our two main focuses are legislative and legal advocacy. So all of our systems and programs are built around promoting that message about education being at the forefront and about advocating that message on Capitol Hill and in the courts.
So the roles are different, the type of person you’re going to select is different and we have much more input from many different stakeholders.
I was also president of the Kentucky School Boards Association when we selected Bill Scott as executive director, which is much more in line with selecting a new national executive director.
Q. What are some of the other goals you will be pursuing this year?
A. My first goal is to bring our association together. There have been some bumps in the road over the past few years. A lot of that is the difference in how services are rendered across the 50 states. For instance, the association – for smaller states – meets a lot of the needs those states can’t do for themselves. But in bigger states, they have a lot of their own services that they can provide and do better than we could ever provide. So the real trick is trying to consolidate our delivery of services so we can deliver them to each particular state in a way that meets their individual needs.
That is part of adaptive leadership. If you deliver the same product to all 50 states, it’s just not going to work. We really have to evaluate our products, our policies and our objectives so we can actually deliver to each state what they need. Just like in education where we have an individualized learning plan for students, we almost have to have an individual state plan as a national association.
Trying to do that among 50 states is sometimes a real challenge, so my goal is to try to bring us all together and not appear to the public to ever be competing with each other in a negative sense.
Another goal is, I want to be much more communicative. The key to working with state associations and working across lateral associations nationally is good, constant and clear communication. Not only with our internal board, but also with our state executives and presidents.
My first overall goal is to make education part of the conversation wherever I’m at. If it’s at Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court or a training module at a state association, I want education to be the conversation. The more we talk about it, the more attention we bring to public education, the more we can educate and provide knowledge to our constituency about the importance of education in helping our country and our communities. I firmly believe education is the key to overcoming poverty, of overcoming our economic woes, giving better opportunities to our students, providing international opportunities, etc.
Q. What does your presidency mean for the state of Kentucky?
A. I want to use my role to shine a spotlight on Kentucky and Boone County. Since the advent of the educational changes in Kentucky in 1990, we’ve really seen them come to fruition with Senate Bill 1 and those initiatives we’ve done in the past few years. We’ve really seen Kentucky move way up the ranks in educational achievement and it’s time to spread that message across the country, to share the things that have worked so that other states can replicate those.
And frankly, it’s time for us to celebrate the accomplishments of many milestones in Kentucky in the area of public education. In my local district, we’ve doubled in size over the last 10 years, yet despite that growth and the economic challenges that have confronted us, we still have routinely ranked in the top 10 in the districts in the state academically. That is proof if you adapt your techniques, your teaching and your objectives and you continue to focus on your primary objective, you can still attain quality education despite all of the challenges you face.
We really need that message out there because we’re not going to get more money in the coming years and we’re really going to have to change the way we do things in order to survive and succeed.
Q. What are some of the biggest challenges education is facing today?
A. Obviously the one everyone talks to is funding and the ability to meet the state and federal requirements. Our philosophy at KSBA and at NSBA has been, ‘If you’re going to mandate something, fine, and we’re willing to go out there and do whatever we can for students, but fund it.’ Don’t underfund it or not fund it and then add it to the list of things we must accomplish because then you are creating this perpetual decline in motivation and momentum for school districts to move ahead.
Let us do the work we need to do and give us the local control and flexibility we need in order to use money the most effective way in our district.
Another challenge is, we have to raise the importance of teaching as a profession in our country. I think in many ways teachers are not given the respect they deserve and that is why a third are leaving the profession after the first five years.
I think we really need to emphasize how important teaching is and having a good solid, quality teacher in the classroom makes all the difference in the world for student achievement.
I think there’s the constant attacks on public education by people – not that they’re adverse to education – they just don’t understand how the system works. There have been a lot of challenges in our own community and state by tea party activists, who have some causes that are meritorious, but what they don’t realize is that much of the money that is allocated to the district is mandated how it can be spent. We have very little flexibility and control and therefore it’s perceived sometimes as waste, but it’s waste that the local board did not create.
Q. How can school boards help meet those challenges?
A. The local board has to manage those flexible funds and fill those gaps where there’s need. I think part of the thing we have to do as board members is to become involved, be part of that educational conversation and help the people in the community who don’t understand the restraints on education and how the system works, why we do what we do. I think when people realize that, they have a much greater appreciation for board members and what they do.
Q. Any other topics you would like to discuss?
A. One of the things that I’ve kept focused on no matter where I’ve gone in education is, I’ve never forgotten why I got involved in this in the first place. I have three children who are active in my own public school system and I never forget my roots. My roots were established through my parents who were educators and it gave me a thorough appreciation for that local educational element that is so necessary to the survival of our local communities.
Many children today who are born into poverty, they didn’t ask to be born into that situation and there’s no reason they shouldn’t have the same opportunities that somebody like I have experienced.