Carolyn Stanford Taylor, Wisconsin’s First Black State Superintendent: The Challenges Facing Public Education

Carolyn Stranford Taylor

Carolyn Stanford Taylor has held many positions in public education including student teacher, teacher, president of Madison Teachers, Inc., principal and state superintendent for public education

Part 2 of 2

by Jonathan Gramling

One could say that Carolyn Stanford Taylor has seen public education from just about every perspective imaginable. Growing up ion Marks, Mississippi, Stanford Taylor’s family were one of the first to integrate the public schools there. Stanford Taylor has been a student teacher, teacher, principal, assistant state superintendent, state superintendent and most recently the director of public engagement for MMSD.

And while as state superintendent of public education Stanford Taylor wanted to do what’s best for students, she also had to deal with political motivations.

“We were given dollars from the federal level,” Stanford Taylor said about pandemic funding. “We as a state agency, were to develop a plan for how those dollars would be distributed. We came up with a plan. Our legislature changed the plan. They wanted to award more money to the districts that held school in person during the pandemic than those that did not. This meant that our largest urban school districts were negatively impacted even though that was where most of our need was.”

One of the biggest challenges facing public education is its aging infrastructure and buildings. How can you prepare students for a 21st Century world with 20th Century technology?

“We can’t even wire some of our buildings properly,” Stanford Taylor said. “We have buildings that don’t have air conditioning. And we know that with climate change and all of that, our kids are sitting in conditions where they are either too hot or too cold. And we aren’t addressing this.

The funding has to change. There has to be a change. We can’t continue to operate these old buildings in a new era. When we used to say that our teachers were ‘a sage on the stage,’ they were the possessors of all knowledge. And then we started to talk about them being ‘the guides on the side.’ But right now when we think about who the guide is, it’s Alexa, Siri, and Google. All of this information is readily available to our kids. But how do we help them be good consumers of information? When we had the pandemic — I was still at the state level at that time — we had to look across the state to see who had the capability. Who had WiFi? Who didn’t have WiFi? How were we going to get technology into the hands of all of our kids. We started to think creatively about how we were able to do that. But now we have this. And so if we go into our classrooms, don’t we want our kids to be able to use this? Don’t we want our educators to be able to help our kids use it in a different way?”

Public education took a big hit in 2010 with the passage of Act 10, which gutted public sector unions — including the teacher unions. If that wasn’t enough, there were forces that were downgrading and vilifying teachers and trying to lower their pay. Id it any wonder that there is a shortage of teachers today?

“We know that there is a shortage of educators,” Stanford Taylor observed. “That’s a huge issue. And we have to stop looking at our educators as though they are mere volunteers. The way that we compensate them is, ‘Okay we’ll give you a stipend.’ No, these are professionals. And if we want to continue to grow those professionals, we want them to have the latest knowledge to  pour into our kids, then we need to pay attention to them. And we are at that point of where we are trying to regrow the profession of education. And it’s going to take some additional funding. People don’t like to hear that. But those people have to live too. When we complain about the prices at the grocery store and gas station, that hits our educators too.”

An important piece of the academic success puzzle is parents. And when they are blamed for everything that is “wrong” with their child, it creates a huge engagement gap with the child losing out in the end. Stanford Taylor believes we need to meet parents where they are and go from there.

“We know that our parents are out there holding two jobs,” Stanford Taylor said. “We like to point the finger at our parents, that they are the problem. But we can’t do that any more. We need our parents as partners. But we have to change our perception of what it is that we believe parents need to be doing. I remember back when I was a principal. I did an action research project on involvement versus engagement. We talked a lot about parent involvement. And we had this image of parents being in the schools, volunteering and doing this and that. But that isn’t always the case, but it doesn’t mean that they love their kids any less than anyone else because they aren’t present in that environment. To me, if the parent looks at the assignment and they help their kids with the assignments and they read to their child, if they are available for a phone call,  to say, ‘I got you. I’ll talk to my kid, they are engaged as much as they can be. We can’t define what engagement is for a parent because they are in different circumstances.”

How parents are viewed will determine how they are engaged. Are they part of the problem or part of the solution? Many parents have enough to deal with without the schools adding to their emotional burden.

“You are sending mixed signals,” Stanford Taylor said about some school personnel. “You’re sending the signal that this is my domain. I am the person who possesses all knowledge. There is nothing that you can contribute. But that’s not what we want parents to know. We want them to know that we value them. ‘You are the first educator of your child. You spend X amount of time with your child. You know all of those little things about your individual child that we might not ever discover. So let’s work together.’”

And one of the biggest challenges facing public education is helping educators to become able to traverse an increasingly multicultural student body so that educators are effective no matter what the students’ background is.

“We know that people come from their own lived experiences,” Stanford Taylor said. “If I grow up in an environment where I don’t experience many people who don’t look like me and if that child is working outside of those norms, then we tend to say that there is something wrong with that child. No it’s not. History plays a huge part. We know that schools were normed on white myth because that is who they were developed for. And the rules, policies, and regulations that we have are based on that population. And so, when we have someone come into a school who behaves outside of those norms, we automatically label that as wrong. No. We need someone who can create the relationship with the students and the families where they start to break down those barriers. They start to look at the child as a whole. They start to look at the culture and learn about the culture and learn what is acceptable outside of what they believe is the norm. And then they learn how to relate. That is one of the biggest things. If you have a relationship with the child, you are going to be able to help educate that child. Do you remember that cute little phrase that they used to say, ‘Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ It’s absolutely true. If they know that you care about them, they’ll perform above and beyond. Parents will be in your corner if they know you love their child above and beyond.”

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And it all boils down to how we are positively impacting the student mentally, emotionally and physically.

“Why aren’t we looking at a strength-based approach,” Stanford Taylor asked. “And who is pouring that into our kids? I look at what Rosa Thompson is doing with Black Girl Magic. We’re telling them, ‘You’re beautiful. You’re bright. You’re brilliant.’ You are building those things inside of them that will be hard for someone else to break down. If you are instilling that belief in them that ‘I am valuable,’ ‘I am knowledgeable,’ ‘I am a learner,’ then it is hard for someone else to take away from them. And they are excited about going to school. Who wants to go into an environment where everything is negative? You’re beat down. You start out in the morning and you are ready to go. Your self-esteem is intact. And you get to this place where every comment, every interaction is negative. It just chips away at your self-esteem. Adults don’t want to be in that kind of environment. We have to build our kids up.”

Public education is facing a multitude of challenges that will impact the future of Wisconsin’s children and ultimately the future of Wisconsin. Don’t shortchange public education now because we will pay for it in the end.

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