Dr. David Vannasdall knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a leader in education. The Superintendent of California’s Arcadia Unified School District (AUSD) considers himself lucky to have moved around a lot during his school years and learned how it was to be seen as a different student at each school he attended. That experience led him to devote himself to creating learning environments in which all students and adults can thrive and feel connected.
Throughout his 25-year career in public education, Dr. Vannasdall has maintained that same drive: continually connecting students with their passions, creating the right environments and delivering the resources needed for people to thrive from what’s inside them. His passion and approach have clearly served his district well. In just three years as superintendent, he has helped turn AUSD into one of the most successful and leading-edge districts in the nation, with a 99 percent graduation rate and, for the second straight year, has at least one student accepted into every Ivy League University in the country.
Dr. Vannasdall is also widely recognized as an innovator who is leading the way on some of the most forward-thinking initiatives in modern public education.
With the help of Thoughtexchange®, Dr. Vannasdall has been holding conversations with his community since soon after he became superintendent of AUSD. Doing similar work with districts across North America is teaching us that public education leaders everywhere face a set of common challenges and opportunities around the new model of education emerging in the 21st century.
So we decided to sit down with Dr. Vannasdall to get his perspectives on public education today and in the future, so other school district leaders can benefit as they shape the future of their districts.
TE – What are some of the common challenges and opportunities you see that public educators across the country can come together around?
DV – A key challenge continues to be funding. We’re mandated as schools to provide education and so many of the supportive services that go on in a community: from feeding students to clothing students to counseling and all the support services added on to schools over the years. Now that we’re facing competition with charter schools and a new direction with education in the United States, we have to compete for every dollar, for every student.
“Public education does something that private or charter schools can’t do—and that is, we build communities. We’re built in a community, built around a community. Families go to public schools to be connected to something greater than themselves.”
But I think this is healthy. There’s a part of this that scares us all. But public education does something that private or charter schools can’t do—and that is, we build communities. We’re built in a community, built around a community. Families go to public schools to be connected to something greater than themselves. So, I’m excited to continue doing what we do best, and being humble enough to adopt some of the new technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI) and Big Data, that are going to do things a human can’t possibly do as efficiently.
TE – How can technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and Big Data help school districts overcome today’s challenges?
DV – We’ve never had the ability to collect data like we do now and actually use it in real time. School districts all over the world are set up as silos, they kind of just exist unto themselves. In fact, they compete with each other and they don’t want to share what they have. What we saw in Silicon Valley and all the start-up companies and this new world order, is that success comes when more people are involved. The more people get on it, the more success it has and the more useful it is to people.
It’s one of the reasons we started hosting the Arcadia Innovation Summit, a completely free professional development conference for educators by educators, three years ago. To share, collaborate, and improve education for not only our students in Arcadia, but all over the world.
So, turning that paradigm around and seeing education as a platform across the world where every student is logging on during the day and doing their work on a computer, while AI is collecting the millions of data points going on during a school day. Those computers share that throughout the world, and districts can begin to profile. A computer can predict what can help kids be successful at a far greater rate than a human.
“We have to transfer away from this industrial age of education to personalized education where we can start with the kids: What are you passionate about? What do you want to do? And how do you learn best? “
TE – You’ve said before the current model of education needs to evolve. Why is the current model no longer working, and what is the new one you see emerging?
DV – When you look at education today, especially public education, we are at a pivotal moment in time. There are so many schools across the country, and even so many locally, that are still set up based on the industrial style of education: in rows and cranking out students like it’s a factory.
We’re no longer teaching kids to work in factories. We’re teaching them to be imaginative, to be creative, to think critically, to solve problems. These are totally different skill sets we need from our kids. We have to transfer away from this industrial age of education to personalized education where we can start with the kids: What are you passionate about? What do you want to do? And how do you learn best? And then build an education system around them.
And for the first time, we have the technology to do that. We just have to use it. It’s very exciting. It’s very scary at the same time. Schools were set up to educate every child and to be the level playing field and give everyone that shot at the American Dream. Unfortunately they weren’t set up to be efficient, meaning the cost of providing a personalized education for every child is a real struggle.
TE – You’ve recently been in the news for the success Arcadia has had around the issue of transgender rights. How did you approach the conversation on such a controversial topic?
DV – Like many school districts, we have been introduced to the challenges and opportunities of educating a transgendered student. It was very new a few years ago, but it’s not now. And, like most school districts, when something is new and scary and unfamiliar in our world as adults, we tend to quickly go to the legal side and find out what our liability is. Are we going to get sued? What are we going to do wrong?
Unfortunately, whenever attorneys get involved, it’s never good for kids. So we were fortunate to make that decision very early on, to get the attorneys out of the room and view this issue like we’ve been doing for 100 years in education. And that is, when students aren’t learning, we modify their day; we figure it out. Because our ultimate passion and purpose is to educate a child.
“If a student is spending their day struggling with which bathroom to use or how they’re going to fit in, they’re not learning. So, I wanted to partner with the students, the families and figure out what’s the best way forward.”
I didn’t view this as any different. If a student is spending their day struggling with which bathroom to use or how they’re going to fit in, they’re not learning. So I wanted to partner with them, the families and figure out what’s the best way forward. We have a shared interest. We all want the child to learn and the child wants to learn. I really put a lot of empowerment on the child.
I quickly discovered, especially for the transgender issue, that this is an adult issue and the kids have already figured it out. They don’t have a problem, and life goes on. I’ve had some students not just survive because of our partnership with them, but also thrive and they’re having a profound impact on their world. We’ve grown as a district by viewing the challenges as opportunities.
TE – Do you take a similar approach to conversations about other tough issues in your district?
DV – We’re very active in restorative practices at Arcadia. When you approach the school environment in a restorative way, you’re always looking to see every single person as bringing value to the community, to the classroom and to the building. If something’s not right, or if somebody’s not able to learn, or there’s a bullying situation, we approach it from a restorative point of view.
Restorative practices are first about building community and understanding you’re part of something. When something goes wrong, you have to figure it out collectively as a community. It starts with valuing everyone. That’s the key. And it’s been a very successful practice.
When we do our restorative practices, we operate in circles. I run my cabinet meetings in restorative circles too. There’s nothing in front of us and we’re literally sitting in chairs in a circle. There are 20 of us in a circle and no one is on a Chromebook or a phone. We’re all focused on each other and we’re vulnerable in our sharing. It’s an important part of who we are.
“When something goes wrong, you have to figure it out collectively as a community. It starts with valuing everyone.”
TE – What’s your view on education leadership? Where do you see it headed in the future?
DV – My education services department probably makes up the bulk of the people I supervise in my district. They spend their time on curriculum and assessment, figuring out resources, and still some work around textbooks and digital materials. All of these are things that technology and computers are going to be able to do far better and with more efficiency in the near future. They’re doing it now. We’re just trying to figure out what that part looks like and how we can transfer over to that. When we do that, we’re going to better understand what technology can do better for us and what humans should be doing: what the leaders and teachers should be doing.
Teachers will always have a role in education. We have to provide meaning to work, and that’s the stuff technology has not been able to do; to really connect students and to build community. Technology can take care of the learning part. But building community, bringing meaning to it, connecting it and inspiring students to work harder than they even know is possible—those are the things that will always create a role for people in education.
Leadership in this new world of education is really about building community and inspiring staff and adults to create those environments we will always need for students and for families. A school is a hub for activities in a community. It’s that central place where you may be able to get everything you need online, but that’s where you go to make sense of it. That’s where you go to work alongside some colleagues to build something you could never achieve alone.
The educational leaders of tomorrow will recognize what their organization does well and recognize when to build strong partnerships with support providers that share the same vision and values.