MP3 Audio: An Interview with Laura Waters

Jim: What prompted your activism in the education world? Why did you get involved?
Laura Waters: I don't think my story's very unusual. I grew up in a household where there was nothing more important than education. This is an old story, right? My parents both worked for the New York City Board of Education. My dad was a social studies teacher, my mom was a social worker, and nothing mattered more than what education we got. It was not really till I had my own children that I started getting more interested in local school board politics, and that was prompted by my youngest child, I have four, my youngest, who has multiple disabilities and is classified as special ed. So I started going to school board meetings and thinking about, OK, what kind of system is this that's either providing well or not providing well certain services?

Then as I started studying more of the issues I realized, special ed is just a symptom of a larger systemic problem. So I started paying more attention to the whole system. At that particular point my own home was having its struggles with its local school system, and a bunch of people got together and decided that they needed to have a slate, a change in the school board, and I was on that slate. It was two other people who are still on the school board with me. This is now, eight years later.

So it started out as just a very personal, specific issue, and it expanded as my own understanding of the issues expanded, because I began to see that sometimes problems that seem very localized are actually more general and more systemic. That's my story.

Jim: After eight years, did you accomplish your goal? What changed? The goals that your troika of candidates set out and were elected to, how did that play out?
Laura: It played out largely successfully, but I do have to say that you're asking about my own personal activism. After a couple years of being on a school board, I became so frustrated with the state that in order to preserve my own sanity, I started a blog, and that's how I think you became aware of me. Now my goals are in buckets. I have my local school board goals, and then I have my goals as somebody who speaks more generally about New Jersey politics and policy in the world of education. The bucket of my local school board goals is in pretty good shape, I'd say. I think that a team of us made a difference. I think the schools are the better for our activism. As far as my own personal venting and editorials, by the way, which I keep very separate from my hometown, I think it's had a mixed impact and I don't know where it will lead. Look, I piss a lot of people off.


Jim: That's part of being in your [indecipherable 04:32] .
Laura: That's my job, I say at least they're talking about it.
Jim: When you look at getting on the local school board, when you said that you've had some success there, what specifically made the difference? Was it governance changes? Was it driving awareness of issues? Was it curriculum changes? Was it program changes? Was it just letting things that were happening occur? What were the one or two things that made a difference within your local schools?
Laura: Within my hometown, you're talking about?
Jim: Yeah. When you're elected to the board and you said things have improved, what made those things improve?
Laura: Just because of a certain synchronicity and contracts and things like that, we were able to make some really good changes in administration. Without good leaders, you're not going to have a good school system. It's the old "get the right people on the bus," that whole thing. We were able to improve our bus ridership. Because we had the right people, we were able to then improve our curriculum, improve our oversight, improve our services to all kids, to stop differentiating, to take care of any compliance issues. There are many different levels, and it wasn't any one person who did that, it was really a consensus in the community that there had to be changes at the school level. It just so happened that I was one of three people who were those three people who went and ran for school board, because we have a nine-member school board that rotates. The three seats are up every three years.

It just so happened that I was there. It didn't matter that it was me so much, it was that it was we were really simply voicing community concerns, and the community was really united on this.

Jim: Because a lot of districts change superintendents frequently. Was that the key, getting a new superintendent? Or was it the level below?
Laura: No, I think that was part of it, certainly, and that we really took great effort to make wise choices. I don't think it was just that, but it had to start at the top. By the top, I mean both the school board and the superintendent. It had to be a real partnership of saying, we expect more, we expect excellence, and what do we have to do to get there? It had to do with strategic planning, with saying, "OK, we are here now. Where do we want to be in five years?" It's so easy for a school board and superintendents to start sniping at each other. I see this in other districts all the time, to get embroiled over little things that in the end aren't about kids. I think once you lose that focus on, "Is this good or bad for kids?" That has to be the baseline of any discussion, and it's so hard to keep it there for a variety of reasons.

Whether it's onerous state regulations, or union politics, or fiscal issues which loom large in New Jersey, they do everywhere, I guess, I know. It's really hard to lose that focus, and so you need to be working together, always reminding each other that that's why you're there.

Jim: So, let's turn to your own education. Looking back on the arc of your education, what are the pros and cons? If you were going into college today, what would you study? What would be different, given all that you know?
Laura: Yes, well, I grew up in New York City, and so I went to New York City Public Schools. I was born in the Bronx, I grew up in Queens. You know, our first model is our parents, so I saw my parents make a choice when I was getting very close to high school that we should move, to go to a better district. So in other words, it was my first exposure to school choice, the public school choice. Luckily, they were able to make that choice. So, I had a fine education, and I went to [indecipherable 10:35] college. I went to a SUNY school, which is the State University of New York, it's the public system for New York State, and it was fine. I went to graduate school, and I went to SUNY, and it was fine.

If I was and I have advised, certainly, how much they listen is another question. But of my four children, two of them have graduated college and one is still there. One is in high school. I have urged them to slow down, I think that so I at least felt compelled to rush through without a lot of thought and I went from one to the other, I graduated finally with a PhD in All-American literature, that's not a bad thing to have, it's a fine thing to have.

I think I ended up there by not asking myself hard questions about what I really wanted to do. So, what I do with my own kids or my friends as I say, step back, take the time to decide what you really want to do.

Jim: So what would that be if you were 18 today? What would you study for?
Laura: There are people who, if they listen to this, will send me some hate mail but I would probably just do what I originally intended to which was to go into teaching. I did end up teaching at SUNY Bennington, I taught in a program for inner city kids who had, it was a EOP program, an educational opportunity program and it was a transitional year program where they brought up kids who really had not been exposed to a good education system and gain some year to play catch-up and I taught writing to those kids.
Jim: Oh, cool.
Laura: Yeah and that was extremely fulfilling and extremely hard and I probably should have stuck with that. Instead of getting caught up in post modern theory.
Jim: [laughs] I understand. Different era, you know.
Laura: What's that?
Jim: [laughs] It was a different era right?
Laura: It was a different era, absolutely and I should've seen that. Here's something I had a passion for, here's something I'm good at and not worry about the trendiness so much. Not that I was anyone to fall to a poor trend. But, I was on a trajectory to go be a college professor and if I had been going a little more doing that, if I had been flowing to that trajectory a little bit more thoughtfully, I think I could've been able to say, "Wait a minute here's something that really works," so anyway.
Jim: So, one follow-up on teaching, interestingly a few month ago in Wisconsin the state passed a law to implement Massachusetts' teacher content knowledge requirements, so to teach elementary English in Wisconsin, teachers for the first time, they really haven't had much of anything in terms of content in Wisconsin, will have to pass MTEL 90. Massachusetts, when they implemented that in 1998, 58 percent of the teachers passed. This last year 98 percent passed. So what's your view? Should there be content requirements for teachers that teach English, math, science or should they just say, "Yeah I went to school and therefore I can teach."
Laura: Well I think that, if you're looking at teaching quality, that certainly, you have to start with both, teaching colleges and curriculum they use and what we expect our teachers to know when they start. I was just looking at some statistics and it's in regard to a current dust-up in New Jersey having to do with online charters. Online charters, which are very controversial in New Jersey and they are probably controversial elsewhere.

I was looking at some statistics about where teachers get their masters degrees, which is in New Jersey and elsewhere brings them to a different pay scale. We put a lot of stock on our teaching credentials, in other words the system in New Jersey pays teachers more who have master's degrees or have more credits.

Jim: Yeah, it's the same in Wisconsin.
Laura: Everyone does and an astounding number of teachers in New Jersey and nationwide get their masters degrees on online universities. So anyway that's just a way to get to move to your question which is, what we expect our teachers to know when they start teaching. Do I think that our elementary teachers should have content knowledge of language art? Absolutely, I can't imagine someone arguing they shouldn't if they are going to be teaching that subject.

I think that, that only gets at the problem sideways, which is, how do we improve, how do we attract really talented people into the teaching pool. Right now, everyone must have figured, there's something like the people who go into teaching represent the bottom third of college students, as far as your achievement goes.

I think that, how do you do that. You have to pay more, you have to offer a clearer path in career advancement, in other words maybe there should be instead of this, "You're a teacher, you're a teacher, you're a teacher," maybe there is some differentiation valuable there too. I think that teachers should have content knowledge of whatever they're teaching in addition to understanding the way kids learn and different learning styles and stress management strategies and all those other things they learn.

Jim: So, that's a good segue into my next question, which is. You know, what does education mean today and in ten years? You just described online charters, is it the same or are we going to bust kids around?
Laura: It's actually a hard question. At our high school, we tell kids that the job they'll have in 20 years, we don't know what those are yet. In other words, technology is changing our world so rapidly that the jobs people will have in 20 years, we can't even conceive of what those are yet. You would think that that would mean that education in 10 years or whatever is going to be radically different than it is now. On the other hand, the way education looks right now isn't really any different than it looked 100 years ago. We have brick and mortar buildings, we have an agrarian schedule, we have the teacher in front of the classroom with, maybe not a chalkboard, but a smart board, and kids not with slates, but maybe some of them with notebooks or iPads or whatever. It's not really any different. I think some wit said that the only other institution that moves as slowly as education is the church.

How will education look in 10 years from now? I think that it will change in regards to the use of technology. I see all around me districts that are, as fast as they can, implementing new policies in regards to one-on-one computing devices. Every district used to say, "No cell phones. Leave your cell phone in your locker." All of a sudden, cell phones aren't cell phones. They're ways on to the Internet. They're ways on to research. They're writing implements. They're education. They're just another computing device. How do you tell a kid not to use that? So I think that, that aspect will change.

In New Jersey, I hope that there are big changes for our really awful urban districts, which have been failing for decades. Again, I'm only really qualified to talk about Jersey. For two school systems in New Jersey, we have our really high-functioning, successful and high-achieving suburban districts where all the kids go to college and everything. It's like the Lake Wobegon effect where all the kids are above average and all the teachers are wonderful.

Then we have our inner cities where the schools are lousy and they have been for many, many years in spite of all litigation and court rulings and extra money and extra resources, and they don't seem to change. If anything can change quickly, it would have to be those districts. I always see change coming to those districts not through traditional mechanisms like another state oversight committee or even more money. I think it has to come through more innovative approaches like expanding charter schools and school choice, offering kids another option than what they have.

Jim: We're in agreement on that, definitely. The last question I have is more of a process question. If you were your parents in that Bronx-to-Queens time, what process would you use to think about school for your kids? What would make the decision for you? Are there three or five things that you'd look for? Obviously, there's all kinds of data, whether it's information is another discussion, but what are the top three or four things you'd look at and say, "OK, that's where I want to go?" Public, or private, or charter, or whatever.
Laura: If you're considering a community, I would start by getting hold of the local papers, because school issues percolate into the town and dissatisfaction with the town. With the schools, often you see expressions of it in the town. I think you're looking for a stable community. I think that data's really important. As you pointed out, whether it's information or not is something else. Every state now has a State Department of Education that would have data on graduation rates and college admissions and how many kids participate in AP courses and all that thing. I think that, that's worth looking at.

You should also look at, and every state should have this too, the student and teacher mobility rate. In other words, you want both of those numbers to be low. If your teachers are leaving at a higher rate than expected, then there's something wrong there. That's a symptom of a troubled system. That's actually more important than the student mobility rate, I think.

I think that you need to talk to people. I know that realtors often offer information. I don't know that they're always right. I really don't know. I'm not saying they're wrong, I just don't know. But certainly there's a sense in the town if the schools are good or the schools are bad. Sometimes it's not just the town. It's where in the town.

Since you're moving to Maryland where you have county-wide districts, what is it, like 21 counties in Maryland, and each of them is their own district. It's not just the district, it's where in the district. I think you really have to go there and look. I think it's hard to do this at...

Jim: At a distance.
Laura: At a distance, yeah. On the other hand, sometimes you get lucky. My husband and I were both in Binghamton, New York, which is upstate New York, and we needed to be closer to New York City. So we drew a 50-mile radius around New York and ended up in Central New Jersey, cause that's what we could afford. It's been fine. So sometimes, I hate to say this, but sometimes it's luck. Then the last thing I would say, that's right, is that it's amazing how much a community can change an education system.

You should consider active, if you have like-minded people who care about the same as you, it's amazing what you can change.

I think school districts go through cycles where everything's hunky dory and then something dissatisfaction, the school board gets thrown out and the new school Board come in and things get better. So you can be part of that cycle, too.

Jim: Interesting. Well, I'm really thankful for your time today, Laura, certainly, for your activism and your public role as well with the blog. That's great.
Laura: Thank you very much, Jim, it's been a pleasure.

(c) 2012