Public education in America is under attack on multiple fronts.
The toxic and ominous polarization of our politics has arrived in our school board meetings, and educators are getting pummeled by accusations that they are brainwashing children into believing “woke” ideologies. School budgets are getting squeezed as Covid stimulus winds down. Student enrollment is failing to rebound to pre-pandemic levels. And traditional public schools are facing increased competition from charter schools and independent schools.
At the same time, McKinsey & Company estimates that automation and artificial intelligence will displace between 400 and 800 million jobs globally by 2030.
School leaders like myself must respond to these challenges by revamping our visions, instructional practices and organizational systems to meet the needs of today’s kids and families.
Systems change is not easy, though, and in order to transform decades of habits and practices, school leaders need strategies that encourage all stakeholders to play an active role.
It takes courage for school district leaders to turn off the political noise over what teachers can teach and students can learn, to stop obsessing over standardized test results and to focus instead on career preparedness skills and child development. This is what we’ve been doing in my district of about 28,000 students in Anaheim, California. We believe there are lessons to be learned from our strategies.
In the Anaheim Union High School District, we are always searching for new ways to share stories of student learning. As educational leaders, we know we must do a better job of telling our stories by shining a light on our teacher leaders and the positive impacts they make each day. In recent years, we’ve used podcasts and short videos, adding vibrancy to our messaging with examples from the classroom.
We have embraced a new focus on preparing students for meaningful careers, good jobs and active citizenship. We encourage our teachers to focus instruction around student interest and passion. These are goals that appeal to all of our parents, no matter their politics.
In Anaheim Union, our students now demonstrate progress through learning and competencies that show growth in communication, critical thinking, collaboration and compassion.
It takes courage for school district leaders to turn off the political noise over what teachers can teach and students can learn, and to stop obsessing over standardized test results.
Each of our district sites adopts a “North Star” goal that supports teacher leaders at the site in co-creating and innovating classroom experiences. These goals become a priority at every school, every day.
We also prioritize building community and business partnerships that help us drive educational goals. These partnerships require deep commitments, and include job shadowing, internships and apprenticeships in over 90 businesses and dual enrollment in our community and four-year colleges.
For example, Anaheim Union became the first school district in the nation to partner with Google to offer five Google Career Certificates in the growing fields of automation with Python, data analytics, IT Support, project management, and UX Design.
Designed by Google employees as integrated courses and embedded in the school day by teachers, each certificate is available on Coursera and includes practice and graded assessments and quizzes or writing assignments to ensure rigor and mastery.
Certificate course graduates can submit their resumes to an employer consortium of over 130 companies, including California-based employers such as Coursera, Infosys and, of course, Google.
Within our schools, we believe in strengthening teacher leadership development. School system transformation requires a strong focus on strategic recruiting, hiring, promoting and retaining staff who believe in the district’s vision and mission. Teachers are the lynchpin.
Our teachers have launched new career pathways for students in artificial intelligence, biotechnology and cybersecurity, and are developing a working farm at a school located in a food desert. Students learn about the dangers of these deserts, from childhood obesity to diabetes and heart disease, through data analytics and census data.
Acting on the data they find, students help fill nutritional gaps by growing fruits and vegetables, which are given to district cafeterias, taken home by students or shared with the community.
All of these changes, including our district’s emphasis on career preparedness, not only appeal to parents, our biggest supporters, but also resonate with conservatives and business groups.
In Anaheim, we know that most parents and community members are not thinking about education solely in terms of political perspectives from the left or the right. They simply want their schools to prepare their children to be good citizens and be capable of long-term professional success.
Michael Matsuda is superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, where he built a new educational model incorporating career pathways in partnership with higher education, private and nonprofit sectors.
This story about moving past education wars was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.