25 Things I’ve Learned from Nearly Four Decades in Education
By: Steve Gratz
Editor's Note: Our colleague, Steve Gratz, is retiring after many years in education. Steve’s blogs have challenged many education concepts and provided sage advice for innovation in education. Thank you, Steve. We wish you luck as you transition to your next opportunity.
I’m retiring from the Ohio Department of Education on Dec. 31, 2018, after 36 years in education and 10 state superintendents of public instruction — including two interims. Seven of those years were spent as a teacher of agriculture, and the remaining 29 were with the Department in various capacities — the last five serving as one of the agency’s senior executive directors.
When I started my career as a teacher of agriculture in 1983, I never envisioned the path my career would take. I’ve had the opportunity to teach thousands of students at the secondary and postsecondary levels and coach more than 200 Ohio FFA state officers. I love the teaching and learning process and will always consider myself a teacher and learner.
During my 29 years at the Department, I visited hundreds of schools — mainly high schools and career centers. I enjoyed visiting with students, teachers, administrators, board members and community members. Coupled with my teaching experience, these visits helped frame and solidify my teaching philosophy. At one time during my career, I thought I wanted to be a school administrator and went back to the classroom, but I soon realized I could have a greater impact back at the Department.
I have delivered hundreds of presentations throughout my career, including a few commencement speeches. During some of my recent presentations, I’ve shared a list of items those looking to redesign a school should consider. A few people asked for my list, so I felt it would be appropriate to share in my final blog.
These are not in any particular order of importance sans the first one. This list is not meant to be exhaustive but rather thought-provoking. This list is fluid, and I’m sure I’ll revisit it often.
- Transition all students to something and not out of high school. For too many years, we have been focusing on transitioning students out of school simply because they have met graduation requirements. It is time for us to adjust how we envision student success, and graduation alone is not the right measure. Graduation rates out of high school are not nearly as important as student success rates out of high school.
- Make your district the economic driver for your community and region by identifying in-demand sectors in your region — keep your talent local but don’t prevent students from pursuing their career aspirations. Some students may need coaching on differentiating a hobby and a vocation. The recently released OhioMeansJobs Workforce Data Tools website is an excellent resource to help start the process.
- Develop in-demand pathways beginning no later than grade 7, and show the progression of advancement. These begin as broad pathways and narrow as the student progresses. At a minimum, start a Personalized Professional Pathway program. This can be a quick win for students and the community.
- Blur the lines between technical and academic content. I firmly believe this will result in more meaningful teaching and learning. The burden shouldn’t fall on educators alone to make these connections. Employers, communities, and industry leaders should reach out and support educators in making academic and technical concepts real for students.
- Increase the number of integrated courses offered so students receive simultaneous credit. Integrated coursework and simultaneous credit can redesign the school day. If you don’t believe me, ask any STEM school.
- Increase the percentage of students completing Student Success Plans through OhioMeansJobs. Currently, this is only required for at-risk-students, but I encourage all students to have Student Success Plans.
- Ensure every school employee knows the career aspirations of every student. By knowing students’ career aspirations, teachers can contextualize their teaching to students’ interests during the “formal” teaching and learning process and help advise students during the “informal” teaching and learning process. I believe this would have positive impact on the ethos of the school.
- Embrace personalized learning for ALL students. Coupled with competency-based learning, personalized learning will allow students to progress at their own pace. The Future Ready Framework is a great resource to assist with developing personalized learning.
- Provide ALL students with the supports they need to succeed. This will look different from district to district; school to school; and student to student. A good place to begin is the Department’s webpage for Ohio’s Social and Emotional Learning Standards.
- Utilize the Literacy Design Collaborative and the Math Design Collaborative to ensure students are learning literacy and numeracy skills across all disciplines.
- Increase the percentage of students earning industry credentials, where applicable. Please make sure the credentials being earned align to students’ career aspirations.
- Increase the percentage of students participating in work-based learning experiences. There’s ample evidence-based research on the benefits of experiential learning not to mention the embedded work readiness skills.
- Increase the percentage of students earning the OhioMeansJobs-Readiness Seal. The OhioMeansJobs-Readiness Seal is for ALL students, and research indicates that students who have the attributes aligned with the OhioMeansJobs-Readiness Seal are more persistent in their postsecondary endeavors.
- Provide counseling to students for two years after graduation. I realize there are additional costs associated with this concept, but I truly believe this strategy would be extremely impactful to student success. This should be combined with the Career Advising Plan required of every district.
- Work with the Business Advisory Council and regional partners. Students need to learn skills that businesses require, so they can get well-paying jobs as adults. And who can do this better than business? Be sure to involve teachers with the Business Advisory Council too.
- Blur the line between secondary and postsecondary education. Schools need to increase work toward a system that eliminates grades, both student grades and class grades. Competency-based education is an excellent model for school redesign to help accomplish the elimination of grades.
- Encourage participation in all advanced standing programs when students are ready. College Credit Plus is one of the most robust dual-enrollment programs in the country. Districts with limited access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses can encourage student participation in Modern States' “Freshman Year for Free” program, where students can enroll and take tests in AP and CLEP courses for free.
- Start collecting longitudinal data on high school graduates. This data will prove invaluable when sharing the success of graduates. Data should include, but is not limited to, uninsured employment data and college persistence and graduation rates (National Student Clearinghouse).
- Establish metrics with your local board of education that define school and student success. These should be the metrics that are most important to the community.
- Continuous improvement is fundamental to ensuring students are prepared when they transition. This is imperative at all levels of the educational system.
- Communicate ad nauseum with school employees and the community members on the school’s or district’s vision and progress toward that vision.
- Maintain outreach to school and district alumni. One of my favorite ways to engage alumni came from a district that has a class reunion every year, including a parade spotlighting classes in five-year increments. After the parade, all alumni enjoy a picnic together at the community park.
- Share quick wins and promising practices on the SuccessBound webpage.
- Think big, start small, scale fast.
- Move forward with a sense of urgency.
No one should look at this list and feel compelled to try to implement too many at one time. Ideally, school leaders would collaborate with instructional staff to prioritize new initiatives.
Those familiar with Ohio’s Strategic Plan for Education will see a strong correlation with my philosophy, especially with Strategy 10, and that makes me smile.
It has been a great and rewarding career in education, and I am looking forward to transitioning to my next career. Starting in early January, I will be helping a good friend with a program he founded — AgriCorps. AgriCorps focuses on ending generational poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. We’ll be traveling to Ghana, Liberia and Kenya to kick off 2019. Additionally, I’ll be assisting a few educational service centers and districts with school improvement and redesign.
I’m active on LinkedIn, so please reach out and stay connected.
Dr. Steve Gratz is senior executive director of the Center for Student Support and Education Options at the Ohio Department of Education, where he oversees creative ways to help students in Ohio achieve success in school. You can learn more about Steve by clicking here.