TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: While we believe deeply in the role of teacher leaders, teacher teams, and the school as is a really important unit of change, that school and those teams and educators live within a larger ecosystem. And that ecosystem can support the work, or it can get in the way of the work.
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ALEC PATTON: This is High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton and that was the voice of Tracey Fray-Oliver, Vice President of the Bank Street Education Center at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City.
For anyone unfamiliar with Bank Street, here’s the deal. It was founded in 1916 as the Bureau of Education Experiments by Lucy Sprague Mitchell and a team of like-minded educators. Three years later they founded a nursery school, so they could learn from kids about how to create the conditions to support their learning. In 1930, the Bureau of Education Experiments moved to 69 Bank Street in Greenwich Village, which gave them their name.
And then they just did cool stuff. In 1937, they created the Writers Lab, which connected authors to student teachers. An early member was Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon. In 1954, they founded the School for Children, an on-site elementary school. In 1965, they helped create the Head Start program.
And in 1984, they produced the Voyage of the Mimi, a 13-part TV series about the crew of a ship taking a census of humpback whales. Among other things, that show taught me what hypothermia is and how electromagnets work. And in 2014, they established the Bank Street Education Center in order to support public school districts to improve teaching practice across their schools.
This, as teachers know, is where things usually go wrong. No teaching practice, no matter how effective, survives being standardized and mandated for teachers across the district. But that’s not how they do things at Bank Street. And this is why our very own Stacy Caillier, head of the Center for Research on Equity and Innovation at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, was so excited to talk to Tracy, because the Banks Street Education Center thinks about district-wide change in a totally distinctive way. Listening to this episode is like getting a telegram from a brighter future. Let’s get into it.
STACY CAILLIER: Tracy, I am so excited to talk with you today. I just want to give a little intro to you, because you’re amazing. And I want everybody to know how amazing you are. So Tracy Fray-Oliver, you are Vice President of the Bank Street Education Center in New York, an organization that’s been a total inspiration for us at High Tech High since our beginning. You all were like one of the first to integrate K-12 schooling and teacher training and have a school that was both for children and a college of education.
So you all have really been at the forefront of pushing for ways of teaching and learning that centered justice, that honor young people’s contributions to their communities, and that engage them in authentic learning experiences that engage the body, heart, and mind. So you are like our soul friends, for sure.
Before we dig in, I have to share just a little bit about you. Before coming to Bank Street, you were a middle school math teacher, a math coach, and instructional specialist, and you worked for the New York City Department of Education as Director of Mathematics Curriculum and the Common Core Fellows program.
So you basically supported the city’s transition to the Common Core standards, and then were a senior director of STEM. So you’ve been a key leader in defining New York City’s approach to math and STEM education, as well as the Common Core standards. You have lived and learned at every level of the system, and I am so excited to talk with you about all of that today.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Hi, Stacy. Thank you, for that introduction. I’m excited to speak with you today, also.
STACY CAILLIER: So just to get grounded and who you are, can you share just a little bit with us about how do you identify in the world, and how does your identity show up for you in your work?
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Sure. A few identity markers. OK. So I’m a Black and Latinx, cisgender, able-bodied woman, the daughter of immigrants, my mother from Haiti and my father from Ecuador. I’d add that I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and I’m still here.
I’d also add that I’m a bereaved mother of an amazing extraordinary Black boy who made it to third grade in our public schools here in New York. And while he’s no longer on Earth with us, he’s very much alive within me and plays a really big role in how I make sense of the world.
With that said, I would add that at my center, I’m also an educator who works in service of social justice and equity. And what that has meant for me is that I show up in the world as someone who is conscious, spiritual, curious, optimistic, and hopeful, yet also critically reflective, a truth speaker, a teacher, a leader, an advocate, but always first and foremost, I’d say a learner.
STACY CAILLIER: Can you share a little bit with us just about how did you come to continuous improvement? What was your story of arriving there, and what was the appeal for you or not?
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: I’d say, early on in my career as a teacher and then a teacher leader, I participated in lots of different school structures that were designed to improve student outcomes and shift teacher practice, all using very different processes and protocols. And then as a coach and district leader, I spent time supporting educators doing similar work, but to think about how they might regularly reflect and shift their practice all also provide better learning experiences for kids.
However, when I left the New York City school system to come and help start the Education Center here at Bank Street, I started to become more familiar with continuous improvement in education, through Tony Bryk’s work and others. And the light bulb that went off for me at the time was that, while this was really familiar work, in many ways, there was a promise with continuous improvement that felt different.
Because of the ways in which it offered a science and a discipline to inquiry, but it also created space to interrogate the system and center the voices of those who are experiencing the challenges every day. So I was really excited to think about continuous improvement as less of a set of processes, but as a mindset.
STACY CAILLIER: That’s so resonates with me. That was my hook with continuous improvement, too, was just this system seeing, and being able to really interrogate it, not just be solo educators trying to flip things, but really like stepping back and seeing it as a system that we needed to interrogate and redesign. So that really resonates.
So I remember being at a meeting with you, where a group of folks who were leading this improvement work across the country were grappling with how to meaningfully integrate improvement work and equity work with the idea of the experience of the two should be seamless, not this like, we do some equity work, then we do some improvement work, and never the two shall meet. And you offered this beautiful analogy about it requiring all of us to be weavers. And I just wanted to give you a little space to say what does that mean to you?
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Yeah. I’m glad that that stood out to you all that time ago. You know, I’d say that excitement that I felt around CI was very real. But it was also quickly followed by a set of questions around what this looks like in practice, and how useful or not it can be when it comes to dealing with the complexity of schooling in our country. So I’ve grappled a lot with how CI can be different from every other improvement effort in education. More specifically, how CI can actually meet its espoused promise of equity.
I wanted to think about how do we ensure that we move beyond the assumption, for example, that CI is inherently going to promote equity. And instead, how do we ensure that it does address equity needs in our systems. And to be clear, I’m referring to racial equity in our school systems. I also want to make sure we’re examining how do we start to socialize and normalize some of the principles of CI that really honor and regard student, parent, community, educator voice, because those are the ones who really help us to understand how we can best serve them.
So I would say that the idea of weaving really does honor that there are skills and talents in our systems, but there are also competing priorities and approaches that can come together to make this work meaningful and fulfill its espoused promises, but it takes us doing the work of deeply integrating and tackling those tensions together with some of that optimism that I had mentioned earlier in my introduction.
STACY CAILLIER: Yes. Curiosity and optimism, I think, are essential to the journey, for sure. Is there a moment or an experience that you have had where you’re like, OK. This is it. This is what we’re after. And can you share that example or moment?
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Yeah. I would say that quite often, when we’re thinking about what are the change ideas or the interventions that we might put in place in a system, we lean on research, and we lean on the realities of what we’re seeing on the ground and the voices of those experiencing the changes. And in a set of conversations we were having in a network meeting, we realized that the conversation was bringing to light so many intersecting and really important concepts.
So we found ourselves not only wanting to identify research-based practices, but we wanted to speak to the identities of the students we were serving. That included their racial identity, other social identity markers, but also the reality that they were adolescents, that we were talking, in this case, about middle school students. And how easily it is to forget that we’re talking about children who are at a really unique point in their lives.
And so as we were not only developing those change ideas, but then planning to study them, we realized how important it was to not just look at the data in isolation or follow a protocol or practice with fidelity, but to create the space to acknowledge the humanity in the work. And when we all stepped back from looking at the data, it was like, wait, I’m talking about a sixth grader. Or I’m talking about a 10 or 11-year-old child, 10 or 11-year-old Black young girl in this community.
STACY CAILLIER: Yeah. I love that. It reminds me of something that [? Eva ?] [? Mejia ?] said in our last podcast, just about the goal of the work is not to take the human out. It’s to put the human back in.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Absolutely.
STACY CAILLIER: I love that. I’m curious how when you think about this goal of weaving improvement work and equity work so that they are seamless, and our networks are experiencing it that way, how do you think about building your own team’s muscles around that? What do you all do as a team?
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: We are constantly learning, constantly reflecting on our practice. And that means actively engaging in professional development, embedded reflective cycles around our individual and collective work as an intermediary, but also more generally as an organization. It also means reflecting on our ways of knowing and being so that we’re able to have really explicit conversations about what it is we are all still working to improve ourselves, but also to acknowledge our strengths and what we bring to the table, and how we can be resources to each other.
I would say that also means staying on the cutting edge of what’s the research that’s out. It means being on the ground alongside our partners. And so, yes. There’s definitely a lot of learning, so our own professional learning, our own coaching, our own communities of practice and affinity groups in spaces, and the expectation that every individual is actively owning their learning and development, particularly around their social identities and racial identities.
But then there’s also the reality that we think the best way to learn is by doing. And so we are out there side by side with those, again, that we work in service of.
STACY CAILLIER: Yeah. We often say, you can’t do the system work without self work.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Absolutely.
STACY CAILLIER: So you mentioned mindsets a moment ago, too. And in our last conversation, we talked about how we both noticed that in some of the CI work happening, CI is kind of treated like this goal, like, yay. We’re doing CI, like that’s the end. And there’s a lot of emphasis put on the tools, instead of the very human side of the work. And you shared in that conversation that you really want to see a mindset shift, where folks are seeing that the real goal is to support systems to become more equitable. CI is an approach to get there. Can you say more about what that mindset shift will entail, and what that requires of us?
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: We like to say that if you think about a system taking on any instructional improvement efforts, it assumes that there has to be an acknowledgment of strengths in the system that can be built upon, but also a very clear goal and aim at the end of it. And if that aim is ensuring that everyone has the capacity to do CI, that is a very different conversation than saying we are ensuring that our system is collectively working towards equity for our most marginalized kids. And we’re going to create a toolbox and habits of mind, knowledge, skills, mindsets that are embedded in our system to help us reach our goal.
So what we try to do is really marry the idea of yes, we’re going to give you concrete tools, practices, strategies, ways of working, with real work around the thinking routines, the mindset, the beliefs, the reflective and critically reflective practices that are necessary for the work to sustain itself beyond whatever administration happens to be in place, or whatever leadership might be there at the time, that really it’s baking this into the culture and mindset of a system that will allow CI to have its intended impact.
STACY CAILLIER: Oh my God.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: And I want to be clear, that I know that sounds good in theory, and what that work has often looked like on the ground, to be really clear, has been a lot of side-by-side work, ongoing engagement, not being limited to implementing your project or slowly you’re grant, but a real deep, side-by-side partnership with the district or the organization to understand their context model, but then also interrogate what are some of the challenges that are presented when you try to maintain this mindset?
Our systems ordinarily are not designed to cultivate and hold this type of mindset. So how do we name that explicitly and then have an unapologetic, relentless focus on the mindset building, alongside the capacity building for the actual tools and processes and structures.
STACY CAILLIER: I have so many follow-up questions for you right now, Tracy. I mean first, what are the specific mindsets you’re wanting to cultivate in people doing this work?
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: For us it has been being able to keep a few things in mind as you do this work. So there’s obviously a need to understand the importance of development. And that is the development of humans, the idea that everyone develops and grows along a continuum, but at very different paces, and that looks differently.
And I think when you can accept the idea that there is child and human development, and that systems develop and change over time, that it allows you to see things as less fixed, and see everything as being at a point in a journey or a continuum. And therefore, it can move forward. It can move backward. But there’s always opportunity for growth.
We’re also very big on relationships. And I think this goes to your point earlier, Stacey, that when you realize that all learning is connected to relationships, and that the brain is really activated through relationships, that any change is going to require some level of learning. And that means that we have to be relational in our work, so acknowledge the human side of things.
And so that means sometimes a protocol can’t just operate in the minutes that you’ve defined. That means there’s a flexibility that comes with the acknowledgment that you’re working with humans and in relation with humans that we’re really passionate about.
With that, too, we think there’s an equity mindedness that’s necessary for this work. And that’s a real awareness of the role that race has played in our country, and all of the marginalization and oppression and systemic racism that’s built into this system. And so recognizing that there’s a lot that needs to be disrupted, interrupted, redesigned, and imagined. And that takes time. But it also takes a commitment that you just have to really stay focused on.
And I would say some other things we believe are really important is that there has to be the belief that everyone can grow, change, and learn. And I think if we can acknowledge that in this work, then it feels less hopeless than I often think people see it as. But instead, that there’s always a place to start and build upon.
I would say another big part of our approach and what we believe is that there has to be a value in an appreciation, for observing, and data generally. Like are we really anchoring these decisions in evidence? And that data can look very different, qualitative, quantitative, observation and recording what you see children do. So I would say data and having evidence that informs your thinking and an appreciation for it is also a really big part of the mindset and values that we think are central to CI being successful.
STACY CAILLIER: Plus one all of this. I also have to ask, because you were talking beautifully about what it means to work at different levels of a system, which is part of why I was so excited to talk with you, because you have worked at every level of the system. And you continue to support folks at every level of the system.
And I’ve been really struck by Bank Street’s approach of being fairly differentiated. About here’s how we work with folks at this level of the system. Here’s how we work with folks at this level of the system. Really acknowledging that people have different needs and might have different approaches based on where they are within the system. Could you say a little bit just about how do you all think about supporting districts, versus supporting school leaders, versus supporting school teams?
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: If you get a really strong teacher team operating, trying out new ideas, working on behalf of their kids, deeply understanding them, there is likely going to be some level of policy or guidance that is passed down by the school leader or maybe a district leader or principal supervisor that can totally disrupt or get in the way of that work.
So for example, CI really does encourage this idea of risk taking, and trying out new things, and really maintaining a learning stance, and assumes a level of public learning and psychological safety that we’re really excited to cultivate with the teacher team in school. We could imagine that some level of compliance, or some mandate could come down, that could totally disrupt that energy that we’ve been building with the team.
And so our work is to not just think about working with those levels independently, but to think about the accountability that each level has to create conditions for the one before it. So very explicitly, in working with teacher teams and cultivating all of the mindsets and skills and knowledge that I just mentioned, we work very closely with the principal to say, how do you ensure that those mindsets, skills, and knowledge can thrive in your building?
And as we’re working with the school leader to think about that, it’s like well, OK. Let’s talk to the principal supervisors to say, well in what ways are you acknowledging the efforts that the school leader might be taking to allow the teachers’ work to thrive. What are some of the principal supervisor moves that you’re making to not just not get in the way, but to also support it, cultivate it, and help school leaders grapple with what’s likely going to be hard, because they’re disrupting the system and doing something different.
And similarly for principal supervisors, we work with senior district leaders to say, what is the role of a principal supervisor in the building? Sometimes they wear a coaching hat and an accountability hat. How does that run counter to them being able to create the conditions for a principal to try new things, or be courageous in doing something that might not be understood immediately, but works in the best service of kids.
And so for us, I just would name that it’s a combination of being really intentional and targeted about the work responsibilities that each layer has. But then holding the surrounding level accountable for creating the conditions for that other layer to thrive. And to be clear, that is not just saying, oh, how are you going to make sure you’re being supportive or allowing it to happen? But instead, how do you deeply understand what’s happening, provide support, provide the learning needed for those folks to thrive in doing whatever it is they’re taking on.
STACY CAILLIER: I’m so glad that you touched on this, because this was one of the things I wanted to pick your brain about. Because I think one of the things that I’ve really appreciated about continuous improvement is just that it requires participation at all levels of the system, ideally. And it’s best when it disrupts these traditional hierarchies of who has knowledge and who has expertise.
And I’ve noticed that a lot of the networks– and we’re guilty of this, as well, and grappling with it– tend to place a lot more emphasis, I think, on supporting teams of teachers and faculty to do the work, but engage much less frequently or meaningfully with school and district leaders. And I’m curious if this is something you’ve noticed, as well. But also do you have additional advice for folks doing this work about how they can best engage system leaders to be effective?
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Our strategy is to really approach that level of the system in the way that we do all levels of the system, that we absolutely need to make sure that we are identifying staff that has experience at that level, who is able to empathize, sit alongside, relate, take a listening ear, but also offer some expertise, so that they can engage deeply in the work alongside system leaders.
So being able to have a deep understanding of what it means to sit it those seats. Those are not easy seats to sit in, and I think if we are entering in a way that’s non-judgmental, but instead as a partner who can hold the mirror up and help reflect on their practice, that that level of the system is just as open to learning and growing as every other.
I’d also say that at the level of the system, we have found that it’s really important to be unapologetic and clear about the ways in which we perceive their role as being more than approving us as a partner, or saying, yeah, come in and do that thing over there. Our expectation is that we are welcomed in as a thought partner, that we are embedded in the district in a way that is helpful and aligned to their vision, and as a support to carry through their priorities.
So I would say to folks who are looking to engage system leaders, is to recognize that there’s a lot of thoughtful work happening at that level, too. And so there’s a need to acknowledge the strengths that those leaders are bringing to the table. But also offer the reflection space and expertise that quite often, district leaders don’t have. It can be a very isolating job. Those divisions often work in silos that are really challenging.
So I would say that our approach to it is very similar to all the other ways we engage. It’s rooted in not being judgmental, meeting folks where they are, offering expertise, but also more importantly, being willing to get in there with them to figure things out.
STACY CAILLIER: Yeah can you offer an example or two of how do you help orient district or system leaders to the work of what’s happening and make requests of them or offer supports? What does that actually look like? Do you guys have any routines, or–
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Yeah. There are a few things we put in place. So part of our partnerships with districts means that we’re up front about the level of engagement we’d like. So we do ask that they identify a primary contact who has a level of influence and positionality in the district to be able to make decisions, to give us access to other key leaders in the system.
We do a lot of work to understand how the district operates, how– what do their learning structures look like, their decision making processes look like? And then ask that our primary contact has some level of influence, or at least the ability to navigate those structures. And then we’d say very practically, our partnership includes things like biweekly strategic planning calls, the expectation that they’re participating in the network alongside us.
And that when we’re engaging the district, I think this is really important, that we wear multiple hats during those engagements. There’s the part of it where we are definitely offering expertise maybe teaching them about CI, helping them engage in some professional learning. But then we’re able to pivot within the same engagement to be able to take on a coaching conversation or to ask really targeted questions about how they might have been experiencing having to roll out an initiative or having to support a school leader with something.
We would also, in that same call, be able to engage them in artifacts from the learning of the network. So that we’re honoring the reality that they’re not just learners, who are trying to understand CI, they are also trying to create the conditions in a whole system to have this work thrive.
So I think it’s the ability to step in and out of a bunch of different lenses. And I have found that district leaders really appreciate that. They want to learn, but they also want to know that we recognize that they either have to roll out of policy, or they need to engage in a direct conversation with an administrator, or they need to advocate for a set of resources.
And so, yes. I would say that some really concrete moves we make are everything from creating structures to having really targeted initial conversations during our recruitment and engagement. And then we walk in with clarity and real explicit requests for what the partnership would look like in a way that is definitely a conversation, but could not be something that every district partner would want. And so I think it’s also having the clarity and conviction to say that there are a set of values and beliefs we have as an organization, and recognize that there may be partners who are not ready for that.
So we try in our initial engagements to assess is there a readiness here from the partner to engage in these types of practices. And more often than not, districts are ready for that level of collaboration and engagement. And I think we bring to bear a bunch of resources and supports that are useful. But try to be really explicit up front around how we think change happens and negotiate that from the very beginning.
STACY CAILLIER: That’s so helpful. Thank you. So I have to ask you some systems change questions, since we just kind of went there. Because you’ve been engaged in system work for years. And I feel like there’s few systems as large and nebulous as the New York City Department of Education. I’m curious where you’ve seen efforts to shift the system go awry, like if there’s any common pitfalls.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Yeah. I would say every time we get ahead of educators, every time system leaders think they know more or better than the children, the educators, the families. So I would say that a big takeaway for me, and something I’d emphasize, is that at the heart of systems change is really understanding that for systems-level change, there is a need to have a proximity to the classroom and to children that is just essential for change to happen effectively.
I would say another thing that’s really important is to attend to that coherence. I mentioned earlier, it is so easy for one division or one department to move full-speed ahead without thinking through the implications for another division or for kids. Children don’t experience every department of the central office.
They experience a set of learning experiences that day with their teacher in the classroom. And so being able to step outside of ourselves at the district level to say, the titles in the offices are helpful for what they’re doing here in our day-to-day work, but they’re not what matter most when we’re trying to ensure that all kids are receiving the education they deserve.
And so I would say those are two things that are really important to me in this work, is breaking down those silos and creating the coherence and consideration for what it means for a kid, and then of course centering the voices of those who often are not at the table or not in the room, and being able to redefine what the room looks like. Get rid of that table, right? Get out there and talk to children and educators and families and prioritize that voice in ways that, I acknowledge, is usually not the way that big systems ordinarily work.
STACY CAILLIER: I feel like you just named two more mindsets that I’m like, oh, I want to keep it front and center, just this idea of doing with, not for.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Yeah. Doing with, not for or to, right? Nobody wants anything being done to them. Just the idea of what does it mean to authentically do with? And I think that just goes back to the learning and unlearning. I recognize that we’re socialized not to move at this pace, not to be inclusive in these ways. So I want to name that this is challenging, and requires support, and requires patience, but also a sense of urgency, and focus, and relentlessness to just ensuring that we’re doing things differently.
STACY CAILLIER: Yeah, definitely. I also heard, in your last response, just this mindset around seeing the interconnectedness of everything.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Yeah. And I think CI is great in that way. There are all these tools that map out. I know when you’re always like, oh, there’s the fish bone and there’s a mapping system, the processes, and there’s all these tools. And I think the art of that is the visual nature of being able to see the interconnectedness between all parts of a system.
And so I think that’s the part that’s really exciting. I think to have that awareness, self-awareness, as any district leader to say that the work you’re doing, or the work that your department does, is directly tied to some other person’s work. And then ultimately, this is all tied to what a child will experience in a classroom.
STACY CAILLIER: Yes. There are so many different places I could go right now. But I have to go to– I’m really excited that you all are doing work around pedagogy.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Yes.
STACY CAILLIER: Because I think we have so many examples of improvement being used to improve things that are not pedagogy. And often, for those of us trying to improve pedagogy, we’re like, where are the great examples of people using improvement to improve pedagogy? So I love that the goal of your network is to improve the percentage of eighth-grade students who are on track for success in high school and college, but that you all have really focused on improving math instruction as a key lever to get there.
And we’ve certainly found a lot. There’s so much to argue about math being the next equity frontier, really. And what have you found most exciting and most challenging about using improvement to shift pedagogy and essentially the instructional core? Because a lot of improvement work doesn’t even touch that.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Yes, Stacey. So I just want to– all of your points really resonate with me. As excited as we are about CI in education, the examples of what it looks like, and particularly around pedagogy, is really hard to find. A challenge that we’re up to and excited about, but that at times can be really frustrating. So I definitely acknowledge. And I know many times we reach out to each other as organizations to make sense of this.
But I think there are so many things that we’ve learned about it. And I think it really just goes back to how important it is to adapt and internalize CI in ways that we own a little bit more in education. The health care examples are compelling. And they’re powerful. And they are excellent north stars and help to make sense of things. But to realize the complexity of the education system, the ways in which it’s rooted in the behaviors of humans, and young people, and the role of development and relationships is really important.
And so I would say that we have found that the way to do this work has been able to give ourselves the freedom and space to acknowledge that there aren’t many examples. This hasn’t been done in ways that we can point to and follow in lockstep ways. And that that wouldn’t make sense. And it wouldn’t make sense in a system that really has been plagued by racism and lots of inequity for many, many years.
And so what we try to do is say to ourselves, how do we go about applying any of the steps in these processes in ways that honor the great research and science that exists, but also takes into account the fact that we’re doing something new. I would say for us, it has been about really creating the space to try new things, to have some agency in the use of these tools and processes, to be critical of the impacts we’re having.
But also to name when something isn’t making sense. And so I’ve appreciated lots of communities, not that there are many, but some communities that have been created to grapple with these tensions. Like the PPLG offered by Carnegie has been a really great space for leaders who are committed to CI work to come together and say, well, what are all the tensions and things we’re grappling with, and how can we make sense of that?
So I would say that at the heart of it has been being willing to try new things, being willing to say when we don’t know what we don’t know, and then also to share, as quickly as possible, when we think we are on to something that does make sense in an instructional context. And that has been everything from what’s the right brain size of a change idea? Or how does the theory of improvement really lead to an aim when we’re thinking about instruction for such a diverse set of students?
I think if we can continue to capture what those questions are– or how do you attend to a system that is historically racist? [INAUDIBLE] these are big questions. What are some of the challenges we have that just create more opportunities for us to think about how we’re doing these things a little differently.
STACY CAILLIER: Sure. I have to ask you, if there is an I used to think, now I think related to improvement and your work of creating systems change. If there was something you used to think that now you think differently, what would you say?
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: This is a tough one. I guess I used to think that it was important to engage in the conversation around whether or not continuous improvement is about incremental change, or if it’s about disrupting systems. I used to think that it was so essential to get at that answer. And I would say a while ago, I’ve decided that isn’t the question. That is not the thing that deserves our attention.
But instead, it is about thinking about how CI gets positioned as one lever, potentially of many, that works in service of disrupting inequity in our systems. For a system that stands as one of the many systems that have been built around racist ideals and designed to uphold white supremacy, I think a distraction can be engaging in that initial question. I think this work is complex. It is difficult. It will require knowledge, and approaches, and frameworks, and ideas that have probably even been yet to be created.
And it will also build on some of the amazing great work of marginalized communities, who are also often not acknowledged, and have been silenced. And I’m excited. And now I think that the opportunity is exciting. I think if we can shift the conversation about transforming districts and systems for equity that we can now include CI as one of the many things in our toolbox as we take on work that we just don’t have an option to shy away from anymore. So I guess that’s what I think differently now.
STACY CAILLIER: That gave me chills, Tracy. Because you just hit on one of the dichotomies that makes me the most crazy. I’m like, can we stop talking about if CI is transformation or tinkering? It can be both. And hopefully, it has elements of all of it.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Yeah I think the both and is really an important. Maybe that’s another mindset we got to throw in there.
STACY CAILLIER: Yeah.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: But I would say the both and is really important. And to be clear, I think it is important, whenever you’re doing racial justice work, to acknowledge where there’s tinkering, and where there is transformation. But would say that in this case, in particular, while it’s important to have surfaced that question, and I think there’ll be instances where it’s important to really probe there, that for the purposes of district transformation, I think we can all get behind that it’s going to take a real, concerted effort that employs a bunch of different really thoughtful ideas. And that there’s really limited space here to do the either/or.
STACY CAILLIER: Yeah. I love that. And I love that the work that you all are doing around on track and math is definitely transformational. It’s far from tinkering at the edges. And I really appreciate all of that.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: Yeah. Oh, I’m realizing that one point I didn’t make– I know I talked a lot about learning or unlearning and our theories and proof of action and all these things. But I would just say something that’s also deeply important to us is recognizing the role of content and being able to, like in the case of mathematics, recognize that as you do new things and try new things, that the support that I often reference is the giving people the space to learn. And that means educators being able to improve their practice, deepen their content knowledge, for school leaders or district leaders to build their content knowledge around their practice.
So I must say, especially as someone who supports higher education, and continuing education, and education more broadly, is that really at the heart of this is learning and the ability to build expertise, both in the form of actually going through designed learning experiences, but also just through lived work on the ground.
STACY CAILLIER: Yeah.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: That was fun.
STACY CAILLIER: Thank you, Tracy.
TRACY FRAY-OLIVER: It was great talking to you today.
STACY CAILLIER: It was really great talking with you, too.
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ALEC PATTON: High Tech High Unboxed is hosted and edited by me, Alec Patton. Our theme music is by Brother Hershel.
Huge thanks to Stacey CAILLIER and Tracey Fray-Oliver for today’s conversation.
Thanks for listening.
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