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Gallup Podcast
Keeping Children at the Center of Education
Gallup Podcast

Keeping Children at the Center of Education

"Keeping children at the center of the agenda is a huge lesson that I think anyone who interfaces with education should think about and embrace if they want to see a successful tenure," says Dr. Meria Carstarphen, Gallup's new Senior Scientist. Carstarphen joins the podcast to discuss the changes and challenges in urban education she has seen in her roles as superintendent of public school districts in St. Paul, Minnesota; Austin, Texas; and, most recently, Atlanta.

Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Mohamed Younis 00:00

For Gallup, I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we take a closer look at changes and challenges in us urban education with a leader that's better preparing America's young people to lead the world into a better direction. Dr Meria Carstarphen is a Gallup Senior Scientist on education, but my favorite description of what you do is that you're passionate about working to make communities stronger through the equalizing power of education from early childhood through college. Meria, It's a pleasure to have you on the podcast.

Meria Carstarphen 00:39
It's an honor to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

Mohamed Younis 00:42
Prior to joining Gallup, you served as superintendent of three American public school districts: St. Paul, Austin and Atlanta -- three amazing places to live and learn. I want to ask you, just to start, what did you take away from those experiences that you've really used to inform the field about American urban education. What did you learn?

Meria Carstarphen 01:04
Yeah, it's been an exciting journey. I just have to say that it's a space where, if you love children and you really care about the future of our country and what happens in our planet, American urban education is where it's at. Overwhelmingly, the large urban school districts of our country have the largest number of children of color, children in poverty, children with special needs, language-learning needs, and for us to get this right, it means that we will have a stronger, better workforce and a better future for our country. So being able to live and work in these beautiful capital cities like St. Paul, Minnesota, and Austin, Texas, and, most recently, Atlanta, Georgia, you do learn a couple of things. And one that seems like it's not rocket science, but I always feel like I have to say it is that, first, leadership matters.

Meria Carstarphen 02:01
Having someone who is an executive lead, who also can do the business side of the work but the instructional part of the work and then has a heart for the field, I think, makes all the difference in the world. And you would think that would be easy to come by. But, but I think, you know, having looked at some of the scenarios around the country, that's not always true. And so I think the leadership component for me is a really important lesson that I do think superintendents have to be disciplined about, that you actually embrace the field of leadership outside of education as well. And that's pretty huge.

Meria Carstarphen 02:48
I learned back in my graduate school days that knowing thyself is a second takeaway. Know who you are, what you stand for. What are those experiences, both personal and professional, that have shaped you and to own them, right? Just to embrace them, share them with your constituents and your public, so that they have a sense of how you go about decision-making, the things that inspire you and also concern you. Being transparent about that, I always think, helps with a great match.

Meria Carstarphen 03:23
And maybe lastly, a lesson around culture. I've learned the hard way and, and certainly the instructional way that if you have a bad culture, it will eat every single good strategy you have for breakfast every single day. So it's not just about like what's happening inside the system, it's the kind of environment that you create for people outside of the system to engage with the institution. And, and of course I will end with the most important part: If you don't love children and you're not excited about every other person's child, this is not the work for you. And so keeping children at the center of the agenda is a huge lesson that I think anyone who interfaces with education should think about and embrace if they want to see a successful tenure.

Mohamed Younis 04:27
You spent a lot of great time, you mentioned culture, in a really culturally and historically rich place, which is Atlanta. How did your career path lead you to Atlanta? I want to hear about that story.

Meria Carstarphen 04:40
Yeah. So I was born and raised in the civil rights city of Selma, Alabama. That's where the Voting Rights March of 1965 took place and, of course, the culminating national legislation that gave Blacks and minorities greater access to the ballot box. And, and it's always been the little sister city to Atlanta. And it felt like, for me, that the path that I was on would always, at some point, bring me home to our big sister, Atlanta. I think it, the path got accelerated a little bit after 2014, or maybe I should say before 2014, when Atlanta was in the throes of the largest cheating scandal in the history of public education. And the system was arguably obliterated; there were just so many problems even beyond the corruption, beyond the dysfunction, the broken systems and arguably the broken people. And they, the system destroyed the lives of a generation of children in ways that no one probably ever thought could happen in public education.

Meria Carstarphen 06:07
So I felt like maybe it was a little early for me to take on such a large challenge, but I also knew that I was being called to that work. I'd had, I think, a pretty successful experience in other systems, working to solve very complicated problems that were unique to those systems and their context. And Atlanta gave a storyline that just seemed inconceivable to me. It was, it's the gateway to the Southeast. It's where Martin Luther King went to school. It has some of the most incredible civil rights and social justice history in the world. And yet in this incredible city, this great injustice happened to children, their families, taxpayers and, I think, American history.

Meria Carstarphen 07:12
So when recruited to consider the opportunity to right-size that, to correct that, to turn it around, I had a healthy concern and fear that, you know, that there's just not enough experience that would allow for a successful outcome. But, but we did a couple of things that just were unbelievable. The team that came together to help in this work was extraordinary. I have never worked with a greater group of people. The community made it clear that they want to see a transition and a transformational, a transformation in their hometown system. The students were insisting on change. They felt very robbed of, of an education, of a potential future. And, and I also think that the school board at the time and certainly the leadership of the city saw that, without at least a quality option in their public school system for families who chose that direction for pre-K through 12, they had to have it if they wanted to have successful businesses grow and more business to come to Atlanta as a city.

Meria Carstarphen 08:39
So I was drawn to the complexity of it. I was, you know, from a sort of a, an, an executive mindset, but I was pulled there by my heart and my love for the deep South, my love for my hometown and my desire to really make right what was done very wrong to a particular group of people -- and that was Black people, Black poor people in Atlanta who were at the heart of this injustice. And so when I think about equity and the challenges of equity that we face today, I feel like Atlanta is an amazing case study of how people can overcome great challenges and still have a quality institution or organization, no matter how hard the work has become.

Meria Carstarphen 09:45
And I think in the world of Gallup, for example, that is, that is what we do: We solve complex problems. We give leaders and communities hope that they can actually overcome things that are getting in their way. And I think because of the relationship we had around culture and climate with many of the experts right here in this institution, we were able to do that work in Atlanta. So a long journey, but a great one, a really good one for children.

Mohamed Younis 10:25
And it's, it's, it's such an awesome journey and story, really, that continues. If you could take -- one of the things that fascinate a lot of people that don't know too much about education in the United States but know that it has challenges is why can't like Congress pass a bill and fix everything? There is a lack of understanding for kind of how granular and local education is really managed in the United States, from locality to locality. But a lot of the challenges sometimes, especially in the urban setting, are very similar. What are like the two most important lessons that you feel helped you guys succeed in Atlanta that you are kind of taken with you to other school districts' leaders as you talk to them and saying, "These are the couple of things that really made a difference for us that could work for you"?

Meria Carstarphen 11:22
I believe in focus and purpose and impact, right? It's just you have to get -- you're right about the granular component. It's a saying right, "All politics are local," but it's true. But getting us to an incredibly focused agenda for children -- adult agendas pushed to the side; political issues, pushed to the side. Any distraction that took us away from that purpose had to be pushed aside. And I don't think that it's common for, for people to just break it down in those kinds of small parts. Is it good for children? Yes or no? Will it make the team or the staff stronger? Yes or no? And as you kind of get these very clean small questions with "Yes" and "No" answers next to them, it becomes your breadcrumbs for getting through a dark forest of many complex issues that really aren't your own, many challenges that shouldn't be on your plate. A lot of requests that can get you in trouble or take you off your purpose.

Meria Carstarphen 12:45
But I think the thing that I've learned is that it is absolutely imperative that you challenge the status quo that you've inherited. The status quo becomes cost-prohibitive in, in our work. You can't keep it still, because the evidence shows that the very children who need the most help, those who are the most disenfranchised, those with the most challenges are who make up the majority of these urban systems. So if you're not moving the needle for them, you're not doing the job. And when you move the needle for, for these, these children, their families, it upsets a lot of people.

Meria Carstarphen 13:38
And it's a, it's, it's not just the school systems, and it's not just the ones I've worked in; it is an American issue. We are in the most divisive time politically. These things play out in the, at, like the canary in the coal mine. They start in the public school system. You can almost feel it when there's something about to happen. And as these things, you know, play out, it becomes critical that you are disciplined. You have to be disciplined about why you're there and what the purpose of schools really is for. So I always take that with me. And that was before the pandemic. That was before a lot of the things that we're seeing today that seem to be the political football or an issue coming out of Congress or the government.

Meria Carstarphen 14:34
You know, if you set all that aside, it's a very uncomplicated way to go about unpacking complicated work. If you can't answer the question of whether or not this is good for children, then you probably shouldn't be doing it. And that's my, that's my takeaway. It's, and it's made for many sleep-filled nights with no nightmares. It's made for never worrying about whether or not the FBI is going to come knocking on your door. It's made for, you know, a lot of, you know, calm in your heart and in your soul about why you do what you do, how you do what you do, and the ways you talk about think about, you know, enact the work that you think is important. And, and in our space those are, the demons will wake you up if you haven't stayed true to that purpose.

Meria Carstarphen 15:38
And I think I think that it's the greatest takeaway in, in the job; you just have to stay focused on a child-centered agenda and a culture that is being trained and supported over and over again to really build on the child agenda. And it's a whole-child agenda, it can't just be parts of it. It has to be their smarts and their hearts so that they become better people than, than we are.

Mohamed Younis 16:11
I, I'm a product of the public school system in California. I went to the Downey Unified School District, Warren High School. I went to a public university in California, U.C. Riverside. One of the things that that really strikes me as I reflect on it now, like as a parent, Meria, is how much I was and was not prepared for the working life that came after those experiences. And, you know, not to say everybody's, like, endpoint is the same. Like some of my friends -- some of my smartest friends -- stopped going to school after high school, started working then, some after college, some went on. What are, as you, as a superintendent, as an executive, really like the chief executive of what the heck is going to happen in this locality for public education, what are the challenges that you face In the urban setting today? I'm assuming they're very different than when I was in school, like in the '90s, but in some ways they're the same. Talk us through kind of like what are the biggest challenges in that space right now?

Meria Carstarphen 17:32
I, you know, starting with children first, it is, it is going to be a lot about recapturing learning loss. It was already bad before the pandemic. So many children were not being educated well for not just, you know, getting out of high school, but certainly they're not prepared for college, and they were not prepared for the workforce. So you kind of have this massive learning-loss recoup pre-COVID, during COVID, post-COVID challenge that is absolutely instructionally focused. And it's gonna be, I think, at the heart of, of the child's struggle, like the family concern about the future for their child.

Meria Carstarphen 18:20
And then there's, there are these other things that are really significant. I don't think our country has internalized yet the staffing challenges that are going, there, that every district is going to have to face, starting with the superintendency. Studies show that almost 50% of sitting superintendents will turn over. That means that you're gonna have a lot of leadership vacancies. And, and even though I know these things will be filled, it will be, you know, sort of the new to the position, new to the role of a lot of people will be learning on the job. And while that's perfectly fine, but you're, but, but to put this in perspective, the attrition rate probably sat at somewhere between 14% and 16% for superintendency in a regular year. It has rapidly moved to 46%. So, so even, even that role is going to go through a lot of challenges.

Meria Carstarphen 19:29
Then you go in one step further, leadership at school level, teaching positions and even support staff -- there are bus driver vacancies, cafeteria worker vacancies, just so many different levels that it's, it's going to go deep into the system. So I think that's another significant challenge. And we've talked about it a little bit, but this political divisiveness, this, this way that the world is kind of using the school playgrounds and boardrooms to duke it out on how we feel about political issues is, is more real today or that, more real today compared to certainly the beginning of my tenure, you know, in these roles.

Meria Carstarphen 20:20
So, so I, I think that it all kind of starts bubbling into this massive umbrella issue of morale, of motivating people, of giving people hope that, that you can still get a great education from your public schools. You know, if you have the right systems and, and, and people in place, that you can have a quality teacher or a great principal or a great education or access to a quality job. And that, that, that umbrella of the weight of low morale -- from parents, students, the educators themselves, the leadership -- is troubling. I think, I think we're, it's, we're not, we're not on the other side of it by any stretch of the imagination. And while, yes, these issues have been the same, like I said -- there were tons of achievement gaps before COVID and there will be many more after COVID -- the level of depth and breadth of these challenges is unlike anything we've ever seen before.

Meria Carstarphen 21:36
So, so I think it's, you know, and it's, you know, and, and, and, and I always kind of like pull like a little hair off of the sweater of these issues and look at them. So like if you pull the hair of leadership for superintendents, you can see things, gross inequities for women in the superintendency, where you know, the, the political, the political nastiness plays out more for women and women who are minorities in the superintendency. If you pull the hair on students, you'll see that, you know, there's even, even less tolerance for LGBTQ+ communities or, or for Black boys and suspension rates.

Meria Carstarphen 22:31
So you could, you know, you just kind of as you pull off these individual hairs and study the strand, you find that it's even harder, once you go a couple of levels in. And, and I don't, I don't see us convening, right, as a country. I don't see us coalescing a movement of support or a shift. It's, it's almost like every district's on its own or everybody's just trying to hold on by themselves. And, and I think that that's gonna culminate into a rough, you know, a rough decade.

Mohamed Younis 23:12
And that's exactly why I asked that question. It's like those three things that you mentioned -- whether it's the pandemic's impact on just learning progress or, or, you know, just keeping track, students keeping track of where the curricula at least expect them to be. The disruption that happened with that, the understaffing piece and the political piece are all kind of hitting all at once. The political piece too is not new because, I mean, this has always been a part of public education. It's just that now in our hyperconnected everything-on-social-media-instantly world everything just seems so much greater. But I remember just from law school like a lot of the First Amendment cases come from people on a campus -- some kind of an educational campus -- where they're wearing a shirt or wearing a flag or something. So it's not new for it to be this battleground. I think just the environment around it has become so charged, as you alluded to.

Mohamed Younis 24:15
You're also an executive producer for an upcoming documentary series. It's called "Defining Us," and it focuses on the role of education in helping us understand and improve life outcomes around the issues you just mentioned, of race, inequities, sexual orientation, gender identity, poverty, homelessness, physical and mental difference and a lot more. As my final question, I just wanted to ask you about this series, and what can we expect and where can we catch it?

Meria Carstarphen 24:45
Yeah. So what you can expect is an incredible collection of voices from the front lines. When I first became engaged with "Defining Us" and the -- it's the rest of the tagline, the "Children in the Crossroads" kind of component of how the, the title of the documentary flows. But it, it is the largest collection of voices of educators, researchers and students who have been going through these last few years. Our work started initially focusing on Black boys, minority boys, trying to, you know, to explain to the, the education space, the sector itself, what was happening for them. And like I, as we just discussed, it's sort of, it, it's started growing as these challenges, another layer of challenges came on: Black Lives Matter, social, you know social justice issues, you know, what can we teach in schools around race? What is allowable in textbooks and content?

Meria Carstarphen 25:56
And so it's, it's this, this voice of people who are right there, living it every single day, but no one really talks to them. And so what it does is it, it gives us a place for every educator -- anybody who is interested in understanding how to best serve and support in education, tons of resources. It's an entire platform that gives you real content to be able to work from. You, like I said, you have, you have access to experts, you have access to a network of folks who are talking about how we actually lift voices, tell the story of, of a growing school-based movement around civil rights and social justice. And, and I think that it's help. It's help for historically marginalized student groups and educator voices that are often not at the table.

Meria Carstarphen 26:59
So, you know, I'm very excited about, you know, how the, you know, how it, how it's set. It's on the backdrop of all these current national dialogues and the debate around social justice and social equity, yes. And so it's just this, it's a, it's a, you know, it's a, it hopefully will be a docuseries. As it stands now, it's a film. And, and as we're working through the festivals as we speak, we, we do see that later in the summer or at the start of the next school year, we'll be able to actually have the formal premiere. But as the festivals are, you know, inviting us and having us be selected as part of their of their, their outreach for, for all kinds of independent documentary films, we want to be part of that.

Meria Carstarphen 27:58
So while it's not fully released yet, it is coming. And, and I encourage people to sign up for any of these festivals. We were just at the at the African American Film Festival out of Toronto, and there are others on the way that will be announced in short order. But in the meantime, you know, I just encourage people to sign up for those festivals and get to see some of the sneak peek inside. And certainly later in the summer, when we have our formal premiere, that you that you watch along and learn about the very children who are in our schools today and the voices that these educators and experts and students have that could shape and help define us for the future.

Mohamed Younis 28:42
Absolutely. And they will, whether we listen to them or not, right? That's the reality. This is the future.

Meria Carstarphen 28:48
That is so true.

Mohamed Younis 28:50
It's whether you want to tune in and be part of the solution, this train is not waiting for anybody. Bob Marley has a very famous line, This train carries no one holy. This train is bound for glory. So whether you want to stop and take a listen, what's fascinating about what you do, and so many of the amazing public servants in your space, Meria, is whether it's race, racism, discrimination, competition with the global economy, making our students more effective in future generations in math and science, all of those things are connected and happen in the classroom. And so many times I think we compartmentalize a lot of these issues as kind of a separate thing to study. And what you do is it's so impactful, and educators across the country, in urban and nonurban settings, are having that impact daily, and it's just so important to share those stories. The series currently, the documentary is called "Defining Us." Dr. Meria Carstarphen is a Gallup Senior Scientist on education and so much more. Thank you for joining us on the podcast.

Meria Carstarphen 29:58
Thank you so much.

Mohamed Younis 30:00
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for "The Gallup Podcast" wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to or follow us on Twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.

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