In this month’s At the Helm, our CEO Suzanne Weber spoke with Carissa Moffat Miller, CEO at Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, DC. Suzi and Carissa discussed the American education landscape, ensuring equitable access for all students, and creating systems change for a brighter future.
Suzi: You were named the CEO of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in 2018, becoming the first woman to lead the organization in its 90-year history. What brought you to CCSSO and this position?
Carissa: I came to the organization in 2013 as the Deputy. I had previously worked at the state level and had been a member of CCSSO. I had always really valued the support and mission of CCSSO, so I welcomed the opportunity to come on board. Then, in 2017, the Executive Director at the time decided to leave, and I had to do some soul searching. I was used to always being in a number two role and acting as a behind-the-scenes leader. I wasn’t sure I was ready yet to take the leap. But as I thought about it, I was really excited about the opportunities and vision of the organization, the work we had been doing, and the possibilities for the future. I felt strongly about the ability to partner with states to make huge transformations in education across the country. It was the right opportunity at the right moment for me.
CCSSO is often best known for its National Teacher of the Year Award, but the organization’s work and impact extend far beyond that. Can you tell us more about CCSSO’s mission and how it uses its influence?
CCSSO is not just a membership organization, we’re an organization that believes in collective impact. We want to empower state leaders to make changes to ensure the American education system is the best that it can possibly be for all students – that it prepares them to succeed in school, college, work, and life beyond that, whatever path they choose. We think of our work as being comprised of three components:
We lead by amplifying state leaders’ abilities to drive improvements, navigate challenges, and think strategically.
We strive to be the go-to organization to connect all of these incredible resources across the education spectrum and deliver them to state leaders so they can make the decisions best for their students. We bring our members together to think bigger.
We are known for influencing change on the national education landscape. We spend a lot of time advocating for policies and support that will make it easier for our state leaders to deliver a quality education to their kids.
As we all know, COVID irrevocably transformed how educators teach and how students learn. Can you tell us about CCSSO’s impact on how schools and k-12 students were able to navigate this? And are there changes the organization has made over the past two-plus years that you see as lasting?
From the start of COVID, our team situated ourselves right at the center of it all – I’m very proud of them for it. We were committed to making sure that we got as many accurate answers as we could, and that the information flowed to our members as fast as possible so they could make informed decisions and plan accordingly. There were times when the information we were receiving—whether from the CDC or other federal agencies and whether regarding how to deliver meals to kids or how to ensure internet access, for example—was changing within a 24-hour period, so it was critical that we distributed that information as quickly as possible.
In addition to delivering information, we also partnered with states to carve paths forward. We connected leaders across states so they could gather the best ideas from their colleagues around the country. It empowered them to move more rapidly and to feel less isolated. We also advocated Congress to include approximately $2 billion in federal funding for education through multiple emergency relief bills. We made sure to communicate why this money was needed, and to really put our weight behind them. We were so pleased that Congress allocated an estimated $190 billion to states to support K-12 schools.
In terms of lasting changes inside our organization, I think one of the biggest is how we deliver our services. When we were no longer able to meet in person, we had to pivot quickly and rethink how we had done business for decades. It was no easy task to stack up a virtual conference center that could accommodate the number of meetings we host and the number of people we reach. But we did it. Now, we’re moving to a mostly remote organization. We have learned the best ways to communicate and the tools that we need. Most of our internal meetings are now virtual, and we’ve learned how to utilize our in-person meetings differently to really invest in relationships. We have to form strong relationships with each other to sustain the work we do remotely. It’s flipped the script in a way that I would have probably been uncomfortable with pre-COVID. We don’t have it fully figured out, but it’s a journey – and it will certainly be a long-lasting change.
We have a generation of students whose education and lives have been severely impacted by COVID. Can you tell us about what can and should be done for these students?
We know that COVID created gaps in learning for students – and that it varied across the country, based on individual experiences. So, we have been collecting and analyzing assessment data at the state level, and we have seen some initial promising results. Thanks to high-dosage tutoring, intensive summer programming, and the distribution of resources and support to students, we’re seeing increases in achievement, though still not reaching pre-pandemic levels. These are early results, and granted we have a long way to go, but it’s promising, nonetheless.
One clear takeaway that cannot be overstated is how critical it is that we prioritize fulfilling the emotional, social, and mental-health needs of students. It’s incredibly important. If those needs aren’t being met, students cannot focus on learning. So, we are committed to dedicating resources to those needs as we continue to try to close the educational gaps.
You’ve mentioned to me how important it is for students to have high-quality instruction materials. With the intensity of disagreements between states and even local school districts about what is proper to teach students, how does CCSSO achieve results?
We approach all of our work with the same philosophy: we need to take into account the local context of each state and district, and we need to understand and respect that while an approach might work well in one place, it may not in another. For example, one of our current projects around high-quality instructional materials is with 13 partner states. Each state approaches it differently. One state may include the materials as part of a license and provide their districts with an opportunity to buy a license. Other states may have a cooperative agreement among all of the districts, so they all use the same materials. This allows the state or district, in turn, to provide professional development for all teachers together and more deliberately ensure equitable education across districts. Ultimately, we strive to respect individual states’ approaches and systems all while staying true to our vision of ensuring all students graduate prepared for college, careers and life.
Last year, CCSSO was honored for its ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion. Can you tell us more about how the organization supports state education leaders in their efforts to offer an equitable education?
In 2017, CCSSO published a document entitled Leading for Equity, which has been foundational for us. The document has 10 equity commitments that state leaders embrace as they strive to improve the equity of their education systems. A couple examples of the commitments include:
- “Measure what matters” – this is about creating accountability. Are we looking across a variety of groups to make sure that performance is similar? Are there differences, and if so, how are we addressing them?
- “Start from within” – this focuses on the policies and practices within our own organizations that work to promote equity. It ensures we have targeted initiatives and that we monitor and measure our results.
Ensuring equity requires a number of different strategies and approaches and has to take into context the individual student, school and community. We think about it broadly, understanding that there isn’t a single solution.
What do you think the biggest priorities will be for CCSSO and state education leaders during this upcoming school year?
For the past two years, we’ve been in a crisis mode where we couldn’t plan more than a year—or more realistically, a month—ahead. Now, we can and need to think further. Increasing support and services around academics and mental health and wellbeing is front and center. We need to ensure that this moment doesn’t pass without us reflecting on what the past two years taught us and how we can use those lessons to create real system change. Let’s ask ourselves: What did pivoting to remote instruction teach us? Should we rethink the length of the school day? Are we grouping students in a way that is most beneficial to their learning? There’s an unending number of questions. This is the moment to be reflective so we can understand what a better education system can look like. That will be CCSSO’s focus moving forward.
On a different note – what advice would you share with fellow leaders?
Fundamentally, my advice is grounded in: remain humble and take chances. When you are struggling to make a decision, “get on the balcony” and look at the problem from a broader perspective. Once you have done that and listened well, be confident in your own unique leadership style. Two years ago, I will admit I was still in the stage of leadership where I was often asking myself what my predecessor or another leader in my network would do in any given situation. Then, the pandemic hit, and there was no one to look to because no one had been through something like this. It gave me the freedom to trust my own decision-making. In hindsight, not all of those decisions may have been the “right” ones, but someone had to make a call, and that’s what I aimed to do. I learned to be humble, to listen to others, to get out of the weeds, and then, to act.
One final question – our audience spans the education and nonprofit space. Beyond understanding CCSSO’s work, is there a way that a broader audience can relate to your mission and program personally?
I think everyone can relate to wanting to make sure a child has an outstanding education that leads to greater opportunities in life. As a first-generation college graduate, education made a huge difference in my life. Everyone understands its capacity for impact. So while we work at the system level—and our work can sometimes sound removed from individual children—we are creating conditions to make sure that individual students have access to education that can be life-changing. I believe that’s a mission that connects us all.