Former State Superintendent, South Carolina (1990-1998)
Focus on building new and different 21st Century systems of learning.
We are living in extraordinary times with many challenges on many different fronts. There is an appreciation of the importance of a quality education for EVERY student as well as a commitment to lifelong learning.
The urgency of the 21st century, the competitive economy and the emphasis on equity and excellence compels us to focus on building new and different 21st century systems of learning. It is imperative that we constantly look forward to forecast trends and impacts on the system, benchmarking and incorporating “best practices” from national and international education systems as well as business and the public sector.
It is important to continually take the opportunity to examine old assumptions and structures while understanding that the delivery of learning tomorrow won’t even resemble the best of what we have today.
While core content standards must be clearly defined it is also necessary to include the process skills of creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, technology and life and career skills. The wealth of the 21st century is KNOWLEDGE. Those who have it will succeed and those who don’t will be left behind—far behind.
Leadership is not for the faint of heart!
It is important to keep focus on the goals of quality learning while constantly basing each decision that is made on the answer to a simple question—“Is this is in the best interest of the students we serve?” The work we do is not for the faint of heart but it is for those who are willing to embrace change and have the courage to lead. In order to build high performing learning organizations and create a culture for creativity and innovation with those who work in our systems we need to understand that leadership and stewardship are linked. All involved in education in their respective roles must be good stewards and strong leaders. In the everyday world of schooling, strong leaders must know what time it is—I would say that leaders today cannot be afraid of change, cannot be afraid to speak out, must keep the focus on the students not the system, and must be open to bringing others along with them.
Teamwork involves all stakeholders.
It is important to realize that we are all partners in this process of 21st century learning. It does not matter if you are an educator, a provider of services, a parent, a business or community leader—we share a common responsibility to the children of this nation. Change can be a scary thing for all of us. We succeed when we bring people into the process, work together and celebrate excellence. A state department can develop policies, provide leadership, and help to obtain resources but it will not succeed if schools and communities do not personalize and customize the change. Quality is never an accident. It takes the effort, skillful implementation and wise choices of alternative strategies. It takes all to accomplish this. A little less me and more we!
Technology is transformative.
Technology has dramatically changed how we live, work and learn. As new technologies emerge, many hold huge potential for impacting how education is delivered and how people at all ages continue to learn. Educators need to be open to the potential, embrace it and use it effectively to personalize and customize education for every student as well as personnel within the system. We need to work with educators, parents, legislators and the broader community to not fear its use and to maximize the power of engaging students in learning both inside and outside the classroom.
Over the years the educational reform agenda has placed emphasis on high rigorous standards, performance-based assessments, improved teacher quality, research-based instructional strategies, technical assistance, intervention, technology, and accountability. The missing frontier is school finance. We need to completely rethink the functions of education and how dollars are budgeted. Right now we have a maze of federal, state and local funding with a multitude of program line items that do not allow for flexibility, confuse both the education system and the general public and tie the hands of schools to provide a quality education for the students they serve. We need a “whole picture” view of resources that presents a clear picture of spending from all sources, to avoid duplication of funds, to ensure non-fragmentation of delivery, to look for areas of efficiencies, to examine results, reallocate dollars if needed and project future needs. Budgeting is only one piece of a comprehensive system of delivery but it is critical to understand that all parts of the educational system must be aligned for success.
The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.
Dr. Barbara Nielsen has been an educator for 47 years as a teacher, administrator, and a consultant. She worked for 17 years in the 120,000 student Jefferson County, Kentucky School District as an Elementary teacher, Principal, Curriculum specialist, Coordinator of Educational Improvement, Director of Career Education and as a consultant to the Prichard Committee on Kentucky Education reform.
After moving to South Carolina in 1983, she served as an administrator in the Beaufort Co. School District. She was later named Director of the Edgewater Institute for Education—a business supported organization established in Beaufort to link education, economic development and community development. Elected in 1990 and re-elected in 1994, she served as the 14th South Carolinian to hold the post of State Superintendent. As the chief executive officer for the State Department of Education she managed a $2.2 billion-a-year agency that served more than 1000 schools in 91 school districts. Throughout her tenure S.C. developed rigorous academic standards and assessments, implemented state of the art technology statewide, implemented full day Kindergarten, implemented a financial analysis system which followed every dollar spent from all revenue sources down to the classroom level, wrote and helped pass the 1st and 2nd S.C. Charter School Legislation and also passed accountability legislation.
Dr. Nielsen is retired but still serves as a Senior Scholar at the Strom Thurmond Institute, Clemson University. Dr. Nielsen also serves as an Executive Consultant to the Pearson Foundation and Pearson Education. She serves on several professional and community boards.