The Richmond Times-Dispatch sat down with Virginia’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons on Tuesday evening in her office at the James Monroe Building in downtown Richmond. During the interview Coons addressed topics ranging from accountability to history standards, school safety to training and retaining teachers.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin appointed Coons as the new state superintendent on March 22 to replace Jillian Balow, who resigned after a 14-month tenure marked with controversy.
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Coons worked in Tennessee education for almost a decade, and previously served as chief academic officer of the Tennessee Department of Education, where she spearheaded the state’s revision of English Language Arts instruction.
She took over as head of the Virginia Department of Education on April 17, and will earn an annual salary of $250,000, according to an offer letter from the governor’s office.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What about the Youngkin administration’s stances on education issues made you want to run the department of education in Virginia?
I think Virginia and Tennessee have a similar structure and opportunity. I think Virginia is steeped in history… steeped in tradition. I’m service-oriented. My whole life, I’ve been at West Point Military Academy. My husband is in the military, my son is in the military. Service is who I am.
History and tradition are rich in Virginia, so it kind of spoke to me – both the similarity and closeness to Tennessee but also that commitment to the country, history and service.
When I think about Governor Youngkin, his conversation and importance of family… is near and (dear) to my belief system… Some of the work I did in Tennessee was bringing families to the table about their children’s literacy, and how they can be partners, how they can have transparent information, how they can grow.
I think other pieces of Governor Youngkin’s focus on education have been around having a rigorous opportunity for every single child in Virginia.
The governor has said that he wants to teach all history, the good and the bad. He also says he wants it taught in a way that doesn’t make anybody feel guilty for their ancestors’ wrongdoings. What are your views on whether it’s appropriate to teach students about the lasting effects of past segregation that are still felt today?
I think we need to weigh in on the history and social science standards the way they were written, and the way they were intended. … That is how the community across Virginia has decided, that’s what the (state Board of Education) spent a great deal of time talking about and making sure that it’s balanced.
My personal opinions don’t influence how we instruct children across the state. We need to take the collective input of the state, and that’s what those history social science standards represent. My role is to make sure that we implement those in a fair and unbiased way.
A lot of people have said they lost trust in the department after what happened with the history standards revisions before you got here. Do you think there’s anything the department can do to earn back some of that trust?
Absolutely. I have been in multiple school divisions, I plan on being in multiple school divisions, I plan on sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with superintendents.
On May 19, I’m going out to region seven, (in Southwest Virginia) and the first week of June, I will hit every single region and talk to superintendents. We have to listen to our teachers, we have to visit them in their classrooms, we have to elevate their work.
We have to sit down and listen to what our superintendents need, in the same way we have to sit down with our families and hear what our families need.
What are your thoughts on the (governor’s initiative to raise the passing score on state assessments to the ‘highest in the nation)? How do you think that raising those (passing scores) will improve student outcomes?
I think we need to assess our entire accountability, assessment and accreditation system. I think we need to look at how we are transparently communicating to families. I sat this morning with a superintendent in this seat who said, ‘I had students pass our (Standards of Learning) test in reading – they can’t read.’
I’m not giving an honest and transparent report to families if a child can’t read, and I’m saying they passed their SOLs. We have to give accurate and appropriate reporting, whether that’s raising cut scores (passing benchmarks), whether that’s changing how we accredit schools, whether that’s talking about accountability and reporting.
I’ve been here 12 days, so I can’t speak to that (initiative) specifically. But I know we need to look at all aspects of that system and we need to take time to make sure that we are preparing students for the future, which means telling our families how our students are doing.
That means fairly and transparently giving assessments that make sure that they’re equitably being educated with their peers. Their peers don’t live in Richmond or Goochland, their peers live in California and Nevada and across the country. We have to make sure that we are ensuring our children are performing with their competitive peers so that they are competitive and successful, and they have the same opportunities as peers from all over the country.
When the accreditation system is changed, do you think those schools that lose their full accreditation should receive more resources from the state?
100%. The goal of accreditation is to support our schools so that every child can have the same equitable opportunity. So if a school is deficient in their accreditation, it is our responsibility as a state agency to give them the support they need to provide that opportunity for that child.
How can the state can work to recruit and retain more teachers?
Every child, no matter where they live, deserves a high quality licensed teacher in front of them every day. That means we as an agency have to process licenses effectively and efficiently, and we have to find solutions to make sure that we are doing that. That’s our short-term need. Our short-term immediate solution is that we are looking at teacher licensure and making sure that we are licensing the teachers who are ready to be licensed efficiently.
Long term, we have to look at programs that are ensuring that people who want to be teachers have low-cost, no-cost options to becoming a teacher. Whether that’s a paraprofessional who’s sitting in a second grade classroom helping that teacher help children learn to read, or that’s a high school senior who’s trying to decide what they want to do with their life, we have to provide pathways that are affordable and equitable, so that we grow our own teachers.
Regarding the quality of teachers, do you have any concerns about alternate routes like iteach?
I don’t have concerns about routes that allow us to put strong teachers in classrooms. If iteach meets the threshold that the state board requires, then that’s an absolute pathway that we should be putting (in place) to allow teachers. It’s a cost-effective way to become a teacher.
All teachers need to understand the science of reading and evidence-based methods of reading instruction. If I get that coursework at iteach, if I get that coursework at a grow-your-own model, if I get that coursework in higher education, that coursework still needs to be rigorous. The pathway is less important than the coursework.
Do you have any concerns that having this faster, easier way to get a teacher license will eventually deter teachers from going the traditional route?
I can’t speak to iteach specifically. If there are pathways that allow us to get a high-quality teacher that is efficient and effective, we need to explore all routes to ensure we have a high-quality teacher.
It is not my role to determine what those pathways are, or whether we have more children or more adults taking higher education courses to become a teacher, or grow-your-own, or an apprenticeship or an alternative pathway.
In light of recent school shootings … if you were to go to the General Assembly next year and advocate for a policy on school safety, what would that look like?
That’s certainly something we’re looking at. Right now, my focus is making sure that we have grant dollars, and we have opportunities for school divisions to come together and talk about what they are doing, elevating what is working, and speaking with them about things that they need in the policy to ensure that they have safe schools and healthy schools.
I am really early to know … what policies might need to be revised, or what policy recommendations we need to make. But we have to ensure that every school is safe and healthy for children – that is an absolute must. Coming from Nashville over the past several months, and having very personal connections, to having a grandson who’s going to be going to a Virginia elementary school, it is personal to me that every school is safe and healthy.
Do you think there’s anything that can be done to alleviate that learning loss that Virginia is not already doing?
I think we need to double down on the things that we are doing. We just launched the learning acceleration grants. We also have a large bucket of ESSER dollars in summer programming. (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds were part of the federal response to COVID-19.)
Those are two important strategies that evidence shows help accelerate learning to get back on track. I think we’re doing the right things. It’s doubling down and making sure those are evidence-based and that we’re supporting them with funds and programs to allow all families to have access to them.
Anna Bryson (804) 649-6922
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