Kentucky School Boards Association: In Conversation with … Julian Vasquez Heilig

The following Q&A was published by the Kentucky School Board Association in the December 2019 issue of the Kentucky School Advocate.  This In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

Julian Vasquez Heilig became dean of the College of Education at the University of Kentucky in June. He earned his Ph.D at Stanford and was most recently a professor and program director at California State University, Sacramento. Vasquez-Heilig has written extensively about education policy and social justice, and more than a million people have read his Cloaking Inequity blog (cloakinginquity.com). Vasquez Heilig also co-hosts the Truth for America podcast on education policy.

Q: You’ve spent most of your career in Texas and California. What brought you to Kentucky for this opportunity?  

A. My uncle and aunt moved to Lexington in the early 1990s, so we’ve been coming to Kentucky for holidays for decades. I fell in love with the city; I bought my first UK hat when I was 17. My first cousin graduated from the College of Education three years ago. That’s the family side. On the education side, Kentucky has an innovative spirit and an interest in trying innovative approaches to improve the opportunities for and the success of students. The UK College of Education is the second-highest ranked college on campus, according to U.S. News and World Report. It’s also a highly ranked and nationally respected college of education. We have $30 million in research, 2,500 students and about 100 tenured-track faculty.

Q. When KERA (Kentucky Education Reform Act) was instituted 30 years ago, UK and the other state universities did research on the law and helped implement it, but the schools haven’t been as involved in such public policy efforts in recent years. What plans do you have to impact education policy discussions?

A. One goal is to make research more readily available to communities, to policymakers. We have several initiatives under way to encourage faculty to make their work more relevant and impactful that we’re not quite ready to announce. We want to be more engaged and relevant and ensure that when communities have questions and desires for their schools, the University of Kentucky will uphold its responsibility as the flagship institution and make gold standard information available so it can be used in conversations about how to improve schools.

Q. Are there any initiatives you can talk about?

A. As you know, Kentucky educators need about 24 hours of professional development each year. UK will start offering extension courses in the summer and year round to work with school districts. That’s not something that’s happened before here at the College of Education, and so that is news. And we’re going to work hard to provide professional development opportunities in-person and online. It’s the first time that UK has done this work. We need to be more involved in this space. 

Q. You speak out on education policy through your blog, your podcast, on social media and in articles you publish on LinkedIn. What is the value of doing so?A. Academics historically have been good at talking to each other but not so great at communicating with all the stakeholder communities that we need to communicate with. Social media allows us to communicate in real time with stakeholders of all types across all borders. Academics need to make their research more readily available in the public discourse.

I started my blog when I was at the University of Texas at Austin and I thought a few people would read it; today, it has been read by more than 1 million people in nearly 200 countries.

Q. Academic research is typically complex. How do you distill a 40- to 50-page research paper?

A.
We’re working on an initiative to provide communities with research briefs so that when they approach us about topics of interest, we’ll be able to synthesize and provide concise research. We’ll probably announce next summer how we are going to make this information more readily available.

Q. What is causing the teacher shortages and the exodus of mid-level teachers here and across the country? A. Teachers are the first responders to our social problems or economic challenges. Unfortunately, the teaching profession has been maligned in recent years, which has affected our ability to recruit folks into the profession. We’re working very hard – we have 75 collaborations with districts and nonprofits in Lexington and nearby to change the narrative about teaching. And it is not just us, but also the six other state public universities. We want to change the narrative about teaching to emphasize the honorable profession that it is. That’s a heavy lift for UK by itself. Together, as educators, we will change the narrative.

Q. What are some ways to do this?

A. There are opportunities for the public universities to think about a statewide campaign, not unlike the dairy industry’s “Got Milk” campaign. We are thinking about how we can collaborate to talk about how important and honorable the teaching profession is. Right now, we are working on a web-based reality show that will show Generation Z what’s inspirational about being a new teacher. We’re also going to approach all superintendents and principals within a wide radius of UK and ask them to recommend five of their students to attend the teacher education program here at Kentucky. Then we will recruit those students like we would recruit a point guard for a basketball team.

Q. What is the most pressing need of classroom teachers today? How can local school boards and district leaders help meet those needs?

A. We need to have a passion to support educators and we need to listen to them. In recent years, educators have made their needs and concerns very clear. They involve working conditions, curriculum challenges and home challenges related to poverty. We haven’t done as much listening and, oftentimes, educators have been demonized by certain sectors. I think more and more, the public recognizes that educators are 100 percent invested in the children of this state. We must remember that public education is the compass of the state.

Q. Your research has looked at school choice and the impacts it has on students and learning, so what advice do you have for school board members as the state continues to discuss charter schools and scholarship tax credits?

A. We have to decide if we want two separate systems of education, one that is accountable to the public and one that is privately run, where decisions are made by nonprofit and for-profit corporations. That’s really the difference. We have to decide whether we believe education is a right and a right that should be democratically controlled by the public or by organizations that have no accountability to the public.

Q. What can be done to ensure all Kentucky students have access to quality education given the financial situation that education faces?

A. There are two thoughts. One is tied to charter schools. Charter schools reduce resources available for neighborhood public schools. You have to fund two separate systems and sometimes that is done in a way that’s inefficient. For example, California spent $200 million to build low-performing charter schools basically next door to low-performing neighborhood public schools. We know that low-performing schools reside in places where children have less opportunity. The worst-kept secret in the United States is that the nicer house you buy, the nicer public school you get. That’s one of the things we’ve got to right-size. If we truly want to offer every student opportunity, then it shouldn’t matter whether or not you can afford an expensive home.

Q. What excites you about the opportunities ahead?

A. I think Kentuckians are interested in a new era for education, where educators and communities have an important place in how they want their public schools designed and the innovative approaches that are taken. I think communities need to have a say in what happens in their schools. I believe we are entering an era where community-based approaches to educational reform will be more prominent in the public discourse.

Q. Is that because people are getting concerned and engaged?

A. Absolutely. Education reforms that have been about external or top-down control of schools or privatization of education over the last 10 or 15 years haven’t moved the needle. I think that era is coming to an end, not just here in Kentucky, and that communities will have more say in what happens in their schools.

Q. Do you have concerns going forward?

A. I’m optimistic that we will have more political will to engage community-based solutions in our schools whether they be academy models, community-based community schools, and other approaches that are really driven on empowering communities.

Q. The legislative session is coming up. Will Frankfort be hearing from you a lot more?

A. When I left California, the legislature passed a resolution in my honor for the work I did. But as dean here, it’s a much different role with the legislature. I do anticipate that as questions come up during the session, UK will be able to provide high-level empirical information on different issues.

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