Building a flourishing public education system: Q&A with Natalie Mitchell

A middle school student explains the inspiration for his art project to classmates.
(Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages)

Natalie Mitchell recently joined the Hewlett Foundation as an Education Program officer. She supports our deep investments in select school districts around the country, as well as organizations that bring students and communities to the decision-making table on education issues.

We spoke with Natalie about how her background in public schools is informing her early work with our partners and grantees.

Why support public education, especially in this moment?

I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to suggest that public education as an institution is under attack. And that’s deeply troubling, because our ability to live in a just and thriving society is predicated upon the availability and success of a public education system that courageously prepares students for the world they will inherit.

I’ve spent much of my career working with federal and state education grants that are deployed at the state and school district levels. As a former federal grant program director in a district, I know the critical difference that an infusion of supplemental funding can make in supporting rich, transformative, and innovative learning environments — especially in schools that serve the most marginalized among us. I’ve been fortunate to see years of phenomenal work on the part of public educators who work tirelessly to create and differentiate rich learning experiences and opportunities that center students and families — and by proxy, the communities in which they work and live.

Given that every child in America has not only access, but the right, to a public education, and because local schools are frequently the most accessible (or only) option — particularly for those furthest from opportunity, public schools are the single best poised civic institution to safeguard and shape both our individual and common well-being. However, to truly take up this mantle, public schools must reliably model equitable access to rigorous and captivating learning experiences, spark curiosity in students about the world around them, and engage them in thinking critically and collaboratively about solving the problems of the rapidly evolving society they will emerge into as adults. When we consider COVID and the unexpected challenges schools were called upon to address in novel ways, our public education systems are still ripe in this moment to continue thinking about how to better craft meaningful student-centered educational experiences.

I came to the Hewlett Foundation to carry forward my support for educators who make these ideas a reality for students, and because Hewlett’s commitment to a flourishing public education system that features robust and compelling deeper learning environments for all students matches my own personal philosophy about what students deserve from public education.

You’ve been at the forefront of changes in public schools for many years. What do you think are the barriers to change on the ground and how can philanthropy help? On the other hand, what are the pitfalls we need to avoid?

Barriers to progress on the ground are as varied as the number of contexts in which educational institutions exist and they persist across multiple domains: structural, political, cultural, etc. That said, one common challenge for districts is a limited view into the inner workings of their peers — and even neighbors. District work can be very insular, and the localized-operation design of our system lends itself naturally to myopia that doesn’t allow for extensive view outside of the immediate sphere. This means that opportunities to work through mutual challenges, and to collaboratively develop or share potential solutions, are often missed. This is a perfect example of an area where philanthropy can invite systems leaders to be in conversation with one another, providing the forums and resources to develop the good ideas born of collective grappling.

As funders, we have a responsibility to seek out and cultivate ideas that benefit the greater good — and to do this in ways that build and sustain trust. This means entering into grantee relationships with a posture of learning, listening closely to what grantees share with us about the challenges and successes they encounter on the journey to create more universally rigorous and equitable learning spaces for students. It also means ensuring that the experiences of those closest to the work, and as such, with the most to gain or lose in the eventual outcomes, are both centered and elevated in this critical discourse. At its core, this is educational justice work, and no system can become truly just without the voices of those most affected at the root of the solutions it seeks to enact.

What questions are you bringing to this work as a funder?

I approach this work with a lens of curiosity generally, but in particular, around questions of how we might significantly reduce persistent, yet predictable, variation in instructional quality and outcomes. Which parts of the system are the most efficient and productive levers for the type of transformation and innovation that results in this reduction? What does it mean to adapt potential solutions to highly variable contexts? And also questions of measurement: how will we know enduring district transformation when we see it? Finally, I really look forward to investigating the role that nourishing student and community voice, agency, and advocacy plays in all of this, and in producing the outcomes we strive for.

What gives you hope?

Whenever I enter a lively classroom or participate in a professional learning community of passionate educators, the question foremost in my mind has always been “what’s good here?” Since arriving at Hewlett and having had the fortune to engage closely with a number of our grantees, the answers to this query have been plentiful. In a recent Hewlett board meeting, we invited students from three of our partner districts around the country to speak about their learning experiences and opportunities, particularly the impact of employing their own voice and agency in their learning environments. The brilliance of these students (who were extraordinary, but who must not be cast as exceptional), and their leadership, ownership, and commitment to a shared future where each of us can flourish was exhilarating and leaves me with more than hope — a certainty, that together we can engineer a future they deserve.

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