SmallStones Interviews: Nada Djordjevich, Education Consultant

Public Education in Anxious Times and Hope in Everyday Actions

STEM.TeacherLearning
Teachers engage in STEM professional learning. Courtesy of Nada Djordjevich

Nada Djordjevich is a writer and consultant with more than fifteen years experience working to strengthen schools, communities, and arts organizations. As Executive Director of Gibson and Associates, she has secured more than $35 million in private, state, and federal funding for education initiatives and developed three-year plans for two of the ten largest school districts in California. As an educator, she taught history, English language development, and writing and served as an academic dean. She has worked in both public and private high schools as well as community college and non-profit settings. You can read more about Nada Djordjevich at nadadjordjevich.com and gibsonandassociates.com, or follow her on Twitter (@NadaDjordjev) or LinkedIn.

She spoke with Eva Kaye-Zwiebel on January 3, 2018. Their conversation has been edited for length. Updated information on the California budget and resource links were added for reference and context.

Small Stones (SS): Can you tell me, big picture, about your work, and then about the big issues that your clients are, collectively, encountering right now?

Nada Djordjevich (ND): I’ve been involved in all sorts of areas of school reform: creating school district plans, large-scale partnerships between school districts and institutes of higher education, and teacher pipeline programs. These are projects for which district administrators or schools usually need to hire somebody outside to get the work done. As a consultant, I’ve worked under Republican and Democrat administrations—in both California and the federal system. I’ve been involved with several initiatives at the federal and state level including No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top. With NCLB, for better or worse, because it was bipartisan people thought, “We don’t like it necessarily, but we know it’s here to stay.” There have been a lot of transitions recently, and that creates anxiety and a lack of traction.

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Image courtesy of Nada Djordjevich

This happens with any administration, Democrat or Republican: you have an exodus of knowledge, when people who have been in departments for years and years leave. You see that at the local level, too, when you have a change of superintendents. Like I said, people could argue against the vision, but between 2000 and 2016, for the most part education vision was bipartisan. You might have Democrats, certainly at the local level, more willing to tax, but there wasn’t a sense that we are on completely different teams.

SS: Can you give some examples of areas where there’s less agreement than before?

ND: STEM and higher ed are two examples. A lot of my work is in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). I’ve written 12 grants in this area. The science and math emphasis actually came from the Bush administration, and then Obama took on the STEM initiative. There was a sense of, “It doesn’t matter who’s going to be in power; Republicans and Democrats both like science and technology and both are going to be advocating for it.” The Math and Science Partnership grants were wonderful partnerships and there were 13 years of them. The lack of support for STEM now, that’s been a real shift. A recent article from Fast Company describes how STEM budget cuts impact low-income youth’s access to science and technology.

In higher education, there is a new reality we have to face: It’s going to be an uphill battle to allow that every kid should have the opportunity to go to college. College pays off. All the research shows that; for example, The Urban Institute reports this: “Postsecondary education pays off for most people in terms of higher pay, more job opportunities, better health, and a variety of other advantages.” In numerous speeches, President Obama described providing every student with the opportunity to attend college. But now there is no bipartisan agreement about the importance of a college education. This article from The Atlantic, The Republican War on College, provides an astute analysis of the challenge.

SS: You mentioned changes in California’s funding of schools. Can you tell me more?

ND: California has had a lot of variation in funding in education—we’ve gone through windfalls, and then starvation cuts. We also have had a change in funding formulas for schools. Funding changes create anxiety—a lack of predictability—and that frames the environment in education. And this year, for multiple reasons, some California school districts had to make midyear cuts. The anxiety it creates is terrible and makes people think about fleeing their public schools.

Ed100, a bipartisan website focused on parent advocacy, had an article entitled Does California Skimp on Education? And the research in that article indicated “yes”, the state does skimp. While funding is not always a predictor of progress, our educational outcomes in California lag behind other states, particularly in terms of high school graduation rates. The Americas’ Promise Grad Nation report provides useful and comparative information about high school graduation rates of each state.

California also has an impending teacher shortage and, because of all this other uncertainty, I’m not sure districts are even thinking long term about “How are we going to address this?” And the lack of funding creates a culture where teachers think, “I don’t want to work here, or even in education, because I’m scared I’m going to lose my job.” In California in 2008, there were almost 45,000 people enrolled in teacher preparation programs. Five years later this had dropped to fewer than 20,000.

San Francisco has been thinking deeply about these issues. San Francisco has the same problem with teachers not being able to afford to live there. They had the mayor come in and now they are creating teacher housing. They’re creating initiatives and really thinking about pipeline programs so that they can grow their own teachers, which is really exciting.

SS: I hear you saying that there’s both a loss of agreement about education as well as potential to build new things. But when people or districts don’t know what’s going to emerge, that creates anxiety.

ND: Right. But maybe this is a good note to end on: I can’t tell you how inspired I am by the work that I do and the people I work with. I’ve been really fortunate in that I work with great school districts. I’ve seen the best of education and I see these incredibly committed people who, day-to -day, don’t feel discouraged. At the day-to-day level, there are wonderful kids who love going to school, who are excited about learning, and wonderful teachers who are exactly the same way, excited about learning, and who love teaching. I think schools can be incredibly democratic and positive institutions, so the question is, How do we support them?

SS: Just some very last questions. If I or our readers want to read more, where do you recommend looking? Who do you follow for education-related news?

ND: Here are some of my favorites:

  • Washington Post: Valerie Strauss is the best national educational journalist. She will go to hearings, read documents, and do old-fashioned reporting. She also offers her column for opinion pieces from diverse voices.
  • The Atlantic: They have great coverage of a vast number of issues related to education.
  • National Public Radio: Anya Kamenetz does fantastic reporting on education.
  • Marketplace: Their education beat is particularly strong concerning higher education.

And finally, here’s an example of one of the grants I wrote, an elementary and middle school STEM initiative. The links include dozens of current publications, resources and curricula developed by and for teachers. The website really conveys teacher and student joy in learning.

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