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Exclusive Interview: Arlington County School Board Candidate Barbara Kanninen

by: lowkell

Wed Feb 27, 2013 at 12:48:09 PM EST

Yesterday, I had a chance to sit down with Barbara Kanninen, a Democratic candidate for Arlington County School Board. Kanninen clearly has tremendous experience and passion for education, plus positions on the issues that make a lot of sense. I haven't made an endorsement in this race, as I would first want to speak with incumbent School Board member James Lander before making a decision, but I'm certainly impressed with Barbara Kanninen and commend her for stepping into the proverbial "arena." Here are a few highlights from our interview.

First, we talked for a while about what Kanninen describes as "the perfect resume to be a school board member": 1) she's lived in Arlington for 20 years and has two sons who have been in the school system for years; 2) she has volunteered extensively in the schools; 3) she has connections with parents all over Arlington; 4) she's a children's book writer; and 5) she has a passion for education. She also emphasized her "analytical" background (e.g., in econometrics), and that she doesn't just "look at a graph and believe it," but "look[s] at the Excel spreadsheet behind it." Finally, Kanninen described herself as  "team player" who's running a "positive campaign."

Second, I asked her why she decided to run for public office. Kanninen said she's tried to recruit great people to run for years, but "not many people choose to run, so we haven't actually had a School Board caucus in 5 years." So, Kanninen added, "if we don't have competition, we don't have anyone even trying to prove that they're going to be a good School Board member...getting out, talking to parents, campaigning, learning about people's issues and competing for this slot, this should be an important thing to do." For all these reasons, she believes, "this process should be reinvigorated.

lowkell :: Exclusive Interview: Arlington County School Board Candidate Barbara Kanninen
Third, why has Kanninen decided to run now? "It's the right time; I now have a junior in high school and a middle schooler. I do not believe people should run for the School Board, honestly, who have not seen the whole process...I don't know how someone who's only experienced elementary school can make informed decisions about what might be happening in high school...there is so much you internalize and learn and experiencing it yourself, experiencing it with your's important that someone bring that full perspective." I challenged her on this point, as I don't agree that you need to have kids of a certain age to be on the School Board, asking specifically about current School Board member Sally Baird, who has two elementary school-age sons. [UPDATE: Sally Baird informs me that her sons are now in 4th and 7th grades - they grow up so fast! :)] Kanninen responded that she strongly supported Baird for School Board, "wrote her first campaign check," and thinks that Baird has "been a great School Board member."

We had an extended discussion about whether a candidate who's challenging an incumbent needs to make a case against the incumbent AND for herself, or just for herself. Kanninen argued strongly that she wants this race to be 100% about making a case FOR her own candidacy, not making a case against anyone else. Having said that, Kanninen noted that "there's no secret that there's a lot of parent anger at the current board." The biggest issue has been a "total failure of process, communication, and common sense" on the decision to cut school bus routes (see here for more on that brouhaha), with parents finding out "two weeks before school started that they didn't have buses anymore." As Kanninen put it, "I don't know how anyone on the board could have that brought to them and not see it and say, you know what, we've got to find out, we've got to get feedback before we go through with this." Kanninen said that if she'd been on the Board, she would have asked "creative" and "tough questions."

We discussed the issue of the "tremendous amount of overcrowding" in Arlington schools, as well as the "boundary process." According to Kanninen, she's "paid attention to and watched this entire process go on for 10 years, and no changes have been made; no decision...there were huge committees, huge processes, recommendations made, and then the board didn't do anything...[because of] parental pressure, that was the board not making tough decisions because they wanted to get reelected and they knew who would vote." Kanninen said we have extra capacity in South Arlington, and we could have moved students around, but "nothing was done and now we're at a crisis point," and "so far we haven't seen a plan" for where elementary school students are going to go when they get to middle school and high school. Another reason for overcrowding is that "families are moving to Arlington because they've heard about the [great] schools...Arne Duncan moved here." Kanninen quoted County Board member Walter Tejada that we're "victims of our own success." In Kanninen's view, "the solution is...we've got to open up the planning process to this whole big question." Parents right now are "really concerned that there's just short-term thinking right now, what are we going to do next year."

One possible solution Kanninen mentioned was to consider converting community centers that are closing into schools, flexible thinking about things like the Career Center ("it's a great place I don't think we utilize enough...really high tech, great stuff...that should be a model"). One key is to "think creatively," considering "how much the world has changed," including technology that can be used for education (e.g., she mentioned "Bill Nye the Science Guy" as an example of a great science teacher). Kanninen cited Aneesh Chopra as asking, "Why wouldn't you want the 3 or 5 best English teachers or philosophy teachers...the best lecture ever on video?" On the other hand, we don't want to spend "all this money on high technology" and then not necessarily do anything innovative or effective with it.

The bottom line, in Kanninen's view, is that "kids need to learn in their own individual way...that's where you can use technology to target different kids in different ways." Kanninen also feels that it's crucial to have someone in the school "watching out for them...someone they can go to and someone who's just plain going to check up on them and notice if things aren't going well."

On the issue of testing, Kanninen believes (as I do) that "we're spending too much time prepping for tests and taking tests, and it's all become this very top down, teachers no longer have autonomy anymore, they're following, teach to the test...pacing to get ready for the SOL's, so it's a huge problem." "We need to take a look at the full battery of testing we're doing...the only tests that SHOULD matter are the ones that are going to help the kids learn...but I don't think that's what we're doing, a lot of these tests are about judging the schools and judging the teachers."

I mentioned Bob McDonnell's plan to grade the schools; we both agreed that this is - to use Kanninen's phrasing - "the worst idea ever...typical Republican thing where they want to make [public] schools look bad." To the extent that Arlington can opt out of the testing, Kanninen believes we should do it; the main obstacle is that we could lose some money. We also agreed that more testing leads to "less creativity" (Kanninen is "really into the arts") and "less critical thinking time."

On the "achievement gap," Kanninen believes that the key is to focus on "helping individual kids." The SOLs, in Kanninen's view, are not a good metric of how well a school is performing or how well your kid might do in a particular school, they're just about a "minimal competency." In the end, according to Kanninen, the 10% difference in achievement among various groups comes down to "1 or 2 kids per class," so what you can do is to address what's going on with those 1 or 2 kids, given that "you know exactly who the kids are." Also, one thing you see about the achievement gap is that "it gets wider" as the years go by. In the final analysis, "we haven't solved this problem," and Kanninen "doesn't know" if we're effectively working to solve the problem (e.g., there was progress on the achievement gap in the 1990s and early 2000s, but then it leveled off starting in 2005). The question is whether people took their eye off the ball, or what? Also, the question is whether "consultant reports" that look at things like the achievement gap effective, because they're certainly "very expensive."

I asked Kanninen about the importance of diversity on the board. Kanninen said the key is not so much to focus on where people come from, but more on how effective they are ("I don't know where most of my friends live if I haven't been to their house"). In Kanninen's view, there's tremendous diversity in classrooms in Arlington - different cultures, incomes, languages, etc. - "and the teachers are dealing with that diversity every day," so "the first focus has to be, are we giving them everything they need to get all of those kids as far as they can go." As for the other diversity questions, they're "sort of cosmetic; if it matters to you as a voter, then I think that you should vote on that, but as a parent I would like a board that is focusing on making sure these kids  are getting to do and achieve as much as they can." Kanninen added, "I don't think you shouldn't run for School Board if you really don't care about all of Arlington...and you ought to get voted out pretty fast [if you don't care]."

On reducing the dropout rate and improving the graduation rate, Kanninen said that "it's all non-English as a first language kids...our overall rate is 89%, non English speakers it's 60-some percent."

Bottom line: Barbara Kanninen clearly is knowledgeable and passionate about the Arlington County public schools, and about education in general. She's running a positive campaign, is hoping to bring out voters who support her, not who oppose anyone else. Having said that, I think it's fair to say that she definitely sees room for improvement on the School Board, and feels that she could bring that improvement. My attitude: may the best candidate win, and let the children (and parents) of Arlington can win as well!

P.S. The caucus for the Democratic Party's School Board endorsement is May 9 (Thursday evening, 7-9 pm at Drew Model School) and all day Saturday, May 11 at Washington-Lee High School.

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