“Hope is Not a Strategy”: A Conversation with Dr. JoDee Marcellin of California Education Partners

Earlier this month, the Gates Foundation hosted an event at the University of Maryland celebrating the first year of our investments in Networks for School Improvement (NSIs). Sadly, I couldn’t be there, but I enjoyed watching from afar (thank goodness for livestreaming!) and hearing reflections and insights from our partners working with middle and high schools to solve common problems and improve outcomes for Black, Latino, and low-income students.

These networks come in different shapes and sizes. Some partners — what we call “intermediary organizations” — are connecting schools that span different school districts. Others are connecting entire districts to form a network. Baltimore City Public Schools, one of the NSI grantees, is itself a school district connecting several schools to form a network as part of this initiative. Our NSI: Year One report details the different approaches and early steps these networks are taking, but one important attribute they have in common is that each network is committed to using continuous improvement to test their ideas and approaches.

Continuous improvement is ultimately about bringing educators together to better understand the root cause of problems keeping students from succeeding, testing different strategies and continually going back to the data to see what works and what needs adjusting.

This idea really came to life for me during a recent visit to the Azusa Unified School District in California. Azusa has been working with an intermediary organization, California Education Partners, as part of a district-to-district collaboration using continuous improvement to boost language and literacy outcomes in grades 6–12. Along with members of our K-12 team, I was able to sit in on some of the cross-school teams and see the work up-close. While this work predates our investments in NSIs, many of the key concepts — understanding the root cause of problems, collaborating as a network, testing new ideas through a structured process — were all at play.

To help understand how these ideas come to life — and how organizations like California Education Partners directly support districts as they develop these skills — I wanted to take the opportunity to interview someone I met during the trip, Dr. JoDee Marcellin, assistant director of program at California Education Partners. JoDee was a key leader in the literacy work we learned about during our visit, and California Education Partners is building on those lessons in launching and managing a network of 50 secondary schools across 19 California districts.

Here’s my conversation with JoDee, edited for length and clarity.

Allan: I’d love to hear how you started your career in education. I know you’ve worked in multiple roles, from the school level to the district level, so it would be great to hear how those different roles and experiences have influenced how you think about the work you do today.

JoDee: I kind of fell into education, if you will. I was not a great student, and when it came time to decide about where I was going to go to college, I knew I needed to go but I wasn’t necessarily college-ready or career-ready. I was an athlete and loved athletics, so I decided to go to college to be an athletic trainer. That was really my “in” into education.

After becoming an athletic trainer, I ended up at Sanger High School, also teaching science and health. My supervisor encouraged me to become an administrator — which I balked at, but once I got into it, that’s where I found my passion for education. This passion continued to grow and when I became an elementary school principal, I realized that education was more of a calling than a job for me. As a principal, I used the lens of the “struggling student” I had been, (who had pretended to “do school”), to support teachers in becoming the type of educators who had made a difference for me and really helped me to be successful.

So, when I go and work with districts now, I have the ability to empathize with where each participant is coming from and I know that the teacher’s job is the toughest job. Students are at the center of the work, but teachers are the ones on the front lines with our students. So, the focus becomes “how are we, throughout the system, best supporting those teachers to really make the biggest impact on our students and provide those students with conditions and the environment to help them be the most successful where they are?”

Allan: That’s great. Having that “big picture” view is so important. So, now you’re at California Education Partners leading a broad portfolio of work connecting school districts and school leaders with the expressed purpose of helping them learn from each other as they tackle challenges that are common across districts and across schools. How does an outside organization like Ed Partners add value for districts and schools and how do you help them improve?

JoDee: Well, first and foremost, at Ed Partners our belief is that the people in the school systems know their systems and their students better than anybody else, and they’re the most capable of making those improvements. So, we always want to leverage their expertise within their district first, and then the expertise among the districts in the collaboration. We want to create the conditions and opportunities for them to be able to leverage that expertise.

We start by helping build connections to share knowledge, but we always have an eye towards sustainability. When we leave, we want those connections and relationships to continue to grow. I always go back to the analogy of redwood trees…they are majestic and beautiful, and they can grow really tall. But if they grow in isolation, they will fall over, because their root system is too shallow. They need to rely on other redwood trees around them to intertwine their roots and really grow strong so they can grow together. I think that describes how we bring our districts together and really build those connections between them so that they can continue to grow beyond us.

Allan: Bringing systems together is a core pillar of our Networks for School Improvement (NSI) portfolio. Another key aspect is continuous improvement — something you see used in education more and more and something that has been used successfully in other sectors. People have different levels of understanding of what continuous improvement is, so I wondered if you could unpack the idea and how you describe it for people outside of education.

JoDee: I think continuous improvement is really about being focused on what exactly you’re trying to improve — which is really about outcomes for students. Once you have that target, you collect evidence, whether that’s through observations or student work or whatever that looks like, to show where students currently are. Then it’s time to try a new strategy or a new approach based on what you’re seeing in the evidence. Lastly, it’s about continuing to circle back and say, “Okay, we tried something. How did it go? Did it work? Did it make the impact we were intending?” And if it didn’t, how can we adjust that to be more effective and reach more students?

So, to someone who may not be in education, it’s really that cycle of not just putting something into place and hoping it works. I come from a district that said, “Hope is not a strategy.”

Allan: Yes, we’ve seen how powerful that focused approach can be in schools. We’re optimistic about the potential and how continuous improvement and networking can help us learn what works, and also the limitations that it might pose as you see more and more systems engaging in this. What are you seeing emerge as some of the big challenges or barriers to adopting continuous improvement?

JoDee: I think sometimes districts and educators work in silos. This collaborative, continuous improvement approach allows them to work with others, have a common language, a common structure, and build a systemic way in which to try new approaches and collect evidence to see if that approach is working.

In terms of challenges, I think the biggest challenge for districts is patience because there is such a sense of urgency. I remember when I was a teacher and I wanted to make the biggest impact for my students right now. I didn’t take the time to slow down and really look at what were the collective and individual needs of my students so I could continue to improve my instruction for all of those students. You need to take the time to really do that, you need to give yourself some grace in the process. It takes time to develop, but in the long run you’re going to have a longer-term return and a better return on that investment with the students in your system.

Allan: I think we all share that sense of urgency and can appreciate how acute it is for educators that are in schools and classrooms with students. But that need to take the time to ask the right questions up-front about the root cause of the problem is so critical.

I think we saw that attitude during our visit together in the Azusa Unified School District. One of the things I was struck by — to your point of starting with the data — was that the administrators and teachers we met with were really sober about what the data told them. They de-personalized the data and they took a step back to say, “These are the facts. Let’s grapple with them and then figure out what to do about them.”

And we saw how that fueled their collaboration as cross-school teams. There was a lack of hierarchy across deputy superintendents, principals, and teachers. And I just wondered, is that typical of school networks in your experience? Are their essential attributes of healthy networks that can do this in a reliable and sustainable way?

JoDee: It’s not always typical. Some districts and schools come into the collaboration with the attitude you witnessed and a lot of them grow it as the work progresses. We typically find that schools and educators really tend to focus on tools, strategies, and processes, because that’s what’s comfortable.

Part of our model is really attending to the culture and the relationships — the connections and information sharing that really creates that sustainability. From the very first time we’re talking with districts, we emphasize this importance — that in addition to being data driven and developing improvement strategies, we are going to focus on developing trust, collaboration, and equity centered culture within teams and among districts in the collaboration.

There needs to be a mutual understanding and the willingness to fail and accept risk. So, we encourage the districts we work with to get into the learning zone, where it’s not just about performing, but really learning from those results so they can make a difference for students.

Allan: That’s so helpful for us in understanding what “good” looks like. So, a final question for you is this: what gives you optimism and energy as you do this work to make sure that every student, regardless of their race of the income level of their family, gets a quality education? What drives you to make that aspiration a reality for every single student?

JoDee: I think it’s the hunger and passion that drives our educators. Educators wake up every morning wanting to do the best they can for their kids, and they don’t always know how to do that. So, helping them with that is what really energizes me and gets me excited.

One of the reasons I came to Ed Partners — because I was in a successful district in Sanger — was the ability to give other districts opportunities to come together and start building their skills and knowledge from each other’s strengths. That’s what’s really energizing. And lifting up models like Azusa that show what their reflections and team culture look like and how that’s having an impact on students, it really whets the appetites of other districts to be able to do that.

Allan: Well, we’re grateful for the work that you’re doing, and I appreciate you taking the time to talk about it. Thank you.

President, U.S. Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.