The 180 Podcast: We Can’t Just Do the Same Things We’ve Always Done with Hal Smith

Listen to the episode on Turnaround for Children’s website. Also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Podbean.

When it comes to learning and thriving during the pandemic, many students have faced one obstacle after another — including lack of access to high-speed internet and devices, disconnection from teachers and friends, and the cancellation of sports, clubs and church choirs. But where many people see obstacles, Hal Smith sees opportunity.

Smith is Senior Vice President of Education, Youth Development & Health for the National Urban League and leads the organization’s programmatic, advocacy, policy and research work in those areas. Across his career, Smith has focused on issues of educational opportunity, access and excellence for historically underserved communities wherever teaching, learning and development take place.

Which is why, as you’ll hear, Smith argues that the pandemic presents the chance to reimagine what school could look like — to seize the moment and try something better — grounded in the science of learning and development.

Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: Hal, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Hal Smith: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Chris Riback: You have spent your career focused on issues of educational opportunity, access, and excellence for historically-underserved communities. Did any of that possibly prepare you for what the COVID-19 pandemic has done to American education?

Hal Smith: Largely, yes. I think because the way my career has worked, I’ve had the opportunity to partner with any number of institutions, the school system, the afterschool and out-of-school-time system, social services, and social workers, even a little bit of public health. What it has done is made all of those relationships even clearer in my mind as necessary relationships as critical partnerships in order to address not only this moment but many of the challenges and some of the opportunities that exist in education today.

I think what we’ve seen over the last year or so is that many of the things that were hypothetical and kind of best practices, promising practices over the last decade, if not 25 years, are really clearly necessary. They’re requisite. They’re no longer things that we can say, “Well, that would be nice to have. It would be great if we could get …” I think this has pulled us into another way of thinking, of operating, that we need to be better prepared to face the myriad of problems that our communities are confronted with when there’s a public health issue or some other natural disaster or just in day-to-day practice that we’ve been far too siloed in our approaches, far too focused on achieving things in simplicity and understanding them in simplicity rather in complexity. This moment has really, really strained earlier notions of “this is my work” as opposed to “this is our work.”

Chris Riback: That is wonderful to hear an optimistic point of view at a time when there are obviously so many challenges and great concerns. Listen, I don’t take you for being Pollyannaish. Is your optimism around the sense that, finally, eyes are kind of being opened around some of the things that you’ve been talking about or is it even maybe more than that? Are you seeing green shoots of them actually being put into action?

Hal Smith: So it’s a bit of both. I would say that the green shoots actually preexisted the pandemic, that there were places that I could point to and say, “They’re doing great work here. This is interesting here. This is something I’d like to learn more about over there.” I really think that the basis for much of my optimism is found in the place that this is stuff that is going on already. Perhaps not to the scale, perhaps not to the impact that is the moment is going to require and requires of us now, but it’s not illusional. I’m very clear that there are many things that are going to be necessary to make it work. The evidence base, however, is there to demonstrate that there are people, there are agencies, there are institutions, there are communities that are already doing parts of this and just need to build upon that to have even greater success.

Chris Riback: So, be specific for me.

Hal Smith: Sure.

Chris Riback: What is the “this”?

Hal Smith: The “this” is founded in the belief that I have, that the National Urban League has, that education is teaching, learning, and development wherever they take place. So if you begin there, you begin saying that the school is but one of the educational and developmental institutions in a community. And those of you who may have heard me talk about this before have nevertheless heard this a million times, but I’ll say it again, that schools don’t have communities. Communities have schools. So, we put the emphasis on the wrong thing. The school is there to help the community do its work. The community is there so the schools function. So if you talk about it in those ways, if you think about it in those ways, students, young people, children are experiencing learning and developmental spaces all across a given community, and it’s up to the adults to figure out how best to knit those together, how best to create pathways, how best to create learning and developmental opportunities that reflect not only what young people are interested in but the kinds of things that are going to be necessary to move forward a community.

Leadership, service learning, the arts, all of these are critically important, and we’ve done, I think, a terrible job as adults, as policy makers, as even advocates of narrowing down the conversation to it’s either school or it’s not education. Or it’s either in a classroom or it’s something extraneous, something extra instead of saying we have a wealth of spaces, a wealth of opportunities, all kinds of relationships that exist for young people that help them grow, to thrive, to learn that are ignored when we only talk about it in terms of what a school can do.

So in that way, I think there are many opportunities to learn about places, yes, like the Harlem Children’s Zone, but there are many, many other networks, intermediaries that exist in this country that are doing this, that are tying together spaces so young people have a wealth and depth of experiences in an organized manner, in a way that helps them thrive and gives them great support, relationships to caring adults, which we know are critically important, but aren’t tied to a school building. And the more we can tie together the institutions that are child-serving, that are family-serving, that are youth-serving to think about how to create in a larger ecosystem of support, of learning spaces, of developmental spaces, the better off we’ll be. So, that’s the this in my mind.

Chris Riback: What is your evaluation — because you and I are having this conversation at a time when communities are struggling. Communities are in some cases breaking under the weight of a pandemic, under weight of underemployment if not unemployment. Our schools are highly challenged by everything around COVID, around school attendance, around teachers’ ability to be in the schools, around educators dealing with the realities and frustration that their parents, and their teachers, and their employees, and their students are feeling and facing. What’s your evaluation of how communities and schools can best build each other for the benefit of our kids at a time when both entities are under such enormous pressure?

Hal Smith: Everyone has to rethink their business model, their service model under extreme conditions now. I would say that my colleagues in afterschool and out-of-school time, and positive youth development struggled mightily in most cases to do remote learning, to do remote supports for children and young people in the same ways that schools do because no one had thought of that as their primary way of doing things. It is now the primary way of doing things in many parts of the country and almost everyone has pivoted to understand at the very least the ways they’re falling short. They may have great ideas about how to do better, but they are very clear on the strains this moment has put on them and the ways that they’re not able to connect to young people, to students, to families.

What I hope is also true alongside all of that is that all of the ways we’ve been stretched have made us think of partnerships very differently. For the National Urban League, we have affiliates who are dealing with food insecurity in their area. And they are centrally located. They’re very well known in the community, so it made sense that they would be food distribution sites. They had never done this work, but the moment called for it.

Similarly, we had people who were doing rental assistance in housing, foreclosure assistance who had never really done that work. And now they have to have different partnerships and relationships in order to be successful at that. So, no one is standing on firm ground. No one can claim, “Oh, I’ve been doing this forever, and all of you need to follow my model.” So, we’re learning simultaneously. We’re building relationships and partnerships simultaneously. I think that is going to allow us to have better results over time.

I think what’s also true in this moment is we really need to think about using space and time differently. We’ve advocated for us to think about the entirety of the education ecosystem as I laid out, but think about this next 18 months, 24 months as one period and not get locked into, well, my fiscal year is this, and the school year is that. And I’m not sure how we’re going to cover the summer. But, really thinking about this next 24 months as a response. We moved through triage. We now can have a response, a thoughtful response of what’s going to be necessary to support children, young people, families over the next 24 months and act accordingly. Think differently about how we use classrooms, how we use outdoor space, how we foster relationships with public health, foster relationships with museums and others.

All of these are going to require us to do very, very different work than we’re accustomed to, but everyone’s accustomed to working under this new model that requires stretching, that requires really hard choices. And in this environment, we’re all on equal footing and should similarly be prepared to think with others about not just how to get out of this, but what the evolution is going to look like on the other side.

We need thoughtful, comprehensive, complicated responses. Even if they fall short, that’s better than simply believing if we do the same things we’ve always done harder and for a longer duration that we’re going to get better results. I don’t think anyone believes that anymore.

Chris Riback: On that point, you know as well as I do that black and Hispanic students continue to be more likely to remain remote and less likely to have access to the prerequisites of learning. And a lot of this came out of … There was a McKinsey report back in December that I’m sure you saw. These prerequisites around devices, and internet access, and live contact with teachers. And some of the data show that while the worst-case scenarios from the spring may have been averted, the … And I’m quoting here from the report. “The cumulative learning loss could be substantial, especially in mathematics. Students of color could be 6 to 12 months behind compared with 4 to 8 months for white students.” While all students are suffering, those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss. It’s a devastating analysis. Are you hearing tactics from the superintendents that you’re talking with, from the educators that you talk with that really resonate with you to address this disparity and this growing gap?

Hal Smith: Yes. And part of it I’ll say is in response to the work we’re doing, our partners in the Readiness Project of Forum for Youth Investment, investment in AIR. We are talking about this issue but asking people to reframe it. So, we don’t talk about learning loss. We talk about instructional loss. Again, if all of these young people were just sitting in a closet somewhere unaffected by the world, then I would argue that would be learning loss. But, they are learning all kinds of things even in this environment. Even those who have never logged on, who have struggled to maintain connection with their teachers, they are learning. They are developing.

Many of the young people that the Urban League works with, particularly in middle and high school age, are working themselves. They’re working in retail. They’re working in fast food. Now, that’s something that we don’t typically think of as learning. But for us, that instructional loss, the things that that report points to and many have mentioned, that is also critically important. But again, thinking of things differently than we did before is important.

I would point to the ideas of many of my colleagues who are very, very interested in helping young people recover. That’s the language that they’re using. And I’m okay with that language as long as it’s tied to a view that is not about having young people simply be remediated. That’s where I think too much of this conversation is going, that folks are very, very invested, I think, in understanding what is necessary to make up for lost time. If you accept that as a premise, that’s where folks have invested. Instead, what are your approaches that are going to lead to acceleration? Regardless of who and what circumstances young people and students find themselves in, what are your strategies? What is your capacity to accelerate learning over time?

And again, that two-year, 24-month process I think will help us address many of these gaps. If you’re focused on remediation as your world view, you don’t have the same expanse to work through. You’re simply dealing with the issue that’s in front of your face. You should be on chapter eight. You’re on chapter four. How do I get you from here to there? I’d like you to spend this time as an educational leader thinking about how do you apply all that you did learn during this period. All the development that you had, all the curiosity, the inquiry, the public health, the news, the election, all the things that happen, how can you apply that to accelerate learning? Taking the things that happen in a positive way and making them more positive to deal with the absence of formal instruction. Or in cases where formal instruction was provided, the differences in remote and virtual settings as opposed to what the prior school year allowed people to have.

We have the opportunity to think around acceleration, not remediation an extended period of time. Right now, you’re hearing folks say, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t have summer vacation and we should instead focus on everyone going to summer school.” Okay. But is it going to be the same thing you were doing in school just transported to June, July, and August, or are you going to use that time fundamentally differently to help them understand other things besides what was lost, what was lost in instruction? But really say, “You know what? I’m going to ramp up the opportunity for experiential learning. I’m going to ramp up the opportunity for them to do more project-based learning and not simply a kill-and-drill approach that gets them to the right marker but I can’t guarantee that they’ve actually learned anything.” Those are the kinds of questions I’m struggling with with education leaders.

The good news is everybody’s open to ideas. They want to hear practical solutions. How might I do this? Who might help? I think we’re in danger of many of the afterschool programs, the museums, etc., everyone being tapped for tutoring. And again, that’s a small, little box of what could be. Yes, we can help this young person with their book report. Yes. We can do that. But to instill in them a love of reading, to increase their literacy, their numeracy, we can do that also, and that might not look as familiar as something that’s called tutoring or adding another period to our school day transported to another physical location.

I understand the impetus for that, to extend the school year and school day. But instead, if we could think about extending learning opportunities throughout a given day and across a calendar year, we might come up with more creative options than just doubling and tripling down on the amount of classroom time dedicated to math, science, and English, which I know people are considering, double and triple periods of those things. But again, simply doing 90 minutes as opposed to 40 minutes of the same thing, the same disconnections that young people had, because we didn’t have 100% attendance before this. We didn’t have 100% engagement before this. So, why not try things that were, prior to March 2020, were off the table or things we didn’t consider to address the kinds of issues we had before the pandemic?

Almost none of the equity concerns that we have went away in March 2020. Many were exacerbated. Some came in a different form. But the inequities, as I talked about, the inequities should not simply follow us into a new environment, a new school year made worse by the pandemic simply because we didn’t pay attention to them. How are we going to upend these inequities over the course of this next year or two? What other resources are needed? What other partnerships are needed? What other content might be needed to help young people, students, children thrive I think is at the heart of the conversations I’ve had with education leaders.

Chris Riback: That’s a real challenge that you’re throwing down, isn’t it? I mean, you are asking education leaders, but also, I think, in listening to you, communities. And maybe that’s going back to your key phrase from the beginning, this conversation about opportunities. I’m hearing you talk about let’s not focus just 100% solely, purely, exclusively on the academics, on where the child is in math, in reading, in writing, but we better think about the whole child. Am I hearing you right?

You are. You are. I think the moment calls for it. I don’t envision that we’re just going to be able to pick up in most ways once everyone is vaccinated with the lives that we had a year ago. I think everybody’s life is permanently altered. Our professions are permanently altered. And the challenge is, how do we meet this moment, not how do we get back to normal because the normal wasn’t working for everyone. How can we use the future, near and long-term future, to produce better outcomes than we were capable of before? And it is going to require some new thinking, some new budget allocations, some flexibility, some braided funding, some new training and support. All of that is going to be necessary. And I don’t pretend that it’s easy, only that it is necessary. But if we simply just try to solve the program that’s in front of us, how do we get everyone up to their seat time, how do we get everyone a device, those are absolutely important and consequential, but they’re insufficient. It’s a piecemeal approach when we need a comprehensive approach.

I hope that what we’ve learned from the science of learning development, from positive youth development, from pedagogy in schools, from higher ed, from business and industry, career and technical education, that we’re thinking about all of the ways our work needs to evolve, needs to fundamentally change, is connected to each other. All of those are challenges in and of themselves and trying to do them simultaneously is going to be incredibly difficult. I just don’t see any other way forward. If we’re not just trying to replicate the world as it was a year ago and actually trying to improve education and developmental outcomes, improve our ability to learn and work, and think together, and live together, if we’re not trying to do those things, then by all means just pick up where we left off last March. But if we have any other intention, then we need to work towards that intention, and it’s absolutely a challenge.

Chris Riback: Hal, as we begin to close this conversation, I want to ask you about that challenge and in bringing this call to action that I’m hearing from you, really bringing it into reality. Because to do that, to meet those challenges, I think, you correct me if I’m wrong, it’s going to require trust.

Hal Smith: Yes.

Chris Riback: And it’s going to require cross-directional trust, multi-directional trust. There has been a not insignificant amount of reporting, and I know you know this, recently that a key factor preventing some families from sending kids back to school has been a lack of trust. The challenges for Black families in particular to trust that schools are safe and have their children’s best interest at heart. Have you seen or heard that concern? What can we do to fix it so that your call to action can be realized?

Hal Smith: Absolutely. We’ve heard that. We hear it consistently. And it’s not far off from the concerns we heard about schools and school-like settings prior to the pandemic. The trust that you’re talking about is absolutely central to the kinds of work that I envision and talk about and work with others on. But, it didn’t begin with March 2020 and the response to the pandemic. New avenues of distrust were opened up. It wasn’t that the distrust just grew out of the response to pandemic. It was more — uh huh- we’re going to end up on the short end of this. Just watch. So, we didn’t get the computers and tablets on time. We don’t have internet access. We had to go pick up the homework in printed form every day. We’re consistently at the short end of what this moment called for from March till today. That’s one element of it. But, all of the distrust that had been built up over generations, that has to be overcome. And the only way to overcome it is to fundamentally do things differently, to have people see, “Oh, wait a minute. This looks very different from how things used to be. You mean my child can do X now when that wasn’t available to them? You mean that they’re going to supports when that was not next to them? You mean that they’re not going to be suspended for not logging on every day when we don’t have the necessary equipment?” That what I mean by the things that we brought forward.

You as a district decided that you were going to remote because of the pandemic. That’s great. Absolutely right decision. You did not and were not able to provide equipment on a timely basis. Understandable. Everybody in the world literally is trying to get equipment. You also are not in the internet access business, so you can’t wire a community. But, every one of those decisions ended up in young people being suspended or marked truant or marked absent through no fault of their own. And that is still impacting them negatively today. You didn’t intervene either.

So, that kind of thing, that kind of thinking is going to have to be turned around. Because if you don’t do that, then this will be yet another marker of how historically underserved and disfranchised communities are being correctly disfranchised and underserved. The legacy is one thing. The current impact is another. And if you’re not going to address either, nothing is going to change.

Now, if folks see evidence that you’re trying to at least address the current inequity, the current disadvantage, the current privilege in certain communities, then they say, “All right. I see something different than I saw before.” But if it’s simply finding new and innovative ways to punish, to disadvantage, to privilege and over-privilege other communities and students, if that pattern reemerges under COVID or once we’re past the worst of the pandemic, if it looks like it’s unchanged except in how it feels to me, but the impact is the same, I have fewer opportunities than everyone else, I don’t have access to the same resources, the same quality, any of those things remain unchanged in the way they’re landing on communities, no trust is possible because the institutions, the agencies, the advocates have done nothing different that requires me to think differently about them or to trust them anymore.

The advantage of this moment is you can try many things and fall short and people will say, “Wow. That was audacious. That was bold. You fell short, but I felt that you were trying to do something different. I saw the effort, the energy, and I’m going to match that rather than everything has been brought into 2021 unchanged except I can still feel the boot on my back and still feel the burden of historical disadvantage, the legacy of systemic racism, systemic disinvestment, and the current impacts all at once. And you seem unmoved, institutions, by this. I don’t think it engenders any more trust.

And change investment, change strategy, change engagement and outreach, all of these things are going to be necessary to generate additional trust. But materially, people have to understand that you’re attempting to do something differently and are looking for their input, their guidance, their support, their leadership in doing something different. That kind of relationship-building will also build trust.

And unfortunately, we’re still in triage reaction in too many communities. And those communities see and feel that. These are communities that had ancient textbooks, that didn’t have smart boards, that didn’t have reliable transportation, that were perhaps over-policed. Now, all of a sudden, after years and years and eras and eras of disinvestment, I’m supposed to believe that you overcome that to prepare a safe space for my child when it had been unsafe across multiple dimensions for decades. That is where we are. There’s nothing about this experience that tells me you thought my child was worthwhile or that my child would be safe. Add on the element of the pandemic and public health concerns. I have no trust and belief that you’re going to do exemplary work in this when I’ve gotten below-average work in everything else. And that’s going to be difficult to overcome.

Apart from the real challenges of making a safe space, the belief that you’ve never tried before so why do I believe that you’re trying now is going to be difficult to overcome. Not impossible, but it has to be tangibly different, materially different in order to engender trust, not just that, “Hey, we got this. Please show up, and your children will be safe. Despite what history has told you about how we’ve treated you before, we actually are doing better now.” A statement like that, a Zoom statement, a presentation is not going to get it done. They want to know that you’re taking this moment seriously, that you’re thinking seriously about their children’s well-being, health, safety. And that needs to be communicated very differently than the provision of PPE or we’re going to spray down the desk twice a day. Those are insufficient responses to the moment.

Chris Riback: Are there examples at this point, at this early stage yet of districts that are able to put any of this into action?

Hal Smith: I’ve not seen districts do it. I’ve had communities and intermediaries in places like Tulsa, places here in New York, Every Hour Counts, places like Palm Beach where there are intermediaries — usually out-of-school-time and afterschool intermediaries — who are trying to knit together these conversations with their district leaders and even some legislators. I know that there are Urban League affiliates who are working hand-in-hand with their mayors and children’s cabinets that the Forum for Youth Investment has supported to come up with an agenda that better meets this moment.

But, there are smaller projects, certainly communities in schools and the community schools model, wherever those things are present, there’s a strong foundation upon which we can build, but they’re almost always public/private partnerships and not driven by the district. Districts are incredible partners in this, but I don’t know a district that’s taken the lead in quite this way. But, there are absolutely nonprofit organizations, family-serving organizations, even some local foundations and family foundations who are prime to take this work on. They’re just trying to assemble their tables right now on who needs to be there and can be there to come up with something different.

Because everyone is strained, as you said at the top of this. Resources are strained. If there’s not an influx of federal dollars and public dollars that comes in, they’ll likely to be another round of cuts before there’s a round of building. And I don’t know that we’re going to be able to move in as an audacious way as I would like if there are nothing but cuts on the horizon.

So, I think everyone is in a holding mode trying to understand what’s possible in this moment and praying, hoping against hope that they get some additional dollars in that will provide additional flexibility and a stronger foundation upon which they can build this new kind of effort beyond plans but actually to implement those plans.

Chris Riback: Hal, when kids do get back into schools, when they get back into rehearsal halls, what are the things that adults should be doing first once we are back in those situations?

Hal Smith: I think one of the first things is to acknowledge what it is that we’ve all gone through or still going through. The acknowledgement of what they’ve experienced, what they’ve learned, what they’ve seen, the kinds of questions they have about the world that they’re inheriting and have experienced are incredibly important.

The second is to reestablish relationships, that rhythm of getting to know students. We had a benefit in last school year that many of the students had their teacher for the first half of the year and then were able to maintain them remotely. This year, many of them met remotely and will end the school year remotely never having been in the same space. So, that kind of knitting together relationships is also going to be important.

Thirdly, I think to explore the kinds of things that we’re going to do differently. What does career and technical education look like here? What does apprenticeship look like here? What does college going to look like? We have questions that we’re going to have to answer together. We have learning experiences that are fundamentally altered now. We are going to focus and concentrate on the provision of deep and rich learning and developmental opportunities perhaps using virtual in a new way to give you access to other kinds of teachers and educators and students. But, the world is different. Let’s acknowledge that. But, let’s figure out what we’re going to build together.

But relationships and an acknowledgment of what has happened, including what you’ve learned and how you’ve developed, but what has happened and not pretend that this year-plus is a blur and we’re left unaffected. We are freestanding, independent individuals with no anchor in reality. We’re not just going to pretend that this last 13, 14, 16 months didn’t happen, but an acknowledgment of it, a processing of it, building relationships, and then identifying the ways in which we can offer deeper and richer learning and developmental opportunities I think are the first steps in this reimagined educational ecosystem at the tail end of the pandemic and post-pandemic.

Chris Riback: Why do I get the sense that you feel that nothing is impossible and that this is a moment that can be met? It’s clear why you said at the very top of this that you look at the situation and you see opportunity. You’ve described that opportunity. Hal, thank you. Thank you for your time. Thank you for the energy and vision that you are bringing to communities, and families, and schools. Thank you.

Hal Smith: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to learn alongside all of the wonderful people doing the work across the nation. I hope to continue to be able to do so. So, thank you for this opportunity.

Turnaround connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze student development and academic achievement.

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