Eric Guckian: Innovation, Collaboration, Accountability, Acceleration

Eric Guckian’s life is devoted to educational excellence.  He has a passion for improving North Carolina’s schools from every angle: as the first in his family to attend college, as a teacher, a school reformer, expert advisor to Governor Pat McCrory and as the parent of two young daughters.  Eric has specific, actionable ideas for the critical role public charter schools will play in bringing educational excellence to our highest-need students in underserved areas while closing the achievement gap. Christopher Gergen, the North Carolina Public Charter School Accelerator’s educational consultant, recently sat down with him to learn about his vision for our state’s public charter schools.


Christopher Gergen:  How did your background in education reform prepare you to be the Senior Education Advisor for Governor Pat McCrory?

Eric Guckian:  My background in education improvement has helped in a number of ways.  I have served as a teacher, which I think is critically important in terms of our highest needs schools.  I’ve taught in the South Bronx, a charter school in Durham, and a camp for underserved kids who were going to be incarcerated. So my teaching experience helps a lot, plus working in organizations like Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools and Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP).

What that combination of experiences shows me is that we are not going to make these improvements through policy alone; the people who are going to drive change and student achievement are going to be the teachers and principals and the folks on the ground who are doing the work.  We have to listen to them and that’s a big part of my job.  Listening to our educators is really key and, unfortunately, we don’t do enough of it.

The most important thing is to be student-driven and data-driven in everything we do.  What I hope for the future of our state is that we’re focused on student achievement and student outcomes, and I don’t mean just test scores. I mean metrics that show our students are on a path toward prosperity and a hopeful future.

Christopher Gergen:  Talk to us about your personal background and how it led you to the classroom and why it drives your ongoing commitment to improve our public education system and uplifting our society as a whole?

Eric Guckian:  I’m the first person in my family to go to college.  I’m a first generation college student and my dad was a plumber and my mom is a respiratory therapist. Those are certainly noble professions, but they really sold the farm to ensure that I could achieve the academic outcomes I was capable of.  They had high expectations for me and my education.  My education was their top priority.

Second, I was a teacher and that drives everything I do – trying to think about how this will play in the classroom. And lastly, I’m a parent.  I’ve got a four-year old, Elsa, and an eight-year old, Scarlett, who goes to E.K. Powe in Durham, a school that is incredibly diverse and we’re having a great experience there.  We believe in public schools and we believe in sending Scarlett to a school that demands a lot from her and E.K. Poe certainly does that.  They have a great community there.  Those are the three things from my personal background that really inform everything that I do.

Christopher Gergen:  Now let’s talk about public charter schools and how they fit into the education reform landscape. What are the important roles public charter schools play in helping us close the achievement gap in North Carolina?

Eric Guckian:  I think it’s been an ongoing tradition of separating our public charter schools from our “traditional public schools.”  I believe having a school, regardless of the circumstances of that particular school, ought to be a privilege because serving our students is a privilege so we need to hold all schools to the highest standards.

We need to ensure that we’re getting out of the way to let innovation happen and also make sure to share “best practices” because that’s when we’ll start bridging these gaps.  I don’t particularly care what a school is labeled as long as it’s doing right by our kids and the community it serves.  That has been the tradition of charter schools and it has been the tradition of a lot of public schools.  We need to blur the lines between the two in the service of students and, when we do we’re all going to be better off.

Christopher Gergen:  Two important things emerge from that comment. One is the important role public charter schools play as a frontline of innovation, trying new things and being able to service what works within the context of accountability.  The second aspect of that is collaboration in ways schools can work together to try to figure out how to close the achievement gap.  Can you speak about innovation and collaboration?

Eric Guckian:  I think if we have a model that’s working we need to ensure it is shared with other educators.  Governor McCrory talks a lot about silos and how we have to break these down.  I think we need to go classroom-to-classroom and school-to-school across our state.  I have had the privilege of doing that for many years in the various roles I’ve occupied.  You see some really good things happening and, unfortunately, the only folks who benefit from that are the students who occupy that classroom or someone who is lucky enough to visit that school.

What I think public charters need to be about is showing what’s possible.  I think you look at KIPP Gaston College Preparatory in Gaston County and you have a 100% graduation rate and then 100% of the graduates going onto the post-secondary college of their choice. You see results like that and it shouldn’t be isolated, but too often that’s the case and so we’re on our way to trying to accelerate and share that innovation. Sharing goes both ways so I think we can learn a lot from some of our best public schools.

The problem is from classroom-to-classroom and school-to-school, we don’t have enough sharing.  I was in a rural county a couple of months ago and I sat down with five teachers.  The young one in the bunch had taught for 10 years.  These were all very experienced, hardworking teachers who had done good things for their school and their community.  So I asked them, ‘Have you ever seen each other teach?’  The answer was ‘no.’ They were clearly very close and would meet after work for dinner but if we are not sharing their best practices our state is going to suffer.  The more we can take the charter innovations and flexibility and spread that throughout the system, the better off we’re going to be.

Christopher Gergen: What do you think the biggest challenges are for public charter schools in North Carolina, as a whole and as individual schools, in advancing their work?

Eric Guckian:  I think there are challenges you can turn into opportunities.  One is that I think we need to replicate the best public charters and do it faster.  So if we know that we have a proven model working in North Carolina, or a proven national model, we need to move these along quicker.  Having a public charter, or any school, is a privilege and we need to hold them to the highest standards. If a school is doing great, we need to support the heck out of it and figure out how to replicate it.  If a school is failing, we need to shut it down.

We need more schools in North Carolina serving our highest-need population and I think that’s a space, especially in our rural communities, where public charters need to show more success.  I mentioned KIPP and we need to have more KIPPs, not just KIPPs per se, but more examples of schools that are really knocking the cover off the ball in our highest-need communities.

Finally, we are going through a significant change with public charters.  Too often public charters are labeled as privatizing public education.  I don’t agree as that’s not the way charters were intended and that’s certainly not the need they serve.  I just want to hold our schools to the highest possible standards and ensure that, regardless of what label happens to be in front of it, they are getting great results for kids.

Getting great results for all students is the highest calling and the highest challenge any educator and school has.  We need to meet that demand; in some cases we are and in some cases we can do better which is true across the entire public school landscape.  Until we get to the point where every child, regardless of circumstance, is achieving at the highest academic level, then we have work to do.  To simply say that we’re doing our best is not sufficient when you look at some of our student outcomes because we are not where we should and need to be.

Christopher Gergen: Looking at the future, you’re in a privileged position to be able to work with the Governor and the education cabinet, so where do you think we will be in the next five years in trying to address our challenges and turning them into opportunities? Where do you hope to see us go as a state and what will we be known for in terms of education, especially the underserved communities in rural areas?

Eric Guckian:  I think as it pertains to students we need to ensure that in five years we’re the highest growth state in the nation in our assessment and the nation’s report card.  I think our graduation rate, which we should be proud of, has gone from the high 60’s percent to the low 80’s.  It will be great if in the next five years we can get it to 90%, so we need to make sure that when our kids graduate they have the skills to move on to higher education and also pursue a career that will create a meaningful life for them.

In terms of our highest-need population, the achievement gap is not a recent phenomenon, but a long-term problem. However, I think that given North Carolina’s great diversity, there is a real opportunity for our educators to be sharing those best practices in the service of our students.  I think the idea of the North Carolina Public Charter School Accelerator is an idea that’s working.  When you talk about how you take some of our best public charter schools in our highest-need rural communities—how do you get a real sharing of ideas going between them and the public schools in both the urban and rural communities?

With our teachers we need to talk about the Governor’s teacher’s network which is allowing them to get their best lesson plans and put them on a centrally-located technology source so all the public and charter schools can benefit.  That’s a tremendous opportunity for our state and it gives our highest performing teachers a platform so all teachers can benefit, so we aren’t reinventing the wheel and we are really breaking down barriers to innovation.

I’d like North Carolina to be a state where, as a teacher, based on your performance and contributions to your students, fellow teachers and the field, that you can not only earn a good salary but you can move toward a meaningful career that’s filled with leadership opportunities.  It’s my hope, five years from now, that North Carolina’s teachers are being not just well-compensated, and that is critically important, but that they have the leadership opportunities and career paths they rightfully deserve. Right now we don’t have that.

I’m grateful for the work and passion that goes into improving North Carolina’s schools.  I’ve had the privilege to move around the state a good deal and this is a challenging time for education in North Carolina. But I believe we can seize upon those challenges and move this state forward.  I see nothing but a lot of passion, great ideas and hard work so I’m very optimistic about our future.