Cheryl Williams Interview: Learning First Alliance
Connect Learning Today caught up with Cheryl Williams, Executive Director of the Learning First Alliance (LFA), Washington, D.C. immediately after the 2013 PISA findings were released. While the LFA is a United States-based national organization, learning from the international findings was important not only for comparison, but for learning common sense ways to possibly answer similar education questions in the states.
The Learning First Alliance is a coalition that has been around for about 15 years. It really began its influence, though, as a result of the reading wars in the late 90s, where many factions vied for the best way to teach reading. At that time LFA responded to the problem by bringing together reading experts—and connected research—to understand that teaching reading was a more complex issue that couldn’t be solved with simple, quick fixes. Later, LFA did the same for mathematics instruction—producing resources in that area. Through the years, the Alliance has come together to address other issues where a coalition effort was needed.
In the three years Executive Director Cheryl Williams has been with the Learning First Alliance, it has been quite evident to her that the kind of changes that need to be made require a special kind of leadership, and that leadership needs to be collaborative. As a junior high and high school teacher, Williams believed that modeling collaboration at the national level was important. She continued that belief outside the classroom, in significant roles at the National School Boards Association, where she ran their education technology program for fourteen years, then at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as Education Vice President, then at Teachscape, a company that produces online professional development and support tools. Today, those training grounds find Williams heading up the Learning First Alliance with their coalition and collaboration efforts.
Participants in the Coalition:
The Learning First Alliance is more than 10 million members strong, and includes both national education unions—American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association, AASA: The School Superintendents Association, National Association of Elementary School Principals,National Association of Secondary School Principals, American School Counselor Association, National School Boards Association, National PTA, International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), as well as a new member—Parents for Public Schools. A more complete listing of members can be found at the Learning First Alliance site.
“We’re all in it because we care about kids, devoted to teaching and learning. We rely a great deal on the support of the community. We think public education is everybody’s responsibility, whether you have children in a school or not, are a parent, or policy maker—everyone needs to be on board in an appropriate way, which can be a challenge. Support and culture issues are community based, district based, building based, and as collaborative leaders we have to figure out how we can help guide that support. We’ve also always thought that the technology piece was in line with the innovation piece. In that those educators who were interested in using technology for instruction were also those who were change agents… and those who could look and solve problems with those tools,” says Williams. The Learning First Alliance offers coalition members a safe place to discuss with peers and strategize how to approach these problems individually and collectively.
According to Williams, “The mission of the Learning First Alliance is world-class standards, successful lives, and active citizenship for every public school student in America. Furthermore, the Alliance strives to improve student learning in public schools by engaging individual and organizational expertise, leadership, and advocacy efforts. The Learning First Alliance believes strong and effective public education is essential to America’s future and economic success.” Williams adds, “The more we work and learn from each other and others involved in education, the better we serve students.”
All LFA members have identified Common Core as a priority for 2014. The Learning First Alliance agrees to a strong and effective implementation of the Common Core State Standards, but further believes that educators and their leaders need to be fully supported with the resources and the professional development necessary before testing for accountability happens.
Finally, Williams reflected on PISA 2013 and its importance, saying, “We’re paying attention to the rest of the world. It is a shrinking planet and we do need to understand other cultures.” Williams believes, “There’s a lot to be learned, and we should be humble and open to that learning. The international comparisons can be very useful when communicated in a positive way.”
Find out more about the Learning First Alliance.