…Site control and accountability. Schools should have strong leaders who can effectively move their site to a higher place without the burden of stodgy, broken ways that are unnecessary or unproductive. He or she should also be held to a common set of metrics that must be met for operational success. And if a leader can’t do that, find one that can. It’s a business. It’s not just about being good with children. All university education programs in education leadership should meld with the business school to provide essential knowledge and skill in leading an organization — they need a strong foundation in economics, operations, finance and accounting, marketing, organizational behavior, and strategy.
Asa part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Stephanie Musser.
Dr. Stephanie Musser is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Candeo Schools. Under her leadership, Candeo has emerged as one of the top-performing K-8 schools in the state, having earned the highest rankings from the Arizona Department of Education each year since inception. She is relentless in her vision and resolute in her commitment to deliver a world-class education for children.
Stephanie earned her Doctorate of Education in Leadership and Innovation from Arizona State University. She also holds a Master’s degree in Education with an emphasis in Curriculum and Instruction and a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management from Brigham Young University.
Dr. Musser’s experience in public education began in 1993. Since 1997, her focus has been on charter schools. Prior to developing Candeo, she served in various teaching, administrative, and consulting capacities. Her work spanned across the Phoenix valley as she successfully helped schools strengthen their achievement profiles, secure necessary resources, and build operational integrity. Early in her professional career, she wrote and managed various state and federal grants for education, as well as provided statewide training in Gifted Education through the Maricopa County Consortium for Gifted Education. Dr. Musser has also served on State evaluation committees for grant selection, and has written, amended, and evaluated charters for schools seeking state board approval.
Stephanie is a member of the Arizona Charter Schools Association and the Arizona Management Society for Ethical Leadership.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Yes! In short, I’m ardent about children having the best possible education in the most formative years of their lives. Beyond that, I have a love affair with learning. I am fiery about the business of education, and that’s what led me here. Years ago, I noticed that a school like Candeo didn’t exist in the elementary years — and this is where it ALL matters. Further, what I saw in schools everywhere was frankly misguided, fragmented, and at best, mediocre. Sure, sometimes a student could get lucky with the right teacher in the right school. But a teacher can only be as good as what the school sets up. I KNEW “highest and best” couldn’t be achieved without a true curriculum — that content couldn’t be left to the individual teacher to decide, and that quality instruction couldn’t be left to chance. As well, I saw a huge need for restoring nobility to the profession, and for teachers to work and learn in a highly professional organization.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There are so many. Most interesting? The fact that I found the exact place for our flagship school 13 years ago in a dream. Despite having been told (and having accepted the fact) that building from the ground up was not possible, I woke up from that dream and drove straight to a parcel of land I had never seen in person before. It was for sale. We bought it and built our school. It was a miracle how that all happened. Thankfully, I’ve never been a person who sees obstacles — in anything. What I learned from that experience is to trust what you can’t see, and learn from what you can. And I’ve always stuck to the vision of the school. It’s been so clear to me.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! Last year, we began the process of expanding our footprint to two schools. We were able to secure a beautiful campus in North Scottsdale, entering right behind a school that was closing its charter; finance it, fill it, and have a new Head of School at the ready. Now, our exciting new project is our Reopening Plan for 2020 with COVID-19 in mind. We have crafted our plan as a dual model of Integrated On-Campus Learning and Distance Learning. The model is unlike anything I’ve seen. Again, it came to me in a quiet moment just before sleep one night. I think we may have found the Holy Grail of reopening plans!
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
I’ve invested what seems a lifetime of work, study, and heart into the education of young learners and into my own education and skill set. My experience has been rich and meaningful along the entire way. I’ve held multiple positions in the field: classroom teacher, specialty (gifted ed) teacher, substitute teacher, administrator of federal programs, grant writer, evaluator of charter applications, school consultant, Associate Principal, Head of School, board member, founder, and CEO. I believe it is this diverse and extensive experience that allows me to think through problems and opportunities from multiple perspectives. I’ve been there.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
Poor. I think it is a broken system that is stuck in a chasm of misguided or unproductive thought and activity. We keep grasping at straws and losing. That isn’t to say there are no talented educators or people who defy odds and win — but the system and the profession are suffocating.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
- Educators, for the most part, who have the desire and heart to make a difference for children
- Sufficiently funded schools — beautiful facilities, abundant resources, multiple opportunities for children and teachers
- A government that prioritizes and values the education of its citizens
- A government that supports school choice, particularly through charter schools that can provide parent choice and take hold of innovation from which all can learn
- Discussions at the top levels that pull in world-class education systems when talking about reform
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- A core curriculum of content (not to be confused with standards) for all students that allow each to access essential knowledge for academic success, cultural literacy, and opportunity. WHAT a child needs to know year by year should not be left to the individual teacher to decide. Core content needs to be structured and sequenced to grow year by year (knowledge builds on knowledge), be full of what children need to know and cause a student to consider his or her place and contribution in the world.
- Teacher education that focuses on building full content knowledge and essential skills of the teacher, not just how to teach students and manage a classroom. We need to know, understand, and love the content ourselves to be able to lead another to learn. They should be experts in the subjects they teach. As well, teachers of reading, especially of young learners, should be well taught in linguistics, great literature, and the role of background knowledge for comprehension and acquiring vocabulary. They should be well versed in cognitive science. The profession should be elite — like most world-class systems — and only bring in the best of the best who fit this model. Then, demand much from its candidates — academically and professionally. I believe every teacher needs a core of classical liberal arts content (because that’s what they will teach) and then an advanced degree in the mechanics of education and the science of pedagogy.
- A revision of the budget and procurement systems for schools. Right now, typical district public schools have a budget system that forces money to be spent on things they don’t need. It’s altogether wasteful and unproductive. Procurement has to be led at the school level — schools should be able to purchase the highest quality products at the best price from the best vendors.
- Site control and accountability. Schools should have strong leaders who can effectively move their site to a higher place without the burden of stodgy, broken ways that are unnecessary or unproductive. He or she should also be held to a common set of metrics that must be met for operational success. And if a leader can’t do that, find one that can. It’s a business. It’s not just about being good with children. All university education programs in education leadership should meld with the business school to provide essential knowledge and skill in leading an organization — they need a strong foundation in economics, operations, finance and accounting, marketing, organizational behavior, and strategy.
- Lean Administration. More dollars need to be shifted to the classroom for the essential and right things for teachers to do their work completely and with fidelity, rather than throwing money at administrative positions that do not actually move the needle for schools and children.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
I think the US is focusing on the wrong thing and in some ways going in the wrong direction. Science, technology, engineering, and math should be core components of a rich, classical liberal arts education that also equally focuses on the humanities — English, foreign language, world and American history and geography, visual arts, theater arts, music, grammar, logic, rhetoric, and learn about the human condition through classic literature and the great books. By definition, liberal means free. A classical liberal arts education levels the playing field for all children by providing equal access to knowledge; they are free to pursue anything they choose because they are armed with that knowledge and inspiration. The whole picture is critical to the development of the mind, and it answers the question, “What does it mean to be truly educated?” To me, that is our job — to truly educate children — to build the human person and teach students to fall in love with learning so that wherever they land, they pursue it. I don’t think the purpose of school is to train people for a STEM job, and that seems to be what comes of an imbalanced focus on STEM.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
I believe all children — boys and girls alike — should have equal access to all subjects through a common and comprehensive body of knowledge that grows year by year and engages all learners to think, imagine, study, question, and flourish. If this happens, they are free to choose any profession or academic pursuit they wish, including STEM. I also think the attitudes and biases that adults and teachers can have is entirely limiting to students. What we (teachers and parents) convey to students (“I’m bad at math” or “boys are usually better at science” — I’ve witnessed this) is powerful. I don’t believe in labels for anyone. It limits possibilities and opportunities, and it happens more than you think.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
I see that as a myopic way to view education and its purpose. Technology and related jobs are ever-changing. We can’t possibly limit our education to that alone. That aside, I think we have probably made strides systematically that have moved girls and women into STEM — but I’m not sure if perhaps they now feel a measure of pressure to do so, due to the increased focus on it. My suggestions to increase engagement — for ALL, including girls and women — aligns to my response to the previous question: 1) Teach a comprehensive, core classical liberal arts curriculum to all children that incorporates “every subject, every day” — including the subjects in STEM; 2) Eliminate teacher and parent attitudes and statements that convey bias; and 3) Don’t label any child.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
I’m a true believer in the core classical liberal arts for all students. It’s all of STEM, STEAM, and more. Just STEM and STEAM are too limiting. Students who study the classical liberal arts are given the full opportunity to emerge as knowledgeable, capable, and inspired human beings that know how to think, problem-solve, communicate, and consider the human condition across the world. I’m watching it happen right before my eyes in my schools and these students are moving on to all kinds of advanced pursuits and jobs — including those that are STEM-based.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
That may have been answered above. In short: 1. A core, knowledge-based content curriculum for all students that levels the playing field, 2. Local control and accountability to run a professional organization at the site level, 3. Restructuring of the school finance system, 4. A restructuring of teacher education preparation programs (curriculum) with a higher standard for candidates and smaller acceptance rates (make it attractive, too, with starting salaries) and 5. Stop with the labels of all kinds — they are limiting.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have many, but relevant to this conversation of education, I’d go with Winston Churchill:
“It is no use saying ‘we are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”
I’d say that kind of thinking is what everyone in education should adopt.
For life’s grit and daring to do hard things, I’ll go with Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
That quote is and has always been relevant to me, especially when starting a school from the ground up and sticking to its vision in the face of adversity.
And my own that sticks with me — I heard it long ago:
“What you pay attention to grows.”
I think that is applicable everywhere and in everything, especially when working with children and teachers.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
There are a few. But I’d have to say Sadio Mane — Because he’s got it right as a human being and every single person in the world can learn from him. I’d also like to talk with him about his school in Senegal and help him with his education endeavors in Africa.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Stephanie Musser, Ed.D (LinkedIn)