Inspiring Leadership: An Interview with Raymond McNulty, Dean, School of Education at Southern New Hampshire University

brian shulman and raymond mcnulty

Brian Shulman sits down with Raymond McNulty to discuss education. Raymond is the dean of the School of Education at Southern New Hampshire University, serves on the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network Board of Directors at Clemson University, is a long time speaker and partner at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) and was a senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where he worked with leading educators from around the country on improving high school education. He has held numerous teaching, principal, and superintendent positions in Vermont.

Brian Shulman: From your experience consulting and speaking in the K12 space, what do you see as the major concern right now in K12 education?

Ray McNulty: When asked this question most people would say the greatest concern is “change” or “fear of change” and reluctance to accept the new ideas and systems that surround us in education today. But I don’t see change as the biggest concern. I see educators as generally accepting of new ideas and systems. Most educators know they need to change and most welcome the new ideas. The greatest concern or challenge facing K12 education at this time is not letting go of the old ideas and practices. No one is talking about letting go of things; instead we just keep adding things to the system.

When I work with schools and educators to plan and evaluate their systems and strategies, I sort them into three categories: 1) things we should stop doing, 2) things we should continue doing, and 3) things we should begin doing. We seem in education to not let go, and we need to stop doing things to make room for new strategies we should fold into our systems. For example: we spend a lot of time in education today teaching basic skill acquisition and educators can’t seem to find the time for higher levels of rigor in our schools. What’s the solution? Technology is much better at teaching basic skill acquisition, so using technology supported by our educators provides time for our educators to use their skills to increase the rigor in the learning. Let go of teaching basic skill acquisition!

Brian Shulman: Now that we have a new administration and a new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, what changes do you foresee coming?

Ray McNulty: First and foremost, as a former commissioner of education I can tell you this: No matter who the secretary of education is, when we find a great school doing amazing things with their students it generally isn’t because of who the secretary of education is! Great schools and great learning are a result of the teachers, administration, staff and community all working together to educate their students well. So we shouldn’t use the secretary or any commissioner as a reason for the success or failure of a system.

What I can say is that as we look ahead under the new administration, we will likely see a more competitive environment where many more new models for educating students will emerge. My hope is that across the board—both in public and private systems—we see more freedom in all schools to create new and interesting models for learning.

Brian Shulman: Are you seeing the Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) online model becoming more accepted among students and even high school counselors in 2017?

Ray McNulty: I think we see enormous acceptance in education today for not just SNHU online models, but for many online learning systems. Many states now require students to take online courses in order to graduate because that’s what is happening in the workforce. Most companies today train their workers using online systems. The real drivers for these new models of learning are competency-based learning—anytime, anyplace and any pace—and these factors weigh heavily in favor of online and hybrid systems. Here again, I must cite the strength and maturity of online systems these days. Online education is not new; it has been around for a very long time and the systems used today to manage the learning are highly sophisticated. When you match a great online system with a great teacher, together they represent a powerful learning system for our students.

Brian Shulman: In the model schools that you and Dr. Bill Daggett work with, is there one key element that you see in high performing schools that is missing in other schools?

Ray McNulty: Yes, and both Bill and I would answer this the same way. If we had to point to one thing, it would be the culture of the school. When we find schools that are working very well, we find these schools to be places where students, teachers and staff are not at odds with each other. They work as a community devoted to helping and appreciating each other. When I wrote my book for the International Center for Leadership in Education, I interviewed many hundreds of students in model schools. I asked the students in small groups: “What makes a teacher worth listening to, and what makes a school worth going to?” Their answers could be summed up in this one statement from a student at Brockton High School. He said, “At this school it’s not us against them!”

In great schools, culture trumps strategy. The places are safe, fun, and engaging, and because of that they have very few discipline problems and even fewer rules. When those in the system have a “voice,” learning happens.

Brian Shulman: Is there a strategy that you believe schools should begin to work with as we see a push toward more personalized learning models as opposed to large group instruction?

Ray McNulty: I don’t believe there is one thing or one strategy that will help the push toward more personalized learning. I think you just need to look around at a room full of people and realize that not one person is the same as the other! So, what works for Brian in class will not likely work for Ray or Mary. And what works for Brian in math class will not likely work for him in English class. So we need to have schools and learning systems that offer multiple models and multiple pathways for all of our students. This is why technology and learning management systems will be critical to the success of the systems we design for the future.