Building on a Solid Foundation
Danny Torres in conversation with Jannelle Kubinec and Glen Harvey
By focusing on the whole child, the whole person, the whole family, we’re clearly seeing the intersections and through lines of our work. And this really comes down to what do children need to thrive and how do we think about ways that through the services that are needed that they’re aligned and reinforcing one another. So this gets back to not only what it is, but how we do it together, where the partnerships need to align.
And so I think for me in this conversation, it really underscores how our orientation to the needs of the field remain true and constant. I mean, that’s who we are, that’s who we’re going to continue to be.
Welcome to Leading Voices, a podcast brought to you by WestEd, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan research development and service agency. This podcast highlights WestEd’s leading voices shaping innovations and applying rigorous research in ways that help reduce opportunity gaps and build communities where all can thrive. I’m Danny Torres and I’ll be your host.
In this episode of the Leading Voices Podcast, we have two very, very special guests, WestEd’s, new Chief Executive Officer Jannelle Kubinec and Glen Harvey, WestEd’s former Chief Executive Officer. Glen recently stepped down this October after more than 25 years at the helm. Jannelle joined WestEd 12 years ago and her leadership and contributions to the California Master Plan for Early Learning and Care and the K-12 funding formula in particular have made a significant impact. For the past four years, Jannelle served as WestEd’s Chief Administrative Officer, supporting the creation of teams and organizational units for learning and development, employee engagement, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Over the past two decades, Glen Harvey led the agency’s incredible transformation to an expansive mission-driven and quality and impact focus agency. Under Glen’s leadership, WestEd emphasized high-quality research-based work designed to improve outcomes for children, youth, and adults, with a particular focus on addressing the needs of traditionally underserved and marginalized communities.
In this engaging conversation, we discuss WestEd’s history, our mission and values, and our impact. We also discuss our whole person approach, artificial intelligence, the effects of the pandemic, and improving outcomes for every learner. All right, with that, let’s get to it.
Now, Glen, many of our listeners may not know how WestEd came to be. Could you tell us a little bit about its origins and how the landscape has changed over the years and how WestEd has adapted to meet those changes during your tenure?
Well, first, thanks Danny. Before we start, I’d like to take a moment of privilege to just congratulate Jannelle on being selected as WestEd’s new CEO. This is really an exciting time for WestEd. It’s reassuring to me to know that as I’m leaving WestEd that it is in excellent hands. So congratulations, Jannelle. WestEd is really lucky to have you at the helm.
So to your origins question, Danny. WestEd is the merger of two federally funded regional educational labs. They were first established in 1966 under President Johnson’s Great Society program, which he launched in 1965. And that program was intended to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. And a major focus of the Great Society agenda was education. So one of the major initiatives of the Great Society Program was the creation of regional educational labs, and they were intended to drive school improvement and increased student learning. So two of those original labs, Far West Lab and the Southwest Lab, merged in 1995 because they thought they would have greater impact in improving education if they were working collaboratively.
So you asked what’s changed. WestEd is a needs driven organization. So we’re always changing, we’re always adjusting, we’re always adapting. If we see a gap in services we offer, we lean in to fill that gap. As a result, we’ve expanded and deepened our capacity to address changing needs. So if you just really looked at the merger and where we are today, we have much broader expertise than we did back in 1995. What hasn’t changed is our mission of equity, excellence, and improved learning and also our values, especially the value that we place on research—we’re a research-based organization—and also the value we place on impact. We want to be accountable for what we achieve in the field.
So basically, we’re an organization that believes all kids should be able to succeed in their schools and thrive in their own communities. That’s our North Star.
Now, I’d like to address this question to both of you. WestEd’s enduring mission is to promote excellence, achieve equity, and improve learning for children, youth, and adults. What are some opportunities you see for WestEd in the coming years?
Thanks, Danny. I think I’d pick up right where Glen left us off on the first question, which is we’re about our mission, so thank you for stating that and that reminder that where we came from of eliminating poverty and racial injustice is really still driving us today. But what does it look like? We’re faced with some really immediate needs that are coming from the field, and I think much of that is just slightly in our rearview, mostly in our side view mirror with regard to recovering from lost time in school and instructional experiences that students experienced during the pandemic, which as Glen noted, I mean, these are things that disproportionately affected students based on their income, race, language, and disability status. This is the cause we have, this is the mission we have.
So what’s some of the things that we’ve been doing of late? Well, we’ve been documenting what the research says about the nature of the experiences that we’re seeing, both in terms of effective practices, but also areas where we have yet to close some of the gaps in learning, gaps and achievement that we know are out there. We can see effective solutions in terms of what’s working with regard to curriculum, instructional strategies, approaches to extending learning time, and other supports including counseling. So I think when I think about what our opportunities are, we’re going to continue to do what we’ve always done, which is support research, provide technical assistance and work with organizations so that they’re implementing these strategies to close gaps and outcomes for the populations we serve.
Now as I move forward, I mean beyond what I think is our side view, rearview mirror and look really farther ahead, I think there’s also a real present day opportunity as we look at the new frontier with large language models or generative AI. This is not only a question of how we do our work, but what it means for learning. And we’ve heard some of the issues already emerging of is writing a necessary skill now that we have ChatGPT. And I think there are also concerns about how we validate what’s student generated or even teacher generated versus computer generated. At this moment, there’s a lot of things about artificial intelligence that are novel, that I think we can expect that we know it’s here to stay.
So what does this mean for how we evolve teaching and learning with such tools in mind? I think that’s a position that we find ourselves in as WestEd, and one that when you look at our mission, it really will inform how we work in this area in terms of bringing forth ideas and information that I think look and work towards mitigating bias. As we look at open source AI applications, we know they’re present.
So for WestEd, we have worked extensively on what makes for valid, reliable and unbiased assessments. We’re in the process of researching whether there’s a material difference between a WestEd trained AI and an open source AI with regard to generating assessments. And so I think from this we can start to bring to light specifics about issues of bias, ideas for mitigating bias and how to best think about what our future of learning is with AI in the mix as a tool for learning, and also with some of the safeguards around what we hold in our mission around creating equitable opportunities for learning.
I agree with that and I think particularly AI is a really exciting opportunity. I’d like to suggest a few other opportunities. Because we have so much expertise and it’s so broad now, I think there are many more opportunities for WestEd to do more cross sector work, community-based work, cross systems work, really hard, gritty work that needs to be done across our country. And I think WestEd is positioned to be a leader for that.
Our whole child work, which we initiated as a 2025 priority, I think is a good example. We know that kids are on the planet 24 hours a day and really a relatively little amount of that time is spent in our schools. And so if we want our kids to thrive, we need to work across systems and make sure that all those supports that they receive are aligned and reinforced one another.
Another opportunity that I think is really important that we’ve started to launch, but it’s still I think in its infancy, is adult learning and workforce development. If we want kids to thrive, we need their families to thrive. Parents and caregivers can’t really focus on a child’s learning if they’re worried about putting food on the table or a roof over the family’s head. Then another one, I think as you know, I feel really strongly about early childhood, and WestEd is a national leader in early childhood, but we need to take what we know about supporting infants and toddlers and share that much more widely.
In K-12, we tend to focus on academic learning. Early childhood people understand you need to focus on the whole child, and that makes such a big difference, I think especially given the challenges we’re facing after the pandemic. And finally, I’d like to make a strong pitch that I think WestEd has room now, especially since we have been building our capacity for workforce development, that we address more aggressively issues of poverty. I really truly regret that we didn’t do that as much as we could have or should have during my tenure. And I think if we’re going to make progress in student learning, especially after the pandemic, we’re going to have to make progress in reducing poverty. I think those two things go hand in hand. So I’m pitching all of those to you, Jannelle, for the future of WestEd.
Jannelle, Glen just mentioned WestEd’s commitment to the whole child. Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about the work WestEd’s doing in this area?
When we were in 2020, so about three and a half years ago, we were considering how we have increased impact on our work, and we identified whole child as an area of focus. And I think that is, as Glen said earlier, it’s getting beyond that focus of academic learning to whole child, whole person, and understanding that by focusing on the whole child, the whole person, the whole family, we’re clearly seeing the intersections and through lines of our work. And this really comes down to what do children need to thrive and how do we think about ways that through the services that are needed that they’re aligned and reinforcing one another. So this gets back to not only what it is, but how we do it together, where the partnerships need to align.
The fact of the matter is we have a lot of programs and things that get done because of a particular characteristic of a child. They may be your English learner, they may be your child with a disability, they may be someone receiving services through other agencies. So how do we look at this in the whole, not just the parts? And I think by focusing on the whole child, we’re also able to draw the connections between the developmental with the academic and physical and mental wellness needs. It connects, as we said earlier, learning with being in schools and home. It also puts the added importance to supporting cradle to career approaches, which we at WestEd are deeply involved with in California through everything from longitudinal data system that would help us span that full continuum to a whole host of programs and areas that take us from early childhood to higher ed.
So as for how we build capacity to support whole child approach, we’ve brought together people throughout WestEd. So it’s not just an individual, but it’s really the orientation that we take through our work and actively designing for the through lines and connections that demonstrate a whole child mindset and approach. And as we pursue new areas of work, we’re looking at the relationships, the connections between our work in health, human services, school climate, justice. We’re sharing within WestEd guidance that we’ve produced based on our experience of how do you take a whole child approach, how do you develop projects. And I think this is really an exciting time for us in an area where we see great potential for impact.
I so agree with you, Jannelle. It’s a really exciting time. Out of great need comes great opportunity, I think. And there’s a lot of need right now. WestEd has such an opportunity now to do as you were saying, cradle to career and worrying about parents worrying about poverty. We have a great deal of poverty in this country and it’s growing and without tackling workforce development and housing, kids are not going to thrive.
I think probably one of the most important opportunities for WestEd to contribute to kids in the future and to learning is really embracing that there’s a whole child, a whole family, a whole community, and all of that has to work together. And we’re naive to think that K-12 can do that on its own. Kids are not going to do well if we don’t think about their life experience every moment of the day and how to support their families as well.
I’m slightly jealous, Jannelle, that you’re going to get to tackle all these issues that I have not tackled yet because I think you’re going to move the needle enormously when you do that.
Well, Glen, I’m counting on the fact that you’re a call away and a very short trip to the office to rewrite back.
I don’t have an answer though, so it’s going to be up to you.
A thought partner. By most accounts, the pandemic has exacerbated a great many of the opportunity gaps that existed prior to 2020. How is WestEd equipped to help accelerate learning in the post-pandemic era?
I totally agree with you that the pandemic has left education with huge challenges, many of which are opportunity gaps. We’re going to need to have much more innovative thinking and collaborative problem solving, and WestEd is good at both of those. We’re definitely a collaborative organization partnering with lots of other organizations and community groups. We have deep expertise in reading and math, where student achievement plummeted the most, especially for underserved students. We have deep expertise around English learners and special education, and those experts partner with our content people so that those students’ needs don’t get left behind.
I think it’s important to recognize, however, that those opportunity gaps aren’t limited to academic subjects and achievement. Students are experiencing really severe mental health challenges as well. And WestEd has broadened over the years, since that merger of those two labs, our expertise around social–emotional learning, mental health and behavioral issues, which I think really is needed in our schools these days.
It’s also important to remember that the opportunity gaps aren’t limited just to students. They extend to families and communities, and we’re seeing that across the country. We recently launched a new Center for Economic Mobility to help address some of those issues, adult issues. As I said before, I think it’s unrealistic to expect parents and caregivers to fully support their children if they’re struggling with food insecurity and housing. We need to recognize in this country that people need jobs, they need financial security, and I think WestEd can play more of a role and has started to step up in doing that.
We need to be honest, there is not a clear answer to how to accelerate learning or address all these opportunity gaps. We can’t be naive about the challenges we’re facing. It’s going to take all our organizations and all our communities forming common cause around our kids. Just to catch kids up on the learning they lost will take years. And to move beyond that to really genuine success and thriving, it’s going to take a lot more and it’s going to take political will and courage to do all we can and then step up and do more. And I think WestEd is well positioned to do that.
When you refer to all of the organizations working together in common cause, can you tell us a little bit more about the kinds of organizations you’re referring to? I’m thinking sister organizations, nonprofits, government institutions, and the like.
That’s a great question, and yes, I am. I think that we have a number of philanthropic organizations, nonprofit organizations, a lot of sister organizations, all disconnected from each other, and we all have a lot of expertise. But huge harm was done during the pandemic. And if you read what economists are predicting, that’s going to live with those students forever. I think that if we could join forces with community organizations, with the federal government, with nonprofits, with philanthropy, and all have common goals, trying to all align will make much faster, better progress.
Glen, your response is making me think about something I read recently, which is the need for bridge building. And that we once upon a time, if you look at how government funding was working to address social problems and needs, it was like a vending machine. You’d say, “Okay, we need to provide for housing or we need to provide for transportation, we need to provide for education, so here’s the thing, we give out.” What we’re reflecting and what you just captured is how complicated the need is.
We’re dealing with the intersection of health needs, with mental health, with learning and food insecurity that present themselves, as you’re saying, that is what a single organization does, but how do we think about it collectively? And I also think what you’re pointing out is there are no silver bullets. I just think we’re in a place where we have a longstanding history of helping advance the way we look at complicated problems, how we look at that not just as individuals, but as what we need to see in the constellation of actors and agencies working together.
I think that just another way to think about the pandemic and how it’s affected us is it really showed us that school isn’t just a place. So for a lot of the various reasons that Glen pointed out, we were just looking for school to be the place that children went and had learning, but it’s also where they learn social skills, where they receive their meals for the day, where they really receive some of that mental health and other community supports, health supports, that now became present in different ways. It’s just a reminder of how important that partnership between school and home is, and that it’s not just the place we go, but it’s actually part of community. How do we approach school as community? How do we approach community as including school?
And as Glen also said, the pandemic really laid bare gaps that we already knew exist. So the computer and broadband access issues where, did we have device, but did we have broadband access? Those were things we knew about coming into the pandemic. We knew there were differences in learning support, so around what was available in communities, what were available in homes. We also knew there are differences around availability and nutrition.
So it showed us how critical school is to facilitate, promote, and support consistency and experience that’s critical for learning, which really is the equity imperative that we serve at WestEd. And I think our work with local and state educational agencies is about bringing forward the evidence and research to support how we design and provide services that meets the needs of children and youth. I think we also note, though, that as Glen said, schools can’t be everything for everyone. And so those partnerships within communities is really critical. And so I’m really proud of the work that we have done of late with community schools and networks that support relationships to bringing forth more comprehensive supports for children, youth, and their families.
What are some of the ways in which WestEd stands out from other organizations in the way we support state and local education agencies, school districts and educators?
That’s an interesting question. And I think I’ll start with first, we’re really committed to tackling real world issues in the field, the issues that are really complicated and enduring, and we want to find solutions. We’re not interested in admiring problems or writing about them or saying that policymakers need to step up. It’s more that we need to really try to develop solutions. And I don’t mean to make that sound easy. It isn’t. There aren’t any easy problems left to solve, but we’re committed to learning from our successes and our failures. So that’s one distinguishing feature.
A second is that we’re committed to building capacity in people we work with. We believe in continuous improvement and continuous learning, and we want our clients to feel confident that they can step up. And a third feature is that we want to be known for our commitment to being nonpartisan, objective, research-based. We care about positive outcomes for kids, all kids and the adults who support them and we want to be accountable for those. We want to stay out of politics, which is usually about adult issues. And finally, we want to be mission-driven and impact focused. We talk a lot about our mission, but the core for us is having impact. We need to know that the work we’re doing adds up to what we promise and we want to make the world a better place for kids.
Well, Glen, I think that what your list captures is how WestEd works as partners with state and local education agencies. I think one of the greatest privileges that I’ve had while being here is to be called a trusted partner and advisor to school districts and state educational agencies. And I think that’s something we hold as a position because of the very things that Glen just mentioned. We are not here because we’re seeking change for change’s sake or our own brand of things because it’s about WestEd. It’s actually WestEd in service of. And I think this gets back to the orientation we take to the needs of the field, contributions to the field.
The composition of our staff are people from the field. So when I look at my WestEd colleagues, what I see is a number of staff that have worked for state or local education agencies that include people that have been in classrooms or centers as early learning educators, that have come from K-12 classrooms as teachers or center or school leaders or state educational agency leaders, including we have several former state commissioners of education at WestEd. So in that respect, I think makes us able to address the needs of state and local education agencies is because we know that work. We’ve come to WestEd to have impacts through what we can do at an organization that brings together not only experience of the field, but with research and with understanding of how that impacts practice and policy. So I think that’s a significant way that we stand out.
So I want to go back to this topic of AI because I think it’s been identified as a potential game changer in education. It’s been expanding dramatically in its capabilities and uses. We talked a little bit about this earlier, but how do you see the role of AI in education? Do you see it as an opportunity or as a challenge, and how might WestEd be equipped to navigate this emerging landscape?
I’m interested that you’re asking if it’s an opportunity or a challenge. For me, it simply is. It’s here. It’s I guess both an opportunity and a challenge because it’s new and we haven’t figured it out. We haven’t figured out how to harness its potential. But to look the other way or to try to walk it back is not the direction I would support. It’s not realistic either. It holds such potential, I think, and we need to all come together and figure it out collectively.
I know many people are fearful of what it might mean. When educators first started talking about AI, they worried that students would use it to cheat and write essays for them. They immediately went to—I’d listened to a lot of these conversations and they went to bad places. And I just think that’s a negative mindset. That’s not the way to lead education policy or practice. I see it as potentially a tool that could close opportunity gaps, those gaps you asked about before, Danny, and that’s where I would start.
So WestEd, I think, is grappling with all of this. We have a strategy group that’s trying to develop some vision for how we can be part of the solution in maximizing the opportunities of AI. I think the heart of the discussion is how to use AI in ways that really support students, particularly marginalized students. And I think it has huge opportunity if we embrace it and we again, as I said earlier, work collaboratively. I think it’s going to take a lot of organizations working together to make sure it’s used wisely to support kids. It is here and I think if it’s here, let’s use it to increase equity for all our students.
Hey Glen, you’re making me think. There was a time where people used slide rules and thought that was high-tech, and then calculators came around and there was also that equal fear of like, what are we going to do if people just use calculators, they won’t know how to use a slide rule? Well, it turns out you don’t need to know how to use a slide rule.
The same thing happened when we, once upon a time, had encyclopedias and then the internet came out and everyone went, “Well, how will people know what real knowledge is if we, you know, you could’ve trust what’s printed in the page?” And I think we all know we use calculators, we use the internet. So the question on AI is what, as you said, the tool, what is it a tool for and what’s the skills you need to interact? So I actually think there’s tremendous opportunity to take an emphasis on something we’ve already been talking about in schooling, which is critical thinking skills.
One of our board members on the WestEd board, who is a sixth grade teacher, John Arthur, I was asking a question of him around, “How are you seeing AI used in your classroom?” He said, “Well, you know, I’m not really advanced with it, but I’ll tell you something I did.” He said, “I went to my class and I gave ChatGPT a prompt, and I said, ‘Respond to this prompt.'” ChatGPT wrote a paragraph and then he had a student do the same thing, “Here, take this and respond to the prompt.” He handed out to the class the prompt responses from both the student and ChatGPT, and he asked them to be critical of what they read and which one was which.
So what it allowed them to explore was how are you thinking about what you read and how you might know if a person wrote it, and what are the indicators of that and how would you know maybe if a computer wrote it, and what are the indicators of that and which one would you think about or what have you learned. So I think there are some things that become like that lesson would not have been something we did a year ago in the classroom, but now we can use that as a means to say, “Let’s think about critically, let’s think about sources. Let’s think about where they come from.” That we’ve been talking about actually for the past decade. But now we do it with a tool called ChatGPT and we do it with some things we’ve always had, which is a teacher and a student and a learning opportunity.
So I’m with Glen. I’m not sure: challenge, opportunity? I think it is one of those things that we’re always having to think how is the world evolving and what are we doing to get the most from it, and how to do the best by students and where and how to protect equity as we’re pursuing what we do in supportive learning.
This has been a rich and interesting conversation and I appreciate it very, very much. Now, as we come to the end of our time together, do you have any last thoughts for our listeners today?
Oh, I have so many. You don’t want to hear them all. This has been really fun. I really appreciate you asking us to do this. WestEd’s a really special place, and it has the most talented, committed people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. And that’s saying a lot because I’ve worked at some good places, but never with more talented people and especially more committed people to our mission of equity and excellence and improved learning. And it’s been such a gift to do this work that I love for 26 years and to partner with people I respect and I can learn from, knowing that the work really makes a positive difference in the world. And I think WestEd’s work has really made a positive difference, and hearing Jannelle’s answers gives me real excitement about it’s going to do a lot more in the future.
We’re a place that we don’t admire problems. We roll up our sleeves and try to solve them, and we’re respected because of the impact we have and the difference that we make, and I’m really proud of that. And I am excited for Jannelle and for WestEd, and I know Jannelle will carry that torch for impact. And the field needs it more than ever now, post pandemic. The needs are huge.
So we need to work together to act on the belief that roll up our sleeves and figure out how to tackle this new challenge so the kids can be successful. It’s going to be a tough number of years ahead, and I know that Jannelle and our WestEd colleagues are up to that challenge, and so let me hand it over to you, Jannelle, for the last word, and wish you really good luck. I’m kind of jealous that you get to tackle this really tough set of challenges.
Thank you very much, Glen. Any final thoughts from you, Jannelle?
Well, thank you Danny, for this opportunity to share this discussion with you and Glen. I think this isn’t just having the discussion, a reminder of how special WestEd is, but also all that Glen has brought to this organization in terms of creating capacity for a future where we’re delivering on our mission. And I just want to thank Glen for giving us, WestEd, a really solid foundation that I feel so fortunate to follow behind her in her footsteps. I’m looking forward to her coming back and being critical and giving feedback and being an advisor. I personally have benefitted greatly from her leadership and mentorship. I know many others have as well here.
And so I think for me in this conversation, it really underscores how our orientation to the needs of the field remain true and constant. I mean, that’s who we are, that’s who we’re going to continue to be. And while we’ve touched on a wide range of topics, you’ve heard Glen and I say, several times, it’s about the impact. It’s about the impact we can have through our work. And I think it’s that our purpose is to make a difference in the lives and outcomes of children, youth, and families, and I look forward to where we continue to make such a difference. And we have such a strong foundation and a track record of impact that I think there’s much need for which we are positioned to continue to be that contributor, that place that you go when you want to make a difference and see some changes in the field.
Thank you very, very much Jannelle and Glen for being on the program, and thank you to all our listeners for joining us today. You can find this and past episodes of the Leading Voices Podcast online at wested.org/leadingvoicespodcast or on the Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Pandora, and Spotify.
This podcast is brought to you by WestEd, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan research development and service agency. At WestEd, we believe that learning changes lives. Every day, we partner with schools and communities across the country to improve outcomes for youth and adults of all ages. Today’s episode focused on one really important facet of the work that we do at WestEd, and I encourage you to visit us at wested.org to learn more.
And special thanks to Gretchen Wright for her collaboration on this episode and to Sanjay Pardanani, our audio producer. Thank you for joining us. Until next time.