Alumnus chosen for Fulbright Leader for Global Schools Program


Meghan Krein

Alumnus Michael Robert (EdD ’11), superintendent of Osborn School District has been selected to participate in the Fulbright Leader for Global Schools Program. Ann Nielsen (MEd ’05, EdD ’14), associate director of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Center for Advanced Studies in Global Education says, “I think one of the most impactful components of this program is the educator to educator relationships that are built through the school immersion experience. These relationships extend beyond the exchange program and have made a tremendous impact on the educators who participate. It’s one of the most powerful modes of professional development for all participants as they become a team to support student learning.” 

As part of the program, Robert was scheduled to go to Finland March 11–21 to learn about the Finnish educational system. While the program has been postponed, Robert shares more about his role in the school district, and how he’s preparing Arizona students for the global economy.  

Q: How do you create students who are ready for the global economy?

A: A lot of the focus has been on skills gap. A big way that American schools have prepared students for the global economy has been with a strong focus on STEM. That’s one approach but it’s almost deficit minded. Thinking that there’s a gap so what can we do to close it so that our students can achieve; rather than focusing on critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. To me, that’s what global economy means more so than being able to perform certain functions. In terms of the international perspective, it’s being able to work with anyone to accomplish a set task. Sure, STEM is important but I think there’s the what you do and there’s the how you go about getting there. I’d rather focus on the how.

Q: What are the BIG challenges you face in the Osborn District? 

A: This is my third year in the job as superintendent. I want to be able to continue the legacy that was before me, but I also recognize that the world, the country, our city and even our zip codes have changed within the past 30 years. There’s new thinking, new styles and different problems. 

In terms of what we need and where we’re going in the next five years, I’m thinking about enrollment. We are facing a declining enrollment because there’s a lot of competition. So we have fewer students than we did 15 years ago. We are very proud of the education we have to offer and we think that every kid deserves an Osborn education. I want more kids to have the opportunity to get an Osborn education. 

In terms of specific things that we’re working on within the district, there’s been a strong focus on social-emotional learning and being able to be there for our children by having a program that focuses on the whole child. Of course, we want great educational outcomes but before we can get into the high order thinking skills and problem-solving strategies, we need to make sure we’re satisfying basic social-emotional needs that kids come to us with. 

There’s been a huge focus within the district on social-emotional learning and having a trauma-informed and trauma-healing centered focus. We are looking for great educational outcomes with a myriad of choices for parents. We offer dual-language classes in all of our schools and we’re planning on opening a Montessori school next year. Our hope is to offer an exciting and joy-filled educational experience for kids that will lead them to success.

Q: How do you make time to address and solve the long-term issues and problems you know you need to?

A: I’m trying to focus on long-range goals. When I first came to the district we had amazing superintendents and a legacy that I was building on. But as we’re starting to look to new endeavors, I don’t want to just go with the status quo with how things have been. I want us to get better. I want to be a better school district, a better Osborn, and grow in my professional development. 

As I’m prioritizing, one of the first things I’ve taken on is to engage the district in a strategic planning process. One of the things you need as a superintendent is a laser-like focus. I’ve been able to maintain a focus on the great successes that we’ve had, but we need new thinking for our changing world. We’ve been reimagining our vision, mission and values.

I prioritize around values. Our values of: integrity — it’s how we do the work that matters; equity — modeling for the outcomes and community that we think is just and what we expect. I want to make sure that the work I’m doing on a daily basis is a reflection of values like these. For example, equity as a value: How is the work that I’m doing in curriculum focused on culturally-responsive educational practices? When I’m doing work in human resources: How are we retaining and recruiting staff that is reflective of the community that we live in and of the kids that come to us. 

Q: Why did you choose Finland? 

A: One of the things that I need to think about as a superintendent are the professional standards for educational administrators, and one of those is around the idea of advocacy for kids and community. When I look at going to Finland and learning from teachers and administrators there, the remarkable change that was reflected in those PISA scores in 2000 didn’t come about from an intentional focus on achieving high scores on international tests. It came from a refocusing around who they are as a nation and what their goals are for society as a whole. 

In Finland, schools are very well funded and even before kids attend school, parents receive a subsidy, just for having children. Daycare is subsidized and preschool is universally free. The country made a conscious decision that they were going to expect more from teachers and compensate them at that level and the state was going to fund an additional year of graduate study that was necessary to become a teacher. In a year that there were 600 teacher openings, there were 6,000 applicants. 

There has been a commitment to take care of children. Families are supported from the time that brain development is happening the most. And there’s a feeling that by the time children arrive in the Finnish educational system that they’ve been supported throughout their entire life. We don’t see that here. We don’t focus on or support this idea of childhood. 

There have been other iterations of the PISA and those Finnish scores have slipped — they’re still in the top 10. The U.S. falls somewhere in the mid-20s to 30s. And even though their scores fell they did not move or change from their values about what they believe about children. Instead of doing what we’ve done in the U.S., which is if we slip we decide we need higher standards and higher accountability, their approach was if children aren’t achieving it’s because we as the adults aren’t creating the environment that they’re going to thrive in. Maybe there’s more fun that children could have that would motivate them to want to learn. I think that’s a beautiful philosophy.