Matt Navo of CCEE: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System

Posted on

Context matters and we must think about how many educators, schools, communities, and districts are different. If we prioritize context with variable implementation from the beginning then the notion of fixing educational issues becomes less of the focus, rather we encourage variable approaches, and new ideas and address from the beginning the challenges of a one-size-fits-all- approach.

As a part of our interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system, I had the pleasure to interview Matt Navo.

Matt J. Navo is the Executive Director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE) and has over 30 years of experience in the K-12 educational sector in roles ranging from special education teacher to superintendent. A prominent expert in areas like systems improvement and multi-tiered system of support, he has authored significant works on education and served on numerous state-level committees, including being a Governor appointee to the California State Board of Education. His contributions have been widely recognized in various media, and he holds degrees from California State University, Fresno, as well as multiple professional credentials.

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?

During my childhood, I faced academic challenges that required substantial effort to overcome. Learning did not come naturally to me, which ultimately motivated my decision to pursue a career in education. Reading, in particular, presented a significant hurdle. My mother dedicated endless hours to assist me in developing this skill. At times, I came dangerously close to abandoning my educational aspirations. However, thanks to the dedicated educators who not only guided me but also instilled in me a profound sense of belonging, I remained committed to my path. I aspired to provide that same transformative experience for other young individuals, which is why I chose to become an educator.

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?

In my second year of teaching, I embarked on a unique journey by accepting the role of an instructor for a combined class of 4th, 5th, and 6th-grade students in special education. This undertaking proved to be immensely challenging, yet it remains one of the most enriching experiences of my career. Through this experience, I cultivated a deep well of patience, both for myself and my students. I also honed my ability to forge more profound connections with the families of these students, many of whom I still maintain contact with today. This chapter in my teaching career underscored the profound importance of fostering genuine relationships and connections with students, revealing that their personal growth and well-being were just as vital as the knowledge they acquired from me. It compelled me to ensure that my students were never reduced to mere statistics but recognized as unique individuals with their own distinct needs and aspirations.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Right now, our organization is involved in developing a new statewide model for school transformation. This model is one of the most intensive coaching models for teachers and administrators in the country. The goal is to empower educators to be more focused on teaching and learning for students. Building what would be common sense practices into common practice.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

I attribute the significance of my expertise to the wealth of experiences I have accumulated over the years, particularly within the realm of education. My journey has included roles as a 5th-grade teacher, Special Day Class Teacher, Resource Specialist, High School Guidance Counselor, Middle School Learning Director, High School Assistant Principal, Alternative Education Principal, Elementary Principal, Special Education Director, Area Administrator, Superintendent, Co-Director for the National Center for Systemic Improvement with WestEd, State Board Education Member, and participation on various statewide boards and task forces.

What I’ve learned throughout this diverse career path is that too often, we (those who influence education) seek solutions outside the confines of our educational institutions. We look to experts with profound knowledge but limited practical experience within the school environment. In my view, the most impactful agents of change are those who reside right within the classroom walls, where the true essence of education is experienced and shaped.

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?

On a focus and effort scale, I give the system a 5/5 on effort. There is not an educator I can think of that isn’t exhausted, trying to find a new innovative way to reach students, administrators that aren’t thinking about early retirement or changing career paths. Everyone is giving all that they have to try and help students learn post-Covid. I give us a 2/5 on Focus. Our system is listening to too many voices, not enough focus on what really matters, and teacher collaboration. As a result, we are dumping more money into the next shiny objects, and we have more “stuff” in education than I have seen in over 30 years.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

  • Focus on social and emotional well-being. As a result of the post-Covid era, we have put a much more intensive focus on developing the soft skills necessary for students to be successful young adults.
  • Efforts to address and accelerate learning. School districts across the country are reconsidering old ways of doing business as usual, and that is a great start for improving educational systems.
  • Clarity on what works and what doesn’t as it relates to how to teach students to read.
  • Discipline that educators have when it comes to using data for improved decision making.
  • Continuous improvement and building capacity of people within the system to improve the system. This renewed focus is key to developing the collective commitment and efficacy needed to improve outcomes for ALL students.

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?

After over three decades of experience being an educator, I have witnessed the whole pendulum of educational policy swing back and forth in its efforts to address a myriad of educational issues. The US education system, often hailed as a cornerstone of social progress, faces a series of challenges that have persisted for decades. Challenges such as student literacy and math achievement results, compliance obligations, accountability perspectives, lack of prepared teachers and administrators, and most recently, polarizing political views have tethered educational practitioners, forcing them to reconsider an early retirement or even employment in education altogether. To bring about meaningful change and improve the quality of education in the United States, it is crucial to focus on a few key, but simple strategies. These five things are not “rocket science” but would help improve the trajectory of education in the US.

Stop Chasing the “The New Next Shiny Object” to fix education.

Education policymakers should reconsider the dumping of money into new educational ideas that pull practitioners from a focus on teaching and learning. Education reform should focus on sustainable, back-to-basics evidence-based practices. As an educator, I have seen countless educational initiatives come and go, often with little lasting impact on student learning. Instead, we should encourage policymakers to “get back to basics” when it comes to policy that prioritizes helping teachers teach and helping students learn. With the focus being on proven methods and strategies that regardless of the pendulum, benefit teachers and students. For example, we should be focused on developing policies and funding that support school districts in prioritizing teacher collaboration time. Collaboration time is different from prep time. Focused, identified, and specific time that is focused on teacher teams working together to discuss, plan, and prioritize what must be taught, what must be assessed, and devising plans to address variable learning needs must be the priority of education policy.

Keep the main things the main things.

When you ask any school leader about areas needing improvement, they typically point to a multitude of programs, projects, services, resources, and interventions. The challenge facing the education sector lies in the perpetual pursuit of higher standards that drive improvements within educational systems. However, the ever-changing goals imposed by local, state, and federal policies can complicate the ability to maintain a clear focus on essential priorities.

Firstly, schools require a high-quality instructional framework that fosters a unified language for instructional delivery — a framework that can be quantified, discussed, and linked to student learning outcomes. Consistency in instructional practices provides educators with a reliable reference point for discussions. Our educational system should incentivize school districts to clearly define their instructional approach and how they employ it to offer a coherent approach to instruction.

Secondly, schools need robust intervention systems that seamlessly integrate evidence-based practices and programs. They need qualified intervention personnel and allocated time within the school day for both remediation and acceleration. In addition, we need expanded learning opportunities both before and after school options for students to learn and grow.

Thirdly, and arguably most importantly, there must be a foundational commitment to collaboration, manifested in time and structured processes. This commitment should prioritize conversations aimed at enhancing teaching and facilitating student learning. By keeping these fundamental priorities at the forefront, irrespective of local, state, or federal policies, local educational practitioners can establish consistent and coherent goals that should be common sense but, regrettably, are not always common practice.

It is all about coaching.

If you are an educator reading this, think back to your educator preparation program. What prepared you best for addressing the myriad of dilemmas and challenges you would encounter? For many, the preparation from college prepared them minimally for addressing all the challenges they would face. However, on-site preparation through coaching is what prepares and supports young and veteran teachers.

If we are going to improve education, then we must address the fact that the quality of education depends on the quality of educators. To improve the US education system, we must invest in teacher preparation and administrative preparation programs that emphasize on-the-job embedded coaching, collaboration, and standards-based instruction. Teachers should be prepared to work in interdependent teams focused on student success rather than what has largely governed schools as most educators are forced to be independent contractors.

Coaching side by side, elbow to elbow on the job support is what research shows benefits educators the most. And I would argue that is the most effective way to build quality educators. Educators including principals as instructional leaders, Superintendents prioritizing coherent systems, and boards being coached on how to best govern and support their districts. We need to prioritize a system where educators are not left to “try to figure it out,”, whatever “it” is, and are more equipped to deal with educational challenges in partnership with a coach rather than as an individual.

Be more than just a number.

A holistic approach to education is essential. During No Child Left Behind (NCLB) we saw a huge focus on test scores as the driving factor for determining educational success. The profession of education and the quality of the professional educators were measured by a score or composite of scores. The reality is that the profession of education is more than a number. We should employ a system that decouples the profession from a single score with punitive consequences but rather uses a composite of scores, and multiple measures, both state and local, to establish goals and plans that hold the system accountable for learning how to improve.

And how do we know that is a better approach? If we look at our past, we realize that there was very little that helped educators sustain any coordinated improvements over time. Rather, educators taught the test and played the finite game at the cost of a more holistic instructional approach. In the end, literacy and mathematics achievement is still lagging across the county, and In fact, many would argue that much of the failure of achievement for students can be laid at the feet of most legislative policies that continue to resurface conversations tied to test scores. Rather than fixating on single metrics, such as standardized test scores, decision-makers should consider a broader set of data points that honor the complexity of the profession of being an educator.

One size does not fit all.

Educators seek responsibility, ownership, and accountability over their schools and school districts. However, education tends to remove shared collective responsibility when it views educational fixing through a “one size fits all” lens. In many states and many local areas, many schools and communities are left out. Small rural schools are most often the ones that find themselves overlooked when it comes to local, state, and federal education policies and approaches, and in many state demographics, they account for upwards of 30%-50% of the schools. The reason context is overlooked is that many of the educational approaches for addressing educational challenges are constructed on a set of assumptions about what schools are capable of achieving.

Instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all approach, educators should prioritize local context and decision-making. In essence, meaningful educational transformation does not come from assuming how schools should behave or operate, but rather from the assumption that collective empowerment of the school, community, families, and students is more important than the design itself. For school districts to devise innovative solutions that lead to desired outcomes they must not perceive the consequence of failing to execute the design in the same way as punishment. When schools believe the consequence of failing to design schools, in the same way, is some form of rehabilitation or technical assistance, educators learn to fill out plans to communicate coherence when coherence is not about plans, but about people.

Context matters and we must think about how many educators, schools, communities, and districts are different. If we prioritize context with variable implementation from the beginning then the notion of fixing educational issues becomes less of the focus, rather we encourage variable approaches, and new ideas and address from the beginning the challenges of a one-size-fits-all- approach.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

STEM and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) have increased in recent years. With the influx of funding in education many schools and districts have placed an increased focus on opportunities for students to engage in STEM/STEAM projects. Districts/schools can increase awareness by re-imagining robotics programs in early grades to establish a level of interest and appreciation from younger students. Incentivize the STEM and STEAM fields by establishing dual enrollment programs at the secondary levels like Engineering pathways and elevating awareness in their communities of the opportunities afforded to young people who have an interest in STEM and STEAM programs.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

CA has a rich history of supporting STEAM in the state through our Next Generation Science Standards and the state annual STEAM conference. There are a number of initiatives increasing access to STEM for girls in women through various county offices of education and higher education institutions. These focus on diversifying the field and professional workforce by creating more inclusive opportunities to engage young girls and women to think about a STEM career.

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?

CA is a local control state, so creating a pathway from the local educational agency to higher education, to the workforce, is a pathway that is developed across many fields and disciplines. When these efforts are more focused and regionalized, the pathway is more accessible for girls and women to engage with STEM subjects and opportunities.

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?

The elimination of standardized testing as the sole metric for measuring educational success is imperative. School culture is a multifaceted entity, and reducing the teaching profession to a single metric fails to acknowledge the intricacies involved in nurturing the development of well-rounded, functional children who will grow into productive adults.

We must grant educators a stronger voice in the policymaking process. Frequently, well-intentioned and intelligent individuals, often lacking direct K-12 school experience, shape educational policy. It is crucial to involve those who are intimately familiar with the challenges and realities of the classroom in the design of these policies. This approach would foster a greater collective commitment to nationwide policy ideas that directly impact educators.

It is essential to mandate ongoing funding for school innovation. Initiatives cannot thrive without sustained financial support. One-time funds may kickstart projects, but they tend to fade away over time, leaving vital programs and personnel unsupported. To drive meaningful change in education, we must move away from relying on soft money funding for ongoing initiatives.

The prioritization of teaching and learning is paramount. While it’s easy to advocate for empowering teachers and enabling students to learn, the actual implementation is a challenging endeavor. We must strengthen the connection between pre- and post-secondary education, encouraging post-secondary educators to spend time in K-12 schools to gain a deeper understanding of the unique challenges faced by K-12 educators.

Investing in coaching is a top-tier strategy for enhancing the professional practice of teaching. The idea of educators operating as independent contractors for students is outdated. Collaboration and interdependence within educational teams are essential to address the myriad challenges they encounter today. Coaches who support K-12 educators play a pivotal role in this transformative process.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote: “You only get in your own way when you think you are somebody, life gets easier when you realize you are nobody.” Life consistently shows me that life and leadership are about service to others. Leaders are not defined by a set of behaviors, but rather a spirit of caring for the well-being and productiveness of others.

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 🙂

I have really admired the work of Simon Sinek. His work, although drawn from various experiences, has been completely applicable to education in many ways. For example, one of his most recent books, The Infinite Game, has been so incredibly insightful for leaders in general, but really appropriate for education. Much of what he has authored I have applied in some way to my professional life.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I don’t have a large presence on social media for a number of reasons, but they can follow our work on X @MatthewNavo, @CCEECA and

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Matt Navo of CCEE: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.