054: Championing Equity In Special Education with Dr. Kate Anderson Foley

About Kate:

Dr. Kate Anderson Foley is a special education expert with over thirty years of experience guiding public school districts and states toward equitable and integrated services for all. She has witnessed the very best and the very worst education has to offer, and her work has really been grounded in social justice and in breaking down the barriers for children who historically have been marginalized. Now as CEO of The Education Policy & Practice Group, Kate partners with local, state, and national organizations, education agencies, and various industries providing her expertise and consulting services.

In the first half of this interview Kate shared with me how she followed her moral compass towards a career in uplifting the ignored and then later you’ll hear her break down exactly what she thinks is wrong with our education system today, what needs to change, and how she is actively working to pursue that vision.


Places to Find Kate:

Connect on LinkedIn – Kate Anderson Foley, PhD

The Education Policy & Practice Group – Website

On Instagram @kafphd


Show Notes:

2:40 minute: I read in an article you published that it was a fifth grade social studies project that first awakened your passion for serving marginalized groups of people. Can you share that story and a little bit about what life was like for you growing up?

  • Middle class background, young parents of the 60’s.
  • A 5th grade social studies project on Harriet Tubman opened her eyes.

4:10 minute: You started your career as a special education teacher. What drew you to that career path initially?

  • Original path was in business and then pre-med, like so many of those around her.
  • Decided it wasn’t right, and her gut told her to move toward helping the marginalized.
  • Experience as a young person teaching swimming lessons to disabled individuals.

5:20 minute: Was your family supportive of you making that major change in direction towards teaching?

  • She began her work in education only three years after Federal Special Education Law was enacted, people with disabilities were not in schools until that point.
  • Saw it as social justice. Her heroes were always Harriet Tubman & Dr. Martin Luther King.

6:20 minute: How did your preconceived ideas of what education is like or should be like for special needs students compare to the reality of what you saw going on in schools when you first started?

  • Wanted to blend the business with the education pieces.
  • Her first nine years were in teaching, always knowing she wanted to go into administration.
  • Worked to break down barriers of access to education for the special needs students. Did this through outreach to other teachers.

9:15 minute: I think this is all really applicable beyond special education. Could you talk a little bit about your ideas around the way we label people and the way we put these identity markers as the primary focus of a person rather than their accomplishments or careers?

  • Her mantra all along: The education system itself needs to be interrupted at the deficit base. Test and slot the kids and create the conditions for the kids to learn and demonstrate their ability.
  • Flexibility and nimbleness.


11:30 minute: Do you get support for this idea from administrations and school systems or are people stuck in this old mindset of special education vs general education first?

  • Depends on where you are, as the laws can be very different.
  • Was able to enact asset based programs while spending time in the Chicago Public School systems and the Illinois Federal School system.


13:00 minute: I remember a study from a while back that showed if I’m remembering correctly that the results of gifted students was shown to be in large part driven by the way they were told they were gifted and they were smart, that it was a big driver of their performance. In special education what role does raising the expectations of the students play in to their ability to learn?

  • An open mindset vs a closed or fixed mindset matters in a really significant way.
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy that has been studied repeatedly.

14:00 minute: Can you explain what you mean by this open mindset vs fixed mindset?

  • Fixed is you come with a set of assumptions.
  • Growth you say, “what path do I need to take to get from here to there.”
  • Administrations need to be thinking and finding those paths for the students.

16:20 minute: You made the big shift from teaching to administration, what was that experience like for you? More difficult than you expected to impact change?

  • The transition wasn’t difficult, that came over the next 20 years of pushing a message of ownership up the chain and change people’s perceptions.
  • Examples of battles fought for many types of marginalized groups.
  • Has always kept the student in mind first.

20:20 minute: In a place like a Chicago with so many people and so many competing interests yet limited resources, how do we make sure that students are able to get the kind of individual attention they need?

  • She found that a lot of people were more worried about protecting their job than helping the students.
  • A tough reality that your zip code in a place like Chicago decided what type of education you got.
  • The business side of things matters so much in a school system the size of a Chicago.
  • Special education was generational and that had to be fought against.

23:45 minute: What do you think needs to change at a fundamental level in order to address these issues and move forward in a meaningful way?

  • Advocate for the K-12 system to change. Not to say it is wrong, but the, “is it this or is it this”, needs to change, needs to be more fluid and nimble.
  • “Children, the way they are coming to school   they are not the same type of student that the adult standing in front of them is expecting. Need to prepare for the new generation and the one after that.”

25:00 minute: Explain what you mean by the expectation of who the students are being wrong?

  • Generational differences.
  • The step by step of k-12 and the rigidness of it not working.

26:00 minute: Are these some of the reasons you left administration and started your own consulting practice?

  • Saw such disparities in education and opportunity while working in Chicago.
  • Her work is now grounded in the principles of social justice. Transforming national, state, and local education agencies, institutes of higher education, and nonprofits from deficit-based systems into equity-focused holistic organizations.

27:30 minute: Part of your company is focused on the business sector and how they can create growth minded organizational culture, can you explain what that is and how businesses can move towards it?

  • Sharing of experiences with many types of organizations.
  • Showing businesses that the education piece matters to better their own business interests in the future.
  • Examples of cities that are doing some positive things.

32:20 minute: I know one other thing you are working on is writing a children’s book, could you tell us a little about that?

  • Ida Finds Her Voice – Ida named after Ida Wells of Chicago.
  • Overview of the lessons included in the book.
  • Getting it funded through kickstarter that should be live in March.

36:30 minute: Who has been the most impactful person in your journey to do well and achieve financial success?

  • All the people who said she couldn’t do something and all the women who said she could do something.

37:00 minute: Who has been the most impactful person in feeding your drive to do good and make an impact?

  • Dr. Martin Luther King
  • Shirley Chisholm – the first African-American woman to be in congress.

37:20 minute: When you’re having a bad day, what do you do to get yourself out of the funk? Do you have any sort of regular personal development practice?

  • Meditate and exercise.
  • Look to a body of water, whether she can physically go there or mentally go there, look to the horizon because it’s at the horizon that all possibilities reside.

37:40 minute: What book do you find yourself recommending to people most often?

  • On the academic side, it would be John Dewey (link).
  • Book she keeps on her guest room’s nightstand to share with visitors is Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (link).
  • On a personal level, a recent favorite has been Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown (link).

What is the best piece of advice related to happiness that you’d give to my listeners?

  • “Follow your North Star. We each have a moral compass, but we have to tend to it. You can’t let your intellect override things, you know what’s right you know whats wrong. When you follow your North Star you might go into your wilderness at times, but you are going to come out a stronger person, a deeper person, because you will know yourself on a deeper level.”


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Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger


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Web Description:

Who is MAZON?

For more than 30 years, MAZON has been committed to ensuring that vulnerable people have access to the resources they need to be able to put food on the table. MAZON is a leading voice in Washington D.C. on anti-hunger issues, especially those that involve populations or problems that have been previously overlooked or ignored.

Why Advocacy?

Our nation’s public policies have lasting effects on the lives of millions of people. By promoting change through advocacy, MAZON seeks to ensure that our elected officials and policymakers understand and consider the needs of the millions of American men, women and children who struggle with hunger.

What We Do:

  • Work with policymakers to protect and strengthen federal nutrition programs like SNAP (food stamps) and school meals
  • Confront emerging issues that might otherwise go unaddressed within the national anti-hunger community
  • Educate communities across the country about the realities of hunger and what we can all do to end it
  • Partner with like-minded organizations to promote long-term solutions to improve ongoing challenges

Key Priority Areas:

In addition to engaging in broad-based advocacy to protect and strengthen the vital federal nutrition programs that help people put food on the table each day, MAZON prioritizes its efforts in the following areas:

  • Active duty military families & veterans
  • Senior citizens
  • Native Americans
  • Rural & remote communities
  • Nutrition & health


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About the author, Dorothy

Dorothy Illson is the founder of Needle's Eye Media, a full-service Facebook advertising agency. She's also the host of Do Well & Do Good, a podcast dedicated to telling the stories of people who have created financial success and leveraged it to increase their positive impact on the world.

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