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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Cage-Busting Leadership Through Coalition Building

By Guest Blogger — April 08, 2013 5 min read
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Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Dr. Eric Smith, former Florida Education Commissioner and emeritus member of Chiefs for Change. Chiefs for Change is a coalition of state school chiefs and leaders who are committed to putting children first through bold, visionary education reform to increase student achievement and prepare students for success in colleges and careers.

As our economy has evolved into a more interconnected and interdependent one and advances in technology have taken shape, we now live in one of the most exciting times in our nation’s history. Yet, America’s 19th-century education system has been left behind.

As state education leaders and reformers, we constantly seek the improvement of education. Our goals, generally speaking, are to raise student achievement and ensure all students are ready for college and career in a 21st-century economy.

While it is a noble cause, it’s also a daunting one. Our work is never done, especially as we see the number of kids that are left behind year after year. This is why Chiefs for Change came to be.

By working together, state education leaders have the opportunity to lead the nation in transforming education for the 21st century. Though the work of each individual state is important, building a coalition of cage-busting leaders is incrementally beneficial, not just to the individual states involved but to the national education landscape as well. In the dynamic and challenging times we live in, you can’t go it alone.

What started out with three chiefs - Tony Bennett from Indiana, Paul Pastorek from Louisiana, and me, Florida’s education commissioner at the time - meeting in a bi-partisan manner to collaborate and wade through the requirements for Race to the Top, culminated in five education chiefs coming together in November 2010 to formalize the newly-formed coalition. Today, the group is made up of 11 members representing eight diverse states - Florida, Louisiana, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Tennessee.

It is our belief in cage-busting leadership that led us to where we are today. Chiefs for Change is made up of state leaders who question the status quo every day and work tirelessly to bring about change for the betterment of all students. By talking regularly and challenging each other’s work, Chiefs for Change members provide each other much needed reflection on the policies and actions that matter most.

Though we may not always agree on everything, as Rick Hess points out in his new book, cage busting requires precision, and crisp definitions of problems and solutions. With that in mind, Chiefs for Change members apply a laser-like focus on improving academic achievement, closing achievement gaps between groups, and preparing all of our students for success in college and careers by adhering to the following guiding principles:

Recruit, Reward and Retain Excellent Teachers and Leaders
• A new compensation and support system that meets the modern-day needs of hiring, retaining and rewarding effective teachers and leaders should be adopted by all schools and districts regardless of zip code.
• Highly-effective teachers and leaders must be recognized, rewarded and supported based on their performance, rather than certification or credentials.
• Teachers and leaders must be evaluated primarily on student outcome data and growth, with an emphasis on closing achievement gaps.
• Ineffective teachers and principals must be removed.

Reward Excellence
• Teachers, schools, and districts must be rewarded for increasing student achievement and closing achievement gaps.
• As schools and districts meet academic targets and raise student achievement, they should earn flexibility and autonomy.

Replace Failure with Success
• Intense interventions must be provided for chronically low-performing schools.
• Failing schools cannot be permitted to shuffle along the road to improvement; schools must show demonstrable and sustained improvement or face closure.
• School and district funding and governance are key leverage points to turning around low-performing schools and districts.

High Academic Standards
• High standards should be the norm for all students across the nation.
• Standards should be benchmarked against international standards.
• Expectations should be measured against the highest achieving students, states and countries while systematically raising the bar.
• Graduation standards should ensure success in college and careers.

Transparent and Rigorous Accountability

• All schools must be accountable for the academic progress of all students.
• School accountability should measure student growth annually, ensure continuous improvement over time and focus attention on gap closing.
• Academic assessments should be sophisticated, rigorous and effective in measuring student achievement, and should provide useful and timely information to teachers and families.
• School accountability should incorporate tiered interventions based on school performance and student progress.
• School accountability should disaggregate student achievement data and effectively use that data to inform real time instruction and interventions.
• School rankings should categorize schools based on student outcomes and recognize excellence.
• School rankings and reports on student achievement should be transparent, clear and easily understood by parents and the public.

Viable Options for All Students

• All students should have the opportunity to attend an excellent school.
• Funding should follow the student and allow for parents to decide what is best for their children.
• States should provide an expanded array of viable educational options for all students, including charter schools and digital learning opportunities.
• Funding and other policy incentives should be provided for rigorous, strategic and aligned digital learning options, specifically those that allow for customized, accelerated, student-centered learning.

By placing the interest of children above the well-being of its members, Chiefs for Change has taken on the entrenched practices that have long held back our education system - practices that have favored adults, instead of students. As we guest blog for Rick this week, we’ll share with you some of the successes of Chiefs for Change members.

- Dr. Eric Smith

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.