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Education Opinion

Chiefs for Change

By Rick Hess — December 03, 2010 3 min read
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On Tuesday, five of my favorite state education chiefs launched a new outfit called “Chiefs for Change” (CFC) at Jeb Bush’s Excellence in Action National Summit. The five: Louisiana’s Paul Pastorek, Indiana’s Tony Bennett, Florida’s Eric Smith, Rhode Island’s Deb Gist, and Virginia’s Gerard Robinson. In a “Roadmap to Excellent Education” that’s being released a bit later today, the five embrace six principles of reform:

• Recruit, Reward, and Retain Excellent Teachers and Leaders
• Reward Excellence
• Replace Failure with Success
• High Academic Standards
• Transparent and Rigorous Accountability
• Viable Options for All Students

Nothing here that readers of RHSU haven’t seen many times, but we’ve rarely, if ever, seen a bunch of respected state chiefs publicly embrace incentives and reinvention in this kind of blunt language.

The Roadmap calls for a “compensation and support system that meets the modern-day needs of hiring, retaining and rewarding effective teachers and leaders,” says “highly effective teachers and leaders must be recognized, rewarded and supported based on their performance,” and declares that “ineffective teachers and principals must be removed.” It says, “Teachers, schools, and districts must be rewarded for increasing student achievement,” “funding should follow the student and allow for parents to decide what is best for their child,” and “an expanded array of viable educational options for all students [should include] charter schools and digital learning opportunities.”

Usually you’ve got to crack Ed Unbound or The Same Thing Over and Over to find language like that.

Now, one interesting wrinkle for those of us who’ve been at this for a while. This bipartisan group immediately reminded several old hands of the Education Leaders Council (ELC) from the late 1990s. The ELC was a group of conservative state chiefs committed to dramatic school reform. There are some telling differences, though, which speak to the opportunity that CFC represents.

The ELC was an attempt by conservative state chiefs, particularly Arizona’s Lisa Graham Keegan and Pennsylvania’s Gene Hickok, to take on a Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) that was deemed hostile to reform. The ELC was originally envisioned as a rival to the CCSSO. Today, the situation is real different. Under the savvy guidance of Gene Wilhoit, CCSSO is seen as a smart, forward-looking outfit--albeit one that must wrestle with all the headaches that bedevil any membership organization (most significantly, the problem that they can only go as fast as the slowest ship in the convoy).

The CFC five have made it real clear that, unlike ELC, they’re not interested in withdrawing from CCSSO. They’re a bipartisan crew and have stated that this isn’t a left-right thing--reminding us how different the education debates are in the era of Democrats for Education Reform than they were a decade ago. The five have a good relationship with Wilhoit, gave him a head’s up, and took care in their launch to signal their regard for CCSSO--but to also argue that those chiefs eager to push the bounds of reform need a vehicle of their own. I think there’s serious potential here. The challenge with any membership organization like CCSSO is the reality that slackers, fumblers, and bad apples slow things down and frustrate the alpha dogs.

These respected, dynamic state chiefs will be able to give voice, shape, and legitimacy to visions of change that might startle their more timid brethren. They’ll have the chance to push CCSSO from outside, to stretch notions of what kinds of reform are “viable,” and to provide cover for Wilhoit to herd his cats more aggressively.

The key will be for these guys to stick to their pledge to be lean and mean, to focus on being field-tested voices for reform, and to find ways to leverage their insights rather than become one more nascent bureaucracy.

It’s easy for efforts like this to go south. So, here’s to hoping that these folks live up to their potential. Good luck to ‘em.

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.