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Rick Hess Straight Up

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

Education Opinion

Straight Up Conversation: Chiefs for Change COO Julia Rafal-Baer

By Rick Hess — September 27, 2018 9 min read

Julia Rafal-Baer is the COO of Chiefs for Change, a national network that includes 31 state chiefs and district superintendents from across 17 states. Previously, Julia served as assistant commissioner at the New York State Education Department. She holds a Ph.D. in comparative education policy from the University of Cambridge, where she was a Marshall Scholar. I recently had the chance to chat with Julia about Chiefs for Change and the landscape of educational leadership. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick Hess: So Julia, what is Chiefs for Change? How did it get started?

Julia Rafal-Baer: Chiefs for Change is a nonprofit, bipartisan network of diverse state and district education chiefs who are guided by a student-focused agenda and are deeply dedicated to providing all children with a high-quality education. Our members lead education systems that collectively serve approximately 7 million students and employ 435,000 teachers in 14,000 schools. We currently have 31 members, 22 of whom are actively serving as chiefs—13 as district chiefs and 9 as state chiefs. Our founding chiefs came together out of a desire to learn from, build on, and support each other in their collective mission to prepare all students for college and careers.

RH: For someone who isn’t familiar with Chiefs, what are the kinds of things you focus on? Is this mostly about networking, professional development, policy advocacy, or . . .?

JRB: We’re a community of leaders focused on advocacy and grooming the next generation of education systems leaders. Each summer at our annual meeting, members discuss key education issues and establish an advocacy and policy strategy for the coming year. We then work to support their efforts to advocate for policies and practices they believe will have the greatest impact on students. In addition, we partner with our members to prepare emerging education systems leaders—our Future Chiefs—to ensure the best work only gets better as leadership transitions from one generation to the next.

RH: How do you make the case for the value of a group like Chiefs for Change in a metrics-fueled era? Is it challenging to explain why this kind of organization is important?

JRB: I think there are many ways we demonstrate impact but let me give you an example related to our advocacy work. One of our core beliefs is that children should be free to learn, free from fear. When the White House rescinded protections for young people covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, we responded quickly and forcefully. Several of our members wrote op-eds about the importance of the protections, and we held a national press conference to express our views. It received widespread coverage in high-profile outlets. After reflecting on that advocacy campaign, our members decided at our annual meeting in early August that they want to expand our advocacy in this area, and we are now developing a strategy and strategic partnerships to accomplish their goals.

RH: Besides your work on DACA, what would you say are the one or two most significant things that Chiefs for Change has accomplished?

JRB: The first that comes to mind is the workgroup we initially put together when the Every Student Succeeds Act, ESSA, became law. After our members told us that such a group would be valuable, I partnered with former Tennessee commissioner Kevin Huffman, who became our Chief in Residence, to create a space for chiefs from across the country to have meaningful, informed discussions about how they might best use the opportunities in ESSA. Those who participated in the workgroup had the highest-rated ESSA plans in the country, with scores that were 25 percent higher than the average, according to independent reviewers. I am also proud of the work we have done with our Future Chiefs program to build coaching trees that lead to sustained leadership. In states and districts where Chiefs for Change members have been at the helm for more than a decade, students are making strong academic progress: Results have grown more than 2.9 times faster than the national average in math and 1.8 times faster in reading. Graduation rates and the number of students passing Advanced Placement exams are also improving more quickly.

RH: Okay, but how much faith should observers have in these types of things? A skeptic might say that the entities rating ESSA plans are predisposed to like what your members are doing, and are even funded by many of the same foundations—and so any ratings should be taken with a grain of salt. And they might ask whether the achievement gains you note are due uniquely to your members—or perhaps more to stability, local enabling conditions, and small sample size. How do you answer such concerns?

JRB: The people involved in these processes are smart and ethical. We believe the independent reviews are a fair process, and the people who agreed to participate are national experts. In terms of the achievement gains, these data are the best we have and, all things considered, we are confident that our members have taken the best evidence-based approach to policy.

RH: How much of this is informed by your personal experience? You came to Chiefs after spending time in New York working with state chiefs David Steiner and John King, both of whom had big agendas and encountered their share of challenges. What did you learn along the way?

JRB: David and John are two of the most brilliant leaders I’ve ever encountered. I’ve never known leaders so committed to excellence. With John, I also watched up close the incredible additional challenges that a leader of color faces in a chief role, particularly in a state as complex as New York. Those experiences shape all that I do with our Future Chiefs. From the day you start those jobs, it’s what you choose to prioritize with the time you have that matters. And as John would say, ultimately, the measure of our work will be, “Did we change outcomes for kids?” Millions of people are better off as a result of John’s and David’s leadership, and I am grateful I had the experience of supporting them.

RH: A few years ago, the Chiefs launched a “Future Chiefs” program. You’ve touched on this a bit already, but can you say a bit more about how the program works?

JRB: This work started because we believe that leading a state or large urban school system is one of the most important and complex jobs in America, yet there’s little practical preparation for the role. As a consequence, too many leaders are forced to learn on the job, at real cost to the thousands or even millions of students and families they serve. For that reason, our team operates a one-year cohort-based Future Chiefs program that grooms diverse emerging leaders for chief-level roles. Using a robust curriculum designed and informed by the most effective chiefs in the country, the program provides in-person and virtual training sessions, learning experiences, and placement supports. The design of the program is focused on providing highly customized and individualized supports facilitated by a seasoned practitioner who meets with the cohort four times a year. Participants also meet with a rotation of three Chiefs for Change members during their in-person sessions, and each Future Chief is paired up with at least one sitting member for job shadowing opportunities during their experience.

RH: And what’s your sense of the results to date?

JRB: People who have participated in our Future Chiefs program have told us it played an important role in helping them prepare for their next job. Fifty percent of our Future Chiefs have been promoted, and roughly a third are serving in chief roles. Those people who took part in the program and have gone on to become chiefs now lead systems serving nearly a million students and oversee budgets of more than ten billion dollars. Two of the top ten largest districts in the country are now led by people who were members of the Future Chiefs program. If you know any exceptional aspiring system leaders interested in participating in Cohort 4 of Future Chiefs, please send them my way or tell them to apply via the Chiefs for Change website.

RH: When you’re selecting cohorts of Future Chiefs, I know you emphasize “diverse” educational leadership. But that word, of course, can mean different things. In education today, diversity tends to refer to questions of race and ethnicity. Is that how you’re thinking about it?

JRB: We think about diversity more broadly, and we truly believe our strength is the breadth of experiences and vantage points of our members and Future Chiefs. In addition to race and ethnicity, we also look to have gender, political, and geographic diversity. We’ve achieved diversity along each of these lines of difference for all three cohorts of Future Chiefs. As for our membership of current chiefs, we’ve always had political and geographic diversity, and the percentages of our members who are women or people of color exceed the percentages in American education leadership as a whole.

RH: What qualities are you looking for when you’re selecting Future Chiefs?

JRB: We look for bold and innovative state and district education leaders who are already hard at work transforming our nation’s schools and who are one or two steps away from becoming a chief. Our ideal candidate has broad-based senior leadership experience and a track record of success, demonstrates strong alignment to Chiefs for Change member beliefs, and clearly articulates the goal of becoming a state or district chief within the next one to two years. At least 75 percent of each cohort are leaders of color, at least 50 percent are women, and the cohorts represent political and geographic diversity across the country.

RH: In training these leaders, who are a couple of the thinkers that you have found especially useful? Are there particular books or bodies of work that other leaders should be sure to check out?

JRB: Ron Heifitz is great, and his work on adaptive leadership undergirds much of our work. Atul Gawande, who is a surgeon and writer for the New Yorker, has used important ideas from medical practice to demonstrate the need for coaching and checklists. His thoughts have definitely had an impact on our leadership development work. Jerry Muller, author of The Tyranny of Metrics, has excellent ideas on how to help leaders think about what to measure to determine whether they are making progress. And, of course, my personal favorite is your book Cage-Busting Leadership—everyone should check out that one!

RH: Hah! Yeah, well that now feels like I was fishing for compliments . . . But really appreciate it. Anyway, with that, let me ask you one final question. As you look across the field of educational leadership today, what gives you cause for optimism? And what do you find disconcerting or troubling?

JRB: As a country, I think we have a long way to go in valuing and supporting effective leadership pipelines in education. We’re certainly nowhere near the position other industries and fields are in to fill leadership vacancies and to build deep benches. In business, sports, and the military, succession planning is understood as critical. But for the very top leadership in our schools—essential to the future of our children and our economy—succession planning is haphazard at best. This work is incredibly important; I’m proud of how far we’ve come to build a pipeline of well-prepared education leaders who are ready for the job, and I’m grateful for all the support we’ve received as we continue to strengthen education leadership pipelines for students.

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.


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