Education Opinion

Young Education Leader: Crystal Harmon

By Sara Mead — June 19, 2013 7 min read
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Talent matters. That seems like an obvious statement, but for much of its history our public education system failed to identify, prioritize, or value talent in a meaningful way. No organization has done more to shed light on this failure--or to try to change it--than TNTP. Their seminal 2009 report The Widget Effect highlighted the ways in which our education system ignores differences in teacher performance and quality, and the consequences of that for students. TNTP also works with school districts to redesign their approaches to human capital to prioritize effective teaching and improve outcomes for students. As a Vice President with TNTP, Crystal Harmon plays a critical role in this work, overseeing large, multi-year partnerships with districts and capturing and sharing knowledge from TNTP’s work on the ground. Raised in Pittsburgh, Harmon earned a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Pittsburgh and a Master’s of Arts in Teaching from Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Madison, New Jersey, with her husband and two sons.

You oversee TNTP’s Performance Management Group--what does that mean you do on a day to day basis?
At TNTP I get to work with amazing people to address a critical question: What structures and systems need to change to ensure kids in high-poverty and high-needs schools consistently get access to great teachers? With our Performance Management work we want to show that strategically managing teacher effectiveness (through smart policies and practices around recruitment, evaluation, compensation, professional development and retention) improves outcomes for kids.

The teams I oversee get at that work in a couple different ways. One of them manages our major, multi-year partnerships with large districts (currently Houston and Memphis) to implement comprehensive reforms--essentially, helping these districts reorganize themselves around effective teaching. We call them our Foundations of Teacher Excellence projects. Another team is more internal and focuses on capturing and sharing emerging knowledge from our work and providing data analysis support and other expertise to our staff across the country. Since we’re a virtual organization, with people all over, this can be a real challenge. Sharing our learnings in real time helps us do better work, faster.

On any given day you can find me on-site in Memphis or Houston or at my home office in New Jersey. I spend a lot of the time on the phone and in meetings, often engaged in really inspiring conversations about how we can work with our district partners to make the biggest difference for kids. I also spend a lot of time thinking about and managing the 50 or so staff members I oversee. We need talented people to do this work, so hiring, growing and keeping them is a huge priority for me.

What are some of the things you’re proudest to have accomplished in that role?
I’m most proud of the people I work with every day, both district leadership in Memphis and Houston who are working with us to push through some really innovative and exciting initiatives, and the staff on my teams, who are nothing short of amazing. The commitment they show to ensuring all kids have great teachers is exceptional. They work long, hard hours to get the work done and they don’t settle for anything less than results. I’m most proud of them.

What are some of the biggest challenges of this type of work?
I think the biggest challenge is the slow pace of real change. I want to see students in high-needs schools making incredible gains; I want to see graduation rates jumping from 60% to 95%. I don’t want a parent’s zip code to determine the quality of their child’s education. With every year that goes by, we’re cheating millions of students of the chance they deserve to succeed. But doing something meaningful about that often means shifting deeply rooted cultures and practices, which takes tremendous focus and persistence. Change takes time, but that’s a difficult reality to stomach.

What do you think of the recent wave of state and district work to adopt new evaluation systems?
It’s movement in the right direction, and I think the potential is astounding. Without great teachers, we won’t be able to ensure that our students are not just catching up with their peers in other countries but actually surging ahead. Meaningful evaluation practices ensure teachers get substantive feedback so they can hone their craft. They tell us who our best teachers are so we can recognize them, reward them, and expand their reach to more students. They define a bar for excellent instruction that has the potential to improve student outcomes with far-reaching effects for the American workforce and economy.
But an evaluation model alone won’t get us anywhere, especially if it’s implemented in isolation from everything else happening in a district. Evaluation needs to be thoughtfully executed and integrated into other initiatives, such as the adoption of the Common Core standards. Districts need to realign themselves as dynamic organizations focused on the quality of talent across all departments and at every level. Implementing a meaningful evaluation system is an important first step in a much longer process of reimagining the way we think about talent in our schools--how we get more kids in front of the best teachers, how we set and hold high standards for performance for everyone, how we keep our Irreplaceables. I really applaud the districts and states that have taken bold action here. Their work isn’t over - maintaining and evolving an effective evaluation system takes ongoing refection and refining. But they are leading the way, both for change in their own communities and for districts across the country.

What do you see as the most important challenges/needs related to human capital in education?
There are so many innovative reforms happening across the United States at the state, district and school level. If we want to see real results then we need to take these efforts to scale, and for districts to take a truly comprehensive approach to reform. We need to make sure every district central office has the people, policies and structures in place to support their schools, focus on student results, and hold everyone accountable to incredibly high standards. Kids deserve nothing less.

How did you come to work in education?
I taught first grade through Teach For America in Baltimore City. From my first day in the classroom, they had me. I knew I had found my place in the workforce and that I would spend my career working to give all students a fair shot. TFA helped me find TNTP, a place that has felt like home for almost nine years.

Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?
I’ve been very fortunate to work with some incredible people at TNTP, including my boss, Dan Weisberg, who pushes me and my team to be bold and relentless. But the person who has shaped my professional life the most is my dad. I grew up in a home with really loving parents, and a father who worked tirelessly to take care of our family. He taught me to work incredibly hard and that the things in life worth doing aren’t usually easy. My work in education is grounded in the belief that mediocre isn’t good enough, and I got that from him.

What do you hope to be doing 5-10 years from now? What do you hope to have accomplished?
I’m in this for the long haul. We’re making progress, but the achievement gap won’t close overnight. In five years I think we’ll still be working to improve outcomes for students by refining many of the reforms we’re working on today. But in 10 years I have great confidence that we’ll be educating students in new ways. I think we’ll be moving away from the standard education that we all experienced (one teacher in a room, standing in front of 25 kids), and experimenting with new possibilities. And I’ll be doing my best to tackle education’s thorniest challenges wherever I’m needed most, whether that’s working in a district or leading our work at TNTP.

What interests do you have outside of work?
I have two amazing little boys. Noah, 5 and Zachary, 2. Every moment I’m not working I try to spend with them and my husband, Tal. I’m teaching Noah to ski, one of my favorite activities. When I can sneak away I either go for a run or drop in on a kickboxing class. I also love to cook and I’m obsessed with all of the competitive cooking shows - Iron Chef America, Chopped and Top Chef.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook 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.