On the third floor of the school district’s central office here in Duval County, Fla., is a windowless room where the walls are covered with charts. Data on student performance, paycheck processing, energy usage, maintenance requests, and a host of other indicators are held neatly with a set of white pushpins.
Officially, it’s called Mission Control, but nearly everyone calls it the War Room. Few places in the district better symbolize the tactical approach to management pursued by John C. Fryer, the retired U.S. Air Force major general who has served as the superintendent for the past seven years.
“It’s to drive all of our people to be disciplined about connecting their daily work to strategic goals,” he said in explaining the room. “And to benchmark themselves against best practices.”
Mr. Fryer’s tenure, which is to end with his retirement this week at age 64, stands out amid the mixed results of the handful of large districts that have hired former military leaders as superintendents. By most accounts, the one-time commandant of the National War College has succeeded in bringing a laser-like focus on academic standards to the 128,000-student Duval County system.
Help for Teachers
While learning enough about instruction to hold his own with career educators, he built a districtwide system of school improvement based on staff training and data-driven decisionmaking. The goal has been to help teachers better recognize when students have mastered what they’re expected to learn, and to know what to do when they haven’t.
Test scores for African-American students, who make up 43 percent of the district’s enrollment, are up in every grade tested since Mr. Fryer arrived in 1998. The biggest gains are in elementary school, where the percentage of black students scoring at the proficient level on state exams in mathematics has gone from the single digits to as high as 40 percent.
Mr. Fryer’s success has drawn praise from outside the state. A review of the district in 2002 by the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools called it “one of the best-run big city public school systems in the country.”
The Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement, which runs an executive-training program for district leaders, now takes participants on regular bus tours of the Duval system.
“Sometimes, I think in education we think of instructional leadership, and we don’t focus on organizational development,” said Deb Page, the executive director of the Atlanta-based Georgia leadership institute. “[Mr. Fryer] does a good job of helping people realize how to recognize what the big ideas need to be in their organizations, and then figure out how to manage the execution of it.”
Power of Persuasion
A sign outside Mr. Fryer’s office reads “Chief Learner.” He’s a speed reader who consumes books on leadership and student learning, and he challenges his employees to do the same. Often, he coaxes authors to come to the district to give talks. A joke here is that, with his departure, staff members can go back to reading trashy novels.
Of the many books he read in preparation for his job, the one that resonated most was Standards for Our Schools, published in 1998, by Marc S. Tucker and Judy B. Codding, who head the National Center on Education and the Economy, a research organization in Washington. Their idea of performance standards rang true for someone from the military, where people are trained to perform clearly defined tasks.
The superintendent divided the district’s work into five areas, which came to be called the “High Five”: student achievement; safety and discipline; professional learning based on collaboration; operations management; and accountability systems.
In driving improvement in those areas, Mr. Fryer has often favored consensus-building over giving orders. He notes that the curriculum at the National War College, which he headed in the early 1990s, is less about commanding and more about teamwork. Based at Fort McNair in Washington, the institution trains senior military officials and diplomats in national-security strategy.
“At the top of the list of critical abilities for a leader is the ability to persuade,” said Mr. Fryer, who speaks with relaxed self-assuredness. “You have to get people excited about where you want to go.”
Early in his first year here, he made the case for change by asking teachers throughout the district to evaluate examples of student writing. The exercise showed little agreement on which students had performed adequately.
Rather than conquer the whole district at once, the retired military leader established a beachhead. He recruited 14 schools to adopt America’s Choice, the “whole school” improvement design created by the National Center on Education and the Economy at the same time that Standards for Our Schools came out.
The model includes extra time for literacy, on-site coaching for teachers, and a common understanding of the work that students should be able to produce.
By arranging for educators from across Duval County to visit the initial schools, Mr. Fryer persuaded another 49 buildings to employ the design in his second year. Now, all of the system’s 164 schools use key elements of the approach, such as teaching coaches.
The tactic reflects the superintendent’s view that while leaders should give clear guidance, they shouldn’t be too rigid. Mr. Fryer has put in place new, districtwide curricula and instructional-pacing guides. But he resisted the most prescriptive remedies, at one time going to battle with community leaders who wanted to require a highly scripted teaching program at some schools.
“I just thought it would dumb us all down,” he recalled. “It would just level us all off at one point, and we’d never get past that.”
A ‘Thinking Organization’
Instead, Mr. Fryer has put his faith in the power of professional development. He encouraged local business leaders and state officials to put up $9 million to build a high-tech training center, with two-way videoconferencing and wireless Internet, for teachers and administrators. He overhauled the district’s leadership development to focus on instruction instead of management.
One of the most important tools initiated on his watch is the district’s data-tracking system. Designed with the help of a principal, it lets educators analyze changes in their students’ performance on assessments that are given districtwide three times a year. Schools across the district have used the system to set up their own war rooms, similar to the one at the central office.
“We have become much more of a thinking organization than we ever were before,” said Elaine Mann, one of six regional superintendents who serve under Mr. Fryer. “We certainly are more data-conscious, and we have become more proficient at figuring out what strategies really work to help kids move forward.”
In seeking buy-in and building a system of continuous improvement, Mr. Fryer moved too slowly for some. A wide performance gap remains between black and white students, and in some subjects and grade levels, it has widened in recent years.
“I don’t believe people can afford to wait while we fine-tune our system,” said Brenda Priestly Jackson, the vice chairwoman of the Duval County school board.
But for the most part, Mr. Fryer has won over early skeptics. The school board didn’t set out to hire a noneducator when it sought a superintendent in 1998. But Mr. Fryer, inspired by John Stanford—the retired U.S. Army general who became superintendent in Seattle—persuaded the panel to give him a shot.
“The challenge, when you change a system this large, is how fast and how far you can go before you break the system,” said Nancy Broner, the school board’s chairwoman. “I think John [Fryer] has always been conscious of that. He tried not to overdo it, and yet kept pushing.”
Mr. Fryer, who successfully battled prostate cancer during his superintendency, said he wanted to leave on a high note. (In contrast, his predecessor left when his contract was bought out by a highly fractious school board.)
Judging by the many people who have stopped him at restaurants and other local venues to thank him in his last weeks, that seems to be the case. As he ends his “tour”—as he calls it—he’s optimistic that the district is on the right course.
Said the retired general: “If you have smart people, and they know where they’re going, then in the fog and friction of war, they’ll get you there.”
Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org