School & District Management

Glimpses of Poverty Lead Administrator to Education

By Catherine Gewertz — May 21, 2013 3 min read
Brian Pick, chief of teaching and learning for District of Columbia Schools, visits a 2nd grade classroom at Neval Thomas Elementary School in Southeast Washington.
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Brian Pick
Age 32 | District of Columbia Public Schools
Chief of Teaching and Learning

It was the contrast that hit Brian Pick hard: There he was, a Princeton University junior from a comfortable Chicago suburb, visiting a high school in beleaguered Newark, N.J. The students there were only four years younger than he was, but they’d had little of the good fortune that had opened Ivy League doors for him.

He saw another version of that gap when his undergraduate work led him to teach 3rd graders in the state’s capital, Trenton, about acid rain, and to study in Capetown, South Africa.

“I saw poverty like I’d never seen poverty before,” Mr. Pick recalls. “Those experiences planted the seed in my head of going into education, working with students, particularly in urban areas, who were not afforded the opportunities I was growing up.”

That’s what led him to apply to Teach For America after he’d earned his bachelor’s degree. He taught 2nd grade in San Jose, Calif., for two years, while getting his teaching certificate at San Jose State University. He loved his school and the immigrant community it served, and “made a fool” of himself deploying his high school Spanish to talk with parents.

Part of him longed to stay in the classroom. But he was also drawn to school leadership, so he enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley, to earn a master’s degree in public policy. He immersed himself in courses at the nexus of education, law, leadership, and public policy.

While in graduate school, he kept a hand in real-world education, too. He worked on middle school reconfiguration for a local district in California, helped a small-schools nonprofit in Oakland write a plan for a new school, and supervised an after-school program for 4th and 5th graders in another Bay Area community.

At a TFA reunion, he would meet fellow alumnus David Silver, who had started an Oakland elementary school called Think College Now. Mr. Pick would spend four years there as a classroom and after-school teacher.

While studying at Berkeley, Mr. Pick worked summer education jobs in Washington. He studied teacher quality at the Education Trust, foreshadowing the issue’s rise on the national radar, and was in the first District of Columbia cohort of Education Pioneers, an alternative-route school leadership program.

By the time he completed that program, in 2007, Michelle A. Rhee had become the chancellor of the District of Columbia schools. He knew her deputy, Kaya Henderson, from his time working to open an elementary school for DC Prep Charter School, where Ms. Henderson had been on the board. He had been working at Think College Now, but left in 2008 to follow his partner to Washington. Fascinated by history and politics, Mr. Pick had always wanted to live in the nation’s capital.

As he was looking for work, Ms. Henderson recruited him. He ended up joining Ms. Rhee’s team as a project analyst in fall 2008. Within a few months, he was working with Ms. Henderson to develop the school district’s signature initiative: its teaching and learning framework and teacher-evaluation system.

On a tight timeline, it became an intensive seminar: “reading every report possible"; interviewing teachers, administrators, superintendents, and outside experts; and planning for the ripple effects the system would have on curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

By June 2011, Ms. Henderson had become chancellor, and Mr. Pick was named deputy chief academic officer for curriculum and instruction. In that capacity, he supervised the development of the district’s model curriculum, and its system of interim assessments, professional development, and instructional coaching, to align with the new Common Core State Standards.

His work earned him the Council of the Great City Schools’ 2012 award for curriculum leadership. He became the school district’s teaching and learning chief in February.

The District of Columbia’s theory of action turns on creating a rich bank of instructional resources that teachers can adapt as they see fit to help students reach proficiency on interim and end-of-year tests.

That choice was informed, in part, by feedback from school leaders, coaches, and teachers, who said they wanted supports like model units and aligned interim assessments, and daily lesson plans, but not scripted daily plans, Mr. Pick says.

As a result, strict programmatic adherence is required in few places in the district, mostly in literacy interventions and elementary-level phonics programs.

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Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Brian Pick

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