Professional Development

New State Chiefs’ Group Vows ‘Aggressive’ Agenda

By Catherine Gewertz — December 07, 2010 3 min read
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The education chiefs of five states have created a new group to press what they call an “aggressive” policy agenda topped by school choice and performance-driven evaluations for teachers and principals.

Unveiling the new group, Chiefs for Change, on Nov. 30 were its founding members: Tony Bennett of Indiana, Deborah A. Gist of Rhode Island, Paul Pastorek of Louisiana, Gerard Robinson of Virginia, and Eric J. Smith of Florida.

They made the announcement at the national summit of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group headed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has agreed to provide the new group with financial and staff support.

The five chiefs said that even though they work on important policy issues through the Council of Chief State School Officers, a Washington-based group whose members include the education leaders of every state, they felt the need to push a subset of policies through a separate group.

Mr. Pastorek said he and the other founding members want to “set ourselves apart and pursue a much more aggressive path toward success.” The group’s agenda isn’t a partisan one, he said, but a “cutting-edge, pushing-the-envelope way of putting children at the top of all of our decisions.”

Diverse Political Paths

The five chiefs come from differing political contexts. Mr. Bennett was elected to his post. Mr. Smith and Mr. Robinson were appointed by Republican governors. Ms. Gist and Mr. Pastorek were appointed by their states’ boards of education.

The policymakers put a handful of issues at the top of their agenda: “value added” evaluations for teachers and principals; more-rigorous accountability systems based not on inputs but results; raising academic standards, and expanding school choice.

But they noted that they don’t walk in lock step on the choice issue. They all agree that students should have more charter and virtual school options, but some of the five “may not go as far as others” on other forms of choice, Mr. Pastorek said, an apparent reference to vouchers.

The members of the new group said they are talking with other chiefs about joining their effort, but declined to give details.

Responding to the formation of the new group, CCSSO Executive Director Gene Wilhoit said in an e-mail that he was “pleased to see states coming together, again and again, to develop innovative solutions to complicated problems.” He added that “all our members are committed to education reform that dramatically reshapes American public education.”

In a panel discussion at the summit, the five founders were hailed as role models of strong education leadership in their states. The work they described captured both the spirit behind their new group and the framing principles of the foundation that helped them launch.

Mr. Bennett, who is overseeing the implementation of an A-to-F grading system for Indiana’s schools, said that such changes in accountability are “only the first step” in tackling deep-rooted problems in his state. He showed a chart of interlocking boxes, each containing an education problem, such as an antiquated teacher- tenure system and a persistent achievement gap. At the center of the chart was the large title, “Indiana’s Education Mess.”

“We are of the mind that to fix Indiana’s mess, you have to have a comprehensive education reform package,” he told the 500-plus attendees, who included state lawmakers, educators, activists and former governors. “If you are not going to go after three or four pillars ... that really address the cornerstones of that mess, you will not clean up that mess in your state.”

Ms. Gist discussed her work to base teacher staffing decisions on educators’ qualifications instead of their seniority. Mr. Robinson, whose state has put a premium on expanding digital learning, urged state leaders to ramp up their focus on that “wave of the future.” Mr. Pastorek recounted how the “monopolies” that kept New Orleans schools dysfunctional were broken up after Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Smith described how Florida is allowing more freedom for high-performing schools and intervening more assertively in those that are lagging.

This isn’t the first time that some chiefs within the CCSSO have formed their own organization. The Education Leaders Council formed in 1995 to pursue a more conservative education policy agenda. But it grappled with management issues such as the finding, by federal investigators, that it had misused a federal grant. That group re-formed as a school improvement organization six years ago. (See “Education Leaders Council Aims For New Start,” Jan. 5, 2005.)

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