- We do far better when we trust our teachers and school leaders. In the ASD, we trust educators by giving them the power to make the decisions that matter most in schools—staffing, program, budget, and time. They are the ones—not I or any “central” administrator—making things happen in schools, and with the right structure in place, this cycle of fast learning and educator-led decision-making will continue. By removing the bureaucracy—and putting the power in the hands of non-profit school operators—we can eliminate the vicious cycle of the hard-charging superintendent needing to “reform” a central office once every three years.
- Autonomy cannot outpace talent. All of our schools in the ASD are given autonomy. The difference between the high performers and the struggling performers lies in the quality of the people leading and teaching. The only magic bullet in this work? Committed and talented people. So the big question for all of us is how we get and keep enough committed and talented people in our schools.
The current debate is off the mark, part 1. This experience has given us the opportunity to directly run a network of schools in Frayser, a challenged but very determined neighborhood in Memphis. We see the impact of poverty on kids and families there every single day, and there’s no question this makes living and learning more difficult. But we have also seen schools like Whitney Elementary—with a leader like Debra Broughton and a team of teachers who together have created an incredible culture—where our students are starting to make impressive gains. The fact that we see this happening in Frayser and other parts of Memphis, including in Shelby County’s impressive iZone schools, proves that schools in similar neighborhoods can achieve the same results. And it proves that all kids, in the right conditions supported by the the right team of adults, can achieve at high levels no matter their circumstances.
The “poverty trumps education” argument sells our educators, and more importantly, our kids way too short. And it is perhaps one of the most dangerous propositions that exists in our country today.
- The current debate is off the mark, part 2. Let’s just be real: achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment. I have seen this firsthand at YES Prep and now as the superintendent of the ASD. As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.
- It’s time for more high-performing charters to step up. These are agile, fast-learning organizations that get better faster than big bureaucracies. I applaud the charter operators who have stepped up to do the important and difficult work of neighborhood school turnaround. We need more organizations to follow their lead.
- Parents are not a part of this conversation, and they must be. I’ve spent plenty of time in “community” meetings where the voices of parents are shouted down by people who are not from the community, do not have kids attending a chronically under-performing school, and are simply hell-bent on defending the status quo. This is pure manipulation by those who are not in our parents’ shoes. We need to advocate for parents and make sure their voices—whether supportive or resistant—are heard at all times.
- And the last major lesson I’ve learned—this work can break your heart, literally and figuratively. Almost exactly a year ago, I suffered a heart attack. There is no surprise that this was the result of work-related stress. This work is incredibly hard. It is hard mentally, physically, and emotionally. The stakes are high. And we have a lot to prove—or disprove—in this country about what it means to educate ALL kids. I am committed to continuing this work and being part of an honest conversation about this, but now I think it is the right time to pass the baton to a new leader of the ASD. I am incredibly grateful to be joined in this work by a governor who supported me every step of the way, by Kevin Huffman who was kind enough to bring me here, by our commissioner, Candice McQueen, who has been gracious in her support, and by the local and national philanthropic community whose commitment to this work and to our kids is inspiring. I am lucky to work alongside the best team I have ever had the pleasure of working with, and with teachers and leaders across our schools who put the real heart into this work. And finally, a special note of gratitude to my friends and family in Frayser who gave us a chance and who have stuck with us through the ups and downs of this work. I hope we have made you proud of what we have built so far and that you are as hopeful as I am about the future of our kids. It is all of these relationships and great people in this work that make this decision so difficult. I will be leaving confident that Tennessee’s schools are better off today than when we began, but convinced that the work ahead requires fresh leadership committed to our shared goal: the very best education possible for every child in this great state.