Bright minds, big cities: Improving education starts with school leaders

April 30, 2014


The panelists for “Big City Education: We Know What Works, So Why Don’t We Do It?”included one former Cabinet official and other high-profile officeholders, but when it came down to advancing K-12 reform in America’s urban centers, the focus was on leaders in the schools.

There’s good reason to get high-quality human capital into the core of America’s urban schools where—as moderator Lowell Milken, founder and chairman of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET), pointed out—the impact can affect more than 70 million students.  On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, known as the Nation’s Report Card), students who can’t read or do math hover in the 40th percentile.  Reforming the system now “is timely and necessary,” Milken said.

But with the teaching profession faced with extraordinary attrition rates, how can schools retain capable professionals?  Ed Rendell, former Pennsylvania governor and Philadelphia mayor, revealed the “800-pound gorilla in the room: money.”  Armed with flexibility and competitive compensation, educators can prepare students well for the global economy.  “You make teachers kings of the world, you can compete with Finland,” he said. 

While monetary incentives may entice some to become teachers, Milken was quick to emphasize that “bringing teachers in for one to two years is not the answer.”  He created TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement ( as a comprehensive approach to advancing educator effectiveness and student achievement over the long haul.  The TAP System includes career advancement, professional development, educator evaluation and performance-based compensation.

Paul Vallas has made progress throughout his long career in school district leadership by instituting some of these principles.  Among his most important lessons from serving at the helm of schools in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans are to “present successful models, train ‘to the task,’ promote the best and brightest with additional responsibilities and pay for performance, and create strong leadership teams.”  The reforms have worked as far away as Chile, where Vallas helped 1,100 schools achieve meaningful results in reading and math after just one year.

However, Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles, emphasized that recruiting and sustaining the kind of talent needed in schools won’t happen without revamping antiquated and ineffective teacher evaluation systems, developing useful assessments for measuring performance and paying practitioners more.

It also won’t be successful, Anthony Miller and Rudolph Crew said, without effective execution of the strategies.  Miller, who discussed progress during his tenure as the deputy secretary of education and chief operating officer at the U.S. Department of Education, highlighted the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program.  Through a complete leadership turnaround, some of the nation’s lowest-performing schools showed the greatest improvement. 

Crew, former head of schools in New York City and Miami-Dade County, said it’s time to implement all of the strategies discussed, not just one.  “Hold systems accountable for stabilizing the situation so that best practices can flourish,” he said.  “We know how to make investments that produce real results.”   

 “This should be a plenary session,” Rendell said.  “Every financier here should listen to what works.”