What it Takes

Last week the National Bureau of Economic Research published two working papers about two reform initiatives my team and I put in place in the Dallas Independent School District while I was Superintendent there.[1] One paper showed conclusively the positive effects of the principal and teacher pay-for-performance evaluation system and their ongoing positive impact on student achievement. The other demonstrated the success of the “ACE” program in attracting and retaining highly effective teachers in hard-to-staff schools. While earlier analyses have similarly shown the success of these major reform initiatives, the latest NBER papers are the most scientific.

These reforms have been replicated across Texas: the ACE program has been adopted by dozens of districts, and the State funds a teacher incentive program that mirrors many of the elements of the Dallas pay-for-performance initiative. The achievement trajectory of hundreds of thousands of children has been changed by the innovative reforms my team implemented in Dallas.

But this cause for celebration is muted by my memory of that time and what it really took to make those changes. The working papers, numerous articles over the past few years, and a book written by Jim Terry can all describe how the programs were designed, the various aspects of the changes, and the data associated with their implementation, but rarely does anyone mention – mostly because they have no knowledge of – what it cost the leadership team and how it took true courage and leadership to keep the system focused on some future goal. No, I’m not talking about myself – I’m talking about the members of the cabinet, executive directors of feeder patterns, and principals.

Once, a pretty bad Board member convened a community and staff meeting at one of the high schools to rail against using achievement data to assess teacher effectiveness. She called the Deputy Superintendent and two other members of the Core Team to the stage and asked them to justify removing Black teachers based on some evaluation amidst boos and jeers from the audience (I wasn’t in attendance; if I had been, I would have stopped the public pillorying). Other leaders were castigated at Board meetings or in Board member’s offices (until, once I found out, I put a stop to it). Some leaders were called in by internal auditors and questioned about unrelated, trumped-up investigations.

And there was a lot more that I will outline one day, but the worst was the fact that several leaders who had supported the reforms and implemented them well in their school or feeder pattern were subsequently blacklisted. After I left Dallas, they were passed over for promotion or forced to resign. Others would have a hard time getting a high-level job: they were associated with tough, controversial reforms, so search firms and school boards did not even consider their applications.

To the leaders of Dallas who implemented those changes, I apologize for the things you had to endure and for the sacrifices you made.

To anyone in our profession who has ever paid a high price for implementing change, I applaud your courage also. The sad part is that these types of courageous leaders are way too few in number.

Unfortunately, most district leaders are way too worried about their careers and future job prospects to really break the status quo; board members are way too worried about any noise from their constituents. There is little vision and little appetite for true systemic reform, the effects of which might not be noticed for a couple of years.

Leadership and courage have always been a necessary ingredient of true progress. But we cannot ask too much of normal people – people who have families and who still have many years to build their careers. We need to support young leaders, and we need to continually remind the staff and the public what reform really takes.

For me, it is enough to know that what we did in Dallas really did make a huge difference for children and continues to do so. For others – how about we acknowledge their sacrifice and reward them when we can.

[1] Eric Hanushek, Jin Luo, Andrew Morgan, Minh Nguyen, Ben Ost, Steven Rivkin, and Ayman Shakeel, “The Effects of Comprehensive Educator Evaluation And Pay Reform on Achievement,” March 2023, National Bureau of Economic Research, and, Andrew Morgan, Minh Nguyen, Eric Hanushek, Ben Ost, and Steven Rivkin, “Attracting and Retaining Highly Effective Educators in Hard-to-Staff Schools,” March 2023, National Bureau of Economic Research.

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