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How Do We Foster Excellence?

Elliott Witney files his last entry for Bridging Differences today. Deborah will respond on Thursday, and a new co-blogger will join her next week.

Dear Deb,

As we close our exchange, I want to express gratitude for this opportunity. I've never done anything like this before, and I deeply appreciate your asking me to join this discussion. It has been particularly interesting and exciting to discover how much we agree on. I also want to thank Emily Gasoi for introducing us. When Emily and I first met in my office to discuss our respective educational philosophies, I pulled your book In Schools We Trust off my bookshelf. I feel fortunate that she made this connection.

In your last post, which I found to be particularly thought-provoking and hopeful, you took issue with what I characterized as the "great progress" we have made by growing the number of high-quality public schools that serve young people from predominantly low-income families.

When I referenced "great progress," I definitely didn't mean to imply that I think we're there yet in the world of education. We still face stubborn race and income-based achievement gaps. According the "A New Measure of Educational Success in Texas," "only one in five (about 20 percent) 8th grade students enrolled in Texas public schools completes any level of valid postsecondary credentialing (certificate or degree) within 11 years." For African-American and Hispanic students, the percentages are even lower.

While I stand by my statement that we have many more top-notch public schools educating underserved kids than existed 25 years ago, I don't believe that a successful classroom or school environment can be easily mass-produced. In a given day, teachers make thousands of large and small decisions—from what to wear to how to welcome students to how to structure their classroom lesson to what behaviors to address and which ones to ignore. The sum total of all those critical decisions helps to shape the unique identities of both classrooms and schools.

Now that we have classrooms and schools around the nation showing what's possible, we are liberated to ask different questions. We no longer need to ask, "Is it possible?" All educators have been liberated by proof that it is possible. We now can ask: "How?"

I have vivid memories of the first time that I visited a prestigious independent K-12 school—one I grew to admire and return to many times over the years. I observed 5th grade students tinkering with Lego robotics and 9th graders making musical instruments from wood during a physics class. My first reaction, to be completely honest, was "Man, these kids are so lucky." Then, I started to ask myself questions, including "How can I create this type of excellence at the school I lead?"

I returned to KIPP Academy Houston and asked our science department chairperson this question: "If money were no object, what would 'world-class science' look like at our school?" From there, we began a collaborative process of revamping our entire middle school science offerings. Five years after asking this question, KIPP Academy now has a Science & Engineering Day with 8th graders racing mousetrap cars and 7th graders competing to see whose Popsicle-stick bridges can sustain the most weight.

KIPP Academy experienced a similar transformation when our faculty studied the rigor and frequency of high-quality writing expected in elite independent schools. Once we asked ourselves, "How might we do something like this in our school," we were able to raise the bar for what we expected for student writing. Not much later, the level of thought and complexity in our average students' writing at KIPP Academy far exceeded the norm from five years ago. Although we still have a long way to go, we were able to raise the quality of student writing through changing our expectations and thinking differently about the "how."

I wanted to conclude with a response to your question about scaling models in public education. Should your Mission Hill school and the school I led be replicated? Replication is really hard work, but it is definitely possible. When I was principal of KIPP Academy, I had dozens of aspiring school founders complete one-month 'residencies' at my charter school. I have seen many of these educators go on to create public schools that are as good as, if not better than, the KIPP Academy I ran. These school principals have been able to achieve this by building strong leadership teams, hiring and nurturing talented teachers, and maintaining a culture of continuous improvement for children and adults.

I also have observed whole school districts pursue system-wide excellence. Spring Branch ISD in Houston (where I began working as an administrator last year) has adopted a single strategic goal and set of fundamental principles in the form of belief statements you will find here. Our single goal—like the report mentioned above—helps us align what we do as a system to what we ultimately want to see for our children. Our beliefs provide the underlying principles that help shape the entire system.

We believe that a great public school system: builds on the strengths and gifts of each child; provides students from poverty the same opportunities for success after high school as students from non-poverty homes; instills in every student the belief that they can achieve more than they think possible; and assures that every adult in the system is committed to the successful completion of some form of higher education for every child.

These beliefs guide everything in the system. Because we believe great school systems build on the strengths and gifts of each child, for example, we have robust extracurricular offerings in the arts and athletics. Spring Branch even offers students rich career and technical education programming through the Guthrie Center, including courses in agricultural science, forensic science, and the culinary arts.

Just like I borrowed great ideas from elite independent schools as a principal, I know your Mission Hill school has been a source of inspiration and innovation to educators all over the world—both for its programming and its philosophical underpinnings.

It is my sincere aspiration that our blog dialogue has helped open some people's minds to what's possible in public education. As awareness spreads about the proof points of excellence in our nation's public schools, I hope people will stop asking "Is it possible?" and start asking "How do we foster excellence?"

My best,
Elliott

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