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A Letter to New Leaders in Urban School Districts

Dear District Leaders:

Welcome to our city!¬† Cities are special places in America—they're full of opportunity for bright minds who dream big. Before you think I'm overly optimistic and rosy-eyed, let me reassure you, I certainly embrace reality. Most American cities deal with very real poverty problems, and in my city, we're trying to pivot from being an industrial port to a city that relies on a knowledge-based biotech economy. We need to figure out how to move forward without leaving our most vulnerable citizens behind.

Some of the most vulnerable residents are young people who deserve a high-quality education that gives them the knowledge and skills they'll need to thrive in the coming decades. Teachers and parents care deeply about developing our children's future, and as you are now our partner in this task, I'd like to offer you four humble suggestions about how best to help make our city's schools places where every student is ready to succeed.

  • Harness the power of strong educators. You have great teachers and school leaders who know our communities. Bring their leadership together through innovative teacher- and principal-leadership fellowships and focus on keeping your top talent. This is a national priority, and there are be opportunities to fund this work. Great educators will be happy to think through this with you.
  • Let's move beyond just data. It's normal practice in schools these days to be data-driven; paying attention to data has helped identify and focus on our obvious problems. In Baltimore, graduation rates and test scores are up, but have hit a plateau. We now need to ask sharper questions, with deeper and more insightful analysis. For example, we've boosted graduation rates through outreach and credit recovery; now we need to tackle the real issue of the value of the education students get when they graduate. A spreadsheet won't be helpful here, because we don't accurately measure post-graduate success. Answers to these questions will be found in conversations with principals, counselors, and students.
  • Our potential is immense. With the PARCC assessments and new teacher-evaluation systems going live in the next few years, there is a great opportunity for districts to be proactive leaders in improving student outcomes by harnessing the potential of these changes. Strong, collaborative leadership that is willing to stay the course is needed to avoid potential conflict, disruption, and politics that would ultimately hurt our kids.
  • The longer you stay, the better it gets. Our schools need stability in its leadership. We need you to stay and fall in love with the city, and commit to these children, schools, and teachers. We don't need a revolving door at the entrance of our headquarters.

New leaders, you are welcome here, and you are needed here. There is great teaching and a smart set of education activists that are building coalitions to improve schools in every city in America. We have the benefit of unprecedented national attention and the opportunity to really improve schools and communities if we are bold and dedicated.

We're counting on you to lead us with intelligence, caring, and intensity. Thank you for choosing this incredibly important work. I look forward to serving the children of Baltimore under your leadership.

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