Why I’m Running for School Board … Again

Nearly a decade ago, I decided to run to serve on my local school board. With two young children not yet in the local schools, I wanted to use my day job focusing on school improvement to ensure that my children had the best possible public education.

That year, the voters of Falls Church, Virginia elected me to serve on the board overseeing one of the the top school districts in the nation. The work was substantial. We had to restore funding to a school system that was hit hard by the recession. We had to improve school quality, particularly with regard to online courses, in a high-achieving school district. We had to continue to ensure that every student in our community was able to take AP and IB classes — and exams — without needing to pay for it themselves. We had to increase teacher salaries during tough budgetary times. And if that wasn’t enough, we needed to launch a major capital effort — including securing federal funding to expand our middle school — while hiring a new superintendent in the middle of it all.

I was honored to work alongside the teachers, administrators, community leaders, families, and board members who made our little city the success story it was. I was fortunate to be able to serve as both vice chair and chairman of our school board. Despite all of the countless hours, the tough political battles, and the continual searches for hard-to-find educational dollars, the hardest part of the work for me was when I had to leave the board after relocating out of state for a new job opportunity.

Since my service, I have been fond of saying how serving on a local board of education was one of the toughest challenges I’ve every faced. When asked about future service, I’ve regularly said I had no intention of ever returning to such a position. After all, these days I take great pride in my work as an assistant coach on my daughter’s competitive cheer squad. That’s how I enjoy spending my fall nights now.

A few weeks ago, I began reflecting on the state of my current school community, a high-achieving school district in New Jersey. The challenges and opportunities before the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District are not unique. It’s about balancing the needs of academic achievement with those of the whole child. It is about rewarding and empowering educators when more and more demands are placed on them. It’s about properly involving parents in educational decisions. And its about ensuring all students are gaining the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in their careers and lives.

So it is with renewed enthusiasm that I decided to run for a seat on our local board of education, filing my candidacy papers yesterday afternoon. Like most of the families in my community, mine moved to WW-P because of the quality of the public schools. I believe that our schools are very good … and can be even better. And I believe that my skill sets and past experiences provide me a unique position to lead that push for improvement.

As a former school board chairman for a district similar to my current community, I understand how to deal with a growing student population in smartly, ensuring that building construction and expansion is done in a financially sound way, meeting the needs without saddling the community for decades to come. I also recognize the importance of setting clear goals that are shared with the community, while holding the superintendent and all school district officials accountable for achieving those goals.

As a voice for school improvement, I understand the importance of strong inputs in our schools, and equally understand how outcomes are the ultimate measure of a school, a district, and a community.

As someone who has worked in education policy for two decades, I understand the importance of scientifically based research in school decision making, of understanding the value of assessments and the student data they derive, of how to select the best literacy programs for an ever-changing student population, and of how to ensure that technology in the classroom is used in the most effective way possible.

As a special education parent, I understand the importance of educators and parents working together, forming a team of individuals with the best interests of the student at heart.

This year, I will be the father of two middle schoolers — a seventh grader and a sixth grader. It would be far easier for me, both personally and professionally, to sit on the local schools’ sidelines, offering my thoughts via Facebook debates and the occasional blog post. It would be easier for me to focus on my professional life, my family, and my extremely limited cheer coaching abilities. But life isn’t always easy.

My children are now in the second half of their k-12 experiences. It can’t be about what is easy for me, and instead needs to be about what is best for my kids and for the many like them in the classroom. If I can help improve our schools and the pathways available to my children and their friends, then I need to take the opportunity. I cannot simply hope or wish or complain that things should be done differently. I have to step up and try to do them.

I do so recognizing that I am largely an unknown newbie in our community. Most know nothing about my work leading the National Reading Panel or the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative. They don’t know I have helped build two new graduate schools of education to better prepare teachers. They are unaware that I’ve worked to improve teacher education in five states — including New Jersey — or helped lead the most substantial education reform initiative in Connecticut’s history. They don’t know that this son of a high school teacher and a college president has spent the past 20 years fighting each and every day to improve educational access, quality, and outcomes. And that’s OK.

Over the next three months, I will spend much of my time talking to my neighbors about my background and my vision for our local schools. I will hopefully spend far more time listening than I will talking. And I will try and emphasize the importance of transparency, accountability, and community in our local schools.

If I can use the coming months to help focus on these issues and raise the level of educational discourse in our community, then I will consider it a big win. The bigger win is having my kids see me campaign hard, learning the same lessons that my educator parents instilled in me. That nothing is more important than a good education.

If We Only Get Three Great Mentors …

In the movie A Bronx Tale, Chazz Palminteri’s Sonny explains that we each have “three great ones” in our lives. While Sonny waxes on about the belief that we all only have three great loves in our life, recent news has me wondering if the same holds true for professional mentors.

I was incredibly fortunate to have two absolutely incredible mentors early in my career. The former executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, Phyllis Blaunstein, was my first. Phyllis first showed me there was more to successful communications that simply “PR.” She introduced me to the concept of public engagement. I learned from her days at what is now the U.S. Department of Education when she helped pass the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), thus ushering in special education as we now know it. Phyllis taught me how to be a professional. She taught me how to engage in active listening. She helped me become a qualitative researcher. And she has guided me through far more professional twists and turns then I can ever imagine.

My second was Reid Lyon. A former Army Ranger, Reid is the Godfather of research-based reading instruction. Reid gave me a practical Ph.D. in education earned on the mean streets of the Reading Wars. He taught me how to disaggregate data and how to tell good research from bad. He also taught me how to dream big when no progress was thought possible. In DC, I was fortunate enough to work with Reid on the National Reading Panel and the federal Partnership for Reading. I then followed him to the private sector as we sought to revolutionize teacher education and the high school-to-college pipeline.

Phyllis and Reid have had an enormous impact on my life. I was lucky enough to co-edit a book – Why Kids Can’t Read: Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo in Education – with them, a primer for parents on how to move research-based literacy instruction into their local schools. Reid was a personal reference as I went through the adoption of my son. And Phyllis continues to be a source of advice, wisdom, and inspiration, 20 years after we first met. I considered myself fortunate to have both of them in my life, and to be able to call both of them mentors. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to enjoy the luck and fortune that would give me that third great mentor in my life.

That changed when I joined the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. For many years, I had heard the legend of Arthur Levine, particularly as he fought to improve schools of education from his perch as president of one of the most well known teachers colleges out there. I had read his work and had seen him on panels and giving plenary lectures.

Four years ago, Arthur brought me in to head communications and strategy for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. There, he had created two ambitious programs — the state Teaching Fellowship and the MBA Fellowship in Education Leadership — and sought to expand them. He yearned to strengthen the reputation of the Foundation and its impact on educator development and school improvement. And he planned to launch a new graduate school of education — one based on competencies and content mastery — intended to successfully prepare teachers for both the realities of today and the possibilities of tomorrow.

For the past 1,455 days, I have worked alongside Arthur to help bring those dreams to reality. Each of those days, he has served as a mentor and teacher. I have learned about organizational management and successful fundraising. I have learned about innovation and strategic planning. I have about the history of higher education and about what the future can hold for the field. And I been able to strengthen my belief in the importance of the customer (the student) and of outcomes in education, particularly when one looks to transform institutions and systems that may be in need of change, but is resistant to it.

Earlier today, it was my job to announce Arthur’s intentions to step down from his perch at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation next summer. After 13 years at WW, Arthur is allowing a new voice to write the next chapter in the organization’s history. He does so leaving the Foundation in a much stronger financial and programmatic position than the one he found it in. And he does so showing eight states and more than 35 institutions of higher education that change is both possible and achievable when it comes to improving how we prepare educators, particularly those for high-need schools.

In 340 days, my third “great one” will step aside. I’m far enough along in my career to know that A Bronx Tale may indeed be correct, and we only get three great mentors. For now, I get to make the most of the time, working feverishly to accomplish all of organizational goals we have laid out for the next year.

In the long term, I can only hope to hold on to all of the lessons I have learned from all of those who have made me the (hopefully successful) professional I am today. And I need to try to continue to examine and better understand what I have learned, knitting together those lessons and new reflections on them so that I can continue to become a better educator, a better strategic communicator, and a better not-for-profit executive.

Words can never express all that we have taken from our mentors, all that they have taught up, and all that we appreciate from the experiences. I can only hope that the next chapters in my own professional life show to Arthur (and Reid and Phyllis) what sort of impact they truly have had on me.

(This piece was also published on LinkedIn Pulse.)

Beware the Impending Cuts

A recent study found that federal contributions to public education is on the decline … and heading for a significant drop. While the Feds put in less than 10 cents for every dollar spent in k-12, the expected drop could have a dangerous impact on the future success of our schools.

And let’s not even talk about the rhetorical signal it offers regarding our collective commitment to strong public schools.

Want to hear more? Then listen to our recent discussion of the topic on the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network.

Fully Exploring School Safety

As a federal blue ribbon commission continues to explore the general topic of school safety as it looks at particular responses to recent school shootings, an important question has emerged. Is the deck stacked against real action?

If the panel refuses to look at the issue of guns as it looks at school safety, is it really looking at anything? And if it continues to refuse, does that mean the NRA is calling the shots on school safety for the Trump Administration?

Over at TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore the question. And we come loaded to bear.

Give it a listen.

Is a Federal Merger a Bad Thing?

Last month, the Trump Administration unveiled a proposal to merge the US Departments of Education and Labor, all in the name of efficiency and a better connection between school and career.

The immediate opposition to the idea from the education community was to be expected. But is such a plan really such a bad idea? Over at the BAM! Radio Network, we explore the question and identify some of the potential benefits.

Give it a listen.

Recognizing the Value of Internships

After my first year of college, I was fortunate enough to score an internship on Capitol Hill, working in the office of a respected veteran senator. For a month, I did everything and anything that was asked of me, as I tried to soak up as much of the experience as possible. For me, each committee hearing, legislative memo, and clip packet were like gifts on Christmas morning.

As part of my internship, I also got the privilege of commuting by train – more than an hour each way – from my parents’ home in West Virginia. It was the only way to make my first internship work financially. Additionally, I spent the rest of the summer, as well as every weekend during my internship month, working at a local restaurant. I was gaining valuable work experience walking the halls of Congress. And I was gaining the dollars necessary to live during college by ringing up buffet dinners for Mountain State families and breaking down the soft-serve ice cream machine nightly.

The following summer, I was fortunate enough to earn an internship in the press office of U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd. That was the summer I retired from my career at Ponderosa Steak House. Senator Byrd was a former Senate Majority Leader and was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. A man who became one of the most powerful leaders in DC, Senator Byrd also believed in an honest day’s pay for a hard day’s work. I interned for Byrd for two summers, getting paid a salary both years.

I continued to take the train in from West Virginia both of those summers, to save money and avoid the cost of DC summer rent, but I was able to spend those summers focused on my future. The train rides became opportunities to read about government and policy. The weekends became a chance to explore possible career paths beyond law school. Those paid internships with Senator Byrd transformed me into the communications and policy professional I would become.

All because of a paycheck attached to an invaluable internship.

Last month, the U.S. Senate appropriated $5 million to provide the resources to pay Senate interns, giving each Senate office about $50,000 a year to compensate the lifeblood of Capitol Hill. The funds will hardly ensure that interns earn anything to close to what those interning on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley may earn, what with some Hill offices employing more than a dozen interns in the summer months alone to share that pot. But it is a start.

It is a start in showing appreciation for those that perform the tasks of Capitol Hill interns, perhaps allowing interns the chance to take one fewer shift as a waiter or bartender in DC and being able to use the time to explore the city they are calling home for the summer. It is a step at wiping away the general DC belief that interns are simply free labor, motivated by their need to find paying jobs after college.

More importantly, though, the move to compensate U.S. Senate interns begins to bring some equity to a system that is far from equitable. For decades, unpaid DC internships largely ensured an intern pool of the wealthy and the well connected. In an institution that is already far whiter than the populace, it ensured that its interns were equally as white. In short, it created a labor pool that looked vastly different from the people it was governing.

If the $50 million paid internship pool allows one more low-income student to pursue a Capitol Hill internship, then it is a worthy investment. If it inspired a new generation to see the value of government service, even if it pays far less than the private sector (both at internships and full-time jobs), then it is a worthy investment. If it means more 19- and 20-year olds don’t have to work two or three jobs during the summer in order to pursue its passions, then it is a worthy investment. And if it inspires other industries – including the media and entertainment sectors – to open their checkbooks and eliminate their own “free summer labor pool,” then it is definitely worth it.

No college student is ever going to get rich working an internship on Capitol Hill. Interns will still spend much of their salaries renting a summer dorm room from a local university or packing into short-term lease apartments. They will continue to live on an all-you-can-eat pizza, salad, and banana pudding buffet (as I did as an intern), supplemented by Capitol Hill reception hors d’oeuvres. And a small monthly check from the U.S. Senate ensures that those who seek such an experience may actually be able to take advantage of it.

(This piece originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)

Immigration and Education

Immigration stories are dominating the headlines these days. Over at the BAM! Radio Network, dear ol Eduflack takes a look at two of the many issues we should consider when it comes to the education aspects of the debate.

Here, we explore whether schools should be working with ICE on determining the citizenship of their students.

And here, we ponder why we aren’t hearing from EdSec Betsy DeVos and the US Department of Education on their obligations to educate those children currently detained at the border.

Give both a listen. Let me know what you think.