A state stalled, or a state on the verge of greatness?

As we noted last week, it’s not often in America a top business leader runs for – much less gets elected to – the demanding, selfless and essentially thankless job of serving on the school board of a large urban system.

The election November 6 of David Jones, Jr. to the District 2 seat of the Jefferson County Board of Education instantly elevated public interest in – and public scrutiny of – the board and the Jefferson County Public Schools system as a whole.

Jones is the son of Humana co-founder David Jones and founder and chairman of Chrysalis Ventures, a Louisville-based venture capital firm.

He was elected at a pivotal time in education reform in Louisville. Scores under a new standardized testing methodology are still going out to 100,000-plus students in the system, scores that indicate that JCPS in aggregate is far from a world-class system … or even the best-performing system in Kentucky.

In Insider Louisville’s first one-on-one interview posted Dec. 13, “The world has changed around Louisville’s antiquated school system,” Jones discussed the Common Core State Standards in English and math have been adopted by 47 states and tie domestic scores to international student achievement standards.

In this second installment, Jones discusses the challenge of retaining new teachers, 50 percent of whom leave the profession in Jefferson County within five years.

Insider Louisville CEO Tom Cottingham and Director of Content Terry Boyd conducted the one-hour, 12 minute interview.

Terry Boyd: You met Donna Hargens, and you were impressed. In the VC realm, you meet a lot of people, so I’m impressed you were impressed by her. I’m assuming you’ve met a lot of your fellow board members. Do you believe there is a consensus?

David Jones, Jr.: I think there’s a consensus on a couple of points. First, the existing board members – the ones who are staying on ….

 TB: Carol Haddad has been on the board for at least one decade. Maybe longer.

DJ: Carol has been on for about 20 years. The four who are staying on are high on Donna Hargens. Remember, (Hargens) has only been here 16 months. She’s completed one full year in the chair and is about half-way through the second year. The three new folks who were elected all ran at least partly because her leadership is very promising. We all three (Jones, Chuck Haddaway, Dist. 4, Chuck Brady, Dist. 7) think the system is well led at the time we’re coming on the board. So I think there’s consensus her experience down in Wake County (North Carolina) is relevant. That fact she rose up in a system slightly larger than ours gives her an understanding of the levers for a big complicated organization. Remember, the budget of JCPS is almost half as much again as the budget of metro government; $1.2 billion compared to about $700 million. It employs about 16,000. It’s a big, complicated organization, and she knows about that.

There is another consensus I think is important. There is a strong focus on student achievement and Tom, you started with the highlights of the strategy … the four summary points about the goals. There’s consensus that’s what we need to focus on. So, when you look at the way the election shook out, in every district, there was a big debate about … some people said the student assignment plan was the single issue that drives everything else. Other people, including me, said, “No, that’s a component of student achievement, but student achievement – getting kids college or career ready – is the number one goal. Everything else has to be subservient to that.” My read of the election results is, voters rejected the single-cause theory of change and elected people focused on getting results out of the system.

TB: One of the first things Hargens did was to take Dewey Hensley and elevate him to second in command. Chief academic officer. Clearly she’s willing to shake things up, change the structure. She’ll change the curriculum. When I look back at everything you’ve said, you’re really tech-focused. You believe the system needs more and better technology. Are you on the same page on that?

DJ: I do believe technology will offer fantastic opportunities to change education. And I believe in a pretty fundamental way, 20 years from now – maybe it’s only 10 years from now – the way children learn will be different. It will be a lot more individualized. A lot more personalized. The way technology allows for mass customization. But the same way I don’t think the student assignment plan is the magic bullet to fix the school system, I also don’t think technology is the magic bullet. What I’ve seen from Dr. Hargens and heard her talk about is a very fundamental belief almost all kids can learn to become college and career ready. Atkinson Elementary (now Atkinson Academy for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) is the school (Hensley) turned around. That was the (worst-rated) school in JCPS. Then he was plucked out by the state to go work at the state policy level to figure out how to replicate that. But what he did at Atkinson wasn’t a technology miracle. It was a management, and particularly a leadership, turn-around. The results were miraculous. It wasn’t magic. First of all, he led the teachers and all the adults to adopt the belief all the kids there could learn even though it was an extremely poor school. Virtually all the kids were on free or reduced lunch.

The second thing Hensley talks about is, he led the adults to believe it was their role to make the school what he calls “poverty accessible.” One of the big problems is, “Is it a system problem or a political problem or a parent problem?” Hensley’s view is, the parents of very poor students – a meaningful percentage of them were homeless – could become involved in the school if the school made it easier for them to be involved. That meant changing hours. That meant teacher outreach to the parents. It involved trying to figure out the rhythm of the families who made up that community. Being more accessible.

The most important thing he did was, in the school, they put together a war room where every student was monitored and tracked. Weekly meetings. Teachers working in teams. There were, as I understand it, red, yellow and green Post-It notes with kids’ names on them. Kids doing okay were green. Kids having trouble were in yellow. Any kid falling behind got attention from the team on a regular basis, not a big exam at the end of fourth grade and a bunch of penalties for bad teachers. This is like (W. Edward) Demming kind of stuff. I don’t know who (Hensley’s) management gurus are, or if this is all self-learned in the teaching profession locally. But the basic idea is, “monitor the process; get the team to take responsibility for it and be alert for things that aren’t working. Fix the root cause. Don’t let kids move on without getting the formative stuff they need in elementary school!”

TB: Is this thinking going to permeate the system, or is this an anomaly?

Well, the first thing Dr. Hargens did was take this principal and made him chief academic officer.

TB: Pushback from the union?

DJ: I don’t hear about any pushback from the union.

TB: Because the union, from what I can see, is about one thing – maintaining the status quo. Tom and I don’t agree on much, but we agree on this ….

DJ: I have to come into this looking at a higher level. If I thought the union made it impossible for students to succeed. Or the assignment system made it impossible for the students to succeed or Kentucky’s tax structure or the lack of charter schools … any of these structural things outside the control of the board … then I wouldn’t have run for this position. My take on the teachers’ union is the same as my take on the medical profession. It’s a take on all of us. Everyone hates change. The three of us think of ourselves as flexible, entrepreneurial people. My experience within my family, within Chrysalis, within the bigger companies I’ve worked with is people hate change. Once they get good at something … get qualified in their profession, they keep doing it the way they succeeded earlier. The challenge with the teachers and principals – the most important managerial people because they manage the geographical units – those people have to change, learn on the job and apply new ways of teaching.

The teachers’ union has shown some flexibility in the turnaround schools. The biggest issue in the union contract is teacher assignment. Eight out of 10 people I talked to in the campaign wanted to talk about student assignment. No one wanted to talk about teacher assignment. The way teacher assignment works, teachers get to bid on jobs according to seniority. What happens is, every year, the least desirable jobs have the most openings. The newest teachers go into the hardest jobs. More important than anything, they don’t have mentors close at hand who can help them learn how to teach.

Tom Cottingham: There is one even more exasperating problem. It’s where the bad teachers go. It’s almost like baseball owners. (Principals) trade. “I have an employee here no one likes. I cannot fire her. What I’m going to do is put her in a bad school in the West End.” Hope she quits, right? So there’s a process … they redefine the jobs. That job no longer exists. You’re being reassigned to this terrible school.

DJ: Look, I’m not running for this job anymore. There’s a right point to focus on here because the board doesn’t negotiate the union contract. But what conditions need to apply for our system over the next decade to really improve its performance? At the level of teaching profession, there are a couple of things we need to focus on. And this is a community wide “we.” And a national “we.” Because of demographics, Baby Boomers are moving out. A lot of good teachers are going to retire. A lot of experienced teachers are going to retire. New teachers have a 50 percent churn rate within the first five years. Half of the new teachers are not teaching five years after they start. We’re somewhere in the norm to slightly better than the norm. Compared to most big urban systems, JCPS is better. We’re not starting from a position compared to Detroit or LA. But that’s the wrong comparison. Being better than Detroit is not want you want.

We have to give new teachers more support. We have to give then more mentorship. We have a collective bargaining agreement. The only way to get that done is through collective bargaining. I don’t see that as an adversarial relationship at all. They want a vibrant membership. Also, the way entrepreneurs work is in congregate … in this beehive of startups. The way teaching works today is the same as it’s been for hundreds of years … teachers essentially work alone with the students. Now, teachers over time tend to cluster with great students. That’s why the magnet programs are so successful. The people they spend their time with – even if they are 20 or 30 years younger – are curious and they push them. But when we go back to that Atkinson Elementary example, one of the things that happened was – the way I heard it explained – was a collegiality was created among the teachers willing to work in that very difficult turnaround environment. That made it go. Part of that surely is getting rid of people who don’t perform. But back up to the level of what the board can control, you pick the number of truly terrible teachers. Is it 2 percent? Is it 10 percent? It would be unusual in my experience to have more than 10 or 15 percent of people be irredeemably unsuited for their jobs. It’s my experience that good leadership can get the overwhelming majority of people to do the right thing.

The thing the board does is set the focus. The focus needs to be an engaged teacher corps where the problem of high turnover is solved in the early years. The biggest thing that’s on fire in my mind … it’s the high turnover rate among new teachers, and that they’re at the lowest performing schools. New teachers go into poor performing schools because of seniority. The most important task of the district is to have a great and engaging teacher corps. This is an airplane we have to reconfigure while keeping it in the sky. The overwhelming number of teachers who are going to educate our kids over the next decade are teachers who are in the system today. There is no scenario I can even imagine … there’s no chance we’re going to change out the overwhelming majority. It’s logistically impossible. It’s undesirable, because we have a lot of great teachers in the system today. We have a lot of people who’ve chosen to make that their profession and who have stuck it out through a lot of crazy bureaucratic regimes. Programs coming and programs going. A lot of unpleasant commentary from the public. But they love teaching. The challenge is to help them do their jobs better. The business community likes it when you jump up and down and talk about how we’re going to fire that bottom two percent or five percent. You have to get people who are adversarial to the goals of an organization. But most of the work is going to be done by people who will do a better job.

My view is pretty simple. The board’s primary task is to have a clear strategy, have strong leadership at the district level and then insist there is strong leadership at the school level. But education is so highly regulated. It may be worse than health care. The biggest concern I have as a board member is there may not be room in the regulatory environment to actually set policies that make sense.

TC: So, what can our readers do? How can they engage?

DJ: Set high expectations. Expect Louisville can and should have a high-performing school system. Finally, finally, every school system in the nation is going to use the same gauge of track (in standardized tests of achievement level.) Insist on reporting over the next few years that tells us how we’re doing against global norms. Then insist we attain a reasonable level. We know we’re not going to survive as a prosperous place over the next 50 years if we don’t have a great education system. We want to have the best urban school system in America.