Christopher Ruszkowski has just about a coast-to-coast education reform resume, with stops in Delaware, Louisiana and the Bay Area. He’s now the deputy secretary for policy and programs at the New Mexico Department of Education, and a Future Chief with Chiefs for Change. He talks about the journey…and the road ahead.
In looking at your background, you’ve lived and worked in a lot of great coffee places. Has that made you a coffee drinker? Top coffee city?
You know I’ve actually never had a full cup of coffee—quite the ironic way to start the conversation with coffee break, I know. But the coffee shop “post-up” has been a staple in my work regimen: the Brew Ha-Ha in Trolley Square (Delaware), the CoHo saw me through many a late night at Stanford, Espresso Royale on campus in undergrad, and I spent my first three months in Shreveport at a coffee shop on Youree Drive that has since closed, sadly. We did some good work there in Caddo Parish.
Along the way, a cup of chai became a go-to rather than coffee—it was never richer and better than when I pulled up on my bicycle at Coupa Café in Palo Alto. But I must admit that both as a middle school teacher and now at the state level, I’ve relied far too heavily on a dose of Mountain Dew here and there. Even when I get a good night’s sleep, it still helps. At least in the short-term.
Talk about your family background and how that’s shaped your career and your beliefs about public education.
My father was born in 1946 in a work-camp in Germany—as Polish immigrants, his family fled war-torn Europe and arrived in Chicago in 1950. That same year, my mother was born in Chicago—the granddaughter of Greek immigrants. I think the immigrant experience in the 20th century was largely about job opportunity, sure, but also about the American promise of an excellent public education, and our schools were the epicenter of the “melting pot.”
Turns out the reality could be much grimmer than the promise. My father and his three brothers shared a bed in a poor immigrant community, and the public education system in inner-city Chicago wasn’t necessarily a ticket to enlightenment (let alone social mobility). Across town, the Greeks had found the burgeoning suburbs, and I would say my mother and her three brothers had a more idyllic experience, though not always one that prepared them for the economy that lie ahead—so the tale of two very different educational upbringings was alive and well in my family.
Post-college, my mom went on to work for Delta Airlines answering phones in reservations—back when people booked their plane tickets that way (she’s now a flight attendant and has 44 years with the company)—and we were a working-class family when I was a kid. So there was a combination of blue-collar, hard-scrabble work and the belief we clung to that attending great public schools was part of the American Dream.
That shaped me as a teenager—and that ultimately led me to the Evans Scholarship (for golf caddies with a good work ethic, good grades and modest means!). That scholarship, combined with a really solid K-12 public education, prepared me for my career in ways my father never quite was.
What’s the one change in education that’s the most needed or would have the biggest impact?
There are no silver bullets. So much of what needs to happen is about improved implementation and execution—the how, and not as much the what. But I do think that the reason New Mexico’s students are on the rise (in graduation rates, math/reading outcomes, AP access/success) is because Secretary (Hanna) Skandera and our team have created a culture of high expectations matched with targeted investments in programs that we can measure and refine. And we have applied an equity lens to our work—in terms of how resources are allocated, where attention is paid, how systems of meaningful accountability are shared with the public.
Beyond those guiding principles, I do believe that we’re in an era of catalytic teacher leadership. Technology has broken down some of the barriers to scaling best practices and facilitating teacher collaboration and collective learning. So there’s an opportunity to have classroom teachers weigh in on all elements of policy, program and practice, as well as an opportunity to create a new set of career ladders that can look different in different contexts.
In New Mexico, we’re working with our Secretary’s Teacher Advisory, our newly-formed New Mexico Teacher Leader Network, and a variety of partners to amplify teacher voice, create statewide communities of practice around teacher craft and create two-way communications channels with our schools.
New Mexico is a state that seems to have its ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) act together. Talk about the process and priorities in putting that plan together.
It all starts with having an outstanding team at the state level. Everything stems from that. Everything. We have an incredible mix of talents, skills and backgrounds on our senior team—that diversity of perspective is what sets the foundation for the work.
For New Mexico, so much of what is outlined in the federal law is already the foundation of what has been built here over the last five years—so I think it’s fair to say that we’re a state with a fairly big head-start.
Our teacher leaders across the state are now playing a critical role in taking our state to the next level—so many of the classroom teachers that I’m speaking with want to help the state’s systems to evolve, but they also recognize that ESSA in New Mexico need not re-introduce the tired, all-too-common cycle of “let’s start all over again.”
We actually conducted an unprecedented statewide listening tour this past fall—to Farmington, Gallup, Roswell, Las Cruces, Albuquerque, and on and on. And we’ve now released the 50, yes 50, ways that the New Mexico Public Education Department is responding to that stakeholder input. Some of those things are directly related to ESSA, and some of those things are just everyday challenges. We believe it’s important to be responsive to both. ESSA simply gives us a construct for asking, “How are we doing?”
As a fellow Eastern European guy from Chicago, I gotta ask about pierogies. Favorite kind? Favorite place to get them?
When my father was alive and I was in college, he took me to this Ukrainian church just outside of Dinkytown (home of the University of Minnesota) in Minneapolis. Hand-rolled weekly. Best I’ve ever had. I go potato but heavy on the sour cream, almost solely.