D.C. is worth a long look if you want to make change in urban education. I have witnessed—and was fortunate enough to play a role in—the dramatic transformation of the public school system in our nation’s capital. A decade ago, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) was one of the worst-performing school districts in the nation.
Fast forward 10 years, and DCPS is now considered one of the fastest-improving urban school districts, drawing attention from other cities that are eager to learn from DCPS’ approach to everything from curriculum design to professional learning to student engagement.
As I prepare to leave my post, I am taking the opportunity that only an outgoing leader can—to share what I’ve learned and pretend I have it all figured out.
So, this is the advice I am going to pass on to our incoming president and executive director.
Lesson #1: Focus.
First things first. You have to have a strategy and pick only a few things you’ll support. We’re in the business of investing in big bets—those ideas that have the best shot at changing outcomes for the most kids. You are lucky to support a school system that understands this extremely well.
DCPS is known for tackling some of the stickiest challenges with strategic approaches that ultimately move the needle for kids.
Picking just a few things at any given time allows us to marshal attention and resources to solve those problems. It also gives us the space we need to tightly manage philanthropic funds and stay close to the grants we manage.
We have a history of success in this regard—just look at the results from DCPS’ pay-for-performance system, family engagement partnership, the districtwide Cornerstone curriculum strategy and the groundbreaking LEAP professional learning approach—all investments that education experts point to as reasons DCPS is accelerating.
Lesson #2: It’s okay to say no.
This was probably the hardest lesson for me when I transitioned from working at DCPS to leading the D.C. Ed Fund. Your DCPS colleagues are some of the smartest in the education game. They have great ideas and worthy projects that would go a lot further with just a small bit of money.
But, per lesson #1, if you say yes to all of those projects, it means a lot less time and energy can be spent on funding and managing the big bets DCPS has already picked. Your colleagues are resourceful and will figure it out.
By the same token, you should also feel comfortable saying ‘no’ to philanthropic partners when their interests and priorities aren’t aligned with DCPS’ big bets. An important goal is ensuring that the tail never wags the dog when it comes to fundraising.
When you tell a donor that their program, approach or special project isn’t aligned to our current set of priorities, it doesn’t mean you’re breaking up with them or telling them they smell bad. It just means our priorities aren’t currently aligned. I have always found that donors appreciate that level of honesty. We stay friends with all of our partners, and we look for ways to continue to work together, whenever the stars align.
Lesson #3: Remember why we exist.
The D.C. Ed Fund was founded at a time when DCPS was broken—schools didn’t open on time, it wasn’t entirely clear who was on the district’s payroll, and families had been leaving in droves for decades. We were created to help DCPS solve a very specific challenge—how to attract and retain the best educators.
We helped our partner solve this challenge by raising $64.5 million to launch one of the nation’s most rigorous pay-for-performance systems, IMPACTplus. The new evaluation system and bonuses helped DCPS attract some of the top educators in the country and established a strong foundation from which DCPS could build.
This experience also helped us solidify our successful model—work with DCPS to identify focused priorities for philanthropic support, raise funding from the philanthropic community, manage funds with integrity and work with this district to create a plan to sustain the work long-term.
That last piece is huge to the success of our model. We’re only meant to seed and launch these big bets. Once they’re up and running, and we’re seeing results, the D.C. Ed Fund moves on to the next set of challenges.
That’s it. Just do those three things and you’ll help us see another decade in which $120 million is raised and dramatic change continues for kids. (Okay, maybe you’ll have to go to some events from time to time, but that’s a fun perk of the job.)
I’ll continue to tell anyone and everyone who will listen how special DCPS and the D.C. Ed Fund are—and why it’s worth betting on the continued improvement of education in our nation’s capital.