De’Shawn Wright has spent more than 15 years serving in senior leadership posts in government and the nonprofit sector and is a part of the Future Chiefs program with Chiefs for Change. He’s an independent consultant who formerly worked with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and served as chief of staff to the superintendent of Newark Public Schools. Over a cup of dark roast, he talks about the value public education instilled in him by his family and strengthened throughout his career.
We’re almost through another winter. I’m guessing that, on the East Coast, coffee or something hot is necessary insulation for the day. Is that part of your morning routine? What’s your drink?
Coffee is the essential element to starting my day. I can’t imagine functioning without it. I prefer dark roast and recently started drinking Ethiopian coffee. My typical morning ritual entails a cup of coffee while reading emails and articles online, and a news channel playing in the background.
Talk about your family, your background and what led you to a career in education.
I grew up in a middle-class household, but both my parents came from very modest beginnings and worked hard to provide a better life for my two siblings (an older brother and younger sister) and me. My parents and grandparents were the most influential figures in my life, instilling in me the value of education and the importance of service to community.
All around me, everyday, I saw people doing for others—whether it was my mother offering moral and financial support to friends, my father who served in the military for over two decades, my entrepreneurial grandfather who owned a taxi cab and gave free rides to people who couldn’t afford the tab or my grandmother who worked tirelessly throughout the week but yet still volunteered every weekend through her church. Growing up exposed to all this, I was destined to be called to public service and found my purpose in education.
There’s lots of talk right now about how meaningful high school graduation rates are and debates on whether we’re setting high enough standards for a diploma. What do you see as the right bar to set?
In general, I believe we are not setting high enough standards for a diploma. Something is fundamentally wrong when graduation rates continue to rise while students remain poorly prepared for higher education.
We’ve seen states celebrate raising standards and then turn around and lower the threshold to pass exit exams in order to preserve or inflate graduation rates. If we want to raise standards and outcomes for all children in the long term then we must develop a tolerance for lower graduation rates in the near term.
To ensure we are not leaving young people behind and continuing to incentivize academic growth while raising standards, states can pursue alternatives to how diplomas are awarded such as a multi-tiered approach (standard, college- and career-ready, and honors).
In your Future Chiefs intro, you talk about getting some foundational advice, “Choose purpose over position,” from Sen. Cory Booker during your time working with him. Talk about how that’s guided your work.
I’ve been fortunate to work alongside and learn from some amazingly talented and inspiring leaders over the past 20 years, including Sen. Booker. He often counsels those seeking career advice to pursue their purpose—not a position. For me, this means focusing on the impact I want to make instead of the title or position that I seek.
In honor of the recent Oscar season, what’s your favorite education-related movie?
That’s a hard one, but I’d have to say “The Breakfast Club,” a movie about a group of high school students in Saturday detention. As a teenager, I could relate to the characters in the film who were misunderstood and stereotyped by their peers and administrators, having experienced it myself.
The film emphasizes the power of dialogue in breaking down barriers and creating mutual respect and understanding among people with perceived and real differences. As an educator, I tried to accept every student for who he or she was and to appreciate their individualism without judgment.