Godspeed, Mitchell Chester

Mitchell Chester, the longtime Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, a good man, and a true friend, passed away Monday evening. Mitchell was felled by a fast-moving cancer, a disease that attacked him with horrible speed this spring and ultimately claimed him at a far-too-young 65.

Mitchell spent decades at the center of this era’s efforts to improve schooling. He taught in Connecticut and eventually made his way to Philadelphia in 1997, where he directed assessment and accountability for David Hornbeck’s ambitious reform agenda. In 2001, as NCLB took shape, he went to Ohio as deputy commissioner, where he sought to make accountability work. Then, nearly a decade ago, he became commissioner in Massachusetts, where he embraced the Common Core, revamped teacher evaluation, and championed turnaround strategies for some of the state’s most-challenged districts.

Mitchell was one of the most fundamentally decent and thoughtful leaders I’ve had the privilege to know. In an era dominated by those eager to talk a big game, Mitchell was a guy who liked to roll up his sleeves. In a reform community afflicted with stridency and a surfeit of self-assuredness, he was modest, measured, and interested in hearing what others thought. He took more than his share of brickbats, but he didn’t believe in throwing stones. I once asked him about that when I was interviewing him for Cage-Busting Leadership. He said, “Rick, I’ll fight if it’s going to help the kids. But I just feel like most of the public shouting is about getting headlines. I’m not here for that.”

I think what first drew Mitchell and me together was a shared curiosity about ideas and how those worked in reality. We first got to know each other a bit in the late 1990s; if I remember rightly, we first met at one of the annual Brookings conferences that Diane Ravitch hosted back then. Mitchell had practical insights and funny stories from Philly. I was a green junior professor interested in urban school reform. But I had trouble asking him the things I wanted to, because he kept peppering me with questions and listening intently to my fumbling answers—as if I knew what I was talking about.

Over the years, when he came through DC, we’d try to find an opportunity to sit down and talk. Even when Mitchell knew vastly more than I did about a question—which was most of the time—he didn’t want to opine, but to see what else he might learn. We disagreed on plenty, but always with the expectation that we’d eventually talk it through. It’s hard to believe that we won’t have any more opportunities to do just that.

But Mitchell always wanted to know how a nifty idea could help make a difference in real schools. I recall a dinner, sometime back in 2009, when Mitchell and I were huddled with former Colorado state chief Dwight Jones. They were talking about their bids for Race to the Top and the practical challenges. I was busy being unhelpful, explaining why I thought Race to the Top was looking like a bad idea and how it could screw up their efforts. Mitchell just shook his head and said, laughing, “Rick, tell me the truth: It’s a lot easier to talk about it than to do it, isn’t it?”

That may be what I’ll remember most about Mitchell, his passion for doing. He was a regular at our AEI Working Groups, and I always used to smile when he’d rub his nose and then start asking some entrepreneur about just how their program would work in Massachusetts. They’d answer, and he’d ask another question. And then another. And, afterwards, he’d usually meander over at the break and say, “I don’t know, Rick.” Occasionally, though, he’d take the presenter by the arm and tell them he wanted them to speak with someone on his team as soon as possible—because he was always seeking better answers for kids.

I will miss you, my friend.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up

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