Straight Up Conversation: Leading Educators Departing CEO Jonas Chartock

Jonas Chartock, Ed.D., recently announced that he’ll be stepping down as CEO of Leading Educators, a nonprofit working with over 700 teacher leaders to transform professional learning for over 2,400 teachers. Before serving as Leading Educators’ founding CEO, Jonas worked with Teach for America as an executive director, served as founding president and CEO of the Charter School Policy Institute, and was the Executive Director of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute. I recently had the chance to chat with Jonas about Leading Educators and their work in teacher development. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick Hess: So, Jonas, what exactly is Leading Educators?

Jonas Chartock: Leading Educators is a nonprofit that helps districts and schools maximize the effectiveness of their most valuable resource: teachers. We believe all students deserve great schools and exceptional teachers. So do districts. But the reality is that many schools struggle to support teachers in mastering and fully using their content, which doesn’t help the students we have marginalized to reach their fullest potential. Teachers want to be the best they can be for their students, so if we want to reach every student, we have to listen to teachers and put them in a position to lead the change they want to see within systems. So, what we do is take professional development out of gigantic auditoriums and put it where it belongs—in schools, as a regular part of a teacher’s week.

RH: How long have you been CEO? And what prompted you to move from charter schooling in New York to take the helm of a national teacher leadership outfit based in New Orleans?

JC: I became Leading Educators’ first CEO in late 2010. Before that, I was a charter school authorizer, and I started my career as a teacher and then a teacher trainer. When I was in authorizing, I saw that a key difference between the schools that were succeeding academically and those that were on our “watch list” or being closed was the focus on teacher development. The opportunity soon came for me to lead a small teacher leadership pilot program in New Orleans to a national scale, and I was inspired by the influence it could have on school systems everywhere.

RH: You’ve announced your plans to step down as CEO. What prompted that, and what’s ahead for the organization?

JC: I am proud of all this team has accomplished in the last seven years. We have a great group of leaders who are ready to take Leading Educators into an exciting new chapter, and I’m looking forward to staying close to our work on the board of directors. Our incoming CEO, Chong-Hao Fu, is a close personal and professional friend, and I know that his deep understanding of professional learning positions us to be even better partners to districts. We’re expecting significant growth in the coming years, and our team is eager to invest significant resources in sharing our learning for the benefit of all districts and students.

RH: As you look back over your tenure, what are a couple key accomplishments that you’d point to?

JC: We have worked with schools and systems to develop the teacher-leadership skills of 1,500 teacher leaders since we started. Last year alone, we worked with over 600 teacher leaders in 152 schools and 19 systems, impacting the work of over 2,400 teachers and 65,000 students.

RH: What’s a story that really captures what success looks like for you guys?

JC: When we started working with DC Public Schools, there were few proof points that teacher development at a district scale could be particularly meaningful and successful. We partnered with DCPS to create the LEAP program, the first comprehensive teacher-led professional learning model in the country of its kind. After the first year, DCPS saw record growth in math and English language arts across all grades, and people started thinking, “Maybe this can actually work!” We’re incredibly proud of that partnership, and at the same time we don’t pretend that it was successful overnight. It took really thoughtful planning and adjustment alongside the district for the past six years. Very few programs last that long, and there’s often intense pressure to produce results quickly. DCPS gave us the opportunity to take the best parts of our previous work and build a core model that could meet a range of needs and challenges across hundreds of schools.

RH: How frustrating can it be to work with districts on this stuff—especially given political pressures and leadership turnover?

JC: Death, taxes, and district leadership transitions—while these are difficult eventualities, we’ve learned a lot as an organization about how to see this work survive leadership changes. To do so, we’ve hired a team with deep experience working for innovative districts, which has helped bring credibility and trust to the partnership. More than anything else, because some of our programs were ending sooner than they should due to leadership change, we realized that we need to work with district leaders to bake the fundamental features of successful teacher learning into the system itself. To do this, we support our partners through their specific systemic challenges without compromising our commitments to equity and world-class teaching and learning.

One reason I believe this work with districts is harder than it needs to be is the sector-wide focus on specific interventions that might yield a certain outcome—say, drop-out prevention or improved teacher recruitment—but don’t really develop the people already in the system: teachers. As you know, the dominant narrative is that teachers aren’t up to the task. They are. We just have pervasive low expectations for what they will be able to accomplish.

RH: Just how big is Leading Educators today, anyway? How many cities are you in, how many educators are involved?

JC: We currently serve students in four education markets: Chicago, Greater Grand Rapids, New Orleans, and Tulsa. We are also concluding our partnerships with Aurora Public Schools and DC Public Schools this summer. We work directly with 769 leaders who lead development for approximately 2,450 peer teachers. Since our founding in 2008, we have supported leaders in 12 cities.

RH: Say a bit more about how the program works, for those who aren’t familiar with it?

JC: Our work is really about taking the pressure and isolation out of teaching. We’ve found it to be the case in many environments that schools have “islands of excellence” where great teaching and learning is happening, but due to a lack of time and structures to collaborate, teachers within a content area are missing powerful opportunities to share learning and develop one another. Our solution is preparing teams of teachers to lead weekly team learning, observation, and practice rooted in reliable data and rigorous standards. I can’t stress enough that a lack of this deep, regular dive into content is what has precluded instruction from being aligned to standards and curriculum. By the time we leave an engagement, schools should have iterative structures in place, a deep understanding of excellent instruction, and strong leadership from the central office to the classroom.

RH: For those who don’t follow such things too closely, how should they understand the distinction between Leading Educators and other teacher empowerment organizations like TeachPlus, Educators 4 Excellence, the federal Teach to Lead initiative, and the Hope Street Group?

JC: Our peer organizations are doing important work to elevate the teacher voice and expand opportunities for educators to lead change. Those are aims we share. That said, we have also realized that for empowered teachers to have consistent impact, we have to work directly with districts to build the support and conditions for them to be successful. We’ve focused on how to blur the lines of leadership from classroom to central office so that all who have the agency to produce better outcomes for our students are aligned.

RH: How have you tried to gauge the impact of Leading Educators? How do you know if what you’re doing is working?

JC: We look at Leading Educators’ impact from a few angles. The most obvious is via testing data. If teaching and learning has improved students’ conceptual understanding of math and English language arts, it should show up in these data. That has been the case in DCPS, New Orleans, and Kansas City. Over the past few years, we have also been working with RAND and the University of Virginia to develop ways to assess changes in teacher content knowledge and skills. Our coaches observe teacher leaders against normed rubrics that are research- and evidence-based. Our work has contributed to higher levels of teacher retention in previous partner schools—which is great—but we’re most interested in reaching consistently high teacher quality. Lastly, we have a number of tools to assess organizational changes at the school and district level, because, ultimately, we want to support districts in their aim to be developmental places for students and teachers to be successful over the long term.

RH: Looking ahead, what are a couple of the challenges that you think Leading Educators is going to face over the next few years? What do you hope to see the organization accomplish?

JC: The education sector has a crisper view of what exemplary principal leadership looks like than ever, but when you ask people what an exemplary teacher content team looks like, they point to the same professional learning communities that have existed for decades. Normally they are neither iterative nor rooted in amazing curriculum. Leading Educators seeks to focus here and change the way teachers develop their practice. In addition, as you know all too well, education remains a sector wherein the “next big thing” changes every few years. Currently, personalized learning and social emotional learning are at the forefront, and I think there is good reason for that. That said, we will still need teachers with deep understanding of content and standards to be successful in this work. My fear is that states and districts will not set aside the necessary funds to support quality instructional development.

RH: As you survey your time in this role, what are a couple of the things that most surprised you?

JC: First, I’m surprised by the lack of real conversations about race in our schools and professional development organizations. Leading Educators has a significant amount of curricular focus on anti-bias and social-justice teaching, and our work is too often the first time teachers are having conversations about these things. Teacher leaders are the most proximate and influential source of development for their colleagues, and when you consider the fact that roughly 80 percent of our country’s teachers are white, while nearly 50 percent of our students are of color, we are not doing right by either group when we neglect these conversations. Secondly, I’ve been disappointed by the number of districts that feel like they are already “doing” high-quality teacher professional learning, when they are actually just doing what has always been done. That said, I’m also pleasantly surprised to see so many district leaders now believing that their professional learning models are in need of realignment, and I’ve been surprised by their willingness to bring in a partner.

RH: How have the shifting tides of politics and of school reform affected your work? When you started in this role, teacher evaluation was riding high, Obama was president, and No Child Left Behind was the law of the land. Today, it’s a different landscape. How has that mattered?

JC: We’re encouraged that under the Every Student Succeeds Act, so much of the direction of education is now being set at the state level. In being charged to implement high standards, states have taken more innovative approaches to developing their teachers. We’re now able to partner with school systems because of these investments in innovation. There has also been substantial blowback from the heavy focus on testing and evaluation over the past decade. We have arguably lost sight of the craft of teaching and the importance of strong academic learning that supports better outcomes for kids. Given some of the messages coming from the federal level, we’ve felt that it is more important than ever to reaffirm our support for the most vulnerable populations.

RH: What are some of the issues in education that people aren’t paying much attention to, that you think they should be?

JC: We see a lot of great work happening around new-teacher preparation and principal development, but at the same time, there are four million teachers who are already in our classrooms. Often, education dollars are used to change the things around teachers without digging into how we support them. Additionally, I think more folks are paying attention to early childhood, but there have been too few comprehensive, effective, and financially viable solutions.

RH: The Leading Educators website notes that you all work exclusively with school systems serving majority low-income students of color. Why has that been the focus?

JC: We know that opportunity has not been distributed equitably to students of color and students from low-income communities, especially when it comes to resources or expectations. Students in the school systems with which we partner are more likely to have teachers who are newer to the profession, and they experience higher levels of turnover—so there’s a real need for supports that can create systemic consistency. We know these schools also have pockets of great teaching and learning, so we’re trying to create new opportunities for those teachers who have been successful to lead school- and system-wide improvements in instructional quality. We’ve also been incredibly intentional about diversifying our team from top to bottom to ensure that we’re addressing the student and teacher experience from many angles and perspectives.

RH: Finally, what’s next for you, my friend? Do you know what you’ll be doing next and whether you’ll be doing it from New Orleans?

JC: One thing is for sure, while my professional and family life may ultimately take me elsewhere, I am in no way excited to learn “what it means to miss New Orleans.” I have a few exciting projects on the horizon, and most immediately am going to be taking a step away from large organizational leadership to contribute to high-potential social-impact organizations inside and outside of education. I am also eager to continue to learn, as a both an educator and a dad, about areas I see as of dire importance in the coming decades, including comprehensive early childhood and workforce development solutions and anti-racism education—all in a community- and equity-informed way. I promise to bring you all along for the ride at @jonaschartock.

— Frederick Hess

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

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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