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When I feel overwhelmed about the madness in Washington, I have a time-tested strategy: I get myself as fast as I can to a high-poverty school that is hitting it out of the park for poor kids. When I talk with well-supported teachers who have seen their children soar, and when I talk with the kids themselves and hear the pride in their voices and see the new confidence in their eyes, I get renewed energy for the never-ending battles to provide education of consistently high quality to all of America’s children.

But over the course of the last week, I’ve gained new energy — dare I even say optimism? — from a different source: education leaders who truly do exemplify what leadership is supposed to be about. Those who have the courage to do the right thing, even when it’s hard and the path forward is unclear.

The first encounter surrounded the release of our report on problems in the state accountability systems approved under the secretary of education’s authority to waive provisions of No Child Left Behind. As those who read that report know, we found much to like about the new accountability systems. Unlike earlier approaches, these rating systems often measure not just proficiency but growth and improvement over time. And they include measures of college and career readiness beyond just test scores. But we also found that the signals around gap-closing had been substantially weakened, and schools are now able to earn high ratings despite low performance and/or growth from some groups of their students. Not good news.

As is our tradition, before the report went public, we shared our findings with leaders from the states whose data we examined so they would not be caught unprepared. We knew, of course, that our findings would be hard to hear. And we knew that, for at least some of them, the timing was horrible, coming so close to what are often very contentious statewide elections. So we just gritted our teeth and waited to be yelled at.

Imagine my surprise when the first response to my email — from Terry Holiday, the commissioner of education in Kentucky — was (and I hope he won’t mind my sharing):

“Great timing Kati. We have similar concerns, and our state board will be revising our state accountability model over coming months. Would Ed Trust have interest in coming to a Ky state board mtg to review analysis and propose possible recommendations – probably early December?” 

And the follow-up call between his team and ours was even better, a genuinely open exploration of what the state might do to strengthen both the signals and the supports schools get.

Despite a lot of very impressive work by Terry and his team, Kentucky has had its share of pushback recently, on everything from Common Core and testing to teacher evaluation. So they couldn’t have wanted another problem to work its way into public view, especially one with the potential to ignite racial tension. But instead of trying to keep it hidden, the commissioner embraced shining some light on it. That, of course, is the way problems get solved, instead of just hidden away. That’s what real leaders do.

Interestingly, I saw that same kind of leadership among a group of higher education leaders gathered for the day in a conference room in a Long Beach hotel.

It has been awhile, I have to confess, since I found a group of higher education leaders inspirational. It seems that many in the sector have lost sight of their public mission. In the pursuit of ever-higher rankings, they have shifted resources away from low-income students and toward the wealthy, exacerbating inequality rather than doing their share to put the American Dream within the reach of the poor.

But this group — campus and system leaders from the huge California State University system — has a very different history and aspirations for the future that focus squarely on broadening opportunities for California’s large and growing communities of color. Once again, our role with them could have activated all of their defenses because we came with data — lots of it — suggesting that while having made progress, their work to date had been insufficient relative to need, that they needed to redouble their efforts to better serve their low-income students and students of color, and that new improvement and gap-closing goals were necessary to give focus to that strategy.

Instead of reacting with anger, however, or just pointing the finger of blame back at the state for serious budget cuts, these leaders — both administrators and faculty — owned the problem and pummeled us and each other for best practices in solving it. And instead of plotting to reach their graduation rate goals in the tried-and-true way in higher education — by becoming more selective and keeping less-prepared students out, something that would be quite easy for many of them as their campuses are flooded with more applicants than they can accommodate — they strategized with each other on how not to do that, keeping their eyes squarely focused on the first-generation college students for whom Cal State has been the most important path up.

Sure, there were a few in the room who were skeptical — who wanted to pick at the data we brought them instead of stepping up to the challenges it suggested. But system Chancellor Tim White — who, in an earlier leadership role, led the University of California’s Riverside campus to completely close the black/white graduation rate gap — told them he would brook no excuses. That California’s big and small communities depended on CSU to help a broader swath of their citizenry earn bachelor’s degrees and that they would, indeed, deliver.

So yes, the dysfunction in Congress still makes me crazy. And the smarty-pants in think tanks, for whom being smart is vastly more important than changing things for the better for kids, still make me want to stick pencils in my eyes.

Yet there are people out there who give me hope. Usually they are the teachers and principals in hit-it-out-of-the-park high-poverty schools. But this week they are the leaders with the courage to step into problems instead of running away from them.

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