In 2021, Chancellor of DC Public Schools Lewis Ferebee identified sustainable leadership pipelines as a critical challenge to the district’s operations. DCPS’s teacher-leaders, assistant principals, and principals were working hard, but needed significant extra coaching to execute that work and stay in the profession. That’s when Ferrebee decided to create an office of leadership development which would not only recruit the best educators to the district but also implement a defined career ladder that would provide educators with the experiences they needed to become effective leaders. Chancellor Ferrebee turned to Dr. David Pinder to be the Chief of Leadership Development.
In this episode of The Best of Us, we spoke to Dr. David Pinder about the challenges he has faced, and progress he has made in carrying out his charge of ensuring that leaders are prepared at each stage of their career with the full complement of skills and capacities necessary to guarantee student and school success. He shared his thoughts on a wide range of topics including the levers for empowering teachers, how to create a culture of innovation, the importance of creating professional learning opportunities that are directly related to what teachers ask for, how retention has become the new recruitment at DCPS, and more.
I'm super excited to chat with you about a topic related to not just professional learning and teacher development, but the way that you frame your role at DCPS more broadly than just professional learning. So maybe just as a starting point, talk about what your role is in DCPS and what you view your mandate to be.
In 2021, Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, who leads D.C. Public Schools, identified a challenge that we were having. I was at the time an instructional superintendent, which basically means I was running at cluster of schools, working with principals on accelerating achievement for all students. And we found that many of our teacher leaders, APs and principals, were really good people working hard, but didn't really have the development along the way such that they could execute that work without needing a lot of extra coaching, a lot of extra support.
And our pipeline simply was not sustainable. And so the Chancellor combined the Office of Human Capital, which is where we recruit our best teachers, our best APs, our best principals, and said, “I want to create an Office of Leadership Development, which combines finding our best educators, [and] developing a pipeline so that everybody that comes into the system knows exactly what they need to know and be able to do. So that we create a progression for them that they can accelerate of their own agency, but ensure that everybody has equitable access to it.”
We felt like our males of color and our Latinx candidates were not getting access to the career ladder. So the charge from the Chancellor for me was to bring the human capital and the leadership development together such that we would not only attract new talent to DCPS, because they would have this opportunity to move up this career ladder and access it at their own agency, but to ensure that as they moved up, they were getting the right experiences,
the right opportunities for learning in front of master educators, master principals, so that we would sustain that pipeline for years to come. And that we would create a system where if you were missing something — if I was sitting here with Jeremy and Jeremy said, “Boy, I didn't get into the AP pool this year,” most districts are going to send you a little letter that says, “Thank you for applying.
Unfortunately with so many candidates, we don't have time to respond back to you.” The chancellor's vision for this office was, “We're going to only touch back with you, Jeremy. We're going to link you to courses, to experiences, to school walks so that whatever that gap is, you can target it right then and there, get that feedback, we're going to keep you in the system instead of you going to another system — and you're going to come back into the work.”
We're going to keep you for much longer, retain our pipeline. So we really believe that retention is the new recruitment. And I think that was the critical charge.
Yeah, I love that as a framing. That retention is the new recruitment. Even if there isn't a teacher who's ready to be in a teacher-leadership position, keeping them in the system is important for the long term health of the system itself. You mentioned two things there that I wanted to follow up on. So you said that the teacher leaders, assistant principals, principals themselves didn't have all of the development that they needed along the way.
What did you identify as some of the key gaps that some of these new teacher leaders and building leaders were facing?
Yeah, I think it depended on who the employee was. I would say that there were there were some leaders who had strong operations skills. There were others who had strong instructional skills. There were others who were really strong at navigating the political landscape and change. But we found that because so many young leaders matriculate quickly in urban districts, that there wasn't enough experiences.
It's not about moving up young. It's about getting you the experiences that you need in order so that you don't essentially have such a learning curve that you lose the staff as you're doing that work. Right? And so we found that for some people, it was: did we get them the instructional work?
For others, it was: I don't know how to develop a master schedule. I'll just give you this example. As a principal, we had difficulty in my first couple of years, because we had kids coming from all over the district, coming to school on time. And so one of the things that I had studied as an aspiring leader was a charter school that was putting all the extracurricular activities at 6 a.m. in the morning and the kids were coming on time.
So I said, okay, “I'm going to put ROTC, the Poet Club, all this in the morning.” Bingo. Our attendance went up. Having that experience as I was growing as a leader, made me a better principal. And so wasn't that our principles and our APs and our teachers weren't competent. They were hardworking, ethical, good people. We had not given them enough experiences in the different areas of leadership and leading a school, that their learning curve wasn't too big.
And then it's hard once you get in that position to to be able to coach that way. When I was the executive director of New Leaders, which is an urban principal training nonprofit in D.C. and across major cities in the country, we found we had a lot of incredibly talented people in that space coming into the work.
But where people struggled was moving really smart people into the work before they had those experiences. I think that that that is that is critical. Our leaders come from such varied backgrounds: the different experiences were different for everyone that they needed. But as a supe, I found it difficult because not only did I have to manage school leaders and teacher-leaders and teachers, having to provide this extensive professional development at the same time.
You're trying to monitor progress, hold people accountable. It's hard to do both. And that's why we think an office that can give people that support, before there's accountability, is going to increase their chances of success without feeling like accountability is a blame game.
Yeah, the only job that I find I've heard is as hard as a teacher is that of a principal. The number of skill sets you have to have — mindsets, experiences, instructional, operational, political — just to be successful. I cannot imagine what it's like to be a first year principal having to navigate that without the scaffolding that you mentioned.
The other piece that you mentioned that I think is really important is equitable access. So you said that males of color and Latinx individuals did not have access to this leadership pipeline. What were some of the barriers that they were facing that you were trying to target?
Traditionally many of our African male African-American male candidates were being tailored into leading culture, or leading operations. And so they weren't getting access to the instructional work, to the budget development, to navigating change in the school community. They were getting hamstrung into a certain space.
And then we found that some of our younger white candidates were getting pushed into the instructional work. And so when instruction became the focus of the district, when Michelle Rhee came in and Kaya Henderson [later], some of our candidates were simply being kept out of that space because they were doing other work.
And it wasn't broad enough for them to get the experience. We found the same with Latinx candidates. They just weren't getting access to that work. And there's a number of reasons why that is. People get put into this traditional space where people think they should be, which is why DC is really tackling anti-racism, interrogating bias because we want to remove the barriers, explore what the what the challenges are around the institutional biases, so that we have a large, diverse set of candidates that are coming in to do the work.
We just started a new doctoral program for aspiring principals and superintendents at Howard University for our African-American male and Latinx candidates. It's a Wallace Foundation grant. We believe that when you get access, then you're going to your. And there just wasn't enough access to a diverse set of candidates.
Yeah, that makes sense. So stepping back and thinking about your role and how you kind of structure what sounds like a pretty overwhelming task, right? Just getting an entire system to have the human capital and the skills to be able to successfully lead schools. You spoke very eloquently about the levers that you see for really empowering teachers, unleashing innovation, accelerating achievement ultimately.
Talk a little bit about what those levers are, and then we can spend a little bit of time going into each one of them.
Yeah, I think this starts with the engaging educators and empowering educators. I think with the Chancellor has done brilliantly and I think what we're working on in our office too, is to make sure that educators are at the heart of decision making. In a lot of districts, the decisions start at the top and then work their way down.
Scott Goldstein is doing some really good work in EmpowerEd in D.C. and partnering with us around how do we give teachers more flexible schedules? How do we ensure that they are the architects of our curriculum? How do we ensure that we're creating PD that is related to what they ask for? So like some of our elementary teachers said, "We need to know how to do the science of reading? We know we’ve got to teach literacy, but we're not experts in the science readings." And the district was responsive to ensuring that what teachers are saying on the ground, that they [get what they] need to be more effective. We're trying to get them there.
But I think what makes D.C. so progressive and flexible in terms of their thinking and innovative in their thinking is that we are responsive to the needs of teachers. And when you empower educators as a principal, [it’s] asking simply two questions: “What do you need to move student achievement,” and “What things do I need to remove so that you can do that work?”
And I think that's what DCPS is doing really well in asking the two questions. What do you need to move achievement? It’s a non-negotiable that we're going to give kids access to rigor and we're going to move achievement. And what can we remove from your plate to ensure you have the space and time to do that work? And then ultimately making sure that the professional development we're providing you are the things they say they need in order to move literacy, in order to move numeracy.
And I think when you when you give teachers that charge, when you give them that freedom, when you build in opportunities like flexible scheduling, like allowing them to be part of the curriculum workshops — hundreds of teachers write curriculum each summer and participate in developing our prompts and our tasks for student assessments — you get buy-in. And I think that that is part of the reason DC has a high retention rate.
If you look at our effective and highly effective teachers, which make up nearly nine out of ten teachers in DCPS, 92% of them have stayed with us. And in the pandemic it actually moved up a percent. So the three years before the pandemic, we were retaining 85%. The three years during the pandemic, we were retaining 86%. So I think there's something to be said when you compensate teachers effectively, create flexibly- designed schedules,
Again, we're just starting in that work. Give teachers voice and curriculum, give them an opportunity to be a part of the design of assessment and then ask them what they need removed. You can accelerate achievement. You unleash innovation because they're at the heart of the decisions and they're the closest people to the work.
Yeah, we talk all of the time at KickUp about how professional learning is often done to teachers instead of with teachers. And ultimately those are the people who are going to be carrying out the change that you want them to carry out. So I love that you put educators at the heart of decision making. Can you go a little deeper on flexible scheduling?
What is the vision there? That sounds so operationally challenging given the constraints of a day, and what the expectations are of schools and teachers. So talk a little bit more about what you're doing in that area.
Yeah, so DC right now is exploring multiple designs, a flexible schedule, and we've looked at a bunch of them. Some of them include like letting kids go a little bit earlier in the school day, not necessarily home. They would do community service, they might be taking specialty courses in health and arts or in some other area that they love.
While teachers are getting additional planning. So one schedule would be like on Wednesdays, the kids’ academic day would end a little bit earlier. Then they would get into some incredibly fun, innovative coursework taught by our special teachers, our CTE teachers or STEM teachers. And then teachers would be in this like two, three, four hour PD where they get time to look at student work, they get time to think about their planning.
Another example would be kids could potentially come flexibly throughout the day. So you can have teachers come in from 7 to 12, another set of teachers would go from 11 to 3, another set of teachers would go from 3 to 7.
So you got kids there all day, but there's flexibility across the day so that teachers have time to plan. Teachers have time to think about their their family schedules. We're primarily a two parent work force in D.C... So we’ve got to think about what the school day looks like for two working households, to make sure that they have flexibility in their day, that they don't have to take off from instruction to meet the needs of kids.
And then there are other some other flexible days where, like, you can have a day where this set of teachers is teaching and then on the B-day they have more planning time. So the idea of giving teachers time to plan, time to look at student work and time to have some flexibility so that in their lives they're not confined by a simple eight-to-three or four o’clock day and then many of them are coaching and doing other work afterwards.
So I think DCPS has done one strong thing in this work, which is we're compensating teachers at incredible rates in D.C. public schools. You know, if you're there five years and you're highly effective, you can make $130,000 and there's opportunities for bonus. And we pay teachers $60 an hour when they're coming to class. Most districts don't do that.
Why does that matter? Because when I was a starting principal and we were paying teachers very low salaries, they were working two or three jobs. They're coming in exhausted. They don't have the time to do the student work, the student support. So compensation with flexibility in scheduling, empowering them with curriculum, we think is again, a strong retention strategy which leads to which leads to less need to constantly recruit new people to work.
It's costly when you have to invest in new people. So we really want to keep more teachers in D.C., particularly we're looking at after five years, we're doing a pretty good job keeping effective and highly effective teachers through five years. We want to keep them. And beyond that.
And I imagine you're gathering teacher feedback on these different flexible scheduling options. Is it kind of like every school has different options for how they plan their schedule? What is the the innovation plan when it comes to these different flexible scheduling options that you're considering?
Yep. So we are going to present to them somewhere between three and six possible options for flexible schedules. And yes, schools can choose. One of the one of the things that will need to happen is the WTU, Washington Teachers Union, does require that two thirds of the staff vote on and agree on any shifts in the design of the schedule.
So which is a good thing because ultimately then you've got buy in from a strong consensus. Principals will be given an opportunity put these new scheduling ideas in front of their staff. And then we we feel strongly that that if the staff is a part of that decision, that it's going to reflect the needs of their community, reflect the needs of their students and families and their personal needs, and will will not only drive the work more efficiently and more effectively, but but people will want to be there because they had a say and a part in the design of that schedule.
When you look at the surveys for why teachers leave, lack of flexibility is at the top of the list. So it's amazing that you're tackling it head on for such a large system. What prompted this? Because I would imagine for other district leaders that might be listening just sounds like an overwhelming task to say we're going to rethink the school day.
What was the leadership discussion? What precipitated this getting underway?
I'd like to say DCPS, since 2007 and 8, has really gotten innovative. I mean, Kaya Henderson started that with her Proving What's Possible campaign where she essentially said, “I'm willing to give the schools more money, if you come up with an innovation for how you think you can move achievement.” And giving people the flexibility to fail forward, to be safe in taking those risks.
I think that started a huge innovation piece. I think our chancellor now is also very innovative and I think the pandemic and just the national shifts in the way we've worked over the last three years and the way teachers are leaving the profession nationally, we had to step back and say, how do we ensure that the people who come to us stay? And that we can attract people who have never considered education to be a strong-paying, highly competitive industry with lots of flexibility. We do a lot of brain research in DCPS around creating more oxytocin and serotonin in people.
And we're really dedicated to recognizing that when any human being is in a state of cortisol all the time, where there's overwhelming pressure and and demands that go beyond the scope of a person's emotional capacity, that you lose people. Even if you don't lose them from the job, you lose them from the quality of the work. The times demanded that we look at this differently.
I think Mayor Bowser is a really innovative mayor. I don't think people look closely a lot of the things that she's done in D.C. to give people more opportunities for family leave, for more opportunities, for compensation, for opportunities to look at things differently and innovatively. And I do think that that cascaded in a number of D.C. agencies to make it safe for us to say, let's go ahead and experiment.
In a lot of other cities, the challenge is, whether they're run by school boards or mayors, people would rather play things safe. But at the end of the day, you can't make innovations [without] thinking differently about the work and the space. And I think the times are going to require other districts across the country to look at it, but they're going to continue to lose high quality people.
And you simply can't move achievement without great teachers.
Let's move a little bit to curriculum innovation. You mentioned that teachers have a voice in the curriculum. They are involved in the creation of the curriculum over the summer. What are some of the key moves that you're making in DCPS to ignite innovation in curriculum?
Yeah, so I want to just caveat that. I'm not the Chief of Teaching & Learning, but I closely work with [Chief of Teaching & Learning] Corie Colgan. I think what makes them really unique and I think what makes teachers interested is we're diversifying the curriculum, whether it's ensuring that kids are getting experiences like how to ride a bicycle, travel international field trips, making the curriculum relevant, where Anacostia High School partnered with the Department of Energy to do math and science through that space. Ballou High School partnering with cooking programs in an effort to make culinary come to life and auto come to life and working with actual CEOs.
Schools are able to now redesign their program to the new industry needs of their kids. I think at the elementary level, the fact that we're giving kids new ways to explore literacy, that they're becoming more relevant to their to their own backgrounds, to their own history, that we're exploring opportunities for teachers to teach that curriculum from the lens of DC history and DC culture makes it more fun, makes it more relevant, makes it more rigorous.
I do think we still have some shifts to make. We've gotten some feedback from teachers that we're giving too many assessments. And I think in that space we need to think how do we balance — the way that we give assessment is a checkpoint, right? You know, I love to play golf, but at the end of the day, if I don't look at the scorecard, it's kind of hard to know where you're moving.
So how do you balance a space where teachers have the autonomy to use that curriculum in a way that's meaningful for kids [while] ensuring that you have high standards. A teacher in the east side or the northeast side of DC and the southeast side of DC is not so far different, that we're not ensuring equity and agency.
So I think it's great we invite all these teachers over the summer to participate in the curriculum. Many of them are the architects of the constructive responses we've designed, but I do think we've got work to do, which is how do we ensure we have the right number of assessments to gauge where our kids are without making it feel like the teachers are teaching to the assessment at all times.
And I do think we're finding a much better balance in that. But I think empowering them, being willing to try new things in the curriculum. I was looking at a curriculum unit the other day where they included social emotional learning components of it. So we're asking a question like, What would you have done if you were in this person's position in the story?
You're teaching empathy by doing that. You're teaching self-awareness. And so what we really believe that those those skills, those social emotional learning skills are critical to like developing kids. So the fact that we're rewriting curriculum from a lens of being self-aware, empathetic, and and thinking about your own reflections from the perspectives of the people in the stories — while we're trying to make math come to life through our new illustrative math curriculum,
where it's not so much just about the conceptual, it's also about the relevance of it. I do think that exploring those avenues has made it more fun for teachers to teach while we still are wrestling with the balance of “How do we ensure we're doing assessment in a way that tells us what we need to know so that we can intervene quickly with our kids and our teachers, but not so much that it feels like we're not giving teachers the agency to creatively approach the lessons in in, in innovative ways?”
And that insight around over assessing students — it sounds like that came directly from teachers over the past few years. Is that right?
It did. The chancellor has a teacher advisory cabinet. He has a principal advisory cabinet. He loves to hear from both sectors of the school force. And I think there were teachers who said, look, we love the innovations, the curriculum, we love the fact that we're part of it. But we feel like there are a lot of assessments.
And how do we balance that? And I think that's something the Chancellor and the teachers are really exploring.
And so what is your role when it comes to curriculum innovation? How does the Office of Leadership Development collaborate with teaching and learning? And what is what is the part that you play?
So obviously I've been a teacher, I've been a department chair, I've been an AP admin, a principal, I've been an instructional supe. So I have a lens to say, Here's how this is going to impact leaders, right? Here's the runway. You've got to give leaders to learn this for themselves, to execute this with our staff. So one of the challenges, any time you're in a central services team, is that you're further from the work.
And so it's easy to move at a speed at which school leaders and staff can't move. And so part of our work is to come in and say, “Hey, you're thinking about this new curriculum innovation, you're thinking about this new assessment. Here's how we believe this is going to affect principals. Here's the training you're going to give principals and APs.” The change management for the staff. And so that we can balance their innovations with the speed of trust at schools. And so we have lots of opportunities. We have also leadership development, principal fellows, A.P. fellows, teacher-leader fellows who come in and tell us like, hey, we love this, we need this runway. So giving them that angle helps them balance out their decisions with like, “How is this going to land in a school?”
The other is curriculum takes time to learn. Just when you shift one unit of learning, teachers need time to digest that. You need time to pilot that, you need time to think about that. So being able to help [Office of Teaching & Learning], think about how would this work better as a pilot? Would it work better as a school?
Choosing it and experimenting with it and giving us feedback and then expanding. Being the voice of the principal and the teacher leaders and APs, I think is important. The other thing is I see our office as the developers of the other core office work. So if the Office of Teaching & Learning, the Office of Equity, the Office of Chiefs of School say, “We need our principals and APs to know how to do this,” that then informs how we develop them so that we're developing them around the things they need. So if they say “We really want them to know how to run a weekly data meeting so that they can look at data and respond in real time,” their work informs our work. And so what they can say is, “Hey, if we don't see the curriculum being executed on the ground, if we don't see students being loved and a whole child approach to teaching and learning,” that's our work to rethink our development programs because our job is to help them execute what they've designed.
So you're being responsive both to the curriculum and teaching and learning team, to the principals that you serve, the aspiring principals, the teacher leaders. It's all kind of one big cycle of feedback, which is exciting to hear for such a large system. That's probably a good segue way to talk about your work directly. Leadership development. I know you've developed some career pathways.
Going back to the beginning of our conversation: When you talked about the number of different skill sets you need to have as a teacher leader, as an AP, as a as a building leader, how do you scaffold that? How do you do that work in leadership development?
Yeah, I had this experience when I was a superintendent. One of our assistant principals who I had recruited to DCPS, a young African-American male, wanted to be a principal. He came into the work early in his career, and I remember him saying to me, “Pinder, I want to be a principal. What do I need to know?” And I'd say, “Mr. So-and-so, you need these five things. I need to see these five things. When you get these five things so you can run a team that you knew, observation, feedback, and give people real high quality feedback that you can create systems so that you can monitor those systems, right? That you can connect with students and families, and that you can navigate like the political landscape of the work.”
And I gave him some examples for like how to do those things. And one of the things that he said to me before leaving our system, which really was profound for me, was, “And where do I get that learning?” And so I sat down with our team at the beginning of this work and started to begin to construct our strategic plan, I said two things.
We’ve got to make sure if we're going to create a career ladder that's sustainable and equitable, we can't hide the ball from people. We have to tell them exactly what it is they need to know and be able to do to be considered for the next role. So as we looked through our like principal evaluation — one of the things that I've seen principals stumble on is like being able to navigate community conflict.
Being able to navigate change, moving at a speed where people can handle that change and do it in a responsive way, being able to get creative with the master schedule so that teachers get more flexibility in the day. But if you look at like most standards of leadership development, those things aren't in there. They're the things that are hidden.
And so as we created a new career ladder, which we're in the process of doing, I said, “I want to make the hidden visible.” What are the things that are getting in the way? Most of our our teacher-leaders are learning how to run data meetings, understanding curriculum. They understand assessment, they know how to go in and do an observation, certainly on a cursory level.
But how do you get adult buy-in? How do you navigate that? Parents and community members see changes in coursework or designs of school days and get nervous. How do you how do you flesh out ideas with a team so that everybody is heard, so that there's equity in voice in your building? And so we started to design a ladder of “What does an aspiring educator into DCPS need to be?”
How do we want to think about race and bias and interrogation of those bias? I wanted them to think about holistic work and whole child work and whole adult work wellness for adults. And so we're working with our university partners at GW, at Howard and American, to make sure that they're aligning aspiring educator work to that. And then when they get in here, how do we onboard them and then how do we ensure that every proficiency and competency that we want people to know — we're going to put it out like at the end of June.
Our goal is to say “This is what you need to know and be able to do,” so no one's going to go, “What the heck do I need to do? What do I need to know?” We're not going to [make it so] you have to know your regional superintendent, your instructional soup to get access to that.
We're going to create microcredentialing courses that you can take at your own agency. We’re going to make those courses rigorous. So if you can pass those courses — how to do data meetings, to have courageous conversations, how to interrogate bias — then you would get invited to walks with our master principals, our superintendents, and you automatically get in there. We don’t need to know your name,we don’t need to know your background, we don't need to know your race. You do those things, you're going to get equitable access, and then you're in the pool. Right now it's getting recommended from your principal, getting recommended from your supe. Our rubrics haven't been interrogated for biases.
And so we firmly believe that if we can create a career ladder where it's clear what people need to know and to do, it's not a checklist... We're not going to leave you out there, we're going to give you other opportunities. That's really important. The second part is not everyone wants to go vertically.
And so 2.0 of this work is going to be, “I want to be a teacher, I don't want to be an administrator, but I want lateral learning opportunities. I want to be a curriculum writer. I want to design new social emotional learning experiences for kids. I want to design extracurricular classes, right? I want to be a policy advisor in the district.”
So being able to say to our people, you can go this way laterally, this way vertically, you'll know what you need to know. You'll have the PD and learning opportunities at agency, and we'll compensate you along the way with both monetary compensation, but also ownership of your PD, ownership of your learning. We believe that that is going to be a recipe for higher retention rates because that's what our teachers and administrators said. They want it.
The story you told about the aspiring principal who inspired your work, I can see how his career trajectory would be quite different had he had these opportunities, had he had a clear understanding of what it is you need to know, and then how do you actually learn those things?
And he was so motivated he would have done it on his own... And that's what harmed us, as we lost him to another district after four or five years. And you're talking about a million-dollar investment that a young African American male leader and it's bothered me to this day.
How long did it take for you to put this this process into place?
So we've been working on it for about a year and a half and we've got some draft career ladder standards and proficiencies and experiences, which now will go through a review of our teacher advisors, our school leader advisors, our superintendents, our chiefs, our ancillary teams in teaching and learning equity. And our hope is that that that first draft, that vertical career ladder, is going to be out in June.
And then I think the tremendous thing about DCPS too is that we're willing to iterate. You don't come in 20 years later and see the same standards and the same. So I would say the 1.0 version will be at the end of the year, which will have been about an 18 month process.
Then we'll just continue to iterate that that space and work. But if we do it right, people will say “This is reflective of what we said we need,” and then we progress-monitor that success in student achievement. The non-negotiable is that we're progress-monitoring this around student outcomes. Are we improving attendance for kids?
Are we improving achievement for kids? Are we giving them more opportunities for college? Are they succeeding once they leave us? And do the adults feel empowered to innovate, to have agency, to iterate when the work isn't getting us where we need to be? That's going to be a critical part of [what] we do to ensure that we're actually making progress for adults as well.
If you think back to a year and a half ago when you were conceiving of this, and for district leaders that are looking at the work that you're doing and saying, “Wow, that is something I would aspire to,” what were some of the barriers standing in the way? Some of the challenges that other leaders might face when trying to put together such a robust vertical career ladder?
I think it's going to be really important to position the shifts around what school leaders and teachers say they need. I think when you come in and say, “Hey, we're gonna do all these innovations, we're gonna make these changes,” people go, “This is about central services, central office bureaucracy, about what they want to be able to stamp as their deliverable when they leave.”
But I think when you make it authentic and you go in and say “We want the the the best and brightest teachers and principals and APs to stay here, we want to cultivate a pipeline that is internal. We do not want to keep searching all over the country for the next best people. We know we have them here.”
What we need to know is what does the research say that great national school models are doing? And I'll give you this example. When I started as a cluster supe, I was working with six of the lowest performing schools in our district with six incredible principals. And I said, Let's start with the research. And we had 340 research articles. And the six principals said, Well, they're predominantly in white suburbs, and a lot of them model this.
And so we reduced all of the research that was not aligned to kids of color and the work challenges and the urban challenge, we got down to 41 research articles [with] best practices [for] schools like us. And when they chose them, I said, “Good, let's go pay for the PD conferences.
We'll redesign our program around them.” Grad rates went up at those high schools dramatically over the next two years, retention rates, increased enrollment rates, even in a pandemic. So as leaders across the country begin to think about this work, how you develop, the first thing you got to say is, “What's your non-negotiable?” For me, my non-negotiable is I approached it the way I would approach when my mom had cancer, right?
As doctors came to me and said, “Hey, what's the right treatment,” I'd say, “Tell me what has worked in the past, for people with my mom's cancer and let's start there. And so I think it's important to say, “Hey as a superintendent, as a chief, as a district leader, what's your non-negotiable?” For us, it was “What does the research say that similar similar districts, similar urban school districts across the country, are doing that are true national models?”
And let the teachers and administrators really muck that up and beat that up so that when you choose that pathway for how we're going to design this, they know that they had a legit voice in it, but it wasn't about anecdote to experience it. It was based on something I said, “Hey, you, you tell me what's the best research practice we'll do, We'll put it in, we'll pay for the PD.
We're going to develop you. You guys own it.” That was the primary... There’s a great book, Jeremy, that says if you don't feed the teachers, they will eat the students. Right. I can't remember the authors. I want to apologize. But our I think our theory and the chancellor's theory is we're not going to negotiate high standards for what we want kids to achieve.
If you believe that African-American students, Latinx students can achieve like their white and Asian counterparts, that is non-negotiable. We're not going to reduce the rigor for our kids. That being said, we recognize teaching is changing. We recognize school leaders need different things. We recognize we don't want people dropping dead on their desks and working three jobs. What is it that we can do that is reflective of the needs of our educators, such that it is progress-monitored against student acceleration, student achievement and retention, retention of great educators?
I think if you're authentically willing as a district leader to say, “Look, we're in, choose this, and if it doesn't get us what we want, we're going to go back to the drawing board.” I do think you'll get engagement, but it takes the — I've always said this and I believe this to this day —
You have to be willing to be fired to be a great district leader, a great chief, a great coach in the NFL. I know how many times of George Steinbrenner fired his managers and brought them back. But at the end of the day, I think my advice to district leaders and chiefs who are trying to make this change is authentically engage your teams and communities, determine your non-negotiables so you don't look passive aggressive if that's really what you believe.
And then let people fail forward and and iterate when when they tell you to against student achievement.
And a lot of what you've spoken about is putting the principles of collective teacher efficacy into practice, right? So giving teachers, giving leaders the skills that they need to grow, giving them opportunities to collaborate and to share best practices, giving them actionable feedback and giving them ownership and input into what they learn, how they learn what they need.
And it's been really inspiring just to hear how you put those things into practice at a systemwide level and knowing that you still have more work to do.
Lots of work to do.
Yeah. David, I really appreciate the time you've taken to share with us and I think district leaders will learn a lot from you. How can they get in touch with you if they have more questions?
david.pinder@K-12.dc.gov. I would love to connect with other leaders who not only can learn from us, but we can learn from them.
Great. David Pinder, thank you.
Do you want to come here in D.C.? We pay. It's incredible flexibility. It's an incredible opportunity. Come change lives for kids in the nation's capital.
There's your recruiting pitch. David Pinder thank you so much for being on the Best of Us.
Thanks, Jeremy. I enjoyed it.
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