SEARCH LEARNING EDGE
—— Leigh Hafrey, Cate Reavis ——
It was mid-May 2007, and Victor Reinoso had 12 hours before his recommendation was due to Mayor Adrian Fenty on who should lead the Washington, DC Public Schools (DCPS). In merely one month's time, Mayor Fenty would be taking control of the school system per a legislative decree passed by the DC Council in April.
Mayoral control was the latest in a long series of attempts to reform the DCPS ( a system made up of 150 schools, 55,000 students, of which 82% were African American, and roughly 4,000 teachers, the majority of whom belonged to the Washington Teachers' Union and lived outside of Washington, DC. Considered one of the nation's worst urban public school systems, half of the city's schools were failing federal standards in reading, math, and other education goals. While the district ranked third among the nation's 100 largest districts in spending per student ($13,000), it ranked first in share of budget spent on administration, and last on teachers and instruction.1 Patronage was rampant within the system's bloated bureaucracy, with one employee admitting, "We used to joke that we do organizational charts by family ( who is related to whom."2 As one former deputy superintendent recalled, "You had to stop and find out who you were dealing with and what the relationships were before you could make decisions."3 Leadership turnover was alarmingly high: DCPS had had six superintendents or acting superintendents since 1998. Meanwhile, the city unemployment rate of 6% was notably higher than the national average of 4%, a fact that many attributed to the ailing education system.
Fenty had named Reinoso as his deputy mayor for education when he was elected mayor in November 2006. Reforming the school system was Fenty's top priority and he knew that Reinoso, who held an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and had served on DC's school board since 2004, had successfully turned around struggling businesses during his time as a consultant, and would be the right person to lead the change effort. (See
Exhibit 1 for Reinoso's resume.)
Reinoso embraced the new challenge, even though Deputy Mayor for Education was not a job title he had expected to add to his resume. He knew that DCPS was at a critical juncture and that he needed to recommend a tough leader who would not only fulfill decades-old promises to reform DCPS, but who would prove that mayoral control was a viable way to turn around struggling schools. But there was also a personal motive behind Reinoso's search for chancellor: he had two young children who would soon enter DCPS. His recommendation would directly affect their educational future.
In the summer of 2004, Reinoso decided to run for the DC school board. While he had been encouraged to run by a friend who had been elected to the school board in 2000, Reinoso's decision was also motivated by an unsettling observation: few of his neighbors sent their kids to the neighborhood public school and those who did had nothing but negative things to say. That deeply concerned him:
I thought that the whole thing was absurd. We are living in what is probably one of the city's most liberal enclaves, where people are genetically wired to send their kids to public schools and yet very few were. It was clear that the principal was not focused on satisfying her customer base. She was not focused on getting market share. The school's poor performance towards its core audience was masked by the fact that the schools were so bad elsewhere that families had traveled from other parts of the city to attend this school. As a result, it was fully enrolled, and wasn't drawing any negative attention. And so the low performance of other neighborhoods had essentially consigned us to a level of indifference. There wasn't anybody driving towards real measures of performance. I figured that the school board was where reform decisions were made. It was where the rubber meets the road.
With help from a group called EdAction, a grassroots education organization, Reinoso began campaigning. While campaigns for school board elections were usually benign affairs, Reinoso's candidacy drew a lot of attention. He became known as the "business community candidate." At the time of his election, he was chief operating officer of the Federal City Council, a non-profit organization that brought corporations from around the city to work together on economic development issues. Alongside his COO role, Reinoso served as director of education initiatives, through which he worked closely with senior management of DCPS, education reform activists, elected leaders, and business leaders to help advance education reform initiatives. "I definitely got called out on the business connections and I got criticized for how much money I raised," Reinoso recalled.
There were ridiculous conspiracy theories about business interests and privatization of the public school system, that I was getting checks from CEOs who had never written checks for school board races before so I must have promised them some kind of business opportunity. They called me out on being a newcomer, questioning how much I knew about education and how meaningful my credentials were to begin with.
Some close to the school board were genuinely perplexed by his candidacy. As Eric Lerum, a staffer for the board, noted,
I couldn't figure out why he was there. Because here's a guy who is not a politician, and he comes from the private sector which, as far as I was concerned, didn't want anything to do with a failing school system. Now I didn't think he was going to line his pockets or line the pockets of his friends, or further his own career. My thought was he couldn't possibly care about this. He wouldn't be willing to roll-up his sleeves and really get into what it takes.
The school board seat that Reinoso campaigned for represented ward 3, the wealthiest neighborhood in DC, and ward 4, a diverse and largely African American area where Reinoso, of Peruvian descent, lived. (See
Exhibit 2 for demographics by ward.) While his opponents focused their efforts on winning the support of ward 3, thereby splintering the vote, Reinoso focused his efforts on ward 4, which was home to the three-term incumbent, an African American. Reinoso ran a data-driven campaign, cognizant of the number of votes he would need to get in each ward to win: "We knew the number of votes we were trying to get and we knew how those votes had to be distributed in order to win against the incumbent."
Reinoso's campaign message focused on management issues. "Despite the negative reaction of my competitors," he explained, "I wanted to send the message that I was going to bring this business background to the school board, and that I was going to be about outcomes." The mis-management of school facilities was one issue he focused on in particular:
There had been a longstanding concern in the community that it was taking too long to do facilities upgrades. The approach had been to do teardowns and then build new. But that was yielding one school every couple of years. Meanwhile, there were 150 schools with mal- functioning bathrooms, poor lighting, broken windows, broken water fountains, you name it, that needed immediate attention. This strategy simply didn't work.
Armed with an endorsement from Adrian Fenty, who at that time represented ward 4 on the DC Council, Reinoso won a seat on the school board.
Shortly after joining the board, Reinoso came to the conclusion that the board's "decision-by-committee-culture" - a culture that was reinforced by the premium school superintendent Clifford Janey placed on getting board consensus when making a difficult decision - did not offer a viable path to reform: "People in a private meeting would have strong opinions of a tough or controversial action that needed to be taken to execute a particular decision," Reinoso explained. "But then as soon as it came time for a vote, people's backbones would soften. Everything was always getting diluted and the resolve to make the hard decisions would get lost."
As one example, in a May 2006 press conference, Janey stated he would recommend to the school board that it close six schools, with additional closings to come in the following two years. This number took Reinoso by surprise because in discussions with the school board, Janey had indicated that 20 schools would have to be closed as soon as possible, in order to curtail inefficiencies. At the time of the announcement, half of the DCPS buildings, totaling 3 million square feet, were underused.4 In response to Janey's announcement, Reinoso told him, "You know how this works, right? There are nine board members and as long as you get a majority of the votes it doesn't matter what the minority thinks. You're backing off a difficult decision in order to make what would have been a 7:2 or 8:1 vote unanimous. You're compromising your agenda for the sake of this appearance of consensus."
As Reinoso explained it, Janey's decision to back off reflected his desire not to "upset the applecart":
School boards hire superintendents and typically their tenures are very short. Many do whatever they can to avoid developing a reputation that will make it difficult to find their next job. Janey believed the closing of six schools was politically palatable for the teachers' union and the community at large. But in my opinion, the system needed to be radically rethought and an incremental approach simply would not stick long term.
By mid-2006, Reinoso was not seeing any real outcomes from his time on the board:
There's stability in school board membership that can be damaging. Members of the school board start to see the school system as theirs, and start to have this sense of ownership over staff members and need to protect the folks who they know. I became convinced that the school board was not the fastest path or even a path towards serious reform. Cities that were truly trying to change things in their school systems, Chicago, Boston, New York were doing so under mayoral control.
As Reinoso's frustration with the board continued to build, an opportunity for him to play a more direct role in the future of the school system presented itself.
On November 7, 2006, with 89% of the vote, Adrian Fenty was elected the mayor of Washington, DC. He ran on a platform that stressed quality public education, government efficiency, and accountability. Leading up to his election, Fenty, an African American, let it be known that, if victorious, he would do whatever it took to fix the schools. Reinoso and a group of business leaders had discussed the option of taking over the school system with Fenty when he was on the DC Council and considering a run for mayor.
Within days of his election victory, Fenty asked Reinoso to serve as his deputy mayor for education. Reinoso resigned his seat on the school board and quit his job. "I didn't intend for this to be a stepping stone to a political career," he explained. "I didn't want to run the school system. Rather I wanted to put people in place who could." Reinoso viewed his new position as a turnaround opportunity, a challenge he was comfortable taking on:
In my time as a consultant, I helped turn around a variety of companies, and no matter the industry, the process is very similar: it's about creating a path to move from the current state to the desired state. And in some cases this involves rewriting people's job descriptions, performance review plans, and bringing in new systems so that they can better analyze data and make real-time use of data. In other cases it might involve examining whether you are rewarding staff for appropriate behavior or whether their interests are aligned with business interests tightly enough.
The challenges facing DCPS were not all that different than what I had seen in the private sector. Here was an under-performing organization with sufficient resources that needed to be reorganized and managed differently in order to move things forward. There was no alignment between management, expectations and outcomes. As much as people talked about how intractable the school problems were, to me, it didn't seem that complicated.
Believing the nation's capital had to do better by its residents, Mayor Fenty set a medium-term goal of becoming the best school system in the country and a long-term goal of becoming a world-class school system, a goal that Reinoso claimed caused many people to roll their eyes: "Nobody ever talked about the school system being the best in the country. Many believed that so long as the city is populated with so many poor, African American families, DC would never have the nation's best school system. I think that is bogus. All kids can learn. It's just a question of aligning adult interests to that goal and holding people accountable for that goal."
Between Fenty's victory in early November 2006 and his swearing in in early January 2007, Reinoso was busy putting his team together, gathering data on the state of DCPS that clearly showed the need for a more radical approach to reform, and drafting the legislation that would place DCPS under mayoral control.
From the beginning, Reinoso wanted to build a flat organization that would act as an internal consulting team and also be responsible for managing external consultants. As he explained, such a structure would enable him to put a team together to help solve a particular issue within DCPS without being weighed down by day-to-day operational responsibilities: "That's the value of a consultant. They help you, in this case DCPS managers, think through your problems, make sure you're looking at the right problem, craft a solution for it and make sure you've got the capacity to implement it. And then you own it moving forward and the team moves on to another project."
In putting his team together, Reinoso looked for people with a variety of backgrounds and talents, but all with experience in education and project management. He had 12 direct reports in place by the time Mayor Fenty was sworn in.
One of the first people Reinoso hired was Eric Lerum. Named chief of staff, Lerum, who held a law degree and described himself as a civil rights advocate, had disagreed openly with Reinoso during his early days on the school board while Lerum was a staff member. In time, however, their relationship turned a corner:
I noticed that Victor was really the first board member who was immediately disenchanted with the pace of reform. I was taken by the fact he had to be drafted to run for the board. It wasn't something he wanted to do. And because of that he put greater emphasis on getting results. He was all about outcomes and outputs. He was about looking at what we, as a city, want to achieve and work backwards from there. He was all about the bottom line and figuring out what our strategy should be in order to meet our bottom line.
In addition to building his team, Reinoso spent the transition period getting data that would tell a clearer story about the state of DCPS. He hired the Parthenon Group, a consulting firm with a well-known education practice, to conduct a best-practice review of urban school districts experiencing accelerated reform or operating under mayoral control. In Reinoso's mind, getting objective data was critical: "One of the things we wanted to do immediately was reset the conversation around schools. We knew that the school system was performing badly but there wasn't a lot of quantifiable data and there wasn't broad awareness on what the issues were, in part because I think the expectation that the schools could be reformed had been taken off the table."
The results, which were released to the public at a press conference in early January 2007, indicated that of the 11 school systems that Parthenon reviewed,5 Washington, DC ranked last in student achievement in reading and math for both the 4th and 8th grades. (See
Exhibit 3). DCPS enrollment had also dropped 13% between 2000 and 2005 while enrollment at charter schools had enjoyed notable growth (Figure 1).
Figure 1DCPS Enrollment vs. DC Charter Schools
Source: Fact-Base for DCPS Reform: Executive Summary, The Parthenon Group, December 2006..
The superintendent turnover rate also set Washington, DC apart: the average tenure of a DCPS superintendent was 2.4 years, compared to 4.6 years for the 50 largest cities in the United States. Looking at superintendent tenure at schools under mayoral control, the study found considerably longer tenures (Figure 2).
Figure 2Average Superintendent Tenure, Pre- and Post-Mayoral Control
Source: Fact-Base for DCPS Reform: Executive Summary, The Parthenon Group, December 2006.
Alongside the data, Parthenon identified six core "Pain Points" that needed the administration's attention
(Figure 3). The report indicated the same pain points had been highlighted in various reports dating back to the 1980s.
Figure 3 Leading Pain Points
The vast majority of Reinoso's time leading up to Fenty's swearing in was spent drafting the legislation that would hand control of DCPS over to the mayor. Reinoso brought in people with experience in writing legislation to assist him. The drafting process did not include input from DC Council members, principals, teachers, or constituents. As Reinoso explained, "We would not have gotten where we needed to be if we left it up to a decision-by-committee." While the drafting was done in private, the Mayor's office organized a field trip for the DC Council to visit Mayor Bloomberg and the chair of the New York City Council to discuss that city's experience with mayoral takeover. "We wanted to show the Council that it was an effective strategy for accelerating reform," Reinoso stated.
Mayor Fenty introduced The DC Public Education Reform Act of 2007 the day after he was sworn in. The legislation established DCPS as a subordinate agency under the mayor, which, Reinoso noted, aligned all of the players in a way that simplified decision-making. The day-to-day management of DCPS would be in the hands of a chancellor, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. The DCPS school board, which at one time had controlled the $1 billion operating budget, became a state education board with limited power to direct policies, including standardized tests and teacher certification. (See
Exhibit 4 for Organizational Structure pre-and post mayoral control.)
One of the key components of the legislation removed certain non-core responsibilities from the school system, so that schools could focus on educating students. Facilities management, for example, was placed in the hands of a new independent Facilities Management and Construction Authority. The legislation also created a separation between state and local school responsibilities, creating two separate lines of accountability. Traditionally, the state and city school district functions had co-existed under DCPS.
From Reinoso's perspective, the creation of the Interagency Collaboration and Services Integration Commission was another key component of the reform. The ICSIC aimed to bring together the heads of agencies dealing with child services, in order to create an integrated delivery system of services for vulnerable children. As Reinoso explained, "From a management standpoint, the school system had suffered by being independent from the rest of government. One of the key reasons for bringing the school system under mayoral control was so that we could coordinate a sweep of city services in support of education reforms."
After conducting more than 14 hearings, which included the testimony of outside experts, teachers and students, the legislation was passed by the DC Council on April 17, 2007. The Mayor's office was scheduled to take control of the system on June 12. As part of the takeover agreement, the Mayor's office was required to show results within five years.
In March Reinoso began an under-the-radar search for a chancellor. "Since we didn't have an official green light to take over the school system," he explained,
I had to essentially interview people without interviewing them. I had to couch my overtures as ‘You may know we've got legislation to take over the school system, and we want to get your thoughts on the type of leaders that we need. This is a potential opportunity to rethink from the ground up how an urban school district should be run, and whoever is able to crack that will move the education reform movement miles ahead.'
Reinoso approached the search process with some key criteria:
One requirement was that the future chancellor would be able to completely rethink public education and not have a lot of ‘sacred cows.' Our basic notion was that the school system could not be reformed incrementally. We were trying to get the focus of the school district to be around teaching and learning, driving improvements in student achievement, and stripping away all the other stuff. I was looking for someone who had clarity of the challenge, clarity in their vision, and clarity in their commitment and courage to do what was necessary to reach that vision. We wanted an entrepreneurial leader who was about showing results and increasing expectations.
Another criterion was that the future leader believe school systems could change:
There's a widely held belief that school systems can't change. A lot of people make excuses about family circumstances, inefficiencies in the central office or the state of the physical plant. All these things are important at some level, but oftentimes they're presented as sort of dead- weight things that can't get addressed. So we were looking for somebody who could accept that there might be all of these other issues and who didn't view them as a rationale for setting low expectations.
In his search, Reinoso approached a number of traditional educational leaders who were known for their aggressive reforms. Rudy Crew, the superintendent of the Miami Dade school system, was an African American who had taught and served in various administrative roles in several public school districts around the country. Crew had a track record of enacting aggressive reforms in urban school districts. As a Miami Herald profile described him, "He deals, charms, engages and outmaneuvers until his opponents have either signed on to his vision for urban education or have been trampled by it. If he cannot win by persuasion, he is perfectly happy to win by force."6
Crew had served as chancellor of the New York City Board of Education from 1995 to 1999. There, he created a "Chancellor's District" comprised of the city's lowest performing schools. Crew oversaw all of the schools within this new district, and brought in new teachers and principals, imposing smaller classes as well as a longer school day. Before any data had been published on the status of the schools within the Chancellor's District, Crew was fired over his public opposition to Mayor Giuliani's desire to put public money into vouchers for private schools. A report published by New York University in 2002 found that schools in the Chancellor's District outpaced other struggling schools in student achievement and attracted more certified teachers.7
In 2004, after spending a few years leading education-focused organizations, Crew was hired as superintendent of the Miami-Dade school district. Building on what he started in New York, Crew began by taking over 39 failing schools. In step with this move, he devised a new program in partnership with the teacher's union and supported by the school board, which offered 20% more pay for 20% more hours for teachers willing to work in one of the 39 troubled schools.8 Within one year, 38 of the 39 schools had made substantial academic gains and increased enrollment. In discussing his early success in leading the Miami Dade school district, Crew praised its governance structure: "It's different here in Miami, because first of all, you're not answering to the mayor. The local municipalities here each have a mayor. I share with them, we can communicate together, and we're all equals in many respects."9 One thing that stood out in Reinoso's mind about Crew was that throughout his career he had built a team of people who followed him from job to job: "With Rudy, there was a sense of loyalty. There was a subset of people who saw it professionally wise to follow his leadership from district to district."
Reinoso's search also included non-traditional types, including the leaders of large charter schools and educational organizations, educators with military backgrounds, and business leaders. One person who appeared on Reinoso's radar was Michelle Rhee, a Korean-American who in the late 1990s founded The New Teacher Project (TNTP), a non-profit organization that worked with needy school districts to recruit and train new teachers. Rhee was outspoken about the effect that the staffing rules in teacher union contracts had on the quality of teaching. In late 2005, TNTP published a study that highlighted how staffing rules around "voluntary transfer" - incumbent teachers with seniority rights who wanted to move between schools - and "excessed teachers" - those whose positions were cut from their school - required that other schools hire these incumbent teachers even if they weren't the right match for the position. As Rhee noted in a 2005 interview,
You cannot hold principals accountable for student achievement and not let them pick the team to get the job done. No CEO could run a company that way. These rules no longer work in an era of high-stakes accountability. They fail to serve students' best interests and ultimately fail to serve teachers. Calling for a change in these rules is not about politics or not supporting unions; rather it is about the needs of students and the desire to provide them with the best possible teachers.10
Rhee's teaching experience was minimal, and she had never held an administrative position in any school. Upon graduating from college, Rhee taught for three years in one of Baltimore's lowest performing schools with Teach for America. Despite her short tenure, Rhee, in partnership with another teacher, had taken their group of 70 students, which they taught for two consecutive years, from scoring in the 13th percentile on achievement tests to 90% scoring in the 90th percentile. This feat was realized through a combination of setting high expectations, engaging students on why education was important and keeping in close contact with parents and the community. That experience convinced Rhee that teachers and the quality of teaching would make the difference in education reform in the United States.
Throughout his search for chancellor, Reinoso never completely discarded the notion of keeping on Clifford Janey, the current superintendent, who had spent his nearly 40-year career working in and leading public school systems. Since taking the helm of DCPS in 2004, Janey had devised a comprehensive, long-range, 122-page master education plan that contained a number of far-reaching reform proposals, including giving high-performing or improving schools more flexibility and autonomy in hiring. He had been a driving force in the creation of the DC Education Compact, a collaboration that brought together businesspeople, universities, community-based organizations, and parent activists to develop a consensus agenda for school reform. For Reinoso, Janey's weakness lay in his tendency to move slowly and cautiously, despite his radical ideas for reform. Reinoso wondered whether his ability to enact change was hindered by a governance structure, which left him beholden to the school board. Perhaps the new reporting structure would free him up. But what about Rudy Crew? He reported to a school board and yet he had been able to make a number of radical changes within that system soon after his arrival.
Reinoso's ability to focus on his recommendation for chancellor of DCPS was interrupted in early May when he took the blame for copying portions of an education plan from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, and using them, without attribution, in a strategic document that was submitted to the DC Council. As one council member who opposed mayoral takeover noted, "It is bad enough that the work of others was copied without attribution. But it is even worse that this was apparently done by the Mayor's top appointee to lead his takeover."11 An anonymous U.S. senator placed a temporary hold on the takeover legislation when the news broke.12
Reinoso, who apologized for the incident, found the uproar a bit confounding: "Charlotte didn't view it as plagiarism. They viewed it as best practice; that we were learning from them. It was a sloppy mistake, but for this to be turned into a plagiarism scandal is a bit absurd. These ideas aren't original. And the notion that the problems or the solution to these problems somehow need to be original, meaning non-existent elsewhere, doesn't make sense."
With just a few hours left until his recommendation was due, Reinoso shoved aside all thoughts about the impact of the plagiarism on his future as deputy mayor for education: he needed to choose a leader for DCPS, someone who would rock the boat, but not capsize it.
Entrepreneurial leader with more than fifteen years experience starting, building, managing, advising, and reforming organizations in the private and public sectors.
Key talents include: planning and executing change; identifying, linking and leveraging network connections (personal, organizational, and intellectual) to accelerate value creation.
Significant experience working directly with senior private, public, and governmental leadership.
Member, Aspen Global Leaders Network. 2009 German Marshall Fund Fellowship Nominee. 2008 Aspen Institute Fellow (recognizes emerging leaders). Selected as 2002 Joven Líder Hispano (recognition of 24 young Hispanic leaders by Spanish Government).
Have served as director & officer on the boards of several community based social service and arts organizations. Fluent in Spanish. Traveled extensively through US, Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Avid film buff, cook, reader and runner. Eagle Scout. Married with two children.
1Dan Keating and V. Dion Hanyes, "Can D.C. Schools Be Fixed?" The Washington Post, June 10, 2007.
2Thomas Toch and Sara Mead, "Clean Up This Mess," The Washington Post, October 1, 2006.
3Vernon Loeb and William Casey, "Work Force Is a Family Affair," The Washington Post, February 17, 1997.
4Marc Fisher, "This Is No Time to Be Timid," The Washington Post, May 16, 2006.
5Cities compared in Parthenon report: Charlotte, Austin, New York City, Houston, San Diego, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles.
6"New Schools Chief Is Inspiring, Tough," The Miami Herald, May 18, 2004.
7David M. Herszenhorn, "A Special School District Is Gone, but a Study Cites Its Benefits," The New York Times, July 7, 2004.
8Samuel G. Freedman, "Experiment Begun in New York Is Transformed in Miami Schools," The New York Times, April 13, 2005.
9Ron Schachter, "Rudy Crew is Breaking the Mold," DistrictAdministration, September 2005.
10"Report by The New Teacher Project Shows Urban Students Shortchanged by Teachers Union Staffing Rule," Ascribe News, November 16, 2005.
11David Nakamura and Nikita Stewart, "Fenty Regrets Copied Proposal," The Washington Post, May 10, 2007.
12The U.S. Congress has the right to review and overturn all local laws created by Washington D.C.'s city council.
This case was prepared by Cate Reavis under the supervision of Senior Lecturer Leigh Hafrey.
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