Pedro Martinez on Leading A Diverse District, Bridging to the Community, and 'Red or Green?'

by Seth Saavedra │Friday, June 15th, 2018


 
 

Pedro Martinez, superintendent of San Antonio ISD, came to Albuquerque this week by invitation of our Chamber of Commerce. As head of a school district that is 90 percent Hispanic, Pedro knows the many challenges and opportunities of a culturally rich and diverse city. Coming from a family that emigrated from Mexico when he was five years old, Pedro grew up in inner city Chicago. We talked about his journey to San Antonio, the path ahead, and whether he prefers Green or Red.


 
 

You’ve had experience at both the state and district levels. One of the issues in New Mexico is a long-standing friction between our state education agency and some districts, particularly larger ones like Albuquerque and Santa Fe. What are some of the things you’ve seen or done to encourage cooperative and productive relationships between these two levels?

The biggest advice I would say is you have to have collaborative leaders. You can't have egos get in the way. You can’t assume that somebody has all the answers. What I've learned doing this work for more than 20 years is that this work is too complicated.

I think the way to promote collaboration between states and districts is really having a conversation about what the ultimate goal is. One of the reasons the (Texas Education Agency) commissioner (Mike Morath) and I get along and collaborate so well is that we both see the bigger picture that while the state has seen improvements in graduation rates, our college readiness is still below the national average.

I want to prove that our children living in poverty can compete with other children across the country and get into some of these top colleges and succeed there. We both agree on that value. What I love is that he's watching what we're doing in this district, that is so densely poor, knowing that if our strategies work they can be replicated across the state.

One of the things that my board and I decided a long time ago was that we were going to learn from others and, as long as our values and ultimate goal were the same - which is graduating children and getting them to some post-secondary institution of their choice - that that's what we cared most about.

Everything else was going to be more about how we work with teachers and parents to motivate them. I have teachers who love Montessori schools and we created a Montessori school. That's where they should be. I have teachers who love dual language programs, that's where they should be. And that's for parents as well. For us it's finding those things that motivate teachers, parents, and children, with the same values and the same goals.

How do you close gaps with children, especially children that live in poverty? It is such complicated work. Our colleges of education don't train our teachers with the best strategies. There are so many things that we have to learn.


 
 

How has that looked where maybe you have a disagreement with the TEA (Texas Education Agency)? How have you worked through that?

We're very collaborative but where we’ve had disagreements sometimes is the details of our accountability system. What I love is that they're open to our constructive criticisms and, in some cases, they make decisions and we were okay with it even when we disagree. We respect it, but we have the ability to debate it.


 
 

On the diversity of San Antonio:

In San Antonio we're trying to prove the concept that we do have families that are open to integration. I'm asking some of my middle class families, “Why are you willing to try the Advanced Learning Academy where you know you're going to have children that might be homeless or in foster care?” They can afford to put their children in any private school. But, if they do that, their children will never see what our real society looks like and their children are growing up to be better adults because they’re more socially conscious of the world around them.

And what we are showing them is that we will not compromise on quality. There are expert teachers and all of the children, whether they're advanced or they're below grade level, are growing academically. We are not compromising and that's something I appreciate because you need that pressure from parents.


 
 

To those who are fearful of some of the needed changes to bring public education into the 21st century (“power bases” as you’ve called them), what do you say? How do you think of your work to assuage concerns of adults while remaining laser focused on the needs of students?

Number one, you have to have conversations about values and the end results with children. I have shown in our work that we're willing to try different models. All of our new models are homemade. We’ve partnered with universities and national experts. That was some of our earliest work.

I won’t always be successful, but our strategy is always to try and find ways to not be divisive because I think one of the mistakes that has happened in K12 is we have become two extreme sides. There're individuals who feel that choice is the answer for everything, including vouchers and charter schools. And then the other side thinks choice is the enemy and that traditional schools are the only answer.

When I talk to families, what they care about is whether their child is going to have a shot. “Is my child below reading level?” Or, if they're a special needs child: “What are you going to do for them? Are they going to have a chance to have opportunities?”

They may not know what a tier one university is because some of them didn’t graduate from high school. But they know when their child is engaged in school. They know when their child is excited to go to school. When their child is learning and growing academically. And one of the other things I always tell people is, let's make sure we give our parents credit because they know a lot more than we realize.

Even when they're single parents and they're working two jobs, they know a lot more than we realize. So how do we work together so that we're meeting the needs of parents and how do we find a different way of doing things?

There’s always going to be some areas where we don't agree and, as I'm learning the hard way, sometimes those issues will continue to grow. But I'm still optimistic that we'll continue to work together. I ultimately am looking for quality choices for our families. And the hope is that you find people that are reasonable, that are willing to give it a try.

And, when we make a mistake, we will admit it because this work is hard. It's complicated. There is no magic bullet. Let's learn together. And, lastly, let's not make it personal and let's keep the interests of children as our top priority.


 
 

For advocates here in Albuquerque, what advice would you share from your experiences in Chicago and San Antonio about the importance and best ways to rally and sustain community energy?

First of all, it's important to engage the community early on about a clear vision. We laid out ten academic goals my first year. My staff and I went into our communities and asked, “Is this where you want to be? And, by the way, here is where we're at.”

And we're very transparent about the fact that less than five percent of our children were college ready on the SAT. Less than half of our children were going to college. Less than a fourth were going to four-year universities. Less than two percent were going to tier one universities.

And people were shocked. They didn't realize what our numbers looked like. I also showed them where Texas was at, and the state was underperforming the nation. Then I showed them national statistics. We did that our first year and we united the board around that.

Then as we started creating proof points, which are our quality options, people started understanding. This is what we mean by a high-quality school. Then we opened up our all boys school (Young Men's Leadership Academy) and we saw positive results in the first year it was a complete shift in what people had been seeing. Even our two schools that were already strong, they got stronger.

It starts with setting a vision. Creating something tangible that people can see and touch. We’ve also been open about the fact that we're inclusive and that we are not going to create models that just reach the top kids.

When I asked the business community what's the one thing that distinguishes what we're doing from what they've seen anywhere else? And they say, “Your priority is equity.” For them that's important because they know, especially those who have lived in San Antonio for decades, that nobody talked about it enough that we have the “haves” and “have nots”.

We have companies moving into San Antonio and many thousands and thousands of children who never could take advantage of those opportunities. Our business leaders started seeing that now we're going further in some of the equity work and they understand that at a deeper level.

I would say that it takes a lot of time. We're doing it slowly. We're showing individuals what it could be and still have transparency. We're not there yet, but this is what's possible. What I'm excited about is the conversations that are changing from our students, from our parents, and from the business community, even though I have some resistance right now.

I still believe that the resistance isn't coming from a bad place per se. We just have a philosophical difference. My hope is to continue the work and see how we can find new ways to work together because what really matters is not so much what I believe or even what unions believe, it's what's happening for our children. If you get stuck on philosophical differences you don't move forward, and nothing changes.


 
 

What's something that you are seeing or would like to see in terms of those who seek to improve public education did differently in our approach to the work?

What I would love is, and I got this from John King our most recent former Secretary of Education. I wish that we talked about a different way of doing things. Instead of talking about traditional schools versus charters as you saw in Massachusetts when they were fighting to raise the charter school cap. We keep going on these two different debates and a lot is lost.

What motivates me is that when I look at college graduation rates and see, in the 40 years since the 70s, when I started being tracked, to the most recent data, the gaps have never been wider. And that predicts whether you're going to graduate from college.

I now have two children, a seven-year-old and four-year-old that I think about. And about my students on the west side of San Antonio who, just because of where they live, have less than a ten percent chance of graduating from a university. I think we have to really grapple with that.

Whether it's a traditional school, whether it's a charter school, what's the difference? The real question we should ask ourselves is: How do we work together?

When I talk with the business community here about the challenges of poverty and how they are correlated with so many other ills of society, from drug abuse to teenage pregnancy, I try to make that connection. And it's not just the bottom quartile of students, but also that second quartile of students we focus on.

Ultimately, we're not trying to do this for any other reason than trying to figure out a very complicated problem. We have to ask those tough questions about what is happening to these children and how do we work together and get better outcomes?


 
 

Lastly, and most importantly, here in New Mexico we care a lot about our chile peppers. Are you a “green” or “red” kind of guy?

I’ve visited before, three years ago probably. I’ve tried the Red and I like the Red. The Green is fine, but I like the Red more!


10 Things You Need To Know About New Mexico's Acting Secretary of Education Christopher Ruszkowski

As many of us read in the op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal on Monday, New Mexico has a new acting Secretary of Education, Christopher Ruszkowski. Any glance at the comments section reveals that education continues to be a divisive and all-too-often mindless conversation in New Mexico. We are long on rhetoric and short on optimism and new ideas. Any attempt to try something new is met with fierce resistance and misplaced nostalgia for "the way things used to be." The reality is that the world is changing at a pace much faster than we're prepared for and we can either work hard to catch up or remain lagging far behind.

I know Christopher to be a no-nonsense champion for students (even if that means some adults are put off) and as someone unwaveringly focused on educational equity. He's also human, takes his fair share of missteps and is eager to learn from those mistakes. My hope is that we'll continue to focus on the future of education in New Mexico and not, as Christopher shared, stay “wedded to the 20th century way of doing business”, instead focusing on “what’s best for children.” I also know Christopher wants to and has experience working across lines of difference to help redefine a new possible for New Mexico - and that he wants to be held accountable to outcomes for our kids. Let's do that and be critical friends supportive of our students.

My hope is we'll approach Christopher's tenure as we should all education policymakers in New Mexico, with optimism and a "trust, but verify" mindset. I'm a big fan of healthy skepticism though in New Mexico that frequently shows up as cynicism instead. We're lucky to have Christopher here but we also owe it to our kids to continue to push him and NMPED, prod them, question their decisions and develop solutions in the field. The best ideas on behalf of kids don't live in Santa Fe, but rather in the field with educators. We are a beautiful, culturally rich state in desperate need of news ways to bring forth our heritage and history in the 21st century. Our kids need it, our communities need it, our economy needs it and, frankly, the future of our state depends on as much.

So, while I've had the opportunity to better know Christopher over the past year, I think all New Mexicans should better understand the person now at the helm of public education in the Land of Enchantment. Below I share some key things to know about our new acting Secretary. Number ten, the Delaware piece, in particular is a must-read. I've included the entire blog post as it's from someone who worked side-by-side with Christopher for years, and I know that Delaware is missing his leadership right now. In unabashed Buzzfeed fashion, I present The Top 10 Things You Need To Know About Christopher Ruszkowski:

  1. His is the son of immigrants, including a Polish immigrant who grew up in a German work camp and his family fled war-torn Europe, arriving in Chicago in 1950;
  2. As the son of an Eastern European immigrant, his favorite pierogi is potato slathered in sour cream;
  3. His began his career in education teaching middle school social studies in Miami through Teach For America;
  4. He has never had a full cup of coffee, despite thousands of hours spent in coffee shops;
  5. He was part of the inaugural cohort of the Future Chiefs fellowship at Chiefs for Change
  6. He holds a Bachelor’s in political science from the University of Minnesota and represented the state of Minnesota as a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship;
  7. While in Delaware, he led the creation of their "Plan to Ensure Equitable Access to Excellent Educators for All Students";
  8. He attended public schools in Chicago and Minnesota and has worked in public schools in Miami, Boston, San Francisco and Louisiana
  9. Since coming to New Mexico, he's helped form a "Secretary’s Teacher Advisory", a newly-formed New Mexico Teacher Leader Network intended to amplify teacher voice and create statewide communities of practice around teacher craft; and
  10. Delaware's loss is New Mexico's gain. From "Why Delaware Education Will Miss Christopher Ruszkowski" on the excellent Fiercely Urgent blog, which is maintained by a fierce local education advocate, Atnre Alleyne:

Christopher Ruszkowski’s six-year tenure at the Department of Education (most recently as the Associate Secretary of Teacher & Leader Effectiveness) came to an end in April [2016]. Rumor has it he rode off into the sunset en route to a position as Deputy Secretary in the New Mexico Department of Education. His detractors likely collectively exclaimed “it’s about time.” His longevity at the Department (serving on the leadership team in the Lowery, Murphy, and Godowsky administrations) belied his so-called aggressive brand of education reform and the numerous calls to have him ousted. His no-holds-barred style, Chicago-bred candor, kids-before-adults policy-making, and unmatched commitment to President Obama’s Race To The Top (RTTT) agenda (originally signed on for  by all Delaware stakeholders) made some view him as part of the problem with education reform. 

But his departure is a huge loss for Delaware.

Full disclosure is in order before I proceed. Christopher was my manager at the Department for four years and became a friend. So perhaps I am completely biased on this topic. Or perhaps, my front row seat during his tenure means I really know what I am talking about. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

But in today’s edu-blogosphere and dominant discourse you can only be either/or. False choices prevail and caricatures are commonplace.

So some will say Christopher is a corporate education reformer, teacher hater, over-testing proponent who is systematically dismantling our education system. But others could say he is the product of a first-generation immigrant, working class family who made his way through college on a golf caddie scholarship and eventually became a social studies teacher in Little Haiti, Miami. Some could say he is an overpaid edu-bureaucrat who seeks to enrich himself and advance his career at the expense of overworked educators and under-resourced students. But others would say he is a teacher-turned-teacher coach-turned-education policymaker whose passion for students fueled his 70-hour work weeks.

These days, you’re either a Delawarean who cares about kids or an outsider who cares about the next position a pit stop in The First State will afford you.  False dichotomies. Instead of delving into details, nuance is neglected, straw men arguments are erected, and facts are rejected.

But here is the reality: Christopher is like almost everyone in the education sector–his motives are pure, he subscribes and commits to a particular philosophy about how to improve the education system, he has made personal and policy mistakes, and he has done a ton of good at the same time. There’s no shortage of commentary about perceived policy mistakes and/or personal attacks, so I’ll be heavier on the good here.

Christopher’s URGENCY will be missed.
Every day there are large numbers of students being taught in classrooms that are shortchanging their potential and attending schools where many more well-to-do folks would never send their kids. There are teacher candidates accumulating “Easy A’s” in teacher preparation programs that are not preparing them for success in the classroom. And there are teachers who never receive the quality feedback, leadership support, and resources to thrive in their work. Almost everyone would agree that these are things that need to be fixed. But few have demonstrated the urgency Christopher did to make progress on such issues. 

Christopher had no shortage of opposition and ample opportunity to spend his summer at Rehoboth and do nothing on many of these issues. Yet, during his six-year tenure,standards were raised for teacher preparation programs, scorecards were shared publicly to assess Delaware educator preparation programs, teacher evaluation changes were made that educators believe have enhanced the system, and an incentive program was established to retain talented teachers in high poverty schools.

Yet, one of the fair criticisms of RTTT and the work Christopher led is that major reforms (new standards, new assessments, new educator evaluation systems, etc.) were implemented concurrently and with haste. Sustainable and impactful initiatives take time and the folks implementing on the ground often felt like they were in a pressure cooker. But to be honest, many of the changes Delaware stakeholders committed to in their RTTT plan would never have been accomplished if operating on the normal pace of change in education.  At the normal pace of the establishment, my 14-month old daughter wouldn’t see any change until she started her freshman year in high school.

Common sense improvements move at a snail’s pace in the education system. While few think our state’s school funding formula is adequate, for example, it hasn’t changed in around 70 years. Delaware’s starting salaries for teachers are the lowest in the region and there’s consensus that we need to reform our compensation system. Yet, the Committee to Advance Educator Compensation & Careers (CAECC) has been meeting since 2014 (and conversations on the topic were ongoing for many years prior) with no result. Inertia is the modus operandi in education and there are too many decisionmakers in the system who lose sight of the students impacted while they do their decades-long political dance.

Christopher’s focus on EQUITY will be missed.
When the US Department of Education (USED) required all states to analyze data, engage stakeholders, and develop a plan to ensure low-income and minority students have equitable access to great educators, many states responded as one would expect: they asked “what’s in it for me?” There were no federal funds tied to this mandate and there was little USED could do to ensure compliance. But instead of phoning it in like many states, and despite internal pressure to make the plan a lower priority, Christopher seized the moral imperative and led his team (and the state) in the creation of Delaware’sExcellent Educators for All Students plan. The document was based on newly-released data on educator equity gaps and over a hundred conversations with parents, teachers, policymakers, etc. across the state.

But policymakers are known for making elaborate plans and paying lip service to issues of equity in education. They would rather pay homage to the complex, intractable, and structural nature of problems of equity than create solutions within their sphere of influence. Now, Christopher can definitely be criticized for implementing solutions too small to address the structural roots of inequity.  He was not reforming housing, policing, or poverty per se. But he was not one to let such criticisms paralyze him in prioritizing educator equity in his work, and in doing his part to make the system better.

So Christopher launched an “Equity Fellowship” in partnership with the Delaware Academy of School Leadership’s Principal Preparation Program that incentivizes becoming a principal in a high-need school. He also launched a program that provides financial incentives for highly-effective teachers to continue teaching in high-poverty schools. In the latter program, 92% of highly-effective Math & English teachers were retained in schools participating in the program over the last two years as compared to 85% in all other high-need schools.

Christopher’s focus on TALENT and DIVERSITY will be missed.
Christopher practiced what he preached about the importance of high-quality talent in the education system. As a result of Christopher’s leadership, thousands of educators can apply for a job in Delaware districts through a centralized portal–Join Delaware Schools. He also supported Delaware school leaders’ talent development through programs like the Relay National Principals Academy Fellowship (over 25 Delaware school leaders have attended this prestigious year-long fellowship to-date). Within the Department, he was the driving force behind the state’s summer fellowships, new internship programs, and new partnerships with leading national organizations. Last summer, he launched a new summer program, “Educators at Catalysts”, that brought several classroom teachers onto his team at the Department.  This year, the program is being implemented Department-wide.

And then there’s how he attracted and selected talent into key positions. The standard operating procedure in the education sector is to post a position on your website for two weeks and hope and pray that someone good applies. Christopher was notorious for aggressive recruitment and for reposting positions until he found the right candidate. Using the “corporate” playbook, Christopher managed to assemble a team with a Delaware Principal of the Year, a former Delaware district HR director from one of the state’s largest districts, a former NASA education programs leader, a district administrator from Seaford who had policy experience at UD, a PhD from Emory, and more. Somehow he managed to convince people to take substantial pay cuts to leave Delaware districts to work for the DDOE, and in some cases, to relocate to Delaware from around the country (Texas, Atlanta, D.C., etc.). At the same time, he managed to assemble one of the most racially diverse teams at the DDOE in an education system that struggles in this area. It’s no surprise then that Christopher was Delaware’s representative at the US Department of Education’s “Our Students, Our Leaders” convening of 50 leaders seeking to close the demographic gap between students and leaders in the education sector.

Christopher’s willingness to SAY WHAT OTHERS WON’T will be missed.
Christopher generated a lot of controversy during his tenure because he said “crazy” stuff. For example, he brought the wrath of the Delaware Association of School Administrators upon himself when he claimed that “there seems to be a problem of either will or skill” among Delaware administrators that leads to an evaluation system where 99 percent of teachers are effective or better.

Christopher definitely knows better than painting any group with a broad brush. He just had a penchant for  using hyperbole to provoke important conversations about teacher and leader quality, equity, standards, and expectations. But his comments were not necessarily “crazy” because they weren’t true.

National research would suggest that some teacher evaluation ratings are inflated because administrators would rather avoid the paperwork needed to help a struggling teacher improve (will). Other studies have found that some administrators are less skilled in conducting observations and teacher evaluations (skill).

The things he said were “crazy” mostly because he said things that others know to be true but rarely say out loud. Insiders know the politics, the power brokers, the ineffective people, the stall tactics, and the system flaws that lead to mediocre results and certain kids getting a raw deal. The prevailing culture of nice just requires that such topics are only mentioned in off-the-record conversations.

So his absence means we’re all less likely to see “crazy” quotes in the paper that upset people. It also means we’re more likely to see closed door conversations emerge in the public sphere as sanitized soundbites. Except in the rare instances when decisionmakers are brazen enough to tell the truth…

Just a few months ago during a public meeting, Representative Jacques admonished the DPAS-II Advisory Committee to align with the policy he had already “shaken hands” on in a backroom deal with others in the “good old boys” network. But that did not register as a “crazy” comment among the teachers’ union, administrators’ association, district leaders, and PTA representatives on the committee. Maybe because it is the crazy they have come to know and love.

Christopher Ruszkowski: "What brings me to and keeps me in the work"