Sunday Morning Quarterback

Earlier this week the DC Public Charter School Board released its latest rankings of every charter school operating in the nation’s capital. Some schools earned higher or lower scores than last year — each school is rated either Tier 1, 2 or 3 — but the majority did not change. No surprise there: these things take time, not to mention the fact that our system for evaluating whether a school is high- or low-performing remains imperfect at best.

Still, the report worried me, mostly because of the language charter leaders used to frame their reactions to the rankings. “If your results aren’t good after a fair period of time, you need to lose your right to operate,” said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, or FOCUS. And Naomi DeVeaux, deputy director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said this: “You can’t tread water and stay a Tier 2 school. Each school has to continue to become better.”

On one level, my response is, “Well, of course.” No school should be allowed to continually provide a subpar learning environment, and every school should be proactively seeking ways to improve. Yet what I hear in the undercurrents of these comments is an expectation that schools achieve quick results, sustain a linear march to excellence, and operate under a no-excuses culture of expectations. And maybe it’s just coincidence because we’re in DC, but when I hear that kind of language from the top, I think of the Washington Redskins. And when I consider all we need to do to improve the city’s schools, I can’t think of a worse organizational model for systemic change and sustained success.

For those that don’t follow it closely, the Redskins are a storied NFL franchise with a long history of success — just not recently. In fact, since current owner Dan Snyder bought the team in 1999, the Redskins have become a perennial cellar dweller and experienced nearly constant change at the top — seven different head coaches over the past thirteen seasons, to be precise.

This is not exactly a recipe for success. Yet Snyder has spent goo gobs of money over that time, and he clearly, desperately, wants to win. So do the players. So why aren’t the Skins winning? And what does any of this have to do with the DC charter school community?

Simply put, what has plagued the Skins is the impatience of Dan Snyder, and the jittery culture he has established. He overpaid for free agents instead of building through the draft. He failed to consider the ways different pieces come together to form a team — that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. And by hiring and firing coaches whenever things didn’t turn around quickly enough, he ensured that his team would never have time to establish a sustainable, long-term road map for success.

By contrast, consider the approach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the NFL’s oldest and most successful franchises. In my 42 years on earth, the Steelers have won six Super Bowls, and played in eight. Along the way, they’ve also had nine losing seasons.  And yet over that entire period, the Pittsburgh Steelers have maintained a consistent organizational identity. They’ve always built through the draft. And in 42 years, while the rest of the sports world lives and dies on each game, they’ve had just three head coaches: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.

Which takes us back to the comments of Robert Cane and Naomi DeVaux, and some lessons from the gridiron we would be wise to apply to the classroom as well: Sometimes, successful organizationsdo tread water. And always, the mark of a great culture is the extent to which it is aligned around core values and principles, and the extent to which its leaders create a culture of security, not anxiety, by their words and actions.

What are the core values and principles that define the shared vision of the DC Public Charter School community? And when it comes to constructing a path for sustained excellence, how can charter leaders be more like the Steelers — and less like the Redskins? There’s no single answer to those questions, but this much seems clear: when it comes to making hiring or firing decisions based solely on a school’s rating (or a team’s record), I can guarantee what legendary Steelers owner Art Rooney would say: that dog just won’t hunt.

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Sam Chaltain

Sam Chaltain is a DC-based writer and education activist. He works with schools, school districts, and public and private sector companies to help them create healthy, high-functioning learning environments.  Earlier in his career he taught high school English and History in the NYC public school systems and at a private...