Column: Empower local education leadership

Tiffany C. Taylor

As the Detroit News editorial page examines what other states and nations are doing to improve educational outcomes, I think it is important to look at empowered leadership in education. Wherever we see transformational change, we see people demonstrating extraordinary leadership. One thing I am sure of after working in education for the past 13 years, including leading Teach For America right here in Detroit, is that we need leaders, inside and outside of classrooms, who are deeply committed to children, and who bring a diversity of experience, perspectives, expertise and influence to this work.

Communities that foster this leadership tend to create ecosystems that empower classroom and school leaders based on trust in their visions and capabilities. This ecosystem will only thrive with active community leaders who invest in our students and schools. There cannot be one single voice at the table, and no one person can lift up a school, system, city or state.

If we look to Baltimore, Maryland, we see this playing out across a city that struggles with many of the same challenges large urban districts are facing across the country: budget deficits, low performing schools, and systems of inequity that create substantial obstacles to opportunity for students growing up in low-income communities. Yet, there are incredible bright spots, and when you examine what is working, it is clear that Baltimore is a community that thrives on leaders who stand up for its children.

Last school year, budget challenges threatened over 1,000 roles across the district. Parents, business leaders and community advocates joined principals, teachers and students at rallies across the city. The unrelenting community activism was acknowledged as a major reason that the district was able to bring in local and state funding to tighten the budget gap. What inspires a community to rally in support of its education system like this? School and classroom leaders who care about and deeply believe in their students, which is reflected in student and community support from the schools themselves. In short, the schools and communities are taking care of each other. Our Baltimore Teach For America partner regularly shares how principals are identifying school and neighborhood-specific needs, and collaborating with non-profits and legislators to secure the services and funding to address these needs.

In South America, Peru faces significant education challenges: only 15 percent of secondary students are reading on-level, fewer than 2 out of 10 students in rural communities understand what they read, and 2 percent of secondary rural students can perform on-level math functions. However, in the last PISA, Peru had one of the fastest rates of improvement in student learning outcomes among all participating countries.

In recent years, one of the Ministry of Education’s priorities has been attracting more leadership into education and enhancing the role of teacher development. Within this framework, they have partnered with a member of the Teach For All network, Enseña Perú, and as a result of this relationship, many of the alumni started to get involved—at levels and across a number of public policy teams — by working in local, state and federal roles. They are contributing by writing curriculum, shaping policy and leading the implementation of the significant reforms developing in the Peruvian system, such as nationwide progress in vocational education and the implementation of extended-day education.

Baltimore and Peru offer examples of diverse groups of leaders who have experienced the injustice of their public education systems directly — as students, teachers, school and system leaders — and who are working together to create change and then scale what they know works as quickly as possible to change the reality for all children. School leaders are empowered to do what is best for their students and neighborhoods, which in turn leads them to trust in and empower their teachers. This local autonomy creates an opportunity for education that meets students where they are, often empowering students themselves as leaders.

Tiffany C. Taylor is deputy chief people officer for Teach For America.

Fixing Michigan’s Schools

This is part of a series of editorials and commentaries this school year exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools. Follow along at detroitnews.com/opinion.