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Transforming Education Requires Talent at Every Level

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In 2011, just hours after being offered the Tennessee State Commissioner of Education position, Kevin Huffman made a phone call to Texas. He called Chris Barbic, the founder and CEO of award-winning YES Prep Public Schools in Houston, and offered him a job: Superintendent of Tennessee's Achievement School District (ASD). Huffman believed that Barbic was the best person in the world to lead the ASD's work to bring the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools into the top 25 percent within five years.

Barbic said "no." Two weeks later, Huffman called him back with the offer. Once again, Barbic declined. A few weeks later when Barbic was in town, he pitched him the job yet again. Finally, Barbic agreed to take the role.

Since then, Barbic has brought a focus on talent and excellence to the work he is driving forward, leading the Center for Reinventing Public Education to place the ASD at the top of their recent ranking of portfolio school districts.

Further, under Huffman's leadership, the state of Tennessee has become the fastest improving state in the nation in education, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress report.

Learn more about Chris Barbic and the Achievement School District's partnership with Education Pioneers in this short video:

In many industries, relentlessly pursuing top talent for leadership positions like Kevin Huffman and Chris Barbic have done in Tennessee is the norm. Consider Mark Zuckerberg's recruitment of COO Sheryl Sandberg to Facebook, the Boston Red Sox' (unsuccessful) efforts to hire General Manager Billy Beane from the Oakland A's, or Steve Jobs' legendary pitch to persuade PepsiCo President John Sculley to become Apple's CEO ("Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?").

Where this talent mindset is harder to find -- and where we need it most -- is in the U.S. K-12 public education sector, a $600 billion industry with more than 3 million teachers, the second largest workforce in the country. Until recently, relatively little emphasis has been placed on the vital role that great leaders and managers working outside of the classroom can play in supporting the work of teachers to provide an excellent education for students.

The consequences of ignoring education leadership and management are dire. Just ask a great teacher. In a small study of 117 of the best classroom teachers in the country, TNTP found that although these irreplaceable teachers value the difference they can make in their students' lives immensely, they also "feel beaten down by many aspects of the profession, like low pay, excessive bureaucracy, and ineffective leaders and colleagues." The study found that approximately 60 percent of these teachers planned to stop teaching within five years as a result. We will never build high-performing school systems if we drive away our top teachers at such alarming rates.

The education sector must become a talent magnet that draws great people to the teaching profession and retains top performers. Responsibility for this important work lies on the shoulders of leaders and managers that run school systems and shape the policy environment in which school leaders operate.

Who are these leaders and managers, what do their roles look like, and how can they help transform the sector so that all students get the high-quality education they deserve?

Last year, Education Pioneers published our first report for the field: The Invisible Lever -- A Profile of Leadership and Management Talent in Education. Drawing on data collected from over 1,300 of our Alumni, we drew several conclusions about the role that leadership, management and data analysis can play in the education sector today.

The first of our three key findings was that although a new wave of managers and leaders is stepping forward to address the significant need for skilled managerial talent in public education, many more are still needed.

Specifically, among districts and charter school organizations, Education Pioneers estimates that there are more than 40,000 management roles, 37,000 of which are spread across the country's 14,000 districts.

It is critical to fill these and other vital roles that run and shape school systems with diverse, high-quality leaders and managers with the skill sets and mind sets to build high-performing systems and organizations.

As ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic put it, "We've got to have talent at every level of the organization." That's why Education Pioneers selects exceptional people for our Fellowship programs from business, education, law, policy and other backgrounds to advance the mission-critical work of our partners and build the talent pipeline for key roles outside the school building. A majority of our Fellows bring valuable skills and experience gained from sectors outside K-12 education.

While we don't believe in silver bullets at Education Pioneers, we do believe in making smart bets. Investing in leadership and management talent is essential to advance the all-important cause of providing all students in our great nation with a high-quality education that prepares them to thrive in college, career and citizenship.