Christopher Ruszkowski’s six-year tenure at the Department of Education (most recentlyas the Associate Secretary of the Teacher & Leader Effectiveness Branch) came to an end in April. 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’s Excellent 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.
Now that he is gone…
Angeline Rivello (a former teacher, principal, and Red Clay School District Human Resources Director) is now at the helm of this work and is poised for success. Consistent with strong leadership practice, Christopher left only after ensuring a clear succession plan. This is the Christopher carefully omitted from caricaturized commentary: The dedicated manager and thoughtful leader driven by his own experience with the transformative impact of high-quality education. That’s the Christopher that our education system is going to miss.