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Young Leaders

Top Educators Under 40

By Caralee Adams | February 2009

How a younger generation is changing the face of education

To overcome the enormous challenges facing our schools today, new leaders must emerge—leaders who believe that they can change the system, who demonstrate relentless energy and unyielding passion, and who hold tight to an unwavering commitment to always put children first. Their task is daunting, to say the least, but here is the good news: Some of them are already here. Whether teachers or superintendents or CEOs, these superstars of education are, first and foremost, innovators, and all of them are 40 years old or younger.

Out of hundreds of possible candidates, Scholastic Administator chose ten to share their stories here. Through their own words, you’ll feel their frustrations, hear of their accomplishments, and see how their vision for a new day is transforming our schools.

Robert Scott
39, Commissioner of Education, Texas Education Agency, Austin, TX

What he does: Oversees the state’s 1,200 public and charter schools (since 2003).
The disadvantage of holding this position at a young age
: Walking into a room and wondering who’s thinking: “Who is this Doogie Howser guy?”
The advantage: Having schoolkids ages 14 and 15.
Biggest accomplishments: Developing the Texas High School Project, an innovative public/private reform project in secondary education with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others; and investing in PreK programs to make sure all kids are ready for school.
Biggest challenge: When traveling across Texas, Scott says he’s struck by the state’s ethnic and geographic diversity. He believes it’s imperative to keep that diversity in mind when developing policy that will work for small districts as well as urban centers.
How he motivates others: “When I see great things happening, I relay the message of praise. My job is to try to get out of their way and support their work. At challenging schools, I ask: What can we do to work together so we can have a party at the end of the year, not a funeral?”
Best part of the job: “Getting to see the programs I’ve worked on have an impact on kids.” On a recent trip to a charter school near the south Texas border, Scott met three students of migrant farm workers who had received full-ride college scholarships.
Recent honor: Named to the Presidential Education Transition Task Force by the Chief State School Officers Association.

Susan Patrick
38, President and CEO, International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL), Vienna, VA

About her job: “We ask the question: What does a world-class education look like? The answer: a technology-rich environment where every student has access to the best resources available today.”
Why she is passionate about her work: “The reality is that, based on your zip code and your family background, there are huge disparities of what students have access to. Online learning can connect the best teachers and resources using the Internet.”
On the need for change: “Trying to do things differently is really important to me. When we try to solve our same problems in education we’ve had for 50 years in the same way, we will have the same result.”
Her outlook: “In 10 years, online learning has introduced incredible opportunities for kids. Rarely do you see an innovation take hold so powerfully across K–12 education.”

Ron Clark
37, Founder, Ron Clark Academy, Atlanta, GA

What he does: Runs an academy that serves 78 disadvantaged kids in grades 5–8. Some 3,000 teachers and administrators come to the school every year to observe best practices and pick up the energy.
Why he opened the school: “I love teaching in public school, but I really wanted to have freedom to teach in creative ways. If I couldn’t be innovative as a teacher, how could I teach students to be innovative thinkers?”
The toughest thing about being an administrator: “People are needy. As a teacher, I never realized how needy. I’m an expert at motivating students and getting them to perform. I didn’t expect to have to do so much cheerleading for our faculty.”
What makes it worthwhile: A former student who is now a preacher told Clark that he includes something Clark said to inspire him in over half of his sermons.
Key to education success in the next decade: “First, teach kids to be global citizens. Second, hire amazing teachers.”
What’s next: “This is it. We are a model middle school. We aren’t replicating this school.” But he welcomes others who want to try.

Peter Noonan
40, Assistant Superintendent, Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools

About his job: Responsible for curriculum and instruction for 168,000 students, who, among them, speak 140 different languages.
Why he loves his job: “It allows me to focus on what is most important in education: instruction.”
The challenge: “Grasping the magnitude of what needs to be done.”
Biggest accomplishment: Setting up ecart (Electronic Curriculum Assessment Resource Tool) for all teachers to access their curriculum and lessons plans electronically.
Education policy wish: “We need to take a hard look at nclb. The intent and spirit was good. But we have some outstanding educators and schools that have been labeled as failing, and that has a devastating effect on the community.”
What’s next: “I have a lot of work to do in this position. I have no intention of going anywhere soon.” But ultimately? “I’d like to become a superintendent someday.”

David Schuler
38, Superintendent, Township High (IL) School District 214

Background: Started as a social studies teacher and coach, and moved up as an athletic director and high school principal. At age 28, became a superintendent in Wisconsin before taking his current post four years ago.
On being a young leader: “The disadvantage coming into a new situation is earning others’ respect. That takes time. The way to get around it is to spend a lot of time listening and being visible.” When Schuler was interviewing, he asked the board to give him six months and then see if people were still talking about his age. Today, he says, it’s a non-factor.
His vision: Rally everyone around three goals: closing the achievement gap, increasing student performance, and expanding advanced placement.
What schools must do differently: Bring more technology into the classroom to connect with kids. “We have to move away from content and focus on skills to prepare our kids for what we don’t know will be coming.”
What’s next: Schuler is writing a book based on the research from his dissertation about credibility and leadership theory.
His goal: To be in the top five public school districts in the country. The district is now in the top 20. “I think we have a shot at it.”

Michelle Rhee
39, Chancellor, D.C. Public Schools

Background: After graduating from Cornell University, Rhee joined the ranks of Teach for America in Baltimore. In 1997, she founded the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit working with disadvantaged school districts to recruit and train new teachers. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty recruited her in 2007.
Greatest challenge: To turn around one of the country’s poorest-performing school systems. As a young Korean-American, she has faced skepticism from the predominantly black district. She has also tussled with the teachers union.
Biggest accomplishment: Introduced an ambitious five-year Master Education Plan that included a commitment to teacher quality, school programs, rigorous curriculum, accurate data collection, and community involvement.
Bold moves: Fired more than 100 nonunion central office workers and 36 principals, including the principal at her daughters’ school. She had the final say in closing 23 schools and restructuring another 26.

Kimberly Oliver Burnim
32, Teacher, Broad Acres Elementary School, Silver Spring, MD

Biggest accomplishments: Named National Teacher of the Year in 2006. She was recognized in part for her commitment to remove Broad Acres from the list of schools being considered for reconstitution by the state.
What she loves most about her job: “Working with the kids. Their excitement and enthusiasm for learning keeps me excited and engaged.”
Biggest challenge: Understanding the students, personally and academically, to determine their strengths and the best way for each one to learn. “It’s a time-consuming job, and it’s so important. If your kids don’t get it, it matters.”
How her school was able to improve: The staff stayed late for two hours once a week to work together. “We had tough conversations about what was happening and how to make it better.”
On her role in the turnaround: Burnim provided leadership and shared what she did in her own classroom. “I don’t know if I did anything unique, but I had a passion for it.”
Her idea to improve education: Give every child an early start with universal PreK, says Burnim. Kids need an opportunity to learn during that crucial time from birth to age 5. Provide teachers with meaningful professional development. Finally, there must be equity in education to make sure that all kids are learning. “It’s not okay for students not to make it.”

Meria Carstarphen
38, Superintendent, St. Paul (MN) Public Schools

Background: Chief accountability officer for Washington, D.C., public schools before becoming St. Paul’s school chief in 2006.
Why she wanted the job: Born in Selma, Alabama, Carstarphen says that her hometown’s history has inspired people to look to public education as the way to end poverty. “Public education is the cornerstone of our democracy, and working in public education is the most important job in the world. It’s what I’m supposed to do. It’s about doing my duty.”
Biggest hurdle to overcome: The significant achievement gap between minority students and non-minority students in the district.
What she won’t apologize for: Having such high expectations for children.
Her advice to President Obama: Don’t abandon traditional public schools. “For all the talk of charters, vouchers, and choice, the traditional K–12 schools service most of the poor children and children of color, and those schools need resources to do a quality job.”
What she likes most about her job: The kids. Carstarphen is mentoring three students, and amid the hotbed of politics and the drama of her job, watching these students grow into young adults has made it all worthwhile.

David Levin
38, Cofounder and Superintendent, kipp Academy, South Bronx, NY

What he’s done: Cofounded the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy with fellow teacher Mike Feinberg (pictured above right with Levin and students). KIPP has grown to a national network of 66 free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 16,000 students.
Why he took on something so ambitious: Levin says they didn’t set out to build such a large enterprise. “We wanted to do more for our kids. It led us to recruit like-minded educators who wanted to start their own schools. The reality is we still consider ourselves teachers.”
What makes his approach successful: “It’s an attitude about teaching. The idea that teachers should be motivating and entertaining as well as educational is central to what we do. Schools have to be willing to compete directly with all the influences vying for kids’ attention or it’s not going to work.”
What others can take away from the KIPP approach: “A commitment to our shared mission to really care for students. Our teachers do home visits and give out their cell phone numbers to let kids know that they are there.”
What he likes most about his job: “The only attention that matters is getting invited to a kid’s high school or college graduation. The whole point of KIPP is to build a sense of team and family. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to a lot of ceremonies, but the joy is seeing the look of pride on the faces of the kids and their families—it’s inspiring."

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