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Leadership Profile: Jack Dale

Fairfax County, VA

Stopping by a fourth-grade class to help with a math lesson, Dr. Jack Dale can’t contain his exuberance. “You only get to take fourth grade once and we need to remember that,” says the superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools.

When he visits any one of the 239 schools in his district, Dale likes to see kids working in small groups and using rich dialogue. He wants to hear teachers asking thought-provoking questions that encourage thinking on a deeper level.

“We can’t do just yes–no, simple regurgitation-of-information questions. That does not at all prepare our kids for the 21st century,” says Dale.

The best way to keep his finger on the pulse of what the schools need is to be in the classroom to observe and talk with teachers. This is where the answers can be found to the most difficult questions facing the district.

A New Role for Teachers
Dale is developing a major initiative to rethink the role of teachers and the way they are paid. “Instead of having one teacher focus on 25 or 30 kids in a classroom, we now have groups of teachers focusing in on each child to see if that child is meeting their full potential. If they are not, that team of teachers will look at how to best intervene,” he says. “I believe very strongly that this is going to be the underpinning of how we are going to improve.”

At the core of the initiative is the idea that teachers need opportunities for leadership and collaboration.

For instance, one team of teachers may take the lead on analyzing school data. Another might be a mentorship team to support new teachers. And rather than controversial testing-based merit pay, teachers would be paid extra for taking on extra responsibilities. “Not every teacher needs to do all of these things,” says Dale. “To move a school forward, there have to be roles and responsibilities in each team.”

Professional Learning
Fairfax has adopted the professional learning community model that empowers teacher leaders. Dale has promoted offering teachers contracts for 11 months to provide additional time for collaboration.

Some summer school programs have been redesigned so those kids are in class half a day and teachers use the other half to work together to analyze student performance data. In other cases, teachers work in groups to grade student portfolios across disciplines. “We try to find different ways for teachers to converse about best practices, about how kids are learning, and why they are not,” says Dale. “That’s so much stronger that having somebody in the central office trying to tell people how to do that.“

Many have embraced the initiative and welcomed the extra pay—for work that exceptional teachers may have been doing anyway, says Dale. Others have chosen not to sign up, which is fine with Dale. This new range of ways to be a teacher—“that’s the new profession,” says Dale. “That’s what teaching is in the 21st century, a team sport.”

Get Them on Your Side
Whether it’s recrafting the teaching profession or introducing new technology, Dale finds one of the hardest things is getting school board members, community leaders, and parents aligned. “Part of our job as superintendents is to get all of those stakeholders to embrace the changes necessary to improve public education,” says Dale.

As anyone in his position would, Dale wrestles with criticism. He tries to assess if the issue is valid and needs to be addressed or if it is from a person who just doesn’t want to agree to any change at all. “What I find is people with genuine concerns you can talk with and have those dialogues. I do that, either one-on-one or in small groups,” he says. He also tries to get teachers to communicate the needs of the classroom to the parents because he feels they can be more believable. Dale also taps into the Washington media, posts information on the district’s website and sends mass e-mails. 

Managing the Economy
While the economy in northern Virginia is not as bad as in other regions, Fairfax has had to make 12 percent budget reductions and cost avoidances in 2009–10. Programs have been downsized and redesigned. The central office has trimmed back. Dale says employees could see that hundred would have to be laid off if the usual salary increase was given, so they accepted a pay freeze, saving the county $39 million. “I don’t know how many years people will be willing to do that,” he says.

The next critical decision: Raise class size across the board or cut resources that go to some of the most needy children? Dale hopes to steer the conversation into one about the community’s core values. “The other part of the equation has to be what our taxpayers will do to increase revenue so we don’t have to face those egregious decisions,” he says.        
—By Caralee Adams    

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