Mitchell Chester set bar high for next ed commissioner

Search should look for a leader with his commitment to principled leadership

AS THE Board of Elementary and Secondary Education embarks on its search for a new commissioner following the death in June of Mitchell Chester, I’ve been reflecting on how Commissioner Chester became an accomplished educational leader. I co-produced a tribute video about him this fall and gained insights about him during the many interviews I conducted, insights that may inform our thinking about who should be our next commissioner.

Those who knew Mitchell described him in remarkably similar ways, at times using identical words. He wasn’t different things to different people, which built trust and respect in those around him.

Time and again, I heard about Mitchell’s ability to listen carefully and ask probing questions, especially when visiting schools. He wanted to know first-hand what was happening in schools and whether the things he supported were making a positive difference. His visits to schools were not photo ops. They were important opportunities to engage with practitioners. Perhaps because he had been one, teachers profoundly influenced his thinking.

More than one person described Mitchell as being brave. Brave in the pursuit of educational excellence even when the inevitable disruption of the status quo led to fierce opposition to his ideas. He didn’t let controversies take him off track, nor did they cause him to change his values. He stayed remarkably calm and unfailingly polite, even during public meetings when he was being attacked or his policies criticized, and he maintained a singular focus on what was best for students.

Mitchell was well known for his emphasis on accountability, not for accountability’s sake but for how a focus on results could lead to better outcomes for kids generally, and especially for those who have historically been left behind. Mitchell was determined to combine high academic standards with the use of data to show where students were meeting those standards and where they fell short. He believed adults were fully responsible when students didn’t achieve at high levels, and the policies he pursued were animated by his belief that every child, no matter his or her race, family income, or language skills, could excel if provided with a great public education.

Mitchell’s work with Sen. Elizabeth Warren was a particular revelation. She looked to him for advice when she opposed efforts to weaken the federal law holding states accountable for educating all children. They shared a belief in strong accountability and knew that an excellent education was the surest path into the middle class. Both knew that money alone is not enough to lift the academic performance of students experiencing the effects of poverty and racism.

While others may have called attention to having advised a US senator, Mitchell characteristically kept it quiet. I learned about the work Mitchell did nationally, how education leaders around the country looked to him for guidance, and how he brought the best ideas from other cities and states back home. He had a bigger profile outside the state then most people in Massachusetts realized. As former US secretary of education Arne Duncan said, “Mitchell absolutely helped to shape and drive and inform the national conversation.” Mitchell kept the spotlight off himself while doing the work – a seemingly deliberate strategy since he could have let it be known that he was a player in education policymaking beyond Massachusetts. He let his work speak for itself.

Mitchell led the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for nine years, working under two governors, one a Democrat, and one a Republican. No one I spoke to for the video honoring him knew whether Mitchell was a Democrat, Republican, or neither. (He was, in fact, a liberal Democrat.) In this regard, he was firmly rooted in the non-partisan tradition of Massachusetts education policy.

A Connecticut native, with part of his career spent in his home state as well as in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Mitchell knew that a Legislature dominated by Democrats crafted Massachusetts educational policy. He also understood that we approach our duty to educate children in a non-ideological way.

While there is no shortage of ideas for how to improve educational opportunity for students, the arguments about those ideas are not rooted in partisanship. Rather, they stem from honest differences about which strategies will provide the greatest advantage for student learning. In Massachusetts, education policy has not been, and I hope will not become, an area of partisan dispute.

Mitchell’s non-ideological approach is best demonstrated by how he handled Commonwealth charter public school expansion, the most divisive K-12 education issue in the past 10 years. I have no idea whether Mitchell believed more charter public schools was a good idea. His approach focused on executing the existing law well, with an emphasis on good schools, whether charter or district. As the sound and fury about charters raged throughout Mitchell’s tenure, he also didn’t get sidetracked from the task of addressing school quality for the 95 percent of students who attend district schools.

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Notwithstanding our entrenched traditions, and perhaps in recognition of them, Mitchell worked with community leaders to forge local initiatives to improve students’ academic achievement. Using the full range of his powers, Mitchell worked with leaders in Lawrence, Springfield, Fall River, Boston, and beyond to design and implement new governance models to provide increased autonomy to teachers, principals, and superintendents to meet students’ needs. He didn’t impose his ideas on others, even though he had the authority to do so in some instances. Rather, he collaborated, tried new ideas, and made adjustments based on what worked well and what didn’t. The new commissioner should be equally creative, flexible, and open-minded in pursuit of the goal of closing achievement gaps.

We have lost a remarkable leader. For our next commissioner to be as successful as Mitchell Chester, he or she should be both an educator committed to the bedrock principles that have fueled the success of Massachusetts’ schools since 1993 and a leader who is brave and visionary on behalf of children.

Marty Walz served as a state representative from Boston for eight years and was the House chair of the Joint Committee on Education in 2009-2010.