The real art of the deal 

Former education commissioner David Driscoll offers sound lessons in leadership

Commitment and Commonsense: Leading Education Reform in Massachusetts
By David P. Driscoll
Cambridge: Harvard Education Press
256 pages

BOOKS ABOUT THE ins and outs about how laws are implemented do not tend to keep you up reading late into the night. That’s a shame, because what happens at the ground level once a law is passed is ultimately what matters.

David Driscoll knows that as well as anyone. He was the state education commissioner charged with implementing the state’s landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, and he has taken up the challenge of turning what could be an eye-glazing account of regulatory twists and turns into engaging storytelling and advice to would-be public administrators. For the most part, he succeeds.

That may be because the book he has authored, Commitment and Commonsense, is also part memoir. But it’s also because Driscoll manages to make lively some of the policy challenges whose telling could easily turn dry as toast. (As a disclosure, he and I have worked together on several projects over the years.)

The book is a firsthand account of how Driscoll and his colleagues at the state Department of Education took on the massive job of implementing a law that made a $2 billion investment in schools, while establishing a new system of standards and assessments that has helped Massachusetts become a national leader in K-12 education.

Driscoll started in the department as deputy commissioner to commissioner Bob Antonucci, and took over as commissioner just as the high-stakes MCAS assessments were kicking in. His book is a case study of how a state agency looks to advance a law successfully by finding middle ground between a bottom-up and top-down approach to implementation, balancing, in Driscoll’s words, “the policy of the law with the realities on the ground.”

“Reform needs to be about sameness and difference,” writes Driscoll, his way of looking at education reform that embraces standards and accountability while accommodating the unique needs of students. Driscoll’s charge was to implement the law during a highly charged political era filled with larger-than-life characters—Bill Weld, John Silber, William Bulger, Charlie Flaherty, Tom Finneran, Tom Birmingham, and my old boss, Mark Roosevelt—while finding that path between “sameness and difference.”

Driscoll was reluctant to serve as deputy commissioner. But having great respect for then-commissioner Bob Antonucci, he saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when forces converged to pass the 1993 law. Driscoll and I first met in 1993. I was research director to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education at the time and, after all the slaps on the back by the politicians on a job well done, soon realized that implementation was a very big deal that required constant communication with the state education department. Driscoll would be our go-to guy. He writes that implementing the law “was to be our work, and often our nightmare, over at least the next decade.”

We forget just what a huge and complex job implementing the law really was. “Over the next couple of years,” Driscoll writes, “we would need to create curriculum frameworks, develop a student testing system to include a graduation score, monitor the complex funding formula, open new charter schools, define learning time in the daily school schedule, test new teachers, recertify veteran teachers, and create a measurable accountability system for both schools and districts.”

Yet, with so much money on the line, policymakers expected to see results fast. When my boss at the time, Mark Roosevelt, decided to challenge Bill Weld for governor in 1994 (he lost!), Roosevelt argued that the Weld administration was not moving fast enough to implement the law. One approach might have been to dictate to the field what to do. Antonucci and Driscoll took a different approach, what Driscoll calls “sorting out our bosses and customers.” The pair worked the field, the State House, business community, and the governor’s office to keep stakeholders engaged and informed through an inclusive process that moved things forward.  And for a while, it worked.

Then along came John Silber.

We forget what a polarizing force the longtime president of Boston University was. Silber was a volcano and tsunami wrapped up into one. With his cutting put-downs he was a walking tweetstorm before there was Twitter.

Brilliant, yet impatient, and always the smartest guy in the room, he was named chairman of the state Board of Education by Weld following his reelection in 1994. As Driscoll notes, Silber had little understanding of K-12 education. That, combined with a “dictatorial approach,” threw the department in chaos. It was a wild ride.

Silber advocated for the GED test to serve as an interim MCAS assessment and overreacted to the poor results of the state’s first teachers test. By this time, Driscoll was acting commissioner, taking the job after Antonucci moved on to the private sector, bringing much-needed continuity to the massive amount of work that remained to implement the law, including the rollout of MCAS.

With the field being rocked daily by Silber’s shoot-from-the-hip governance style—“I began to realize that John Silber has stampeded us into crisis,”writes Driscoll—he decided to throw his hat into the ring to become the next commissioner. But Driscoll was not Silber’s first choice for the post, and for weeks he failed to get the six votes needed on the state education board to get the job. During that time, he says, he learned two valuable lessons: “Be true to yourself amidst major changes” and “piece together a way forward.”

Driscoll eventually became commissioner, with the help of then-board member Charlie Baker. Looking to protect his boss, Gov. Paul Cellucci, who was getting killed by the media over the impasse, Baker devised a compromise that brought another vote for Driscoll while maintaining the board’s strong reform orientation, but under decidedly more congenial leadership. It involved moving Silber out and inserting Jim Peyser (who is now Baker’s education secretary) as education board chair.

For those who like the inside story of state politics, the chapters about the Silber years are juicy and fun reading. But they don’t really offer the lessons in leadership that punctuate the other chapters in the book. Driscoll also says little in his book about charter schools, a key element of the reform law and an initiative that Massachusetts has exceled in implementing. That’s a missed opportunity, especially given the polarizing nature of the charter school ballot question during the 2016 election.

Raised in Melrose, Driscoll started out as a math teacher in 1964 in Somerville. Teaching was not his first career choice—he wanted to make more money—but he was recruited to teach CCD in the local Catholic parish. There he learned an important lesson: “Classrooms do not have to become three-ring circuses, but some thought about how to engage students with the subject matter is a must.”

Engaging others is a strategy Driscoll used throughout his career. It’s one of several “Driscoll truisms” he offers in the book, insights from various lessons learned during a particular period of his professional life.

These truisms, expanded upon in lessons learned at the end of each chapter, make this book a much more interesting read than just a biography of a life well lived. They offer insight into leadership from the classroom level all the way to the top of the state education bureaucracy.  For example, while a math teacher in Somerville, Driscoll says he learned that “you are expected to get used to the status quo of the system.” But Driscoll saw schools as “the place that gave kids a shot” at a better future, a view that meant sometimes defying the status quo. He carried that approach with him as he rose up the ranks. Years later, as the guy in charge during the rollout of the controversial high-stakes consequences of MCAS, his approach was status quo be dammed.

Driscoll has never been involved in politics, formally speaking, but he was a master at the trade. “You cannot avoid politics if you want positive change,” he writes. Education is “dependent on the political process,” he writes, and “those of us who serve as leaders inside the system need to be active and vigilant,” an important lesson, especially for leaders who want to shrink away from the politics during these challenging partisan times.

Driscoll is a master teacher, and Commitment and Common Sense is his seminar on leadership and practical advice to public leaders who want to master the fine art of balancing “the policy of the law with the realities on the ground.”

Meet the Author
John Schneider is director of external affairs at Mass Insight Education. He was research director for the Joint Committee on Education during passage of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act in 1993.