Riley gets the nod as education commissioner
Board members cite his results closing achievement gaps in Lawrence
TO HELM THE unfinished work of education reform to close persistent achievement gaps, the state tapped someone with a track record of being able to do it.
Jeff Riley, who has served for six years as the state-appointed receiver of the troubled Lawrence school system, where he has overseen gains in student achievement and high school graduate rates, won the backing of the Massachusetts education board on Monday to become the next commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education.
In choosing the 46-year-old Riley, the board went with someone who has tried to straddle the divide of education debates that have polarized the field recent years and with district practitioner who has eschewed grand policy pronouncements in favor of a ground-level approach to improving schools and boosting outcomes among students.
“For what we’ve said we want to see done and the frustration we have about lack of progress on the achievement gap, the entire country points to one place where real success has been managed, and it’s really hard,” said Paul Sagan, the education board chairman. “And that’s Lawrence, Massachusetts, and there’s one person who has done that work — and that’s Jeff Riley.”
“Jeff’s a hands-on, practical school guy,” said former education secretary Paul Reville. “He’s got a broad portfolio of experience, a track record of success, and a real commitment to kids and to equity.”
Riley, who previously served as a middle school principal and top administrator in the Boston Public Schools, declined interview requests on Monday, but issued a statement. “It is an honor to be recommended by the board, particularly given the impressive finalists under consideration,” he said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to serve the children, families and schools of Massachusetts, and look forward to the work ahead.”
The board voted 8-3 to recommend Riley for the job over two other finalists, Angelica Infante-Green, deputy commissioner for instructional support in the New York State Department of Education, and Penny Schwinn, chief deputy commissioner for academics in the Texas state education department. Education Secretary Jim Peyser makes the actual selection based on a board recommendation – but he is also a voting member of the board and was part of the bloc of eight votes for Riley.
Three board members, Amanda Fernandez, Margaret McKenna, and Mary Ann Stewart, voted for Infante-Green, the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic who has gained particular recognition in New York for her work on issues affecting English language learners and special needs students.
Massachusetts has never had a female state education commissioner or a person of color in the job, and all of the top education positions in state government are currently held by men.
“We need somebody who can and has walked in the shoes of the very children we need to invest more in,” said Fernandez, as the 11 members of the board took turns making the case for their preferred candidates at Monday’s meeting.
“This was a missed opportunity to select a candidate in Angelica Infante-Green, with a stellar record who also reflected the diversity of our teachers and student body,” said Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, CEO of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, and Betty Francisco and Eneida Roman, co-founders of The Latina Circle, in a statement.
Board member James Morton, the son of a black father and white mother, acknowledged the race issue looming over the selection. “I would love to be here and choose a candidate of color,” he said. “It will, in some ways, be a missed opportunity.” But Morton said Riley was the right choice for what the state needs right now in an education leader.
Riley’s selection came seven months after the death last June of Mitchell Chester, the state’s longtime education commissioner. Chester named Riley to the Lawrence receiver’s post in 2012 utilizing new power granted to the state education department by 2010 legislation to takeover chronically low-performing schools and districts.
Over the first four years of Riley’s leadership there, the district’s graduation rate improved by 19 percentage points. The percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the 10th grade MCAS test increased by 18 points in math and 24 points in English language arts.
“Our kids are learning like they’ve never learned before,” said Lawrence mayor Dan Rivera, who supported Riley for the commissioner’s position. Riley has been able to push reforms “without the drama,” said Rivera. “I like him because he’s not a soldier for either side of the debates in education.”
Although Riley had sweeping powers to remake the district – he says some people urged him to fire all the teachers and start from scratch – he kept about 90 percent of the city’s teachers, but replaced half of all principals. Riley said a “failure of leadership” was the biggest problem. He brought in charter school operators to run two of the city’s most troubled schools, giving them lots of running room but also insisting that they be staffed with unionized district teachers. He also pushed more authority over decisions to the school level, cutting back the central office staff by 40 percent.
“Jeff is a good collaborator, he builds on partnerships,” said Frank McLaughlin, president of the Lawrence Teachers Union, who tussled with him over terms of a new contract but says he wound up working well with him.
“I think he is pragmatic,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “I think he’ll build consensus. I think collaboration will be different than it’s been in the recent past.”
Unlike Infante-Green and Schwinn, Riley did not have experience in a state education department. “There’s a matter of policy versus direct experience,” said board member Katherine Craven. In the end, she said, she felt what was most needed was someone with “direct district management experience to inform state policy.”
Riley acknowledged in his interview on Friday that he’ll face a learning curve when it comes to state education policy issues.
“But at the end of the day it’s about execution,” Peyser said in his remarks at Monday’s meeting. “And that’s what Jeff brings to the table.”
In a November interview, Riley reflected on the approach taken in Lawrence – one that most expect will inform how he tackles his new position.
“In Lawrence, we’ve tried to take a collaborative approach – but that has not been the norm” in education, he said. “Are people willing to put down their swords? I don’t know,” he said of the divisions that have fractured the education world in recent years. “I think we are at a huge crossroads. We used to say what we were doing in Lawrence meant we were either in the sweet spot or the cross hairs, because we drew from a wide variety of people with very divergent views on how to educate kids.” Riley called that “the radical center,” and said “we need to get back into that collaborative spirit where there is room at the table for everybody.”
Riley has cited gains in achievement scores when talking about progress in Lawrence, but he’s also been critical of what he thinks has been an overemphasis on testing, and he has been passionate about the need for arts and other kinds of enrichment programming in the Lawrence schools.
Riley waves off rigid adherence to strict orthodoxies in education thinking, saying he is open to any good idea that can help drive student improvement.
Board member Marty West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, seemed drawn to that approach, which he described as “being tight with respect to expected outcomes, but loose with respect to how those outcomes are achieved.”
There was a period of time a decade ago – around the time of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant program, which rewarded states for taking bold steps to shake up K-12 school policies – when states were looking across the country to hire reform-minded education commissioners. But as Andy Smarick, an education fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has observed, openings over the past year in state commissioner slots have been filled almost universally by in-state candidates.Smarick thinks the marked shift is a function of the “reform fatigue” that has set in after years of acrimonious debate over everything from charter schools to testing to adoption of the Common Core education standards. He said states seem to be looking for education leaders who know the local landscape and how to navigate it keep things moving forward.
Board members seemed to have that in mind in leaning to Riley. “I think there’s a unique opportunity and a window now that we can seize,” said Sagan. “We have fought with each other too much without breaking some of the logjams. He’s broken some of those logjams and shown he can do it,” he said of Riley.