Interview with Spring Branch Superintendent Duncan Klussmann

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Interview with Spring Branch Superintendent Duncan Klussmann

When we started this work, only 36 percent of our kids were getting a two or four-year college degree. We’re not satisfied with that. That’s six points ahead of the national average and it’s significantly ahead of the state average in Texas. The biggest gap I have ever seen in education is that the top quarter of income in this country have an 82 percent chance of completing a four-year degree. The bottom quartile has an 8 percent chance. So if we are talking about gaps in test scores of maybe 20 points, that’s significant, but what is really significant is the gap in outcomes between 82 percent and 8 percent and that is something we need to fix in our system. I can describe some things that have worked and not worked in Spring Branch. I don’t think there is a one-size fits all model. I think it’s different in every situation.

Story of the SKY Partnership
Chris Barbic and one of his board members, who is our financial advisor in the district, invited me into YES Prep Schools, seven or eight years ago, and when I went in I loved what I saw. A year later I had an opportunity to go into a KIPP school and I loved what I saw. Chris said, “Hey why don’t we work in a partnership?” And so we started going to lunch together but we were down to two or three non-negotiables we couldn’t get over, but we were getting closer. And then Mike Feinberg got involved in the conversation and said, “Why don’t we think about a three-way partnership?”

Challenges and Strategies
We also realized that the three leaders had to get out of the way or it was never going to go anywhere. So we decided to engage our boards, have our boards approve a resolution saying that we were going to work to form this partnership, and to find a steering committee with key staff from each of the three organizations to work together. The key there is that we defined it really well and gave them the expectation of outcome without defining what work they were going to do. And that group did incredible work. But the first thing I learned is if the folks in your organization working on the initiative really don’t believe in it, it’s going to die there. Mid-management is where this stuff can get stuck and where miscommunication occurs. Whether it is far reaching (like portfolio model) or a very simple process, where the breakdown typically occurs between a board and senior staff and principals and teachers – where rubber hits the road – it typically is a breakdown of mid-management. We are going to continue to try and solve that issue. But if you don’t have the buy-in, if the folks you hand it off to do not trust you as a CEO or a leader, or don’t believe in the concept, the concept is dead in the water. I do believe that any critical initiative requires prioritization, so you have to pick a few things you can do really well. For me, in the last 24 months, it was the SKY Partnership; it was one of my top three priorities.

And as a top-three priority you have to make sure you are connecting with folks closest to the action. So I decided to go out to the campuses and met with school leaders and asked if they would be willing to visit a really interesting program at YES Prep or KIPP. And they did. I then decided to work directly with the staff and explained my motivation, why it was important to me. We just assume that people understand those drivers. Some people were going to be vocal, but those folks who will be your supporters will not be very vocal, [though] they may have a lot of questions. So I set up informal meetings every two weeks at the two schools, after school, so people could ask questions. And that really helped. One of the questions the teachers asked me was, “What benefit do the teachers from YES Prep get?” And my response was, “I don’t care. I don’t work for YES Prep. Why would that matter to me? I need to know what the benefits are for Spring Branch.” So we had to go through these lists of questions. It allowed me to find out who the naysayers were and email the few and asked if there was anything I could address. As soon as those emails went out the negativity went away, or at least it got quiet.

I think you have to work directly with the school leader and teachers. In fact, teachers are the most important dynamic in this. Even if the CEOs and senior staff and school leaders get along great, if you ignore the teacher relationships I think the reform will not get where it needs to. There is still a choice to be made for leaders about where we spend time on and how we communicate information. This is a problem we are trying to solve in Spring Branch right now. We have a situation where our board and our senior team have been very clear on where we’re headed as a system, and as I talk to teachers or school leaders I find that how it’s translated by the time they are working with those issues it’s 180 degrees different than what I thought we were really doing. If we were a for-profit company we would be out of business. But because we are a bureaucracy that is allowed to happen. I remember going into a KIPP leadership training program and the presenter said to the group: we cannot require 121 KIPP schools nationally to use this instrument we have developed. When I heard that I thought, wouldn’t that change the dynamics if I walked back down to Spring Branch and said nothing the central office does, outside of legal issues, can be required? I think the KIPP Foundation creates great programming because they cannot require, they have to sell it to the folks who are going to use it, versus a bureaucratic setting where you’d require one to use it. Take for instance, teacher evaluation. If you could require it I guarantee it is not developed to the level that if you are depending on people choosing whether or not they use that type of instrument. So I think we haven’t figured out this communication piece. I have spent a lot of time with corporate leaders and we are still addressing that issue. As the ultimate leader of the system, when I hear miscommunication it drives me crazy. It’s really something we are trying to work on right now.

Audience question: Can you talk a little bit about how you approach the wealthier schools in terms of engagement? How do you approach the neighborhoods where it would have been easier to say we don’t have a problem here: it’s “those” kids in “those” schools, and so please leave us alone.

Klussmann: Our most affluent schools would look at the goal [of 68 percent of students obtaining a two-or four-year degree], and say that is not an issue for us because 85 percent of our kids are going to complete. You have a huge gap of beliefs versus reality around that goal. If you only focus on your state accountability system, your most affluent schools are off the hook as soon as kids walk in, because as soon as they walk in they would pass those exams. I am drawn to the poverty schools often. I have to be aware and to make sure the district and all 46 campuses see me as moving that goal forward, not a particular program within that goal, so that folks believe that I believe in every kid in that system and that this change is important for every kid. I think the kids we think the system works for today, it is not even working for those kids. The other thing I think that has helped is we have three kids of our own, 22, 18, 14. Our oldest decided his junior year to transfer from a suburban high school to our most impoverished high school. Our second one went to a more affluent high school, and our youngest goes to one of our impoverished schools. That experience has been invaluable for us. That has helped articulate that message that the leader of 46 sites that could have 2 percent poverty versus 98 percent poverty that we are driving this as an improvement for all kids.

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