March 25, 2019 Blog, Community of Practice

Community of Practice: Keynote Speech

The Fund recently visited Fort Worth, Texas, as part of our national Principal Quality Community of Practice. Our President and CEO Heather Anichini delivered the keynote address at the Forum on School Leadership, hosted by the Rainwater Charitable Foundation. Heather addressed local principals, district representatives and civic leaders to tell the story of Chicago’s success and share our lessons learned. 

Thanks so much, Jeremy, for your kind introduction. I want to thank you and the entire Rainwater team for inviting me to be here with you today.  When we met a decade ago, I was so impressed by your commitment to principals. 

I really appreciate you inviting me to be here today, and am really grateful to the Rainwater team for welcoming us to the Fort Worth area. 

As Jeremy just mentioned, my job today is to talk with you about my favorite people in the world: Principals.  

In the next 20 minutes, I’m going to try and convince you of three things: 

  • First, that Principals Matter; 
  • Second, that if You Support Them, They’ll Stay; and 
  • Third, that You Can Start Right Now. 

I literally mean right now.   

Together, we are going to do the single most important thing you can do when you are in the presence of great principals.  

We are going to tell them they are great, and we are going to recognize them. 

If you are a principal in a Texas school, will you please stand to be recognized? Thank you. 

It’s always amazing to see how many fantastic educators are in a room like this. 

I want you to know that I know that behind every great school, is a great educator and her team. 

I know it because I have lived it time and time again. One of the first places I lived it in this role was at a school called Chavez Academy, which served 800 children, 93 percent of whom were Latinx, 46 percent of whom were English Language Learners and 98 percent of whom were low-income.  

In 2010, when this story started, Chavez was a typical Chicago Public Schools neighborhood school. Students were performing around the district average. Not bad, but not great either. 

Fast forward from 2010 to today … and add one very strong principal.  

Barton Dassinger has been the leader of Chavez for nearly 10 years now. He got his start right here in Texas, as a Teach For America corps member. 

Today, his school – that same school – serving students from the same families, is one of the highest-performing schools in Chicago.  

In fact, students at Chavez are outperforming 94 percent of all schools across the country in math growth and attainment.  

School enrollment has increased to well over 1,000, and Barton and his team continue to push the school to new heights. Barton’s story is important because Chavez’s growth is just one example of the extraordinary things happening in Chicago.  

Under the leadership of Janice Jackson, our school superintendent, and our Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago Public Schools is leading the country on important measures of math and reading growth. 

But don’t take my word for it. 

Stanford’s Sean Reardon discovered some important information about Chicago recently.  

Now, Professor Reardon did not set out to examine Chicago, or any individual district in particular. 

Instead, Chicago’s outcomes emerged, and I want to share what he found with you. 

In the picture behind me, you can see the vertical axis depicts average achievement, in terms of grade level.  

  • The national average is zero here; that’s the dashed line. We would think of that as “on grade level.”  
  • Positive numbers are grade levels above the average and negative numbers are those below.  
  • The horizontal axis is a measure of socioeconomic status for students.  

Each gray or yellow dot is a U.S. school district, and there are about 11,000 of them up here on that picture. The dot size represents the enrollment (so, large dots are places like New York and LA).  

You can see Chicago here as the white dot. You can see that we serve a pretty high need population in Chicago and that we serve a lot of students.  

The red line is the average trend line. As is well known, more socioeconomically advantaged students tend to have higher average achievement.  

The dots you see right now are where this cohort of children started in 3rd grade.  

Now, let’s flip ahead. 

Did you see how things have changed by Grade 8? 

I know it is tempting to jump to the Chicago white dot right away, but I want you to look at something else first.  

As we jump from that cohort in third grade, to that cohort in eighth grade, that national average trend gets … steeper 

That means, the longer you’re in school in America, the stronger the relationship between socio-economic status and achievement becomes.  

That red line is incredibly discouraging to me. 

But, look again.  

What’s encouraging and exciting is that’s not what happened in Chicago.  

  • By the time the cohort reaches grade eight, most other districts went down or stayed the same 
  • In contrast, Chicago Public Schools students move much closer to the national average than they were in third grade.
  • They are well above that projected trend line. 

To me, and to Professor Reardon, that is what is remarkable about what is happening in Chicago and in schools like Chavez. 

That dot really means something for the kids it represents, too.  

That cohort of students learned six years of content in five years in school. Today, Chicago’s students are growing faster than almost every other district in the country, and they are closing the achievement gap with their wealthier peers across the nation.  

In Chicago, schools like Chavez are leading the way, but they are far from alone.  

In Chicago, learning 1.2 years of content in a single year of school is the typical experience. 

It is an expectation for our 360,000 students and for the educators who serve them. It is an expectation from our school superintendent and from our mayor. It is an expectation shared by organizations like mine and others across the city. 

Those expectations are being met. In Chicago, real change is happening at scale.  

Now, I said I’d to try and convince you of three things today: 1) Principals Matter; 2) If You Support Them, They’ll Stay; 3) You Can Start Right Now.  

I’ve already told you a story and showed you some data to support that first point. But I’m not done with it yet. 

National research also suggests principals are a key driver of the kind of growth Chicago is experiencing.  

That research resonates with me and with my partners in this work because we have seen that leaders like Barton are a common denominator in successful schools.  

Of course, principals don’t impact student outcomes alone. We know that the hardest work is done by students and teachers. 

Learning and teaching; that’s the real work. 

But, principals shape how that work gets done.  

Research shows that effective principals are both more likely to retain their best teachers and less likely to keep teachers who don’t improve. We know that the No. 1 factor in a teacher’s decision to stay in a school is the principal. 

I have seen this story play-out first hand, too. This story is about Everett Elementary school in Chicago and about Principal Rodolfo Rojas. 

Rodolfo is a graduate of Chicago Public Schools, and his first job with the district was as a security guard. He witnessed the importance of representative leadership, and so he worked his way up to becoming a principal. 

As principal, Rodolfo leads with authenticity and focuses on building student and teacher leadership. You’re now going to have a chance to hear directly from the Everett school community. 

We’re going to start this video mid-story – around 1:17. Listen closely to what his teachers have to say about him. 


We are big fans of Rodolfo. His leadership really is apparent from the moment you walk into the school and his personal story is so motivating.  

But I want to make sure you caught how his teachers feel about working with him.  

They feel like they are part of the decision-making process. They feel like they have a seat at the table. They feel like they are clear about the vision for where the school is going and how they’re going to work with Rodolfo to get there. 

A principal like Rodolfo, a principal like Barton, principals like all of you in this room – have the ability to impact both students and teachers.  

I know this sounds really obvious, but investing in principals leads to real gains for teachers, students and communities too.  

I personally think that stories like Rodolfo’s and Barton’s should be enough to convince you to pay at least some attention to principals. But, just in case you need more, let me share some simple math. 

There are four numbers you have to keep in mind.  

22,000 teachers in Chicago; 652 principals. No matter how you cut it, it’s easier to count to 652 than it is to count to 22,000. And if you only have so many dollars to spend, your dollars are likely to go further with the smaller number.  

Today, The Fund spends about $5 million a year to support Chicago’s public schools. That’s a lot of money for us. It’s a lot of money to raise.  

But Chicago Public Schools’ budget is $5 billion. For them, $5 million is a rounding error. 

So, we have to ask ourselves: If you are going to spend relatively few dollars on any human in the school system, who should it be?  

Obviously, our theory is that those dollars stretch much further where you have the strongest ratio: one principal, 550 students, 48 staff members, many of them teachers.  

At The Fund, as in many of your organizations, we do have limited dollars to spend. And we do have to choose where to best spend those dollars.  

That’s why, since 2013, my team and I have invested directly in principals. We’ve done this in close partnership with the district, the mayor and other stakeholders across the city.  

This year, we’ll serve nearly half of all principals in the system, representing over 8,000 teachers and over 150,000 students. 

This means two out of five Chicago school leaders are benefiting from our professional development opportunities as I stand before you today. 

Over the next five years, almost all Chicago principals will have the chance to participate in at least one of our programs, and many will have the opportunity to participate with us in multiple ways.  

What I hope I’ve done with this first part of the speech is establish that principals really matter. Now let’s look together at my second point: If You Support Them, They’ll Stay. 

What I just asked you to do is an example of how we decide to support those nearly 300 principals a year that are participating in our programs. 

We always start by looking at what the data tell us, and then partner with our colleagues at Chicago Public Schools and across the city to act accordingly.  

In 2013, when we did the same exercise that you just did, we saw this picture. 

We learned that about half of Chicago’s principals left before their fifth year in the role.  

We had additional data that indicated principals didn’t peak before their fourth year – meaning, we were losing people right before they hit their stride. 

From our vantage point, this was a moment of opportunity. We had just discovered that we were running in place.  

If we didn’t do something to improve retention, we were going to burn through $20 million with almost nothing to show for it. 

In that moment of opportunity, we listened.  

Specifically, we called the principals who were at the greatest risk for leaving their schools, and we asked them to stay.  

It really was that simple – we told them we thought they were doing a good job, because we believed it (and the data backed us up). We asked them to stay and it worked.  

It was a simple but powerful action. 

Barton was one of our first calls. We heard from him and from other high-performing principals, like Rodolfo, that they wanted an opportunity to gain executive leadership development skills.  

So, we began to work with Chicago Public Schools and one of Chicago’s top business schools to design a yearlong fellowship.  

In addition to participating in an academic program with top b-school professors, these principal fellows sit down with the Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools and have the opportunity to ask questions and to propose new policies.  

It is a level of engagement and access that was previously non-existent for principals in Chicago, and one that helps invest in our top talent. 

In a system of our size, though, one initiative was insufficient. 

That same year, 44 percent of principals who took our annual engagement survey told us they were likely to leave within three years.  

We knew we needed something more scalable, and we needed it fast. 

Working with principals and our partners at Chicago Public Schools, we designed more than a dozen professional learning communities to allow principals the space to collaborate with each other and share promising practices.  

Each of these learning communities is led by a principal who has full autonomy over the learning and direction of the group. This year, we increased the number of principal leaders and professional learning communities we’re offering in order to give more principals the opportunity to participate.  

Our topics change each year based on principal feedback and revolve around their greatest challenges: managing their time, coaching their teachers, improving student academic performance and building school culture.  

We’ve kept this program nimble so that we can keep meeting principal demand. 

This, I think, is the key to strong program delivery. Whether you’re doing it for principals or teachers or anyone else: You need to listen to them as you design and refine your program. 

When you listen to them, you are able to stay adaptive and responsive to their needs.  

And that gets results.  

In 2017, The Boston Consulting Group found that principals who participated in our programs were 60 percent more likely to improve than their non-participating peers.  

What’s more, they are more likely to stay.  

Their decision to stay matters because we know that strong principals are more likely to show academic growth, reach ambitious performance targets, keep good teachers and have climates that are conducive to continuous improvement.  

In Chicago, principals stay because they had the support they need, and because they know they are valued.  

Even in tumultuous times – and we’ve had our fair share – leaders, including the CEO of Chicago Public Schools and the mayor, literally pick up the phone and ask our best principals to stay. 

That gets results, too. 

Our retention rate is higher than most other large urban districts, and above the national average. Keeping better principals longer has a positive impact on kids.  

By now, I hope you can see that Principals Matter. The data I just shared about our programming shows that If You Support Them, They’ll Stay.  

So, now I want to return to where we started: You Can Start Right Now.  

Ask yourself: Do you know who your principals are? Do you know why they are leaving? Do you know what it would take to get them to stay? 

Would it be very hard to find out?  

For us, one of the common themes we hear when we ask those kinds of questions right now, especially when we ask them of our top principals, is that they want more freedom to lead. 

Think about your best leaders in the corporate sector or maybe in philanthropy. 

Those leaders are creative, unafraid of change and focused on making things better. They want to improve their bottom line.  

In the case of principals, the bottom line means better outcomes for kids.  

How are you keeping your principals long enough to improve the bottom line for your kids? 

You can start with something really simple. You can pick up your phone and tell them they are doing a good job and that they need to stay.  

In fact you can text them right now! This is the only point in my speech where I will not be offended if you tap or talk on your phone.  

The truth is, my team and I want a principal-centered strategy to be part of the plan for every school district in America.  

We know you are all critical to making that happen – both in your individual connection to principals and with your bridge to school districts across the country.   

We are here to help. Our love for principals expands beyond Chicago and extends right here to Texas. 

As Jeremy mentioned, I’m here in Fort Worth because of a Community of Practice that we are running with 20 other organizations from across the country, including three here in the Lone Star state.  

With the full support of our partners at Chicago Public Schools, we are aggressively working to transfer what we have learned to a broader audience, and we are already impacting districts that serve 3.6 million students as a result.  

If we do this together, there is no doubt in my mind: Principals in every district across America will improve their practice and they will want to stay in their roles.  

For the teachers and students they serve, their decision to stay can be the difference between success and failure. We have to help them choose success … for the sake of our students, and for the economic and social future they deserve. 

I’m looking forward to working collectively alongside you to deliver on that promise. 

Thank you.