Guest Column

Distractions in a Season of Accountability

by Richard P. Mills

Educating all students to higher standards is the heart of the matter for us. We know that we are doing freedom's work by preparing young people for civic engagement, honorable work, the good life.

So why do we sometimes feel so bad when we look back at how we actually spent our day? The distractions got to us yet again. How do we protect ourselves and the people we lead from those distractions?

Private-sector CEOs have their own challenges but I've noticed they often have the opportunity for greater focus. Their performance measures are few, widely accepted and known in advance. They are also expected to think about and provide for the future of the enterprise full time. How different it can be in public education.

When I asked a very able local school board member how much student achievement mattered in the evaluation of the superintendent, she said, "About a third." What mattered a lot more were issues that struck me as distantly related to what children need.

Retelling the Tale

State accountability systems try to keep the focus on children and the gaps in student performance. But some people don't want to hear about the gaps-they want to believe that everything is just fine. Nor do they want to hear about your plans to improve performance-too expensive or not fast enough.

Encounters with the news media about student test results can add to the distractions, but they also provide opportunities to get things back to the heart of the matter. Last fall, for example, I told an audience of business and education leaders in New York that the press would rank schools on the basis of test results in an effort to inform the public. The headline the next day was "Mills will rank schools."

Continuous improvement, not ranking, is the point, I told that newspaper reporter the next day. She said she understood that but noted, "The press has to simplify." So I wrote a simple letter to the editor and they published it, and I sent that around to local school leaders. It was a reminder we all have to tell our story again and again. This year we briefed 25 reporters prior to release of the annual report card with a simple message: "Don't rank schools!" And very few did.

Another way to protect our school systems from distractions is to make our evaluations match the rhetoric. Since the public really does support higher standards, why, I often ask school boards, would we let anything get in the way of a school leader trying to concentrate on student achievement? I reduced my performance agreement with my board to a pamphlet and it's in my pocket every day. I give copies to others and talk about it constantly.

The agreement lists only five tasks and raising student achievement is at the top. Every quarter my whole administrative team goes over the numbers with me. Raise student achievement-that is the whole deal. It took a while, but now everyone knows it's hard to get my attention on anything else.

Tap Your Allies

Still another way to avoid distractions is to prepare ourselves to ask hard questions that lead the whole community to serious thinking. We shouldn't play along with those who want us to stand there with all the answers. How can we close the gaps in student achievement right here in our community? Now that's a question for parents, educators, students, everyone.

And don't forget your natural allies. More than a dozen times last year I asked groups of business leaders to literally stand beside school superintendents when they talk to the community about the need to improve performance. When the bricks start to fly, I told them, side with the superintendent. If you ask, they will. The business community has been there for me in all the really tough moments because they agree on the heart of the matter.

One last thought: Think about the future of our enterprise. Better results for children didn't start with us and won't end with us either. As school leaders, we are part of an unbroken line of leaders who have worked on this through the decades.

At a certain point, all real leaders take on the responsibility to grow future leaders. The act of thinking about those in your organization who are coming up, tapping the best of them and getting them ready for leadership should drive distractions into the background. When we tell the new ones why we suit up for this every day and why they should too if they are fortunate enough to get the chance, we talk about children and what they need.

Richard Mills is commissioner of the New York State Education Department, 89 Washington Ave., Albany, N.Y. 12234. E-mail: