Duval County, Florida School Superintendent Dr. Joseph Wise has only been on the job for 10 months, but already he is making a big impact on the 165 schools, 130,000 students and 14,000 employees in his district. Taking the lessons he learned from his last position as Superintendent of the Christina School District in Wilmington, Delaware, he has already more than doubled the number of high school students taking AP courses and has introduced progressive neurological intervention products into 33 Duval County schools.
Following is an interview with Dr. Wise about the problems facing educators today and why we need to demand more of students, parents and teachers in order to get results.
What do you think about today’s efforts to reform America’s schools?
I think that to do education reform and school reform well, that doesn’t mean taking a set of problems and solving them so you have no problems. It means solving the issues you have now so you can trade those in for a more complex set of challenges. Because of that, I don’t think that we as educators are good at thinking about those big levers that we can pull or push to catapult the reform work forward throughout schools and school districts.
What types of challenges are you facing in your own school district?
Duval County School District is a consolidated district covering 844 square miles. We have 165 schools and 130,000 students. Roughly 50% of them are white, 50% nonwhite, with most of those being African American. We have a graduation rate of only about 67%, which is far too many dropouts. Roughly a third of our children are on the wrong end of the achievement gap, more so in high school and less so in elementary.
Since I got here almost 10 months ago, I’ve really been thoughtful about what’s working and what’s not working. Typically, when a superintendent changes, you throw out everything and put your name on all the new things. I’ve been very conscious not to do that here, because some things were working that were very good.
What I’ve found, though, is a pretty big implementation gap between what was architected and what was actually delivered. And I’ve been working really hard to fill in those gaps by not casting blame but still holding people accountable, and by building community awareness.
We must teach the community things like, “Our kids have to outperform us.” We have greater than a third of the adults who live in Jacksonville who can’t read a sports page. So we can’t make the parents feel bad when the kids come home reading and they can’t read. Or when their kids have to go somewhere else to get help with their math homework because the parents can’t do the homework. We have to see to it that the community doesn’t, through its own complex, hold the kids back.
What strategies are you using to accomplish this?
I’ve looked for those tipping point strategies that I could leverage in my first and second year so I could jump-start this into a more high functioning organization. We’ve had a massive change in the number of kids signed up for Advanced Placement classes in our high schools. Roughly 4,200 children were taking 8,600 sections of AP courses last year; we’ve now surpassed more than 10,000 kids taking 20,400 sections of AP. In ninth grade alone, we’ve gone from 9™count on two hands™9 ninth-graders taking one or more AP classes last year to 2,634 ninth graders taking one or more AP classes this year.
We’ve catapulted the kids who can take on more rigor into doing it. And we did that without reducing the number of kids who are in honors or dual college enrollment or international baccalaureate. So the kids are moving up the ladder rungs of rigor, and they and the teachers are doing just wonderfully with it. I’m so proud of them. We’re in our fourth week of school here, by the way [on August 30th]. We start pretty early.
How did you go from 9 ninth graders in AP to over 2,600? That’s a huge leap.
I’m basically saying, if they can do it, I expect them in there. The AP courses that are most doable for younger high school students are AP Human Geography and AP Psychology. So those are the classes we steer them towards. I have 10,000 ninth graders, so 26% of them are taking AP classes. It’s a way to help remake our high schools.
By the way, we don’t know of any other schools in the nation doing this. So when I say to our ninth graders, “You’re doing this, and no one else in the country is doing it,” they sit up so tall, and they are just so excited.
We know that you implemented a neurological reading intervention product in your last job. Can you talk a little bit about how and why you did it?
Yes, I implemented Fast ForWord at Christina [the Christina School District in Wilmington, Delaware]. I did it because I know from experience that you can work really hard on making reading instruction more prescriptive, more focused, more phonetic, etc, but it’s like painting the top eaves of your house. If you don’t have a ladder tall enough, you’re not going to be able to reach it. In the same way, kids have to be wired cognitively to receive whatever improvements you’re trying to make in reading instruction. What I also learned from my last implementation was that this also helps in writing, and mathematics, and paying attention and behavior.
By the way, we did not have great acceptance at first because I did that typical thing of cramming it down the throats of everybody and not giving them a chance to buy in. But then I got everyone to own it by sharing results, and by them hearing the anecdotal evidence from kids, which was pretty amazing. I also asked someone in the company to do a two-page backgrounder called “What on earth is Fast ForWord?” so we could give it to our teachers and have meaningful conversations about it. Teachers need to know exactly what it does so they can help other teachers and parents understand it.
By the time I left the district, it was in every single school because the principals demanded it. And once I got administrators, teachers and parents to own it, they took to it like ducks to water.
Can you give some examples of this anecdotal evidence?
The kids would say things like, “It’s easier to sit still longer,” and “I understand the instructions better.” What they can’t tell you is that now they can hold a five-part cognitive set of instructions. If they walk into class and the teacher says, “Sit down,” that’s one. “Take out a pencil,” that’s two. “Take out your book,” that’s three. “Turn to page 38,” that’s four. “Put your name on the top right-hand corner,” that’s five. If I’m a boy, and I have a cognitive ability to hold two instructions, most likely I’m going to become a discipline problem after the teacher gets to three, because I can’t hold anymore. This product changed all that by enabling students to build up their capacity to process information.
Academically, the results were amazing, but anecdotally, the evidence just touches your heart. Kids would say things like, “I can read now,” or “I want to take harder math,” or “I like doing my homework now.” It’s those little sound bites that you get from them that are so heartwarming. And the performance data behind all this is pretty amazing, too.
What direction do you think education in America needs to go in? What changes would you like to see implemented everywhere?
I fully believe in accountability, but we ought to do it in meaningful ways. One way is, we should be responsible for the growth of the child. Am I getting at least a year’s growth for a year of service between the teacher and the child? For kids who are behind, am I getting more than a year’s growth? That’s different from measuring this year’s third graders with last year’s third graders, because it doesn’t get at what we’re doing for the kids. If we can get the whole country focused on a growth model, it will be so much healthier for the kids and families.
I also think we should be held accountable for integrating the various curriculum areas with one another, like integrating music and art, dance and theater, math and science, reading and social studies. Because this business of working in silos is serving a short-term need but is not serving kids in the long term.
Lastly, I wish we educators could be more effective purchasers of services and products. The Fast ForWord experience is one example, and there are others. What don’t people get about paying attention to the data? If they did, you’d have it in every school in America right now.