Change That’s Built to Last

Dan Gohl served as the Houston Independent School District’s Chief Academic Officer from 2013 to 2015. Before heading off for his new position as Chief Academic Officer in Broward County Public Schools in Florida, he sat down with us to talk about major changes he’s seen in Houston and his thoughts on building sustainable change in large districts.

As Chief Academic Officer, you’ve overseen major academic initiatives, but you’ve also supported human capital work. How do you see the two connecting?

Making the connection between all components of a district’s work is critical for students. We really need to have the right people in place and the right academic strategies, so districts need to set up structures to help their various divisions understand each other’s work and collaborate. When we are not aware of what is happening elsewhere in the district we can become myopic about the importance of our own work.

In HISD, an example of this is a plan to connect modern technology, literacy and global education in the classroom. Each component of this initiative focuses on specific goals: get kids to read, interact with modern devices and feel inspired to learn about other cultures. If we don’t coordinate, we could end up with, say, technology in place that doesn’t meet the needs of the assignments, literacy and social studies teachers who don’t have a good sense of what’s happening in each other’s classrooms, and teachers who do not have a clear vision of how all these components can fit together to create unique learning experiences for students.

In a district where we are attracting and hiring teachers who are the right fit for the education we want to offer our students, and where all the pieces of our academic strategy are integrated—across subjects, with technology, etc.—we will have better outcomes. In this case, it means that our kids will not only be reading about other cultures; they’ll also be engaging with students from other countries using modern technology and their learning will extend from one subject to another in connected classrooms. Undergirding all of these efforts are effective teachers, who always serve as the foundation for improving student learning.

I’ve always admired your commitment to partnering with teachers and school leaders to make decisions. Tell us about your unique vision for stakeholder engagement.

People need to be engaged before they can make a decision about whether they support or reject the status quo and any changes to it. In order to enact fundamental change, you need a long runway. It is important to engage people in deep, reflective conversation when change is tied to long-term decisions for staffing and budgeting.

In our case, doing a lot of listening and a lot of engaging with teachers about how to improve our appraisal and development system was absolutely critical. And a lot of good came out of that process, including a new program in which teachers are collaborating with one another to improve the rigor and quality of teacher-created assessments. It was a powerful teacher-led solution to a challenge that existed at the district level.

You’ve also made strides in improving educational equity in the district. How can HISD continue to build on this foundation?

Equity doesn’t mean necessarily equal allocations of staff, money and resources across the district. When we divvy up resources to local campuses, we’re modifying per-pupil allocations, which is the standard amount of money per student, with weights for factors that have been shown to affect the students’ needs. Some kids need those additional resources to bridge opportunity gaps, and we need to make sure we’re putting all our students on a level playing field to graduate.

We have to think about how to raise the floor of achievement for all students, while at the same time making sure we do not impose a ceiling of achievement on any students. How we assign students to schools is also a critical part of this. Combining open enrollment with differentiated funding is a huge step. By doing this, families can choose to send their child to any school across the district, and the district can move resources to wherever student needs are greatest from year to year. That flexibility is critical to meet students’ needs every year.

How can partners like TNTP better support large urban districts?

Serve as a friend that can provide capacity and capability outside of our own expertise. Act as a third party connective tissue to ensure we aren’t allowing gaps in our own organization to limit our positive impact on students. Finally, remind us of our long-term goals and advocate for good instruction without being bound to a particular approach. Just like we try to engage with our stakeholders when we make big changes, partner organizations need to engage with us and do a lot of listening in order to build a positive, trusting and ultimately productive relationship. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

Learn More About TNTP