In Low-Drama Local Jeff Riley, Board Found The Best Person For Education Commissioner

Jeff Riley is the right leader at the right time.

Massachusetts has spent every year since the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act  debating how to make that legislation better. The tools given to school districts by Gov. Deval Patrick and now Gov. Charlie Baker have assisted in shrinking the achievement gap, but much is left to do.

Jeff Riley’s understanding of where we stand today in those debates and where we should go makes him specifically prepared to take us there, including fully funding the education formula, revisiting the foundation budget, renewing focus on English language learners and special education students and bringing solutions that are proven to have worked in Lawrence to the rest of the commonwealth.

In a world where education reform is seen as a high-drama and high-stakes enterprise populated with ideological soldiers with large egos, Jeff is the opposite. Jeff is a low-drama, low-ego, behind-the-scenes worker.

In Lawrence, we had innovation with union-run schools and charter-run schools. Problem-solving was done school by school, classroom by classroom and student by student — not a set of system-wide solutions.

"I am keenly aware that Jeff Riley beat out two women of color for the job. I know that many may see this as a missed opportunity... I see it differently."

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera

It has not been perfect, but Jeff showed us that education reform was about more than the numbers and that the numbers mattered. Looking at the data, going after low-hanging fruit to move the needle and reminding everyone that the data represented real kids who — with a little bit of extra effort from the faculty, staff and their parents — could score higher in proficiency, pass the MCAS and cross the stage to graduate from high school. Jeff told us those things, we believed him — and then the faculty and the students did it.

I am keenly aware that Jeff Riley beat out two women of color for the job. I know that many may see this as a missed opportunity for the leader of a women-dominated workforce in a state where the majority of the classrooms that need the most attention are ones filled with children of color. I was one of those kids in those classrooms, so this point is very personal. I see it differently.

I see this hiring, this moment in education reform in Massachusetts, as about getting some core accomplishments done sooner rather than later for those kids — under a commissioner who knows how to do it.

We all know the road to those accomplishments is filled with landmines that, for any outsider, would mean months and maybe even years of searching to overcome. How much time would we have spent talking about the outside candidate’s failure to grasp the idiosyncrasies of the commonwealth's political and cultural landscape?

I have worked in public life in this state for much of my adult life and I have witnessed too many outside people of color at high levels get mired in the pitfalls of place, stuck in the confusion of our culture. In the end, they haven't been able to get the job done — through no fault of their own.

Diversity at this level is better addressed by ensuring women and minority staff in the state education bureaucracy and in the districts across the commonwealth are trained and given opportunities to lead and show competence.

Luckily, Jeff Riley has done that time and time again in Lawrence. The central office in Lawrence Public Schools has never been more diverse. My expectation is he will do the same across the state.

Daniel Rivera is mayor of Lawrence, Mass.



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