Dear Soon-To-Be Masters in Education, Business, Policy, and Law:
While the education world is all atwitter about a potential reauthorization of ESEA, you are likely preoccupied with the question of where to begin your career as a system-level education leader. Having coached hundreds of graduate students through career transitions, I can tell you that most of your classmates will plant their flags in preeminent cities like New York, LA, Boston, or Chicago. But I encourage you to consider smaller cities that might be just off your radar which may be more beneficial as you look to put a new degree to work.
Being a big fish in a small pond can accelerate your career while adding vital skills and knowledge to a city’s education brain trust.
As a San Franciscan, I understand the pull toward top-tier cities. World-class food, entertainment, sports teams, and cultural attractions create an unending array of opportunities. The rich racial, ethnic, linguistic, and political diversity that one can witness on a cross town bus ride is at once humbling and stimulating. And a robust ecosystem of companies, government institutions, and nonprofit organizations provides an abundance of career advancement opportunities.
Not surprisingly, smaller cities struggle to attract people like you. Often perceived as isolated, less ambitious, or short on professional opportunity, they can be hastily canceled out from career equations. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Cincinnati area, for instance, is home to more Fortune 500 company headquarters per capita than New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago making for an economically vibrant region with a generous philanthropic community. Nashville is a hotbed for live music, home to two professional sports teams, and was ranked one of Outside Magazine’s Greatest Places to Live in the US in 2014.
On the education front, many smaller cities are undertaking ambitious efforts to dramatically increase the number of high-quality schools within their limits. The Cleveland Plan (part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District — a current Bellwether client), for example, is deliberately pursuing a city-wide portfolio model that aims to increase the number of high-quality district and charter schools, close down underperforming schools, transfer authority and resources to schools, phase in high-leverage system supports, and create an entity to uphold quality and accountability. Few plans like it exist in the country, even among big cities.
As I work with leaders and organizations in smaller cities around the country, I’m starting to think that lasting reform may have more potential in urban areas where the need for gap-closing schools is just as great but the distance between an idea and impact is shorter.
If you’re motivated, you can hatch, promote, fund, and launch an idea to a larger percentage of a population faster in a smaller city than in a multi-million person metropolis. When you can get all of a city’s decision-makers around a table, things can happen quickly.
Places like Detroit can afford someone like you a place to take on responsibility early, have exposure to senior leaders, advance often, become influential locally, make significant change, and be part of a larger renaissance – affordances not available in talent-saturated neighboring markets like Chicago until later in your career.
Furthermore, many of the lessons to be learned about education reform and leadership translate from small cities to big ones, setting you up for a career elsewhere should you decide to move. Regardless of a city’s size, students, families, teachers, and principals experience the crushing challenges of poverty and failing schools in similar ways, and the efforts to improve schools in disadvantaged communities can be applied with sufficient considerations around context and scale.
Local foundations and harbormasters are beginning to recognize that in addition to investing money, one of their primary roles is to stock their education ecosystem with great people like you. But places like Kansas City and Cleveland haven’t yet gained traction nationally as attractive places to live and work among the young and talented education leadership set. This signals that local efforts have a long way to go before they create the buzz, success stories, and evangelists they need to get their talent flywheel spinning. It also means there’s huge opportunity for the sector’s top human capital organizations to expand to these locales and craft value propositions to recruit and retain talent in secondary markets.
Until routes to these compelling cities are put in place, it’ll be up to you to seek out and size up opportunities outside the mainstream. Look for strong leaders with bold plans, political alignment at the district, city, and state levels, local foundations pushing education initiatives, and a harbormaster organization coordinating city-wide efforts. Joining an organization when a respected new leader takes the helm can get you in on the ground level. Here’s one you might want to keep your eye on: Rhode Island education commissioner, Deborah Gist, might soon be hiring as the new superintendent in Tulsa.
Since it’s prediction season, I’ll share mine. Over the next few years, I expect more emerging and established education sector rock stars to take on leadership roles in high-potential, low-profile places where the need for better schools is dire and realizing ambitious, innovative plans seems a little more possible.
Will you be one of them?