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.