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Eight lessons: What I've learned from Atul Gawande, Mark Zuckerberg and 25,000 Madison students

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A while ago, I was on a lunchtime panel speaking to graduate students in the University of Wisconsin School of Education. Panelists had been sent questions and the last one was: “Looking back over your career in education policy, what are a few of the things you've learned along the way that you wish you had known from the start?”

That's a good question. I have been on the School Board of the Madison Metropolitan School District since 2008. I have attended a lot of meetings. I think I have stayed awake through all of them. I should have picked up some insights. I eventually came up with eight lessons, one for each of my years on the board. Here they are:

Lesson No. 1: It’s complicated

Providing an excellent education to students is complicated for many reasons, but two stand out.

First, there is no direct relationship between inputs and outcomes. The education our schools offer is mediated through the wonderfully mysterious minds of 25,000 children ages 4 to 18. There’s a lot that’s going on in our students’ lives outside the classroom that affect their level of engagement, from the terrific to the awful. Their progress is also influenced in ways we can’t fully understand by individual traits and distinctive characteristics all students bring to their learning. We can control the opportunities for learning we offer our students, but all that matters is what our students make of those opportunities.

Second, the education of each student is a multiyear, multi-pronged project. One of my favorite board duties is shaking the hands at high school graduations. The accomplishments of each graduate reflect the cumulative work of many teachers in many classrooms over many years. The education we provide consists of the gradual accumulation of knowledge and skills from 4-year-old kindergarten through high school. Every one of those years is important, and our graduates carry lessons from each one as they stride confidently across the Kohl Center stage.

Not all of our students make it to the Kohl Center. I am asked during school board campaigns what I think is “the solution” to the achievement gap. My answer: everything. There are as many potential areas for improvement as there are potential stumbling blocks that can cause students to fall behind.


Ed Hughes, 63, is from Northbrook, Illinois, and moved to Madison in 1982 with his wife Ann Brickson, a Madison native. They have two adult children; their daughter, Claire, is a first-year medical student at UW-Madison and son, Chris, lives in D.C. with his wife and baby daughter. Hughes has a degree in government from Georgetown University, a law degree from the University of Chicago and is an attorney with Stafford Rosenbaum.

You tell me a grade level and I’ll tell you what we’re doing or need to do to help struggling students at that age, from the earliest learning, to a strong 4-year-old kindergarten, to a focus on attendance, to reading by third grade, to engagement in middle school, to work on the transitions from fifth grade to middle school and eighth grade to high school, to a reduction in lost class time due to suspensions and expulsions, to career pathways in high school.

The list goes on. It all matters, because just about everything that happens during each year of school matters in the complicated adventure of helping a 4-year-old learner grow into a high school graduate prepared for the challenges of college, career and community.

Lesson No. 2: There’s no silver bullet

This lesson is the flip side of the first. We’d all like the task of K-12 education to be less maddeningly complex. This helps explain the allure of new school programs and strategies held out as key to breakthrough results. But sadly, there is no silver bullet. Opportunities for improvement abound, but there is no single strategy lurking over the horizon that will singlehandedly transform urban education and eliminate the achievement gap.

Lesson No. 3: Schools are systems

I’m as surprised as anyone that the magazine article that told me the most about school improvement was a reprint of a commencement address to a medical school class. But “Cowboys and Pit Crews,” the New Yorker’s report on Atul Gawande’s 2011 speech to Harvard Medical School graduates, makes sharp points that apply to teachers as well as doctors.

Gawande, a surgeon and writer, said doctors are traditionally trained to act with the independence of cowboys but patients benefit more from a system-wide approach: “By a system I mean that the diverse people actually work together to direct their specialized capabilities toward common goals for patients. They are coordinated by design. They are pit crews.”

To function effectively as pit crew members, Gawande explained that doctors had to cultivate new skills. These include understanding in a systematic way when doctors have succeeded and when they haven’t: “People in effective systems become interested in data. They put effort and resources into collecting them, refining them, understanding what they say about their performance.” Doctors also have to be able “to devise solutions for the system problems that data and experience uncover.”

The third skill Gawande identified is “the ability to implement at scale, the ability to get colleagues along the entire chain of care functioning like pit crews for patients.”

Teachers, like doctors, value their skills. Over time, experienced teachers can develop their own curricular focus, points of emphasis, pace of teaching and conception of what a well-rounded education entails. In the past, it wasn’t unusual to come across teachers in the district who reveled in their sense of autonomy, independence and self-sufficiency, like Gawande’s image of cowboys.

Those days are over. Effective education requires a systems approach, with everyone assigned a clear and well-defined role, like … well, like a pit crew.

As Gawande recognized, an effective systems approach depends on an appropriate respect for data and a willingness to act on the insights that data provide. It also calls for discipline, teamwork and collaboration.


"Education is a labor-intensive process that is hugely dependent on the skills, commitment and focus of our classroom teachers and staff. Teachers aren't simply programmable inputs into an educational output. They are knowledgeable professionals with their own experience-based views about what works best in their classrooms."

It can require a significant cultural shift to transform an organization from a gang of cowboys to a coordinated network of pit crews. That transformation must be led from the top. School district leadership should have a clear idea of the overall systems approach that would best serve the district’s students, be able to define how the efforts of everyone in the organization can best contribute to that overall vision and hold people accountable for their performance and results.

Better student outcomes come from consistently good classroom instruction that is delivered within the context of a coherent overall structure. Good classroom instruction is the responsibility of our teachers. A coherent overall structure that sharpens the impact of good teaching is the responsibility of the school district.

Lesson No. 4: Progress requires broad buy-in

I learned this fourth lesson sometime after the third. Like many outsiders, I thought that if we as a school district decided to move to a more system-oriented approach, improvement would naturally follow. Turns out it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Education is a labor-intensive process that is hugely dependent on the skills, commitment and focus of our classroom teachers and staff. Teachers aren’t simply programmable inputs into an educational output. They are knowledgeable professionals with their own experience-based views about what works best in their classrooms.

This creates an obvious tension with a systems approach to schools. A systems approach implies an overall vision for the school district and a top-down imposition of a strategy, with assigned roles for everyone in the district, including teachers.

That approach depends on teachers buying in. It means teachers essentially take one for the team by sacrificing some of their curricular discretion in the interest of a more consistent, coherent system-wide approach. No long-term success is possible unless teachers and staff are partners in the effort.

But teachers, who are naturally skeptical, have to be convinced that any new system-wide approach makes pedagogical sense and that the administration is committed to long-term reform. They need to be persuaded that the new approach isn’t another flavor-of-the-month educational fad that will be jettisoned when it doesn’t deliver the dramatic improvements that its advocates promise. And that is a natural segue to —

Lesson No. 5: Buy-in can’t be bought

This lesson is illustrated in the attempt by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to reform the public schools of Newark, New Jersey, as recounted in Dale Russakoff’s recent book, “The Prize.” Russakoff tells of Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie persuading Zuckerberg to donate $100 million to an effort to improve public schools in Newark. The goal of these unlikely partners wasn’t modest — they expected to develop a model for repairing public education in all of urban America, and to accomplish the task in Newark in five years.

Like other billionaire philanthropists, Zuckerberg favored incorporating more of the business values that shaped companies like Facebook into what he viewed as the stodgy and teacher-union-dominated public school system. He thought the key was monetary incentives to attract and retain top teachers. He directed the bulk of his gift toward funding a new teacher contract that would reward teachers for improved student performance.

According to Zuckerberg, “Over the long term, that’s the only way they’re going to get the very best people, a lot of the very best people.”

Was Zuckerberg right, that merit pay was the key to enhanced teacher performance? “The Prize” tells the story of Kathleen Carlson, a Newark special education teacher, who spent a year working with a struggling reader named Alif. Under her one-on-one tutelage, Alif went from a second grade to a fifth grade reading level and was able to graduate from eighth grade.

Based in part on her work with Alif, Carlson was a winner under Zuckerberg’s system and qualified for a merit bonus of $10,000. Russakoff writes that the teacher was asked if the monetary incentive had influenced her.

“Not at all,” she answered. “Don’t get me wrong – the money is nice. But just the progress my students have made, and the progress Alif has made, and how it’s changed his life — that’s the bonus for me.”


"It can require a significant cultural shift to transform an organization from a gang of cowboys to a coordinated network of pit crews."

Her story rings true. I’ve learned that, by and large, teachers aren’t driven by money, a primary motivator in the business world. This is a fatal problem for merit pay. As Newark demonstrated, a performance-based compensation system won’t work if the incentives it provides don’t actually incent those who are paid under the system.

This illustrates the limits of top-down directives in driving educational change. The type of teacher buy-in that is necessary for a systems approach to work and for schools to flourish cannot simply be compelled from on high. The buy-in also can’t be purchased with potential performance bonuses and other financial carrots and sticks.

Instead, it must be earned. Teachers and staff must come to see that a systems approach will genuinely help with what really motivates them — seeing their students succeed.

Lesson No. 6: There’s no substitute for leadership

The tension between lessons three and four presents a primary challenge in running a school district. Schools need to be operated as a system, with each employee fulfilling a role. But the systems approach can be unwelcome to the individual teachers who are key to its success. They may think that their creativity will be stifled and their hard-earned expertise about effective teaching ignored. And lesson five teaches us that it takes more than an open checkbook to win over teachers wary of downtown interference.

The challenge for school leadership is to strike a smart balance between, on the one hand, insisting upon the best system-wide approach so students experience engaging instruction that consistently builds on what they have learned and prepares students for the next level, and, on the other, recognizing the knowledge and commitment of teachers and staff and honoring their values and skills.

The success of a school district can be measured by the extent to which those two interests are not seen as conflicting but are recognized as overlapping and mutually reinforcing dimensions. Effective and inspiring leadership matters a lot.

Lesson No. 7: Improvement takes time

Despite the best leadership, the time required for the kind of broad and sustained improvement we want to see in our schools is measured in years rather than months. Under the best of circumstances, the journey of teachers and staff from suspicion of new leaders and initiatives to reluctant acceptance to genuine support will take the time it takes; it cannot be rushed.

The impacts of new programs also unfold on their own timelines. The first students enrolled in Madison’s 4-year-old kindergarten during the 2011-12 school year. This year, that group of students will be in third grade, so this will be the first time we’ll be able to look at what standardized test results have to tell us about 4K’s impact. We won’t know whether 4K will improve our graduation rates until after the 2024-25 school year.

Here’s another example. We have a tough time diversifying our workforce. Among other efforts, we recently selected our first group of 12 high school freshmen for our new TEEM scholars program. The plan is that they will finish high school, become education majors at the UW, and then return following graduation to become Madison teachers. How well will it work? We don’t know yet – check back sometime after 2022.

How long should significant, system-wide school improvement efforts take before they bear fruit? Superintendents of urban school districts have an average tenure of less than four years, but it takes longer than that. The architects of the Newark reform effort thought their complete overhaul of the system would take five years – so that a kindergartner would attend a fundamentally different school district by the time she entered middle school. (It didn’t happen.)

A 2010 study by McKinsey & Company on “How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better” concluded that “significant improvement in educational attainment can be achieved within as little as six years.” Long Beach, California, and Boston are often held out as examples of high-performing school districts (including in the McKinsey study), and the progress in each district was led by a superintendent who was around for 10 and 11 years, respectively. That should be enough time.

Lesson No. 8: Incremental progress is good progress

The final lesson I’ve learned follows from the previous seven. Every school district will always be pursuing an improvement strategy. But there is no silver-bullet educational solution out there that will transform a school district and eliminate achievement gaps overnight, or what passes for overnight in the school world.

Sustainable school improvement efforts call for a long-term, consistent and coherent approach to instruction guided by a system-wide vision and implemented classroom-by-classroom by teachers willing, when necessary, to subordinate their individual approaches in deference to a broader vision.

It’s a step-by-step approach and results will emerge in a step-by-step manner. So, given the structural imperatives, we should recognize that incremental progress is good progress. Even when there’s a long way to go, our consistent goal should be gradual but steady improvement, not the doomed lurching about in search of elusive “breakthrough results.”

Given the long arc of successful school improvement efforts, we should pay more attention to long-term trends than test-to-test or even year-to-year progress. This requires a kind of patience that coexists uneasily with the sense of urgency for our urban public schools.

It also calls for the kind of long-term commitment that isn’t very compatible with the traditional model of school board governance. Folks generally aren’t inspired to run for school board by a desire to refrain from monkeying around with an approach that seems to be working. “Let’s leave well enough alone” isn’t much of a campaign slogan. And yet, if a school district is headed in the right direction, as I think we are in Madison, that can be exactly what is called for.

The bottom line is, education is complicated. Change is hard, system-wide change is harder, system-wide change for the better is harder still. The kind of long-term positive changes we want to see in our urban school districts will certainly take longer than five years and may take a decade of sustained effort to achieve. And incremental progress along the way may be all that we can expect to see.

I learned these final lessons last. Particularly with issues as critical as student skill development and elimination of achievement gaps, there is a natural reluctance to acknowledge that the appropriate pace of the journey will be more tortoise than hare. Sustained improvement in student outcomes will take more patience than we’d prefer and all the persistence that we can muster.

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