A Legacy of Change: Five Questions for Bob Hughes

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For educators grappling with the issues facing urban schools, New Visions for Public Schools has become a model in terms of rethinking everything from size, to student services, to teacher certification, to the integrated use of data. Carnegie Corporation of New York has been one of the nonprofit’s earliest and biggest supporters, providing more than $27 million in funding since 1989. It’s a relationship that grew under the leadership of Bob Hughes, president of New Visions for nearly 16 years.  

Working with Hughes, the Corporation’s most significant investment was in the New Century High Schools program. It led to an unprecedented partnership between New Visions and the New York City Department of Education, and the creation of 99 small schools, which have seen a documented increase in graduation rates when compared to larger, more traditional settings. In addition, the Corporation funded New Visions’ Urban Teacher Residency program—an apprenticeship model that provides an alternative certification process and has succeeded in increasing teacher retention and improving student outcomes. Other support included seed funding for a new micro-certification program and the creation of comprehensive tools around the use of student data and technology.

This spring, Hughes accepted a position as director of K-12 strategy for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He recently spoke with Carnegie Corporation about his future plans, his legacy at New Visions, and his goal of improving equity for all students.

CF: You've been a practitioner and now you're going to be a funder. How do you plan to approach this new role?

BH: As a funder, I hope to mimic some of the great people who have worked with me in philanthropy in supporting folks in the field—-being a critical friend, but never substituting the funder’s judgment for the judgment of people who are directly responsible for operating classrooms and school districts. At the end of the day, they're accountable, and the funder’s job is to help them play their best game, and that ultimately has to be collaborative.  We design with educators.  We don't design for educators.

CF: With a law degree, your career trajectory has been a bit unusual. When we first met in 1991, I was an education reporter and you were providing legal representation to students. Next I reported on your work with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and the lawsuit that forced New York State to better fund high need school districts. How has being an attorney shaped your work?

BH: I think it would have been better in some ways if I had been a teacher and entered the field through a more traditional route. But from day one, I was in New York City public schools talking with teachers, principals, students, and families, and then actively participating in legal forums that were designed to give students a better education. When I moved to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, I was able to look at the financial plan for the school system. I learned a lot of issues deeply, and through that subject matter, I saw how our best schools operate, and what teachers and principals need. I think legal training does enable you to start seeing systems and long-term patterns more effectively.

CF: What do you consider the highpoint of your 16 years with New Visions?

BH: One thing that I am really proud of is the New Century High Schools initiative, which enabled us to work with labor, parents, civic groups, and the New York City Department of Education to re-imagine what was possible in high schools. New Visions itself created 99 small high schools citywide, and then worked with the DOE to create several hundred more. It was also about what happened among teachers, students, and the community. We’ve done everything from work on establishing transfer schools with groups like Good Shepherd Social Services to developing a curriculum with the American Museum of Natural History. Today, one in five New York City high school students goes to a high school that New Visions has either created or currently supports.

CF: Is there anything you might you have done differently?

BH: I wish we had gotten to student data earlier and started to use it with sophistication earlier. Data clarifies so many different issues with respect to how high schools operate, and it creates a grounding in the actual experience of a young person that enables you to build effective interventions and more personalized instruction. We are now extraordinarily data driven, and I mean data driven in a way that supports teachers and is much less focused on things like compliance.

CF: The last question is about the role of education nonprofits supported by philanthropic foundations. When a school district is considering big changes, does it need an intermediary such as New Visions and similar organizations?

BH: I think it serves communities well to have an intermediary between themselves and their school district because frequently, school districts develop their own dynamics and are governed by their own internal rules, and they start to close inward. Across the country, a lot of school districts are also somewhat unstable in terms of their leadership—it can be highly politicized.  I think nonprofits that function as a neutral and work hard to stay focused on student achievement can be a very powerful ally with traditional school government structures. There is a nimbleness in being an outside organization that smart school districts can really take advantage of, and use to enhance their agenda as well as the agenda of the communities they serve.