David Rease Jr., Executive Director, Office of Systemic School Improvement, Prince George's County Public Schools
by Dessalines Floyd, Ed.L.D. candidate
May 17, 2017
David Rease, Jr., Ed.L.D.’14, is the executive director of the Office of Systemic School Improvement in Prince George's County, MD. His education career began as a high school social studies teacher in North Carolina and instructional facilitator serving turnaround schools throughout the state. He also worked with a systems improvement team in Denver prior to joining the very first cohort of students in the Doctor of Education Leadership Program (Ed.L.D.) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
In his role at Prince George’s County Public Schools, Rease supports principals in inquiry and discourse techniques to guide their understanding of how to support teacher development. He leads his team in reflecting on their improvement journey together using Data Wise goals they set for themselves. The Data Wise Project is a process of collaborative data inquiry to support continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Teaming and coaching are an important part of Rease’s role. His core values are collaboration, capacity-building, and the development of a networked system of supports aimed at relationship, data-driven decision-making, and shared improvement.
Dessalines Floyd: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What beliefs and values do you bring to your work?
David Rease,: I believe in collaboration, team building, and shared decision-making and think there is a lot to learn from being a part of a diverse team. The work I am doing in Prince George’s County today is consistent with those beliefs. Collective learning and knowledge sharing are vehicles for systems improvement. This work is who I am.
DF: What would your colleagues say about you?
DR: They would say “David’s different”. I challenge the status quo and go against the grain on behalf of families and communities. More often than not, I will do far more than what is expected of me. This approach has always served me well in life because I learned to resist the pull or tendency, I should say, to not graduate high school or pursue college.
My colleagues would also say that I was a focused academic. I imagine they would call me a bookworm. There are probably things about me they find difficult to understand because I was always so different from other people growing up around me. I’m sure they would describe me as passionate and committed, almost to a fault. That’s how those who know me personally would describe me. I am strategic. I try to be what I want the system to become. That can sometimes come off as counter-to-culture or alternative to others.
DF: What do you mean by counter-to-culture?
DR: I’m thinking about my work with Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) and the Harvard Data Wise Project. I am committed to norms, processes, and the often overlooked small routines that guide the work, like beginning and ending on-time whether it be for a meeting of 5 or 200. I try to hold a consistent standard of professionalism. People ultimately come to respect this even though they find it a bit odd at first because a focus on the norms and processes that guide work are often counter to the culture that exists in many work places. Systems do not like to be confronted with change. Sometimes it’s good to consider how small changes can serve as a catalyst for greater change at the system-level if executed strategically.
DF: What matters the most to you in your work?
DR: What matters most is that I can operate in an environment with people ready and willing to reorient their thinking and demonstrate a commitment to learning at all levels and all parts of the system. In order to show a shared commitment to learning it is important that we see ourselves as teachers and help one another create spaces where learning can happen. This matters most to me. We are a learning organization driven by a learning culture. Any organization whereby the people work only to carry out what they have been told is in direct contradiction to this learning culture I describe. Innovation happens when we operate as a learning organization; we get better through the sharing of knowledge as capital. To me, there is no foundation for improvement without these.
DF: I imagine your core values are not new. Where do your values come from?
DR: I remember sitting in an Honors Chemistry classroom in East Cleveland, Ohio. We were using food to study the differences between heterogeneous and homogenous mixtures. This was the only Honors Chemistry course in the school. Our teacher had the most seniority in the school and union rules stipulated that teacher seniority determined who gets to teach what in the school. Across the hall was the standard-level Chemistry classroom. Surprisingly, this classroom seemed to be the place where students were exposed to a more rigorous course of study. In this class, students were learning about stoichiometry and using advanced equations to solve meaningful, real world problems. I wanted more of this and less of what I was getting. I started to sit in on this Chemistry course and eventually withdrew from my honors-level course. Although many of my peers initially followed my lead they were unwilling to withdraw completely from the honors-level course because withdrawing would mean they would not receive the benefits of a weighted GPA. It was at this point that I came to realize how valuable learning was to me. More than good grades, more than shallow friendships, learning mattered.
DF: What do you think future leaders should learn in school to prepare them for the kind of work that you do?
DR: Knowing oneself is critical to effective leadership, especially in the work that I do. The Ed.L.D. Program used to have an experiential learning-based Group Relations Conference that worked well alongside adaptive leadership development. The conference brought together a diverse set of leaders from around the world to help us explore ourselves as a system. The facilitators created experiences that not only deepened our learning of ourselves but how to understand complex systems. To me, work in these areas have the greatest applications in the work that I do every day. We learned how to navigate tricky, politically-charged (little ‘p’) environments better. Leaders can’t have shared conversations until they’ve had shared experiences. Time and space for this kind of learning should be made in school. I am often reminded in my work that all of the realities of the world, all of the -isms, assumptions, differing treatments, and expectations that seem to exist in the world for other people play out just the same for the work I do here. It’s important to be prepared for this by learning from your everyday experiences.