Did you feel a quiet, but very discernible, tectonic shift yesterday with the announcement that Gene Wilhoit is retiring as executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)? The education landscape is far different today than when Gene assumed the CCSSO reins, and we are all better because of his work.
Six years ago, who would have predicted that 46 states and the District of Columbia would have adopted common core state standards in English/language arts and mathematics? Many people and organizations have been critical of this process, but without the quiet, but determined leadership of Gene Wilhoit, this historic state-led effort would still be just a well-intentioned concept.
From the movement's earliest days (actually, in 2006, the initial five organizations trying to reach agreement amongst themselves, much less attract a much larger group of jaundiced education leaders, often seemed to stretch the definition of " movement"), Gene's soft-spoken determination kept the process moving forward despite many hurdles. I was impressed by his ability to bring diverse organizations to the common core table; I was even more struck by how he built and maintained support within his own organization for moving ahead on an unprecedented commitment by state leaders.
An executive director of a constituent organization always walks a fine line of providing leadership and a vision while maintaining sufficient support within his organization. The temptation is to take the easier path of administering, but never moving past the middle ground of the membership. Not Gene. From almost his earliest moments at CCSSO, he was quietly explaining his vision, showing how it would work, and involving many state chiefs who would become advocates.
I asked him early in the common core process whether he worried about getting too far out in front of his membership. He smiled that soft smile, and, as is so often the case, diverted attention from himself and pointed to the many state chiefs who were providing leadership.
That is Gene's style. Unassuming. Quiet-spoken. Happy to push others out front. Get it done.
The common core state standards may be the visible part of Gene's legacy, but his real accomplishments are much like him. Not flashy, but amazingly substantive.
What Gene has done is build CCSSO into one of the deep repositories of education practice and policy that are needed to transform education. It seems like at least once a week there is a conversation about critical pieces of practice and research and someone responds, “CCSSO is working on that.”
Go to the "programs" section of the CCSSO website. That is not just a laundry list of interesting topics with little substance. Some of the most cutting-edge initiatives in education reform are establishing themselves and building proof points within the CCSSO. Developing richer assessments, creating better tools for learning, improving accountability systems, developing an Innovative Lab Network of participating states, collaborating on Next Generation Learning Challenges grant awards, focusing on innovation and effective applications of technology are all just some of these initiatives.
Aspiration is a crucial first step. All of the other steps are called implementation. Through Gene Wilhoit's leadership, CCSSO has truly become one of the nation's resources for turning vision into established practice.
Many national education leaders have benefited from Gene's assistance. Transformative state education policies are being implemented. A learner-centered culture is emerging. 90 percent of America's students are now covered by the common core standards and its promise of a college and career ready education.
Most importantly, for 55 million students, the likelihood of a richer education is far better today than it was just a few years ago.
Thank you, Gene.
Bob Wise is the President of Alliance for Excellent Education and a former Governor of West Virginia.