The UED is not a typical administrative body, hosting meetings with big agendas and speakers telling everyone what to do and how to do it. Instead its meetings are an honest, open dialogue with thought provoking conversations between superintendents of California public school districts with 20,000 or more students that have large numbers of English learners, free and reduced lunch participants, and ethnic diversity.
The UED grew out of an idea developed by Sol Price, a passionate supporter of public education. He thought that bringing together superintendents of California’s large urban school districts in a model public/private partnership might result in a sharing of ideas and possible solutions that each leader faced in his or her own district. In spring of 2000, with support from the California secretary of education and Governor Gray Davis, Price Philanthropies funded an inaugural meeting in San Diego to “provide a forum for exchanging information and ideas on how to make significant improvements in our urban schools and also to identify governmental legislation and regulations that may crate either unnecessary obstacles or potential opportunities.”
The success of the UED stems from participants discovering how to engage in dialogue rather than discussion or debate. Turning conversation into dialogue includes the core elements of all participants being treated as equals, listening emphatically, and bringing forth assumptions nonjudgmentally. The following are some key takeaways superintendents have cited as reasons they keep coming back:
- Connecting with high quality superintendents that can be called on for support
- Learning about reform efforts that are working in other districts
- Learning effective ways to budget and manage crisis
- Bringing back plans to implement in their own district
- Being inspired by others about the future
An unanticipated outcome of the UED stemmed from a question posed by Sol Price, the retail revolutionary and philanthropist who founded Price Club with his son Robert that later gave rise to and merged with Costco. The question was posed in 2000, at one of the group’s first meeting; “How much do you pay for a pencil?” No one knew. Using his business knowledge, Sol hypothesized that if each district took part in cooperative purchasing and implemented efficient processes, they could drive down their costs substantially and redirect the savings to support teaching and learning.
Sol’s foundation Price Philanthropies (formerly Price Family Charitable Fund) hired two MBA students from San Diego State University to study the purchasing and business operations of several urban school districts and employed various strategies to help districts leverage their purchasing power through the creation of Public School Services. This experience is only one of many unanticipated outcomes over the past 15 years.
Today, the UED is still going strong and is supported by superintendents eager to continue their quest to improve student achievement with other leaders seeking solutions to their common challenges. Only superintendents are invited to the closed meetings which offers a safe place for superintendents to have a free flow of ideas. A facilitator ensures no person dominates the conversation and encourages everyone to share their views. Price Philanthropies continues to provide financial and logistical support and hosts the semiannual meetings in a San Diego hotel.
The 15 years of UED’s existence is an example of a powerful learning and professional development strategy, one that can inspire and serve leaders performing work critical to the success of public education.