When Enoch Woodhouse III surveys the state of education reform today, he sees the same ineffective battles duplicated nationwide. Sure, there are more reformers than a decade ago, he notes, but most still don’t have the political skills to match union organizing. After leaving StudentsFirst, former Washington, D.C., Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s answer to teacher’s unions, two years ago, Woodhouse focused his attention on building data-driven tools to engage parents and teachers at the school board level. Woodhouse, who attended both public and private schools in Boston before matriculating to Harvard, spoke with NationSwell about the latest plan to change America’s public schools.

What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
I think there’s a time for listening, and there’s a time for directing. Leadership is about finding the right balance of the two. When you find yourself out of balance, which I think many leaders often do, things become much more tricky.

What’s on your nightstand?
Right now, I am reading (because I attended a NationSwell event) Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” which I happen to be enjoying thoroughly. He is one of the most inspirational folks who I have ever seen and heard in person. I think the work he’s doing is incredibly noble, and it’s very related to my work in education, just at a different point in the pipeline.

What’s your favorite book of all-time?
My favorite book is “The Three Musketeers.” The book and movie got me started fencing actually, which I did from age 10 to 22ish.

What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
I feel like the hottest innovation is the utilization of tech in the classroom to do a few different things. For me, it is less of iPads in the classroom; it is more figuring out ways to solve this problem of getting a great teacher in front of every student, which is very hard to achieve at scale. There are interesting ways, the most innovative of its time was Khan Academy and this idea of inverted or “flipped” classrooms, where students actually leverage technology at home to spend time learning the content, and they spend time in school with instructors actually working through tough problems, which instructors can do at scale much more effectively and efficiently than giving a lecture and having everybody get it. That’s probably the wave of the future and the biggest lever to actually reach the most kids without materially compromising some things.

What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
Two things: it’s hard and it’s personal, and you can’t take it personally. Moving entrenched systems that have lots of interests tied to them is really hard. Results don’t always matter, which is the frustrating part for folks like me who feel like being rational, data-driven and logical are virtues. It’s personal because all of the policies, all of the reforms have very real implications for real people. The school that has been in the community for decades and has folks working at it for decades, it has significance for a community. Someone who’s mother and grandmother and great-grandmother went there, it’s very personal to them. You’ve got to approach the problem with the complexity that it has, which is not only showing the data but approaching it from a more personal vantage point. You can’t take it personally because it’s a fight and it’s hard. If I took things personally, if I continued to take things personally, you get very discouraged with the work. It almost becomes untenable to do for any period of time.

What inspires you?
The kids, without a doubt. For me personally, it was very easy to stay connected to the kids when I was running schools and I could be in classrooms and could speak to parents every day. It’s a little harder now because what we’re doing is much more adult-centered. But having proximity to kids, great learning and adults doing great work for kids is very inspiring. It makes you want to do everything you can to support that teacher or that student who you know is working as hard as they possibly can in spite of a whole lot of things in their way.

What’s your perfect day?
I would say waking up, going to a school on a parent-teacher conference day, seeing lots of parents super-engaged in their students’ experience and students taking ownership over their own experience. Then, going out in the afternoon with the golf team at school and playing nine holes some place exotic. Then having dinner with my wife and coming home to watch some brand of reality TV.

What’s your proudest accomplishment?
When I was working in the Washington, D.C., Public Schools, it was a significant priority for the district to deliver more information to parents about our schools and what an experience at our schools looked like than they had ever received before. So one of my main charges was to build a set of scorecards where you’d see some pretty crude metrics like performance on English and math, student safety and suspensions for every school in the district. But you’d also see highlights around particular programs that the school was proud of: an IB program, an arts program. In order to create these things, I did a listening tour across D.C.’s eight wards, meeting with parents, teachers, students and administrators to ask them all of the stuff that they would love to see on two pages that would give them as complete a picture about the school as possible. I learned lots of things from the community during that experience, and we created scorecards that were pretty well-received by folks. And those endure in D.C. today, which is kind of cool.

What don’t most people know about you that they should?
I like to cook a lot. Recently, I have done a pivot in my cooking from fancy things that look pretty and sound fanciful to much more practical, paleo-based cooking. Not a lot of people know that, except my wife who eats it — on occasion.

To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.

Homepage photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

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