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Expand online learning. Close Achievement Gaps. Get rid of grade levels?

Dean’s big ideas inspire Hopkins alum to get involved with the School of Education
Posted July 15, 2014
IMAGE: Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu IMAGE: Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

When David Andrews, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, travelled to Chicago in the summer of 2012, he had an exciting message.  As part of Join the Conversation, a series of talks designed to engage regional communities with university leadership, he spoke about personalized learning. This new model of instruction would leverage the latest developments in science and technology, allowing educators to consider each student holistically and create a customized approach to teaching that would maximize achievement for all.

The dean’s ideas caught the attention of audience member Jeff Weissglass, an Oak Park, Ill. resident and Hopkins alumnus who is a devoted education advocate. Weissglass, who received his political science degree from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences in 1979, asked Andrews about the relation between mastery-based teaching and grade level structures, and while Weissglass knows the topics well, the dean’s answer still surprised him.

Andrews said that in an ideal world, there wouldn’t be grade cohorts at all. No first grade, second grade, third grade—instead, something different. Something revolutionary.

Weissglass’ reaction was immediate and strong.

“I loved the way this man was thinking, the way he was leading this institution,” he says. “I wanted to be involved.”

It made sense that Weissglass would be pulled in by big ideas, and the promise of nuanced solutions to the complex problems of education—he’d been grappling with them on the local level for years. But while these days Weissglass lives and breathes education, the path that led him there wasn’t a direct one. After graduating from Hopkins, he studied law at New York University. From there it was six years of a successful corporate law career in New Jersey and Manhattan, before deciding to shift gears and earn a Masters in Public and Private Management from Yale. In the process, he met his wife and made a move to the Chicago suburbs, where he became a consultant with an innovative community development bank and the couple had three sons. Between his work and his own growing family, Weissglass developed a deep interest in both politics and education, as well as a desire to use the facilitation and mediation skills that he’d honed throughout his career to help make an impact in the areas that mattered to him.

His activities grew: he became involved with a regional organization that promoted better race relations among adults and students, he helped build the strategic plan for his local elementary school district, he devoted himself to a group that strives to improve early childhood care and education in his community. He also became part of several national organizations seeking to promote political bridge building across partisan lines, most notably the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution in Washington, DC.

Then, when his oldest son decided to attend Johns Hopkins, Weissglass made new connections at his alma mater, slowly deepening his involvement and eventually attending Join the Conversation, where he cemented his interest in the university. In the months after that inspiring day with the dean, Weissglass made two new commitments: he successfully ran for his local high school board, where he quickly became Vice President, and he joined the SOE’s National Advisory Council. The experience has been mutually enriching, allowing Weissglass to expand his own understanding while giving the council the benefit of his first-hand knowledge and his connections with like-minded organizations. (He recently introduced Andrews to Convergence, where the dean joined a year-long stakeholder dialogue on reimagining education.)

“I feel like I’m totally immersed in education—everything I hear at a Johns Hopkins SOE meeting, I filter in part through what I’m experiencing on the ground in the district, and through my knowledge of early childhood issues, and through my understanding of what Convergence is doing,” Weissglass says. “For me, it’s all about the way that my council work connects to the work that I’m already passionate about.The SOE is a great place for me to learn, and at the same time feel like I have something to contribute.”

As just one example of how his work at home and at Hopkins intersect, Weissglass lives in an area that is very diverse, meaning that his work on the school board and for other local organizations often focuses on equity issues and closing achievement gaps among racial and socioeconomic groups. He’s able to bring that understanding to his work on the council, where they discuss those issues on a national level. At the same time, his work with the SOE introduces him to new innovations on how to engage students across the spectrum, challenging him to consider how he could potentially bring some of those cutting-edge ideas back home. For instance, student success could be measured at the end of the year based on how each student progresses from where they began, instead of measuring how many students are reading at a particular grade level and expecting all of them to meet the same goal at the same time.

As for what Weissglass is most excited about at the SOE, it really comes back to those big ideas, the innovations that have the power to change education and change the world. These include the opening of the Henderson-Hopkins school in East Baltimore, the launch of an online master’s program for Teach for America participants, and, of course, the continued development of a model for personalized learning.

“The world of education is changing so fast, and because Dean Andrews is trying to put the SOE at the forefront of that change, and because he is a very entrepreneurial leader, the council is continually trying to figure out how to support those efforts,” Weissglass says. “It’s fun work and it’s very exciting.”