Celebrating capstone career of Mike Sullivan

Mike Sullivan, who taught Classical Languages and Humane Letters at Veritas Preparatory Academy for 20 years, retires at the end of this school year. Before coming to Veritas, he was a private practice attorney and served the University of Minnesota in its Student Legal Services department after serving in the U.S. Army Intelligence corps as a translator and interpreter.

Veritas Preparatory Academy, a founding member of the prestigious Great Hearts Academy in the Phoenix metropolitan area, held a joyous retirement ceremony for one of its founding faculty members, Mike Sullivan, on May 20. Great Hearts recruited Sullivan, a 60-year-old attorney living in Wisconsin, to teach Latin and Greek.

Sullivan had enjoyed a career in the military followed by a legal career before finishing strong in the classroom for two decades. His most recent career holds a valuable lesson for policymakers.

Students, colleagues, and students who went on to became colleagues all related fond memories and valued lessons imparted by beloved sage-curmudgeon during the event. Veritas Prep’s first headmaster, Andrew Ellison, told of hosting the visiting Sullivan on a recruiting visit.

Ellison felt a growing sense of desperation over the course of the day, thinking he just had to have Sullivan join the faculty. Sullivan at one point told Ellison that he had been waiting all day for Ellison “to say something wrong” so he could get on a plane and go back to Wisconsin.

“But it hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Sullivan said. Ellison described this as “the moment Veritas Prep was born.”

Policy decisions impact lives, sometimes in incredibly positive ways. It is worth noting that many states would not have allowed Mike Sullivan to launch his second career in teaching without jumping through a number of useless hoops. And, yes, I can demonstrate the uselessness of the hoops.

If you look very, very closely at this chart that comes from a study of student learning gains conducted by the Brookings Institution, you will see a dotted curve along with the line and dash curves. The three curves show the learning gains/declines from the students of traditionally certified teachers (the line curve), alternatively certified teachers (the dash curve), and finally from uncertified teachers (the dot curve).

Notice the lack of any meaningful difference in the overall curves; they all have highly effective teachers and highly ineffective teachers. But also note the difference between a right side of the bell-curve teacher and left-side is gigantic. As explained by the authors of the Brookings study:

Moving up (or down) 10 percentile points in one year is a massive impact. For some perspective, the black-white achievement gap nationally is roughly 34 percentile points. Therefore, if the effects were to accumulate, having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.

Arizona lawmakers wisely gave charter school leaders the flexibility to recruit from any of the three curves in search of highly effective instructors. Ipsi prudenter elegerunt!

Veritas Prep found Mike Sullivan practicing law in a distant state and had the flexibility to coax him into a next great career. The adoration of Sullivan’s students and colleagues seems like a much greater compensation than any provided by a law firm.

More Sullivan-like instructors are likely awaiting discovery at some unexpected place. Find them and get them in the classroom!

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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.