Podcast: Dan Gohl on Leading in Crisis

Trained as a physicist, Dan Gohl is comfortable with large complex systems. He’s been a school and system leader in Austin, Washington DC, Newark, Houston, and now Broward County Florida. He’s thoughtful, articulate, humble and quick to credit the leaders he’s learned from and with.

Gohl is in his fifth year as Chief Academic Officer for the Broward County Public Schools (the greater Ft Lauderdale area) serves nearly 270,000 students on 241 campuses. It’s the 6th largest district in the country.

As part of Superintendent Robert Runcie’s team, Dan oversaw the development of a great system of schools with a robust personalized learning strategy, hundreds of well-developed career academies, strong speech and debate programs in every secondary school, and the biggest computer science program in the country.

About Runcie’s vision, Gohl said it’s about all students achieving, but it’s not reductionist. “It’s necessary but not sufficient to raise test scores–we’ve got to verify achievement–but woefully insufficient to make sure they are prepared.” He added, “We focus on a couple of transcendent experiences we can provide in school.”

Broward has been on the path to digital learning for four years. “We want blended and flipped learning to occur at all grade levels,” said Gohl.

With a unified ecosystem, Broward teachers use the Canvas platform and Microsoft 365. In the first week after closure, 98% of teachers stood up courses. In the first week of remote learning, more than 96% of learners logged in.

Broward was 1:1 before the closure but had not distributed computers. To kickstart remote learning, the district set up distribution sites and handed out 82,000 laptops. Food is still being distributed from 71 schools.

In this interview, Dan talks about their crisis response program called Learning Never Closes. He reflects on leading through crises including hurricanes and mass shootings and talks about why this pandemic is far more challenging.

“These are challenging times, disruptions to personal habits and professional patterns abound,” said Gohl. “The wholesale migration of education from physical spaces to digital spaces has flattened communications networks in ways that have challenged organizational structures, shut off traditional student support mechanisms while opening up many practitioners to the possibilities enabled by digital tools, and highlighted the need to have the competency, rather than seat time, be the gauge for learning,” added Gohl.

“Hurricanes and mass shootings occur in a fixed period of time followed by recovery,” said Gohl. “The pandemic not only shuts us down for a period of time it adds forward-facing uncertainty.” He acknowledges that it could be a very long recovery in south Florida and that we don’t know when this or another epidemic will return.

On lesson of crisis leadership, Dan said

  • Respect critics, there is something you can learn from them,
  • Don’t be derailed in system change toward high-quality schools in every community, but
  • Be a little uncertain all the time

We think you’ll find Dan to be one of America’s most thoughtful education leaders.

Key Takeaways:
[1:15] Dan tells the story of opening the McKinley Technology High School in Washington, D.C.
[2:35] Dan speaks about his background in science and involvement with the Science Academy of Austin (that led to an opportunity that took him to D.C.).
[4:25] Why did Dan end up in Austin in the fall of 1986? And what kept him there?
[7:27] Dan speaks about his stint in Zimbabwe.
[8:05] Dan shares more about his career after coming back to the States in 1990.
[8:52] Dan speaks about his time in Newark in 2010 where he was leading the change effort.
[11:28] Tom and Dan talk about when they connected again when Dan was CAO during the PowerUp Initiative in 2013 America’s biggest move to 1:1 and blended learning.
[12:21] Dan shares what he ended up doing after leaving Newark.
[14:37] Now five years in as CAO at Broward County, Dan recaps some of the advances he has made thus far and what he’s proud of.
[21:45] Jessica chimes in to share an important resource: the Getting Through microsite!
[22:25] What happened when the governor closed the schools? What has Broward County Public Schools done to move their learning to digital?
[27:37] What advice has Dan given teachers about learning expectations, workloads, and the challenges they may face going forward? What have they employed to aid teachers to continue to teach their students?
[31:13] What does Dan mean by a ‘rhizomatic approach?’
[33:56] Dan takes time to remember those who were lost from tragedies in the past. He also shares how this crisis is different from past crises.
[39:06] Dan shares some of the lessons in leadership he has learned due to this crisis.
[43:03] Tom thanks Dan for joining the Getting Smart podcast!

Mentioned in This Episode:
Daniel Gohl’s LinkedIn
Broward County Public Schools
“How Houston Schools Are Making it a Great Global City,” by Tom Vander Ark (A Getting Smart article covering the PowerUp Initiative launched by Terry Grier)
Getting Smart Podcast Ep. 234: “Terry Grier on Developing More Than 80 System Leaders”

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Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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1 Comment

Kathleen Bushy

Thank you for this information! I have long been an admirer of Dan Gohl. A brilliant man and educator.

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