An Interview with New A+ President Mark Dixon: “Bring us your ideas and your challenges.”

When my long-time friend and colleague Caroline Novak announced her plan to retire as President of the A+ Education Partnership, the search for a new leader with similar strengths in both business and education advocacy began.

The selection of Birmingham native Mark Dixon – as Caroline said in our recent press release – brings an individual who “is uniquely prepared to lead A+” into the future.

Mark is currently a senior manager with General Electric (GE) based in Washington, D.C. He previously served as the Education Policy Advisor to former Alabama Governor Bob Riley.

Mark’s contributions to public education in Alabama stretches back almost 15 years, including restructuring and expanding Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program—a program that now ranks among the nation’s best. His commitment to professional learning as a key ingredient in education improvement is reflected in his early support for the Best Practices Center concept and the A+ College Ready initiative.

Recently, I asked Mark to share some initial thoughts about his new role. Here’s what he had to say!

Cathy Gassenheimer: Mark, for those who don’t know you, will you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Mark Dixon: After growing up in Birmingham and graduating from Wake Forest, I got the opportunity to intern in Governor Riley’s policy office. Over the next five years, I served as his Education Policy Advisor and eventually Policy Director. Talk about being thrown in the deep end!

This is where I first worked with A+. We partnered on nearly every aspect of the Governor’s education agenda. I was blessed to have a first job where I was surrounded by smart people and a strong leader on a mission to make our home better. That gave me a great respect for the power of teams.

When the Governor’s term was up, I went on to get my MBA at The George Washington University School of Business. That led to GE, where I spent four years working at GE Corporate leading teams of consultants who worked on strategic initiatives all over the world, from building a go-to-market strategy for GE Mining in Africa to developing strategic partnerships with GE Healthcare in Thailand. For the last two and a half years, I’ve worked for GE Power’s steam unit where I was responsible for strategy and project development in North and South America.

Cathy: Why, at this point in your career, did you decide to come back to Alabama and lead the A+ Education Partnership?

Mark: I loved my time as Education Policy Advisor. I got to get up every day and go to work making an impact in an area that I am very passionate about. GE has taught me so much and given me experiences I never imagined…traveling to over 40 countries, leading global teams to solve challenges, helping grow a region for a business from scratch.

But there was always something missing. When I left Alabama to go to business school, I set out to learn what I needed to lead an organization focused on improving our education system. That was always the goal. I wanted to make a difference and keep driving the work I loved. So when A+ called, I came home, and I couldn’t be more excited. A+ has a highly effective team of people tackling some of our greatest challenges as a state. To be able to lead those efforts is a true honor.

Cathy: How will your corporate experience assist you in your new position at A+?

Mark: GE taught me to think in terms of outcomes, for customers and our business, to ensure that what you are working on is impactful. It taught me to fail fast, to try something and not be afraid to change course if it isn’t working. It taught me how to lead and influence across different business units and diverse regions.

I will bring that experience to A+. But I also learned so much from A+ when I partnered with you before. Your team taught me how to listen, how to truly collaborate, to be patient and steady, to adapt, and how to build partnerships that last. There is so much talent in this organization. A big part of my job is to empower the A+ team and its statewide networks, support them, and get out of the way.

Cathy: A+ works both in the policy arena and practice arena. Why do you think that is important?

Mark: Being fully engaged in both the policy and practice arenas is what makes A+ unique. Education think tanks are sometimes very “ivory tower” and disconnected from day-to-day school life. While A+ advocates for strong, research-based policies with state leaders, it is our daily experiences with school and system leaders – with teachers and students in their classrooms – that inform those policies to ensure that they are relevant and impactful.

These on-the-ground connections allow us to see the challenges that teachers and students face as well as the best practices they employ in real-time. If we are doing our job right, we can more efficiently solve challenges and leverage the great work happening in schools across the state. Continuing to strengthen this knowledge-sharing is one of my top priorities.

Cathy: We worked closely together when you were managing the Governor’s Commission on Quality Teaching. What insights did you gain from that process?

Mark: The commission was such a great experience…nearly 100 educators from across the state brought together to drive change in their own profession. It was an inspiring sight! Many of the recommendations, like the Alabama Teacher Mentoring Program, continue to make a difference.

However, the core goals of the commission are still challenges we face today. How do we recruit, develop, reward, and retain high quality teachers for our students? Teachers told us they wanted to grow in their profession. They wanted options for advancement that didn’t require them to leave the classroom for the principal’s chair. They wanted cutting edge professional development and support from their peers. They wanted to be rewarded for their success. These are still themes we hear today.

A+, the ABPC, and A+ College Ready have been hard at work addressing some of these needs through our professional learning initiatives, but we need a broader effort as a state to fully meet this ambitious agenda. The changing dynamics of the job market, greater challenges in the classroom, the ever-increasing need for a well-prepared workforce…these issues are fundamental to our children’s and our state’s success, and we have to do more.

Cathy: What do you want Alabama educators to know about you?

Mark: I want you to know that A+ is in your corner. We want to see a quality teacher in every classroom for every child and a quality principal leading every school, and we want to work with you to make that happen. Bring us your ideas and your challenges. Help us promote great practice that informs better policy that leads to stronger outcomes for our students.

Cathy: What are your hopes and dreams for your home state of Alabama?

Mark: I’m proud to call Alabama my home, and I’m tired of saying we have great potential. I’m ready for us to achieve our potential…to have an education system that gives every child the opportunity to have a full and rewarding life here.

Education is the critical driver of our state’s future success…greater economic growth, stronger communities, and more opportunities for our children and families. We should expect nothing less.

Cathy: Thank you, Mark. It’s great to have you on board!

Cathy Gassenheimer is Executive Vice President for the A+ Alabama Best Practices Center.