Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dangerous thinkers, thinking dangerously: NewSchools’ CEO TED MITCHELL: My Best Idea For K-12 Education + smf’s 2¢

Nicole Perlroth

Nicole Perlroth, Forbes Staff  on Forbes.com | http://onforb.es/qrQnmF

19 September 2011 - America’s school system is broken. On that the Forbes 400 can agree. America’s richest give more to education-related causes than to any other issue. But in terms of how best to reform education, there is little consensus.

Education-related causes that have materially benefited from Forbes 400 wealth vary from Michael Moritz‘s $50 million check to his alma-mater Christ Church to Mark Zuckerberg‘s $100 million donation to Newark’s public schools.  Bill and Melinda Gates have focused their efforts on reorganizing high school curriculum, while Eli Broad believes our educators would benefit from managerial expertise. Their ideas are so divergent that this year, my colleagues and I reached out to a few billionaires, as well as a few recipients of their charity, to solicit their best ideas for K-12 education reform.

<< NewSchools Venture Fund CEO Ted Mitchell

To that end, I spoke with Ted Mitchell, CEO and president of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a program that aims to apply to K-12 education the same hands-on, results-driven, funding style venture capitalists brought to the world of nascent technology.

NewSchools was founded in 1999 with generous backing from venture capitalist John Doerr as well as Cisco CEO John Chambers, Netscape cofounder Jim Clark and others hoping to transform public education Silicon Valley-style. One decade later, NewSchools has raised over $150 million for 40 education entrepreneurs. Among them: educator-specific programs like Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools, game-changing technology tools like Khan Academy, as well as charter schools across the country.

Below is an excerpt from my interview with Mitchell, which also appears in the upcoming issue of FORBES magazine:

FORBES: What is your best idea for K-12 education reform?

Ted Mitchell: Well, we think of education reform in two parts. There’s education reform—that is who has maximized the current production function of education–who is doing schooling as well as it can be done given the constraints we have today. And then there’s what schools should look like in the not too distant future. What are we really aiming at? We call those education 1.0 and education 2.0.

Let’s start with education 1.0 then. Which teachers or schools would you say are doing the best job of reforming the current system? I would highlight not all charter schools but the high performing, no excuses charter schools like KIPP and Aspire. Then there are a few that are doing the very hardest work of all, which is turning around existing schools. Those are Mastery in Philadelphia and Unlocking Potential in Boston.

They have very high expectations for everyone in the building, kids and adults. They have a culture that supports achievement and they understand that traditionally under-served kids come to school with a set of issues that aren’t their fault—they come to school hungry, they come from broken homes—and these schools take them in whatever circumstances and characteristics they arrive and say: ‘Those are things we can deal with, but they’re not excuses for underachieving.’ The results are that these schools have pretty much eliminated the drop out rate, doubled the graduation rate and doubled the college-going rate of traditionally under-served kids.

Let’s move on to education 2.0. What is your best idea for reforming K-12 education? My best idea for K-12 reform is that we move from a system of seat time and course requirements to a merit-badge system. My daughter started school this week. She’s taking Algebra I. The way we’ll know that she has mastered Algebra I is that she’ll get to the end of the semester and her teacher will give her a grade. But what if 4 weeks from now she could take the final exam in Algebra I? She should probably have the opportunity to do that.

So the big idea is to allow kids to progress at their own pace, accumulate course credit as they master their work, not as they put in required time. The good news is that we actually now have technology tools that can help us do that. We have adapted tools that provide students with the right challenge for the right problem sets and examples as they move through courses like algebra or chemistry or even American history.

The schools experimenting with Education 2.0 now are Rocketship in San Jose, Carpe Diem in Yuma, Arizona, the Alliance for College Ready Schools in Los Angeles. There is a KIPP school or two that are trying out personalized technologies for learning. But the real exemplar of this is Khan Academy. Khan unleashed a picture of the education system of the future.”


Nicole Perlroth Nicole Perlroth Forbes Staff  - I'm a deputy editor at Forbes, where I cover venture capital and startups and produce Forbes' annual Midas List. Since joining Forbes, I've helped send a bad guy to jail, picked the world’s most powerful people, covered a dispute between a drug company and its unwitting trial subjects, interviewed Dean Kamen and Geoff Canada, persuaded Hugh Hefner, Karl Rove, and Angela Merkel to work with me, and shared a Po-Boy with the world’s biggest tree-cutter. My journalism career began the day I saw my first pitch (ever) land on the front page of Sunday’s Post. I earned my bachelors from Princeton, my masters from Stanford and had a short (but hopefully forgivable) stint as a consultant in between. You can catch my Twitter missives @nicoleperlroth.


smf-warhol ●●smf’s 2¢ - I’m an advocate for dangerous thinking – it’s what comes from a quality education. The most dangerous words in any language are : “What if…?” / ”¿Qué pasa si ...?”

But I’m also for limits.

Here we have a writer – who posits at the beginning of the interview that “The American school system is broken” and that the Forbes 400 – whom apparently she has chosen (“I picked the world’s most powerful people” ) agree.  She is interviewing a vulture venture capitalist [I learned that v.c. pejorative from a business school course in entrepreneurism dedicated to the care-and-feeding of investment ‘angels’] who talks about “maximizing the current production function of education”.

We are supposedly (and thankfully)  abandoning the Factory Model of Education …but using the ROI throughput time-and-motion productivity language of the mid-twentieth century to define success? 


This isn’t semantics or data analysis or measurable outcome, gentle readers; this is humanity. Small little rug rat and ankle-biter and awkward adolescent and moments-of-brilliance-stuck-to-the-refrigerator-door humanity. These are our children!

What if  the American Education System isn’t broken? What if  it’s just in need of some constant well-meant attention? What if  it’s more about Constancy than Urgency?  Because when Horace Mann invented American Public Education it already was a reform movement.

Mind you: Mitchell’s proposal for ‘education 2.0’ is not a bad one. It’s Maria Montessori’s from the turn of the last century’s  – the very antithesis of the “drill+kill” Factory Model and very successful to this day  n Early Childhood Ed. What if we tried it here+now? – to see if we can bring it to scale? I do not doubt that there are teachers and parents and students who would love to.

I am reading Uncle Toms Cabin because I just bought a Kindle and one can download scads of public domain literature – stuff you should’ve read in school had you been paying attention - for free. I am theorizing that we are selling Public Education down the river in these hard times – hard for the economy and hard for education – much like the Shelbys sold Tom+Eliza. And we are deceiving ourselves if we think we can buy it back when the hard times are over.

Universal Free Public Education is a fundamental right – not a chunk of infrastructure like a parking franchise or a toll road to be sold off to make ends meet.

Meanwhile Ted Mitchell invests other-peoples-money – and leverages far more of the public’s – in programs that occasionally outperform other underinvested programs. And celebrates those successes – which can easily name because they are few -  as triumphs.

The goal was no child left behind – and as long as one doesn’t look in the rear view mirror it looks like nothing but blue skies – and ROI – ahead.

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