How do you fix the school system?

imgresI told Fred to read The Prize by Dale Russakoff.  It tells the story of the efforts to transform the Newark school system.  The book starts out telling about the generous gift of $100m from Mark Zuckerberg and his now wife and their desire to make an impact in education.  Cory Booker and Chris Christie were ambitious in their promised goals to Zuckerberg.  They promised major transformation in 5 years.

I have spent time in the school system through my work with Mouse and through Fred’s efforts to bring a computer science education to every student in the NY public school system through CSNYC.  Here is one thing I know is that nothing happens in 5 years.  Building a successful tech company takes more than 5 years so turning around a system that is so entrenched in a bureaucratic mess is impossible.  I could say that the donors were hood-winked but more to the point is that they were all just too optimistic vs realistic.  Throwing money at something is not the end all be all.

The kids in these under-served communities are not receiving the education that they deserve (although some are because of wonderful teachers in some schools) but they are coming from a world that makes it difficult to succeed.  It isn’t just about teaching kids to read and write but it is also having to help them deal with issues from family members who are incarcerated, family members who have been killed, drug abuse, dangerous neighborhoods, lack of housing, etc.  It is heartbreaking and it isn’t fair because these kids deserve to succeed.  The reality is in the streets.

I have seen organizations that have come into underserved areas and pluck 10 kids into a violin program because they were the lucky few and they end up being focused and performing at Carnegie Hall.  More than likely these kids have a better chance of graduating college and getting a job.  Were they that talented?  No but they were given the tools to succeed and somebody watched over them to show up every day.

I read another book this summer called The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.  I am still thinking about that book.  This young man was raised by a single Mom whose father was involved until he ended up in prison for committing a murder he didn’t commit.  This kid was brilliant.  He went on to Yale but he didn’t fit in there.  He didn’t hang out with his dorm buddies.  He hung out with the people in New Haven.  He had the package to get out of Newark and forge a different life for himself but he just couldn’t get there.  Yale took the kid out of Newark but he couldn’t take Newark out of his life.  The title says it all.  As I read the Prize I could not stop thinking about this book too.

Five years ago I would have told you I was totally anti-Charter school that we have to fix the schools that we have. I can’t help but equate the system to the start-up world that I know so well.  How do you cause disruption?  You do it through building outside not inside.  You build brand new companies that think differently.  I think there needs to be a balance but charter schools educate a kid for less and many of them are almost militant and too structured but certainly we will all see the statistics years from now but something has to change.  The public school system is overwrought with unions, bureaucracy, aging facilities, etc. and the majority of the budgets deemed for education don’t go towards educating the kids.

Bottom line is that philanthropy in the school system must start from the ground-up not the top down.  It is the educators who are in the trenches every day that understand exactly what is needed for the kids that they are working with and the homes that they come from.  Like a company, the CEO creates the culture and environment to succeed.  In the school it is the principal who sets the tone and expectations in the school.

I will be thinking about this book for a long time.  Education is essential, it can change the game but the social issues are also insanely important.  Throwing money at the system must include all those parts and most important it must be strategically placed at the bottom to move up through the system.