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.


Comments (Archived):

  1. Cassandra Tognoni

    Ideally, a principal would be able to act like a CEO, but unfortunately they don’t even have control over a huge portion of their budgets! (Why Dale Russakoff said that the need for better resource allocation and transparency around school spending was her biggest takeaway after Newark). Right now, most principals are not leaders – they are coaches of teachers or managers of an educational model set by the district.I agree that we should be strategically giving money to the bottom of the system, but I don’t think we have the tools to make that happen yet. While every principal can tell you the reading and math scores of her students, very very few could tell you what her school invests in their K-3 reading programs (I write more about this on my blog:, because they just don’t have that data.As a former investment banker turned charter school admin, I was shocked by the quality of financial data in the K-12 education world. Much of this is due to decades-old accounting systems built for compliance rather than smart analysis and resource allocation. Nothing that cannot be solved with great technology (which is why I have a started a company doing exactly that) but yes, it will take more than five years! 🙂

    1. Gotham Gal

      the entire system must change. you point out another thing. internal budgets.

    2. Matt Kruza

      Interesting. Made my comment above about control even before reading your comment. The one thing I question is it really much on technology? Its much more policy / rules / bureacray. Better software is a very small part I think. I have family that teaches in florida. About 10-15 years ago I believe they passed a state law that for elementary schools you CANNOT no exceptions havemore than 18 kids per teacher. So if you have 54 kids you can have three teachers. Have 55 then you need another teacher (there are some ways they can use assistants / teaching aides / combine grades etc.) Figure a teacher fully loaded (salary, health, pensions, unemployment etc) is $60 -90k. That policy just cost them 60-90k. That is impossible for any software to make up. Better software is probably like 5% of the problem / solution. Now individualized learning modules / software will / can be huge, but again union rules and state / federal mandates are stopping more than the technology. Since you obviously feel passionately and are working on software to buidl a business, i am curious where you see it differrently?

      1. Cassandra Tognoni

        There are tons of systemic, political changes that need to occur for certain, but I think one of the reasons they haven’t happened is because there are so few people who understand the effects of policy in real terms (i.e. for their child’s school). Right now, transparency in education amounts to thousands of numbers on a page that mean very little to the average parent. Tech that makes spending more transparent can help move policy.

        1. Gotham Gal


        2. Matt Kruza

          Tech won’t hurt, how much it will help I guess we’ll see. Who will pay for this? I assume you are banking on the schools themselves?

          1. Cassandra Tognoni

            It didn’t come across as negative… I think it makes sense to be cynical – I’m simply more cynical about polical processes facilitating systemic change and more optimistic about technical innovation doing so.Yes, schools already are mandated to have accounting systems. Right now, they’re paying for outdated, generally terrible ones.

        3. Matt Kruza

          I was afraid across my comment may come across negative. Not trying to criticize what you are doing, just cynical about innovation in this space because the financial incentives are so screwed up and interests so entrenched. I do wish you the best of luck innovating in the space

  2. pointsnfigures

    We see the same problem and are both passionate about it. As long as we are willing to shed our confirmation bias (as you obviously wrote you are doing) I think reasonable people can work together to solve this problem. My personal bias is against big government solutions to the problem.I have had friends in Chicago try to establish charter schools. The cost and bureaucratic red tape is incredible. Once established. the educational bureaucracy and the teachers unions don’t let up and do everything in their power to try and hurt the charter. A teacher told me that a union representative came into the classroom after school was over and told her to stop working with children one on one after class. It wasn’t in the union contract…..but there are plenty of anecdotes on both sides.I really believe that when you give power to individuals to make their own decisions they will do what’s best for themselves. Interestingly, the Hackman-Oldham theory of motivation inside organizations says the more individual autonomy you can delegate to the worker, the happier and more satisfied they are. They will choose more autonomy over more money-and autonomy motivates them better than money.Then, I think about themes like network beats hierarchy and start to think about how we can give as much power to individuals to make decisions about their own education utilizing networks to enable them.Currently, I come down to giving people vouchers. I would also let people have education savings accounts tax free. Then impute a cost for different public and charter schools and let them decide. Private schools could participate too. Organizations like CSNYC etc can pitch in.Of course, that will cause matching problems. There is a book called, Who Gets What When by a Nobel economist that solved matching problems in Boston, NYC, and for organ donation.Once people have power, I think the supply curve for education will change. New entrants will come into the market. We also need to revamp our entire regulatory system but that takes too long because the problem is so acute. I find that competition is a far better regulator than regulation.

    1. Gotham Gal

      competition is always best.

  3. Susan Rubinsky

    I also read The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace. I highly recommend it to all people who are interested in the problems inherent in inner city public schooling of disadvantaged kids. Actually, maybe all Americans should read it because it highlights the culture from which many disadvantaged come from. You have to work on poverty and it’s outcomes to solve the education problem.When my son was in elementary school in New Haven, CT, I used to volunteer in his third grade class often. There was one African American little girl whose mother was a very young single Mom. This little girl was quite bright, especially in problem solving. She told me more than once that she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. I always encouraged her.One day, I was on the playground at the after school program talking with her about being a doctor when her Mom came to pick her up. Her Mom immediately shushed her and told her that it was impossible to become a doctor and that she should consider something more reasonable like becoming a daycare worker. I was angry and upset, but didn’t say anything. Soon after, the Mom took me aside and told me to stop putting ideas in her daughter’s head about becoming a doctor. The Mom told me that I had no idea what a little black girl would have to overcome to do something like that and that I should mind my own business. I tried telling the Mom how bright her daughter was and that she definitely was bright enough to become a doctor. But the Mom wanted none of it. I know she felt like I was some interfering white women who had no understanding of her situation.At the time I was really angry at this Mom. I thought she was holding her daughter back from becoming what she could be. It took me many years to understand that the Mom was most likely managing the expectations of her daughter, trying to do what she thought was practical, but in so doing that she was also holding her daughter back by not allowing her to pursue a dream. I tell you this little story, because it illuminates a self-fulfilling culture. It’s that culture that has to be broken if there is to be breakthroughs in educating these kids. I have no idea how to do that, but I think poverty is at the root and we need to kill the root that grows the tree and the forest.I attached a photo of me working with the kids in third grade. The little girl who wanted to be a doctor is in the middle, right next to me. She is 18 now. I have no idea what ever happened to her. But I keep this photo as a reminder to keep on trying to understand this issue and to continue to be open to new ways of solving it.

    1. Gotham Gal

      wow. that is an incredible story. i totally get why it stuck with you for so many is so difficult to understand what is going on behind other peoples doors yet i like what you said about poverty being at the root. we need to kill the root that grows the trees and layered, so many years even going back to the migration to chicago after slavery ended.

      1. Susan Rubinsky

        Yes, it is deeply layered. It needs a holistic solution.

    2. LE

      I tried telling the Mom how bright her daughter was and that she definitely was bright enough to become a doctor. But the Mom wanted none of it. I know she felt like I was some interfering white women who had no understanding of her situation.The problem is Susan that becoming “anything” (Doctor or otherwise) requires more than being “bright” enough. It requires you to be a high capacity circuit, running on all cylinders with many things going for you. One of those things is not being dragged down by unsupportive parents or family situation.Here’s a story. My wife’s nephew, who is an Eagle Scout and 19 just got his girlfriend pregnant. He was in pre-med and my wife was advising him and even had an in with the medical school dean to gain him admission as long as his grades were decent. Then all of the sudden he is a new Dad. Got his girlfriend pregnant. (Not married). Everyone (including his mother) tells him he has to put the baby up for adoption or he will give up his dream of being a Doctor. (He is “smart enough”). However he didn’t want to do that. The baby was born several months pre-mature and is now at a specialized Children’s Hospital for whatever problem she has. They took the baby unbelievably, and against everyone’s advice, to a bar mitzvah when it was, get this, 2 weeks old (and a premie no less). And passed it around to anyone and everyone (I was there and was offered a chance to hold the baby). Would you call that smart? Nope. So his life will be drastically different now as a result of decisions that he has made. Many reasons this has happened.Perhaps the mother that you spoke to is just being realistic and realizes that it’s a long haul to become a Doctor and that the mother perhaps isn’t even interested in supporting that dream either (would rather have the daughter around for her benefit, happens in many families they don’t want a big shot they want kids to be there to care for them, not in another state, right?)Other side of this. A young black girl who made my omelette in the specialty supermarket this morning. Tells me that it’s her last day. Why? She is going back to Longhorn Steakhouse to be a cook there. Will try to work her way up the ladder into a higher position but “it will take years and years” she tells me. On the one hand she is on the right track. However she is probably only doing as good as she can do given who her parents are and what advice she is getting. I mean let’s face it I wouldn’t be telling her to work up the ladder at Longhorn Steakhouse, would you? Not even knowing the business I could do better than that. I’ve run into this before. People who just go and apply at Walmart because they don’t have the knowledge, drive or advice to get a job anywhere else. That’s because of who they hang with and what their family situation is. Kind of like “go work for the PANYNJ” if you live in Staten Island.

  4. Brittany Laughlin

    If only there was as much excitement to become a principal as a CEO. The compensation and prestige from those initiatives are very different.

    1. Gotham Gal

      very different but strangely enough the skill set is not so different.

    2. Matt Kruza

      I don’t think the issue is as much compensation or prestige, it is control. The principle has WAY less control over the budget, personnel, demographics, the school building, local/state/federal education policies, standards etc. I think the control is the much bigger hindrance

      1. Gotham Gal

        When you are responsible for overseeing budgets it changes the game.

        1. Matt Kruza

          I don’t disagree that actually controlling budgets changes the game. My argument is the principal doesn’t really get to meaningfully control the budget. I can’t tell if you agree that really overseeing the budget would matter if principals actually got to do that? Or if you are saying they meaningfully get to do that right now… maybe just too early.. but wasn’t sure the angle of the comment 🙂

  5. Kirsten Lambertsen

    I have one child in our local charter school (as the result of being selected in the lottery) and one in the public school. Both are in primary.The charter school is part of the public school system, yet they have enormous latitude to do things differently. And all I can wonder is, why the hell isn’t the primary school leadership given the same latitude? After 10 years in existence, hasn’t the charter school’s success proven that their methods should be adopted by the public school?For background, also, my husband is a public school teacher (for ~20 years).It’s tragic the way the public school system has been used as a political football and is now on its last legs. I don’t see a way out. The PTB have gotten what they wanted; eventually public school will not exist or be only for the very poorest and be awful. I truly believe that. I rarely have that dark of an outlook. But I think it’s a lost cause.Public school was framed and sold to us as a terrible problem to solve instead of a wonderful opportunity to grab. The opportunity was grabbed all right, by the people who line politicians’ pockets.Maybe some day it will rise from the ashes as a result of coop schools formed at the grass roots.

  6. panterosa,

    The founder of Mouse once told me on average each child in public school cost roughly $15,000 a year. My child was then at private for $22,000 a year, and I would have thought the per student cost at public to be lower, so I was surprised. What did that magic 7k extra bring I wondered?As someone who designs educational type platforms and products, I find the ENTIRE school system in this country maddening. A great clusterfuck of cheapness + greed, a sad pair of twined vices, which I find the great downfall of the US in general. Add to that out shortsightedness, h/t to your 5 years to do anything rule, and our unkindness as a nation built on puritanism, and I find we simply replicate more failure.It pisses me off deeply. I hate how we treat poverty and the poor in the US. It’s shameful and embarrasses me as an American.

    1. Gotham Gal

      it pisses me off deeply too

  7. P Donohue

    “The reality is in the streets.”This is The Challenge. For education does not happen in a vacuum. Culture and family play a huge role. Parents are the most vital part. Until they fully understand their responsibility and proper role not much will happen.Culture at the local level and beyond must also play a supportive role.We can emulate Finland’s remarkable transition, doing exactly what they did and we should, but it will be marginally successful if the local culture and the parents are not onboard.So, that is the challenge.Therefore, the place to start may be with people like Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr., best known by his stage name Snoop Dogg.

    1. Gotham Gal

      i love snoop dog.