Kevin Hall is president and CEO of the Charter School Growth Fund (CSGF), a nonprofit founded in 2005 that uses a venture capital approach to make long-term commitments to the nation’s most promising and highest-performing charter schools. The investments enable schools to scale up and achieve impact and long-term sustainability in their communities. To date, CSGF has committed over $100 million to create more than 165,000 new seats in charter schools for low-income and minority students around the country.
CSGF invests philanthropic capital in high-performing charter management organizations (CMOs)—networks of public schools managed by leadership teams that provide shared academic, human capital, back-office, operational, and financial services. By 2020, these high-performing entities, CSGF believes, will have the chance to serve more than 1 million students. In addition, through its Next-Gen Investments, CSGF partnered in 2010 with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to acquire DreamBox Learning, which provides award-winning adaptive learning technology to elementary school students.
Hall recently spoke with J. Puckett, a senior partner and managing director in the Dallas office of The Boston Consulting Group and global leader of the firm’s Education practice, as part of BCG’s interview series “Reimagining K–12 Education in the U.S.” Edited excerpts from the discussion follow below.
What do you think are the top priorities for education in the U.S. over the next five years?
The most important priority for U.S. education is to address and close the “twin achievement gaps”—first, the internal achievement gap within our country between different income and demographic groups, and second, the gap between the U.S. and the world in terms of the educational attainment of our overall population. Those gaps need to be closed in order for the U.S. to continue to be the leader on the global stage that we have been throughout the twentieth century.
At a more nuts-and-bolts level, I believe that five main factors are important over the next five years. The first involves adapting the “common core” of standards across the country. We need a shared understanding of and measuring stick for what it means to graduate from high school and be college- and work-ready, and to ensure that children growing up in Massachusetts, Mississippi, and Michigan will all have the chance to access world-class academic standards. The second centers around transforming our talent pipeline of great educators so that it can be effective for the twenty-first century. We know so much more about what is working, and we have a large number of teachers and principals who are retiring over the next several years, and this creates both a challenge and an opportunity.
The third requires figuring out how to replicate the conditions for innovation and change so that they can take place in many more cities and states. We’re seeing this already in some places: New York City, New Orleans, and—more recently—beginning in places like Memphis. The fourth calls on us to scale what works, particularly at the school level. For instance, the Charter School Growth Fund is very focused on enabling the absolute best providers of K–12 education to expand rapidly, open more schools, and serve more students.
Finally, the fifth focuses on the opportunity to leverage technology to be able to create much more personalized approaches to education. We believe that there is a chance to dramatically transform K–12 education to be much more effective in the U.S. and indeed worldwide. We’re at the very early stage of innovations that could enable education to be much more effective, meaningful, and potentially efficient for individual students.
What do you think gave rise to the twin achievement gaps you describe?
Two main factors have driven it. If you go back 50 years, the U.S. had the highest number of people graduating from high school and going on to achieve in college. In terms of the achievement gap with the rest of the world, what we’ve seen is not that the U.S. had a massive decline, but rather that the rest of the world has caught up and—in many ways—has surpassed the United States’ ability to deliver these outcomes for its student populations. In many ways, K–12 education in the U.S. is the last sector of our society to experience a fundamental transformation.
What we’re asking the sector to do today is very different from what we asked it to do 50 years ago, when education was essentially a great sorting mechanism. Back then, it was the societal goal to have a small subset of people who went on to college, a bunch of people who graduated from high school and were able to find jobs that enabled them to enter into the middle class without any further postsecondary education, and finally a subset of people who weren’t able to graduate from high school—but who still had the ability to work hard and get into the middle class. For many reasons including globalization, technological changes, and other factors, those days are long gone, but our K–12 system has not adequately adjusted to that fact. In many ways, a lot of our institutions and policies put up substantial barriers to protect those existing structures.
In terms of the achievement gaps among income levels and demographics in the U.S., we haven’t had a culture of innovation in K–12, even among high performers. That has to change. Even though we spend more per pupil in K–12 than the rest of the world, how we spend money is pretty inefficient and very unequal. A lot of policy and political work needs to happen to address that situation, as well, and one promising idea is to move to “backpack funding.” Under this approach, dollars follow individual students, and the level of funding is differentiated and set by the needs of the students.
With funding pressure everywhere, how can people think about investing in the right areas and making sure that they maximize their return on investment?
The biggest divide that no one really talks about is between the over-65 and the under-40 age groups. We think that over the next ten years, K–12 education will experience flat funding at best on a real basis. The biggest voting bloc in our country is the baby boom generation, and over the past few decades K–12 funding went up for a long time for many reasons, not least because this bloc had lots of children in school. We think that with the aging of the U.S. population, the interest of this bloc going forward will be much more focused on retirement and health care. We’re going to see a very hard fiscal environment for K–12 education, even when the economy recovers over this decade. We think the chances are incredibly slim that you will see a doubling in real funding in the U.S. like we’ve seen over the last 25 to 30 years.
Given that, we think we have to question, as a sector, some fundamental assumptions about what the “typical” school system looks like. Do we move forward to embrace what is happening in New Orleans, Memphis, or Philadelphia: moving to a “system of schools” rather than a bureaucratized, top-down system? In this construct, performance, accountability, and decisions are played out at the school level through a much less centralized approach.
In some ways, this move would be a return to education as it was in the U.S. in the early twentieth century, in terms of having much smaller units making more decisions closer to the student. For that to happen, we need an innovation strategy that enables people to test assumptions in a rapid-fire way and that allows them to innovate with different cost structures and learning models that may offer fundamentally better outcomes and economics.
Are you seeing innovations that offer particularly promising returns on investment?
We think that the most important emerging innovations leverage teaching talent, school quality, and technology to enable better personalized instruction and to enable a more successful and satisfying role for educators.
First, we know that teaching talent really matters. We know that there’s a difference for a student who has a highly effective teacher and one who has a much less effective teacher, and that this difference dramatically changes the outcome and trajectory for a student. But in the U.S., and in some other countries as well, we’ve set up a system where a teacher is a teacher is a teacher. We assume that everyone’s ability and performance is exactly the same, or doesn’t matter, and now we just know that’s not the case.
We’re in the early stages of being able to measure the different value added by different teachers and being able to develop tailored development for different levels of teacher experience.
Second, we know that an effective school can have an amazing impact on student learning. The best schools are able to attract great talent, but they’re also able to help their talent become really effective through their school culture and the systems and processes that they put in place internally. I see that in our portfolio: organizations are getting better results as they get bigger and serve more students, which we think is relatively unique in K–12 and very powerful.
Third, we can leverage technology in a different way to personalize education. For example, Khan Academy uses Salman Khan’s idea of the “flipped classroom.” Under this approach, instructional content is delivered outside class, and engagement with the content happens in class, under teacher guidance and in collaboration with peers.
Or consider the concept of “blended learning” at Rocketship Education charter schools, where they combine online and in-class instruction. Rocketship students spend 25 percent of their day on core-skills acquisition in an online learning lab, enabling the schools to use fewer and more specialized teachers and to reinvest the savings into higher teacher salaries, academic interventions, teacher coaching, and leadership development.
The BLAST program of the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles is also creating new and very different kind of blended learning with the mission of creating twenty-first-century learners. Touchstone Education in Newark just opened a school in 2012 that is seeking to redefine what happens for students and teachers inside the “box” of a school.
Where is all this innovation going?
The Holy Grail over the past 30 or 40 years involves trying to individualize instruction—to have instruction meet the child where the child is and then match that child’s interest and that child’s learning style. At many of the schools in our portfolio, that’s really executed well. Of all the things that we know make a great school and a great teacher, those factors are really critical to building the right foundation for students.
We think there is a chance to dramatically change what happens inside classrooms and schools. All the constraints that we’ve put on ourselves—of one teacher in front of 25 kids, of all kids grouped together based on age and marching in lockstep—all those paradigms can be changed pretty dramatically by the chance to combine effective individualized online learning platforms with a different approach to education, one in which students take much more ownership of their learning. It’s highly personalized. Students and teachers can get amazing feedback quickly. That feedback is a massive advantage for teachers, and it will enable them to know exactly where and when to intervene.
We believe that it is possible that every student could be on a very different learning path and be real owners of their direction on that path. Teachers will be able to spend more time in individualized or small-group instruction, guiding project-based work that supports the development of creative and higher-order thinking skills.
We also see enormous implications in the postsecondary world. I believe there’s going to be a chance to create new “blended” approaches that will combine online work, classroom approaches, and projects; this will enable students to demonstrate their knowledge and learning in a much more flexible way. I also believe that there is a chance to fundamentally change the economics so that it is much more affordable for students. Frankly, students are paying for a lot of things in the postsecondary model that they may not need and don’t value.
I think that the U.S. has a narrow window to make this happen, but many other countries are going after this in a big way. It may be the case that we could potentially see countries continue to leapfrog the U.S. in postsecondary achievement.
Where do you see successes emerging around talent management—making sure that every classroom has a high-quality teacher and every school has a high-quality leader?
For many years, the U.S. K–12 education system indirectly benefited from the terrible societal situation in which many women and many outstanding people of color were not afforded opportunities outside of the education and health care sectors. Thankfully, that’s changed over the last several decades, and certainly there is more room for progress on that front. But in some ways, the K–12 sector benefited historically from a captive labor market.
Now, K–12 competes for talent with other sectors and other opportunities in a way that it never has before. And talent is attracted to K–12 for a variety of reasons. But the fundamentals of why K–12 might be interesting to people are similar to other sectors. People want to have the chance to succeed, to have an impact, to have great colleagues, and to have the right environment around them that rewards them for their ability to produce. People want to have a degree of freedom to do their job well, but they also want to know that with that freedom comes accountability.
We’re also seeing a generational shift. If you look at polls of the teacher and principal workforce, there’s a pretty wide divide between educators under 35 and educators aged 50 and older.
We’ll have to fundamentally change how we attract and retain talent to address that shift. I see that happening in the early stages at several high-performing CMOs in our portfolio that really give their teachers, particularly the most experienced and most skilled teachers, a lot of autonomy and freedom inside the context of what they’re trying to accomplish in their school environment.
Coming back to the technology piece, I think that there’s a chance to really change what a teacher’s job looks like in some fundamentally profound ways, and to really be able to leverage the very high performers in a different way than we’ve contemplated before.
Who is doing the best work in this area?
I’ve mentioned a couple of organizations that we are backing in this area—Rocketship and Summit Prep in California, Touchstone in New Jersey. We are seeking to find other entrepreneurs who are interested in going after this idea.
These groups are pushing the model of what a classroom and school will look like. For example, you might have in your classroom or school a set of high-performing teachers who may work with a larger set of kids, but they will work in small groups with those students. For a student who is struggling to read, for instance, you might have a reading expert for the entire school who is paid a significant premium. They’re super-talented and they’ve got “value-add” scores off the chart. You want that person leveraged so that he or she is able to serve 150 to 200 students, not 25. So we think that there are possibilities opening up so that would enable schools to use the ability to blend technology, the classroom, and teaching so that they can free up great talent to be deployed in the most productive manner for students.
We’re in the early part of the curve on this, but I’m pretty confident that within five years, we’re going to see a few of these players able to prove that this is possible, and that they will have a very different way of organizing a school—one that will be have people working and paid very differently than today.
What role do you think businesses can play to foster innovation?
Business leaders can get involved, because education concerns both the workforce and customers of the future, no matter where a company is on the value chain. Business leaders can provide clarity around the outcomes that they expect from the people who are going to be the future workforce and leaders of their organizations. They can be clear about what K–12 needs to be able to deliver.
There’s a huge opportunity for business leaders to advocate for the types of transformational changes that are going to be required to enable every child to have a shot at the American dream. No matter what your interest is, there are great ways to find like-minded investors and to leverage both your personal time and capacity, as well as any philanthropic goals that your company has.
It’s amazing what a small number of committed business leaders can achieve together in terms of advocacy and smart investments to help change a city. It’s hard work, and you have to be in it for the long term, but it’s really possible for a set of leaders to make positive change happen.