Marco Petruzzi is the CEO of Green Dot Public Schools, an operator of 18 charter schools in Los Angeles. During Petruzzi’s tenure, Green Dot won approval from the Los Angeles School Board to rejuvenate Locke High School in the low-income Watts neighborhood. It re-opened Locke in fall 2008, restructuring it into eight smaller, college-prep schools. By 2011, the school’s average academic performance index (API) score had increased 81 points, and the school is now retaining far more entering students than it did before the reopening—and graduating and sending them to college at a rate three to four times higher. In 2011, Green Dot also started the turnarounds of Jordan High School and Clay Middle School, two chronically underperforming schools.
As a charter management organization (CMO), Green Dot provides a world-class model for school and instructional leadership as well as an efficient central office to support its schools in areas such as accounting, human resources, knowledge management, information technology, and real estate development. The organization is unique among CMOs in the U.S. for employing unionized teachers and staff under reform contracts that are focused on what is good for students. Ultimately, Green Dot is committed to changing the landscape of public education in Los Angeles and beyond so that every child can go to a good school and be successful in college, leadership, and life.
What do you think are the top priorities for education in the U.S. over the next five years?
First, we must make an aggressive transition to the Common Core State Standards for all subjects, embracing the improved assessment and testing formats those standards imply. Next, we must innovate and improve the way we develop talent and support teachers, enhancing professional development, professional evaluations using multiple measures, compensation opportunities, and career paths.
We also need to tremendously increase the quality of college and postgraduate studies in education, so that they provide meaningful preparation for the professions of teaching and instructional leadership. We must increase the supply of qualified STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) teachers, too.
Rewiring schools for the oncoming technology revolution will be key. Notice that with the word “rewiring,” I’ve focused on hardware and infrastructure. There is intense and meaningful innovation already going on to bring applications that increase student learning, yet in most of our schools, if you download a video or two at once, the system crashes. Schools need billions to upgrade their infrastructure before we can dream of a technological future for education. Let’s address first things first.
Finally, we have some serious governance and inefficiency issues: we have 14,000 districts while high-performing European nations have anywhere from one to 100 governing bodies. We are wasting funds on overhead by having thousands of key positions where talent is scarce, such as having 14,000 chief academic officers. I would shrink the number of districts, while decentralizing more key decisions and financial management to schools, with proper checks and balances for accountability.
What innovations have you seen in education, in the U.S. and globally, that are promising both in terms of outcomes and scalability?
Certainly I would include technology’s ability to provide instant or almost-instant data and feedback to teachers about how students are learning, what they are understanding, what they are not, what the stumbling blocks are, and so on. That level of feedback provides an immense opportunity to personalize instruction and to support students that are at different levels of their cognitive journey, so that we can truly leave no child behind and maximize every child’s potential.
We have a lot to learn from other countries in terms of creating accreditation and residency programs for the teaching profession that are meaningful and provide much higher-quality entry into what is undoubtedly a very difficult profession. Problem banks and databases of phenomenal lesson plans from around the country will give access to much higher-quality instructional materials to all teachers, particularly as we move to the higher-quality national standards that will be driven by the Common Core.
With the possibility of even further reductions in funding, how can school operators, managers, and funders ensure that they are investing in the right areas and maximizing the effectiveness of every dollar spent?
We already have proven models like ours at Green Dot showing that a lot can be done to serve the highest-need students in the nation with efficiency. Mind you, here in California, where we’re headquartered, we are spending less than the national average of $11,000 per student by at least $2,000 per student. Even so, Green Dot is still delivering a quality education in Los Angeles. I can’t imagine what we could do if we had the average funding of the nation. It is painful to watch when funders target their dollars to districts where the spending is above $15,000 per student, including many districts in the East Coast, particularly when many quality programs around the nation spend below $10,000. Funders and politicians need to get smart about allocating scarce funds.
What do you think is most important to create an effective talent-management system that puts high-quality teachers in every classroom and strong principals in leadership positions? Have you seen successes in this area?
The most important and difficult aspect of creating an effective talent-management system is establishing a professional and reflective conversation among teachers, administrators, and management on what constitutes effectiveness. In education—as in every organization or sector in which people, and not products, deliver the value or service—the hardest part in the “education quality” conversation is defining what constitutes true quality for the service we offer students and families. Education ideally creates well-functioning, adaptive, and contributing members of society for years to come. Even agreeing on what that looks like at the end of twelfth-grade or at the end of college is a complex conversation. It cannot be dictated from the top down.
Management’s role should be, as always, to establish appropriate core values that determine which behaviors and attitudes are unacceptable and establish the boundaries for that conversation. But the process of creating an effective talent-management system requires hours and hours of engagement to allow the people on the frontlines to tease out what “great” looks like and to embark on what will be a challenging journey together. Professional learning and the search for personal excellence lie at the center of the conversation for every member of the organization.
I think Green Dot is at the forefront of this movement. We have embarked on the journey together: teachers, principals, and management. But we are just at the beginning of a long voyage. It’s hard work, but we can already see that it will bear fruit.
What role do you think businesses can play in developing the workforce of the future and making sure every child completes postsecondary education?
It would be great if business would view public education as their investment too, and then support innovation and quality in our schools through grants, scholarships, and infrastructure investments. I cannot imagine a competitive America without a top-notch workforce. Yet I see very few signs of true, meaningful engagement from the business sector.
America has become so oriented toward the short term that we cannot seem to escape this mentality. Both CEOs and politicians know that our current students are their future clients, employees, citizens, and taxpayers. But everyone seems happy to kick the problem down the road, as those same people know they won’t be around when the investment finally bears fruit one generation into the future. The new batch of citizens and taxpayers will be someone else’s problem. That view has to change.