Published Online: May 12, 2011
Includes correction(s): March 24, 2012

Education Pioneers Snags $7.6 Million Gates Grant

Nearly 350 graduate students and career professionals will join the leadership staffs of some of the nation’s largest urban school districts and charter operators this summer, thanks in part to a $7.6 million grant announced Thursday by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Education Pioneers, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that funnels academic and professional talent into short-term leadership positions in K-12 education, has partnered with the Seattle-based foundation to continue the implementation of two fellowship programs targeted to schools seeking help to improve their students’ academic achievement.

“We’re bringing together those who have deep education experience alongside people with professional and private-sector experience,” said Scott Morgan, the chief executive officer of Education Pioneers. “We’re getting them to talk to, learn from, and communicate with each other.”

The grants mark a growing—and sometimes unwelcome—trend of placing professionals and scholars with little or no education experience in leadership positions within school districts deemed in need of reform. But Mr. Morgan said recruiting highly skilled professionals for such jobs in public education systems and charter networks is just as important as recruiting high-quality teachers.

Education Pioneers’ model has similarities to that of Teach For America, the widely known New York City-based group that brings high-achieving, newly minted college graduates from a wide range of disciplines into hard-to-staff schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students.

Founded eight years ago by Mr. Morgan, a former Catholic-high-school teacher and legal counsel to Aspire Public Schools, a California-based charter network, Education Pioneers places its fellows in a range of education organizations, including the New York City-based Uncommon Schools, KIPP DC, the Chicago public school system, and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Currently, Education Pioneers operates two fellowships: a three-month-long graduate school fellowship that is rapidly expanding, and a 10-month-long analyst fellowship that debuted last year and attracts early-career business analysts from the private sector.

Office View

The new crop of fellows will be placed in district-level positions where they’ll most likely work in district or charter-network headquarters as opposed to being placed in a school, Mr. Morgan said. They will take on a range of projects based on the school organizations’ needs that may involve data analysis, teacher effectiveness, improvement in curriculum and instruction, implementation of a school evaluation system, or other tasks. Mr. Morgan said his group will also send some of its fellows to state education agencies, but in smaller numbers.

Education Pioneers plans to increase its partnerships with government agencies in the future, Mr. Morgan said.

Partnering organizations have a wide range of needs, he said, but requests for professionals with experience in data and analysis are common. “It’s at the top of the list, which is why it’s a priority and focus for us as an organization,” Mr. Morgan said.

The graduate program began in 2004 with nine fellows who were placed in seven organizations. Education Pioneers recruits fellows from an array of fields and academic programs including law, public policy, and education, Mr. Morgan said. This year, about 330 graduate program fellows will work with about 130 organizations nationwide, according to Mr. Morgan.

Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, said the program is an opportunity for districts to take advantage of leadership talent that is often hard to attract to urban and rural districts.

“It’s a market where you don’t have a lot of people applying for jobs,” said Mr. Domenech, a former superintendent of the Fairfax County, Va., schools.

Understanding Schools

Richard A. Flanary, the senior director for leadership programs and services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va., said leadership skills and other specialized skills like data analysis are important, but fellows must understand how schools operate.

“Turning around schools has become a very complex business,” Mr. Flanary said. “The fellows need to have some experience in schools and some understanding of how schools operate, and the reality of what goes on in schools.”

Mr. Flanary expressed concerns with the short duration of the fellowship placements. Depending on the structure of the fellowship and the length, he said, it may be like “sitting on the sidelines and watching a training.”

“We don’t need spectators. We need those who are involved, engaged, and committed,” said Mr. Flanary, a former middle school principal and teacher in the Prince William County, Va., public schools.

But Mr. Morgan said professional work experience and specialized skill sets, combined with an eagerness to learn and humility, will make up for fellows’ lack of experience working in education.

He also noted that some of the organization’s fellows do have such experience, though many do not.

This summer, the fellows will join a cohort and participate in workshops, analyze case studies, and meet with practitioners in the field as part of their ongoing training. Fellows were selected based on having a track record of success, including on-the-job success, Mr. Morgan added.

Mr. Morgan said about half of the nearly 70 percent of fellows who go on to work full time in the education field end up working in either a charter school network and or an urban public school district after their fellowships end.

The Gates grant is the largest donation in the nonprofit’s history, and it will be used in tandem with support from other philanthropies, including the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation of Austin, Texas, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation of Los Angeles, and the New York City-based Robertson Foundation. The Gates Foundation also provides grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.

Vol. 30, Issue 31

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the organization New Leaders for New Schools of New York City. According to marketing director Kay Moffett, the candidates that NLNS trains for the principalship are required to have three years of classroom experience.

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