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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A Case for Thinking Small

By Guest Blogger — March 18, 2013 4 min read
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Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Matt Candler, CEO of 4.0 Schools.

Hi, my name’s Matt Candler. I’ve worked with amazing people on human capital and charter schools at places like KIPP and in cities like New York and New Orleans. I’ve helped reengineer big districts like Chicago and helped parents and teachers start their own schools in small towns in the deep South. I’m continually humbled by the work my colleagues continue to do for kids.

This week, I’d like to make a case for thinking small.

I’ve spent most of my career thinking too big. I used to think about my work in a very nuclear, us/them way. Them: the people who broke education. Us: reformers fixing what they broke. Left unchallenged, this thinking leads quickly to the deadly sucks less trap - where you equate success with being less bad than your predecessors at doing the same job.

People like Sugata Mitra, Carol Dweck and Rick have finally made it through my thick skull. I’ve got it now. School isn’t broken; it is obsolete. (Rick’s far better than I am at explaining why reformers miss this point; see “Pyrrhic Victories”, “Our Achievement Gap Mania” and The Same Thing Over and Over.)

Reformers, huddle up for a second. I’m not saying what I’ve/you’ve been doing is wrong. I’m speaking for myself; I’ve often acted as if someone else ‘broke’ school and that it was my job to fix it. I am realizing that’s a terrible way to make big change happen. OK. Reaaadddy, break.

Clarifying the problem - that school is obsolete - means we need to change how we support school improvement. We have to balance investments in “scaling what works” with “figuring out what’s next.” What if we spent at least 10% of philanthropy on “figuring out what’s next?”

It is not clear what school could or should look like in 10 or 20 years; our approach should reflect that uncertainty. We should include in our investment portfolio a decent allocation of small bets on things that might help us move forward.

That brings us to the first way you can think of 4.0 Schools. Imagine a number line like this representing a portfolio based on the size of individual investments in education from small on the left to large on the right:


The right side of the graph is where the sexy is: “Ed-tech Co. raises $4M to scale, CMO raises $8M to scale, State C scores $200M in Race to the Top.” Much of this scale is very good because it brings proven solutions to thousands of kids, but only a few scaling efforts inform the conversation about what school should or could be. We need to be making some investments on the left side of the portfolio, too.

4.0 is trying to invest on the left side of the portfolio. We make $1ish (beer), $10ish (headbands), $100ish (Essentials), $1,000 (Cohort), and $10,000 (Launch) investments to solve real problems humans have educating kids. We invest in the early stages of the problem-solving process, when what you have to work with is a person and their hunches. We don’t invest in companies; we invest in people and their capacity to solve problems. Here’s an example:

About a year ago, Andre Feigler first joined us for a beer during an open-to-the-public event like this one. Since then she’s gone from being curious about the future of school to focused on a specific problem every school leader has - substitute teachers. Her new company, enriched, focuses on getting schools great substitute teachers. Real pain point? Hell yes. Sexy iPhone app? Probably not.

Andre’s one of six entrepreneurs competing in this Thursday’s Education Challenge. Six ventures built by members of the 4.0 community will present solutions to real pain points. The most compelling, disruptive solution takes home $25,000. On Friday, we’ll tell you who won and why.

Between now and then you’ll hear from people in our community about what they are learning and the problems they are solving. For some context, here’s a quick overview of what we do at 4.0.

4.0 Schools is a community of curious people committed to driving innovation in education - “Person A has problem B; we solve it with C” innovation, not “we’re the Ebay of Facebook with an airbnb value proposition” solution-looking-for-a-problem innovation.

People from all over the U.S. participate in three programs we run year-round:

Essentials is a day-long exploration of three skills: Empathy (designing solutions for actual users), Unbundling (getting past “do-gooder helping kids” to savvy anthropologist able to engage in broader structural change) and Prototyping (giving users simple versions of your solution early so you can get feedback). 400ish people per year. About 10 times per year.

• The Cohort - a two- to ten-week intensive program to equip people passionate about specific problems with the skills to test solutions out in actual schools. 100ish people per year. About once per quarter.

• 20 teams participate in Launch - a six- to eight-week program for entrepreneurs ready to launch proven solutions in the real world. 20ish teams per year. About once per quarter.

PS. Thanks to Rick’s team for letting us blog during Entrepreneur Week in New Orleans. If you haven’t heard, New Orleans is a great place for people curious about reimagining school.

PPS. Peter Sims’s Little Bets is a great read on building a culture of thinking small.

-- Matt Candler

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.