Education Opinion

Katie Beck: Leading Education Innovation with 4.0 Schools

By Sara Mead — June 05, 2013 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

What’s next in education? It’s an important question today. Over the past decade, ideas like standards-based accountability and charter schools have been at the center of the education reform conversation--and there’s some evidence that these reforms have had positive impacts. But even the strongest supporters of the past decade of reform efforts would acknowledge that they haven’t produced nearly the results we need to ensure the nation’s economic competitiveness or close achievement gaps for low-income students. That has people across the board questioning what the next set of big (and small) ideas needs to be to produce dramatically better results for children.

Katie Beck is at the center of these efforts. As director of people and idea development for 4.0 Schools, she is directly engaged in identifying and supporting the development of innovative strategies to redesign education and improve results for kids. Raised in Michigan, Beck came to New Orleans as a Teach for America Corps member in 2008, after graduating from Harvard College, and joined 4.0 Schools in 2011. She lives in New Orleans but is spending significant time in New York supporting 4.0 Schools expansion there.

What does 4.0 Schools do? What is your role in this work?
4.0 Schools is a community of curious people - educators, entrepreneurs, techies, designers, and others - who are driving innovation in education. Today, we have both the capability and necessity to redesign education in a way that prepares kids as problem-solvers, and sets up schools to be flexible, evolving structures that can respond to the rapidly change world. Getting there will require innovative people taking risks and trying new ways of supporting teachers, delivering content, and designing new schools. At 4.0, we develop and support people to be great problem finders and then help them test the solutions they envision with real users. Eventually, we support validated solutions to become new businesses and non-profits.

At 4.0, I work with curious people who are obsessed with a problem that needs to be solved. I support them to validate the problem they’ve identified, and to rapidly prototype their ideas.

What have you accomplished to date?
In my first year at 4.0, I’ve directed our Lab Cohort program, which supports the incredible work of our early stage entrepreneurs. I work with people who are passionate about a problem that needs to be solved, often identified in their time working on the front lines as educators. We support them to see themselves as entrepreneurs and develop the problem-solving and business acumen to progress from early hunches to battle-tested solutions. Among them, Nicole Jarbo is developing venture called Teacher Gym that reimagines practice-driven teacher development in a Cross-Fit environment; Sam Battan is working to ignite the passions of high school students toward future careers; and Lauren Wooldridge is prototyping ways to increase the conversations between parents and young children to improve language acquisition. These examples and many others demonstrate the active prototyping happening within the 4.0 community.

I’m also excited to be leading our expansion to New York this summer, where we are building a community of entreprenuers, techies, and teachers. We have already encountered many visionary people who will push the 4.0 community with their actions and ideas.

And in general, I see 4.0 consistently pushing the broader education community to invest in earlier, riskier ideas, with the belief that we have to support not only “what works now,” but continuously explore and experiment with what school will need to look like 5, 20, and 50 years from now.

What are the challenges of this work?
Because many 4.0 participants have been steeped in the current education system, whether as teachers, people working in/around schools, or even as students, we must constantly balance the pull to solve tough problems facing students, parents, and teachers today with the push to create new solutions that imagine what school could look like, unrelated to its current structures.

We also have to constantly push past the fear of risk and the mantra that “we can’t take risks on students.” Evolving any system, including our education system, requires smart risk-taking and a willingness to fail.

What most excites you about the education landscape in New Orleans today?
In the years after Katrina, there has been increased school autonomy, community will, and educator energy that has allowed schools to take significant steps to provide kids in New Orleans with a better K-12 educational experience. School-based budgeting and principal autonomy has also paved the way for increased adoption of new tools and methods.

What excites me most now, though, is the challenge facing New Orleans in the upcoming years. Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans says sometimes, “The same things that got us to “C” schools, won’t get us to “A” schools”. I agree. When combined with a continued energy toward delivering the strongest educational experiences to all students in NOLA, I think this realization could open us to experimenting with new methods and approaches.

Why/how did you come to work in education?
Growing up, I was lucky to have many opportunities, both in and outside of school, that widened my perspective and illuminated the many possibilities available in life.

When I joined Teach For America five years ago, my goal was to ensure all students were afforded those same opportunities and open doors.

Now, I stay in education because I believe that those opportunities I had, weren’t just about school, they were about learning. I realize now that we have the potential to create incredible new learning opportunities for students, and one of the largest things holding us back is our willingness to lean in to the risk-taking and creativity that requires.

I think there was some education juju in the Beck family water. My parents are both professors (and give great feedback at 4.0 pitch events), and both of my brothers work in the education world - Andrew as a 1st year teacher in Minneapolis and David, an IDEX fellow supporting innovation within a school in India. I declared I would “never go into education” for a long time, but clearly the family DNA got the best of me.

Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?
Five people jump to mind. Monique Rinere, my first boss in college and mentor for life, taught me what hospitality and user experience looks like in action. Kira Orange Jones is my model for leading with heart and authenticity, which I’ve seen demonstrated in countless conversations. I have tons of respect for Alex Hernandez, a board member at 4.0, for his dogged vision of the future of education and willingness to call BS. And my parents, who are my #1 examples of passion, driven leadership and “sucking the marrow” out of life.

What is your long-term goal/What do you hope to be doing 5-10 years from now?
4.0’s CEO, Matt Candler, got me hooked on the book Anti-Fragile, and it’s become a good metaphor for the way I think about the education system and my impact. As long as we continue to search for silver bullets, or blanket solutions, we have the potential to trade in a fragile, outdated education system for a still-fragile new one. “Fixing” education seems like a one time thing. My hope is that we design a system that is nimble and consistently changing to meet kids’ evolving and differentiated needs. I want to see innovation built into the DNA of the education system at every level - schools, systems, teacher training, etc. On my end, in 10 years, I would like to still be investing in the earliest stage ideas that allow our education system to continually re-imagine itself and evolve.

What interests do you have outside of work?
Primary interest: living and breathing New Orleans. Since falling madly in love with the city 7 years ago, I’ve spent my time eating delicious food, listening to brass music, and dancing at festivals, rain or shine. If you visit New Orleans and need recommendations, I’m your woman.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook 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.