Education Opinion

Mickey Muldoon, Manager of External Affairs, School of One

By Sara Mead — May 25, 2011 8 min read
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Mickey Muldoon has a knack for going where the action is: Shortly after graduating from Harvard, he did field organizing in Ohio for the Obama campaign. Last fall he joined School of One just as the initiative to transform schooling through radical personalization was gaining national attention. In between, he spent time at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

At only 26, Muldoon has already acquired an eclectic set of experiences that reflect not only his own wide-ranging interests, but also a broader mindset that characterizes this new generation of education leaders: A desire to go where the action and potential for impact are, an emphasis on impact over ideology, and a shift in focus from policy to implementation. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Chicago area, Muldoon currently lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, with his wife and younger brother. [Click for more.]
So, you’re “Manager of External Affairs” for School of One: What does that actually mean you do?

First, I spend a fair amount of time explaining School of One to fellow educators, technologists, and interested organizations. It’s pretty amazing how many people across the world are curious about what we’re up to -- and it’s really valuable to compare notes, especially as other schools and districts start going in a similar direction towards personalization. Another part of the job is working with our external research partners to administer their quantitative and qualitative evaluations on School of One. And also, like everyone else on the team, I try to lend a hand wherever I can be helpful. At the moment, for example, I’m helping to helping revise our “skill map” that represents which math skills are dependent on which.

How did you come to work with School of One?

Last spring, I helped to invite Joel Rose (School of One’s co-founder and former CEO) to lead a seminar-style discussion on School of One at the Fordham Institute in DC, where I was working. After the discussion, I was blown away--not just about this amazing project, but also by Joel’s humility and nuanced understanding of the big issues and challenges in public education. He had worked as a teacher and at an executive level at a big company and in a big district, and so he had deep knowledge of the education system from a variety of perspectives. More importantly, he had a contagious sense of excitement for School of One.

Joel and I got to talking afterward, and we found that we had some ideas in common about how I could be of help to the project. Soon enough my wife and I were packing our bags for the big city.

What most excites you about School of One’s work and mission?

School of One is at the bleeding edge of education. Every day, we’re solving problems that nobody else has ever solved and asking questions that nobody else has ever asked. That’s pretty amazing.

On top of that, it’s just a great privilege to be part of such an incredibly talented and dedicated team. I can think of a dozen colleagues alone who are more deserving of this recognition than I am.

But ultimately, it’s the possibility that we can have a big impact on New York City students that’s most exciting. We envision a future when we can deliver education that is more relevant, more effective, and more engaging -- not just for some, but for all our students. Where we end and reverse the vicious cycles of underachievement that begin, tragically, even before middle school. Where all learners feel challenged and motivated to move farther and faster. Where we can accelerate the science of basic skill and knowledge acquisition in order to devote more energy to the art of masterful teaching and mentorship.

What draws you to education? Why choose to work in this field?

If the human brain is the most complex object in the universe, then education might be the most complex engineering challenge in the universe. As hard as it is, I’ve always been drawn to the challenge.

There’s the “design” side--creating lessons, policies, technology, and classrooms--but there is an equally important and difficult “philosophy” side: What are the goals of public education? What kind of citizens do we, collectively, hope to nurture in the next generation? Where do we draw the line between the duties of the family and the duties of the state? Those big questions are always just beneath the surface, and I like thinking about them.

On a personal level, as I got through high school and college, I started to pay attention to the incredible inefficiencies of batch-style instruction, the huge need for passionate and inspired teachers, and the pernicious ways in which so many people--many college-grads included--are turned off from learning by school. On the other hand, I ended up spending a fair amount of time as a teacher in Brazil, and met some creative and brilliant people there who had less formal schooling. All that is to say that like everyone else, I ended up with plenty of personal experiences to illustrate flaws in the way education is delivered. For some reason I was always thinking about ways to fix those flaws.

Prior to this job, you worked for both the 2008 Obama campaign and the Fordham Foundation--care to explain that? What did you learn from these experiences that applies to your work today?

On a day-to-day basis, these were two very different experiences -- not to mention that Fordham is more politically right-of-center. On the campaign, I was a field organizer in a mostly rural swath of central Ohio, trying to stir up votes among farmers, factory workers, small businesspeople, local college students, and even the Amish and Mennonite communities. We worked crazy hard and the experience was alternately exhausting and exhilarating. I met some of the most amazing, hard-working, and inspirational people among my fellow organizers and volunteers, and I learned a ton about grassroots politics.

Fordham, being a D.C. think tank, was comparatively so much more peaceful and orderly. I learned a lot about the Beltway and about the national education reform scene, and got to meet or see lots of the movers & shakers in education. And I appreciated being around people with more diverse political leanings even if I didn’t always agree. It was a really ideal introduction to the education reform world, in addition to being a amazing paragon of a well-run non-profit organization.

School of One reminds me of both the experiences all the time, because you have the politics of being an operational government program, and the broader policy issues of personalized learning, entrepreneurship, and education technology.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in public education today?

If we’re serious about transformative improvements in public education, we need to do much more to encourage new ideas, new teachers, new leaders, and new organizations. On the content side, that means developing great platforms and marketplaces to encourage bottom-up content development, assessment, and sharing. On the human capital side, that means opening up more opportunities for our top college grads to become a teacher or an online tutor and for their certifications to cross state boundaries. On the data/IT side, that means making student data easily transportable from district to district and state to state. Right now, far too many great ideas and great leaders get lost or stymied in the political and bureaucratic thickets of the education system.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

I’m dedicated to helping School of One continue to grow and do great work, and I would be a happy camper if I could still offer worthwhile contributions a decade from now.

But zooming out for a moment, I’m pretty interested in the “voluntary” space--libraries, after-school, even “gap year programs” for people between high school and college. In my experience, much of the hardest and most important learning happens in voluntary, social situations, under the guidance of respected authority figures. At the same time, there’s this enormous issue of “cognitive surplus,” which is all the brainpower that we collectively waste, mostly in front of TV or computer screens. So I think there’s a huge potential to tap into it and improve education in the process.

Public libraries, for example, seem ripe for reform, given the apparent decline of the book and current budget pressures. I could imagine new policies to encourage more adult volunteerism for staffing, and to encourage more young people to take advantage of libraries. Perhaps we clear some of the book space and open up more music and arts studios, robotics labs, or low-cost “DIY genetics” labs. A kids goes in after school, she has some friends, and she decides, for example, that she really clicks with the computer programming group, and then she spends as many hours as she wants hacking away in the lab. If she gets lost or bored, she tries something else, or goes online to just beef up on basic skills. Then we come up with some incentives so she gets school credit or homework exemption, for example.

Long term, it would great to help encourage more work in that direction. In the mean time, I’m hoping to start an evening Master’s program in computer science in the fall that will keep me pretty busy for a while.

Who are some individuals you admire in the education field, or individuals you admire in other fields whose examples shape your work in education?

Steven Pinker, Sal Khan, Checker Finn, David Coleman, Rick Hess, John Dewey, Mike Feinberg & Dave Levin, Kevin Carey

What books, articles, or research have most influenced your thinking about education?

  • Accelerated Learning by Colin Rose
  • Democracy and Education by John Dewey
  • Research on mental models of causality by Tina Grotzer
  • Research on dynamic skill theory by Kurt Fischer
  • Cultural Literacy and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them by E.D. Hirsch
  • Troublemaker by Checker Finn
  • Left Back and The Troubled Crusade by Diane Ravitch
  • Crossing the Finish Line by Michael McPherson and Matt Chingos
  • The Race Between Education and Technology by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz
  • The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker
  • A Grand Bargain for Education Reform by Theodore Hershberg and Claire Robertson-Kraft

What do you do when you’re not busy transforming education?

I play a fair amount of guitar, I have several ongoing grudge matches in FIFA 11 soccer for PlayStation 3, I enjoy home improvement projects, I read the Economist pretty religiously, I like having brainstorm sessions with my whiteboard, I go running a few times a week ... but mostly just hanging out with my wonderful wife and my brother.

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.