Education Opinion

Young Education Leader Profile: Ethan Gray, CEE-Trust

By Sara Mead — June 13, 2013 7 min read
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Urban schools have long been the focus of education reform efforts, because of the shockingly poor outcomes that many large city school systems have produced. Yet a growing number of cities across the country--New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; Denver; and Indianapolis, to name a few--have become models of new approaches to public education that combine vibrant charter sectors, district-level reforms, and a rich network of external human capital and support organizations to drive improved results for students. In these cities, improving education is no longer simply about the school district, but is an “it takes a city” effort in which philanthropic organizations, Mayors, and intermediaries are playing a key role in driving and coordinating a range of bold initiatives and activities designed to improve student learning. CEE-Trust Executive Director Ethan Gray calls these increasingly important organizations “harbormasters,” and the organization he leads works to bring these harbormasters together in a national network to help them create vibrant ecosystems for education innovation and reform in their cities.

I first met Ethan in 2005, when I brought him on as the first-ever intern at Education Sector. Since then, I’ve been incredibly proud to watch him develop as an education reform leader and found CEE-Trust to play a critical role in education reform.

Raised in Boston and Vermont, Ethan holds both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Harvard. He currently lives in Denver with his wife.

What does CEE-Trust do?
CEE-Trust is a national network of 30 city-based education reform organizations. Our members are outside-the-system “harbormasters” for the education reform movement in their cities. They align funding for entrepreneurs and new schools, they support teacher talent organizations and the charter movement, they engage the public through events and media activities, and they make connections between cross-sector leaders to accelerate the pace of reform.

At CEE-Trust, we convene the full network, run a series of working groups on topics like blended learning and charter school incubation, facilitate multi-city collaborations, and consult to leaders in a variety of different cities. We hope that through our convening, collaborating, and consulting activities we can build capacity for reform in cities across the country.

What has CEE-Trust accomplished to date? What do you hope to accomplish going forward?
We’ve built a dynamic community of practice among the most effective city-based reform organizations. And now we’re leveraging that community to drive change in how city-based reformers go about their work. Our core accomplishments relate to the activities of our working groups. Our Blended Learning Working Group has increased the number of cities actively seeking new blended school models, and we’re hosting a series of six design workshops to ensure that those cities understand what quality blended learning looks like. We’ve also helped increase the number of charter school incubators across the country by consulting to new incubator leaders and publishing research on how incubators are accelerating the smart growth of the charter sector in different cities. Lastly, through our recent report - “Kick-Starting Reform” - we’ve begun to document best practices in city-based education reform that leaders in other cities can learn from. Going forward, we hope to leverage our growing set of national best-practices to increase the number of effective education reform harbormasters in cities across the country.

What are some of the biggest challenges of this type of work?
The biggest challenge is overcoming the traditional grammar of schooling. Our country still thinks the agrarian calendar, the traditional district/board governance model, and the reliance on direct instruction are givens. But the education model in urban America is totally obsolete; we’ve been doing the same things for generations with terrible results for kids. That’s why we’ve tried to make CEE-Trust a place where leaders can explore big new ideas that get at the very foundations of how we structure and organize public schools in America. It’s clear that structural reform is hard to accomplish, but leading cities like New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; and Indianapolis are proving that it’s possible and that the city is the right unit of change in this work.

Another challenge is that every city’s political context is a little different, so while there are plenty of core lessons learned that we are trying to share with our members, there’s always a challenge customizing those lessons for the local context.

What most excites you about the urban education reform landscape today?
There are some incredible city-based education reform organizations that I think have the potential to achieve some of the most significant, structural changes to education over 100 years. Groups like New Schools for New Orleans, The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, the Donnell-Kay Foundation in Denver, and the CityBridge Foundation in D.C. are the brains and brawn behind major transformation efforts in their cities. They’re accelerating the growth of high-performing charter schools; they’re recruiting outstanding new teachers into the sector; and they’re building grassroots support for bold new visions of public education. I think that more major cities today are open to innovation and entrepreneurship than ever before. And it’s these outside-the-system harbormasters that are the driving force behind these efforts.

Are there any cities that you’re particularly excited about or that people should be paying attention to and aren’t?
There are a few smaller cities that aren’t getting a ton of attention where the conditions are getting ripe for big change. I suspect that folks will be talking a lot about Indianapolis, San Antonio, and Kansas City in the next several years.

Why/how did you come to work in education?
I studied school design and educational philosophy with Ted Sizer when I was an undergrad. He helped me think about how schools did or didn’t prepare students to seek the “good” life, and how to spot a healthy school culture that empowered kids and adults alike. But when I graduated I knew nothing about public policy. That’s when I went to DC with 50 resumes and stormed the Hill for a week. I ended up across the desk from one of the nation’s leading diminutive pre-k and public policy experts and lucked my way into the first research assistant role at start-up think tank Education Sector. During my second day on the job Kevin Carey had me on the phone grilling the Connecticut secretary of education about something to do with NCLB and I knew I’d scored a great first step in my education career.

Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?
My own thinking about education reform has been most influenced by my colleague David Harris at The Mind Trust. He’s incredibly smart, politically shrewd, and endowed with great instincts about people and the process of system change. He’s helped me understand how all the different pieces fit together when you’re trying to catalyze major change at the city level. Andy Rotherham has also been a real mentor to me ever since my days at Education Sector. Working with Andy, Kevin, you, and Tom Toch gave me a better primer on policy analysis than I could have gotten anywhere else. I also admire big thinkers like my friends Neerav Kingsland of NSNO, Jal Mehta at Harvard, Paul Hill and Robin Lake from CRPE, and Bryan Hassel at Public Impact.

What do you hope to be doing 5-10 years from now? What do you hope to have accomplished?
I wish I had a good answer to where I want to be in 10 years but I don’t. I only know a few general things. I want to be a dad. I want to have an impactful job. I want to be engaging with big ideas and smart people. I want my loved ones to be happy and healthy. It’ll take some luck, but I’m pretty sure there are multiple paths to getting where I want to go. I think there’s also a pretty good chance I’ll still be leading CEE-Trust, as I’d be hard pressed to work with more effective, kinder, or more mission-driven people then the members of our network.

In terms of accomplishments, I hope I can look back and know that I’ve helped disrupt the broken systems that are inflicting structural violence against our country’s urban youth. I want to look back and say that I helped cities create the conditions through which legions of new high-quality schools emerged to transformed neighborhoods of need to neighborhoods of opportunity.

What do you do for fun?
CEE-Trust is a virtual organization so to celebrate the end of the week my colleagues and I host a google hangout called “Hip-Hop Fridays” where we watch random hip-hop and R&B videos together on YouTube and do a little home office dancing.
I’m a classical cellist and love to play chamber music. I also like nothing more than mucking around in the woods of northern Vermont with my chainsaw.

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.