Rudy Crew has had an eventful career in education. He’s run two of the four largest school districts in the United States—New York City in the 1990s and Miami-Dade County from 2004 to 2008—where he initiated ambitious policies and programs but left amid controversy. In New York, he took over and rejuvenated some of the city’s poorest-performing schools, but was forced out in 1999 after clashing with then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. In Miami, Mr. Crew offered salary increases to teachers who would transfer to the worst schools and got more students to take Advanced Placement tests. But in 2008, the same year he was named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, he was fired after a long, escalating spat with the school board.
Since then, he’s worked as an education consultant with Global Partnership Schools, which he co-founded, and is teaching at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. Last month, Mr. Crew, 61, was named president of Revolution K12, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based provider of adaptive-learning software in math and English. Education Week Staff Writer Jason Tomassini spoke with Mr. Crew last week in a telephone interview about his move into the educational technology marketplace, the differences between the public and private sectors, and the changing role of teachers in the classroom.
Education Week: Why are you interested in approaching education from the private sector instead of the public sector?
Rudy Crew: I’m never going to not be a public schools guy. That’s what I know, what I love. But for me it’s a question of leverage. School systems need to have leverage-able partnerships that can get them higher on the food chain of innovation, higher on the food chain of being able to deliver high-quality services to the parents, teachers, and children. He or she who figures out how to do that in a collaborative and cost-effective way will not just explore, but ultimately exploit the real potential of private-sector and public-sector mutuality and partnership. And that’s really what this company is attempting to do.
You’re well-known for reform methods that are more traditional—incentive pay, school turnarounds, increased central-office authority. Was it difficult at all to adjust to the technology world?
For me, the greatest adjustment was: You got an opportunity to think and develop and design in ways that were not inhibited by the natural impediments in public schools. You don’t have to go through committees and board reports and so forth. There is a different way by which things get developed, and there is a more nimble way that things get brought into the market. And I think in a place and time when public schools need to have greater innovation and need to have an opportunity to think differently about the challenges they face, the ground needs to be free of debris. It needs to be free of the occasions where people can, without particular cause, stop the wheels of thinking.
What do you think of the current technology-procurement process between companies like Revolution K12 and the public schools? Does it foster or hinder innovation?
The most important set of issues are not about the procurement process itself, but how do people define the problems they have, so they know what technology would ultimately respond to that. I think back to when I was superintendent in various places. You define the problem as a nail, and therefore every solution looks like a hammer. If you don’t know any better, all you are doing is making the choice of what hammer to use. I think we need to have more conversation about the discrete nature of these issues. What are the challenges—the learning challenges and teaching challenges—that students face? How will parents be wired into information about their child’s progress in some sort of more technologically driven and thoughtfully engaging way?
As a “public schools guy,” do you see why there may be some reluctance from districts, parents, and teachers for private technology companies to become more involved in education?
Absolutely. I think that if you’re not careful at getting right the relationship between what you need and what people have, you are essentially prey to companies that will tell you what’s broke and tell you their solution is the best solution on the face of the earth. People have to be careful. You have all that out there, but the upside is wholly, wholly larger and way richer than the downside.
If you were a superintendent today, would you support something like online-only or virtual schooling?
I think there’s always got to be a human coach, there’s always got to be someone who is attentive to how the heart feels when they are frustrated, what the mind does when it looks for alternatives to the wrong answer. What does the thinking look like and sound like when students are about to give up? Somebody has got to attend to that. Someone has to intervene in those moments so they actually never let the experience result in a total failure. Students can fail a test, but they are not failures. So the question becomes: How does a teacher facilitate that using technology?
Do you feel like that view is anomalous in the education technology industry?
I do. I think people have brought this notion of technology as either/or. It’s more about what resources does the teacher have to make the job doable and to make learning joyous. That becomes far different than if it’s all about either/or—I need the teacher or I need technology.
How do you get these products into poor schools that don’t have the budgets for education technology?
I’m not completely sold that there’s not a budget. I think that there’s always an opportunity to match resources with what someone is enlightened to do. What we have concentrated on as part of our work is leadership, because it’s not a question of money, but how to use money. What we want from leaders are people bold enough to buy this notion of innovation, to give teachers the necessary tools they need as a way of being able to respond to needs. I don’t buy the proposition that everybody is broke and nobody is buying anything.
I think everyone is struggling with money; I think that’s absolutely the case. But I also think that, come Monday, there will be children in your schools, and you will make a choice on that day about what to give them, for everything from their instruction program to their lunch. And everything on that menu has a dollar sign associated with it. The question for that leader is, “Where do I get a significant bang for my buck?"—in terms of what children learn, how they learn, the content they acquire, the skills they need—and how do I do that in a cost-effective way?
Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Q&A: Rudy Crew’s Public-Private Ed. Perspective