HotSeat #6: Controversial Charter Figure Re-Emerges As Private Industry Expert

Even though he may be one of the most interesting thinkers in education, I’m guessing that most readers haven't even heard of Marc Dean Millot, this week’s HotSeat.

On the HotSeat, Millot fills us in on what the education “industry” is all about (not just textbooks and SES), reminds us what happened to New American Schools (it worked), lets us peek into the development of national charter school organizations (they were hijacked), disses on education think tanks (no new ideas since charters), and tells us to get ready for more private-sector involvement in education:

“The question of private engagement in public education is not whether we should permit it, but how fast it will happen and how intelligently it will be regulated.”


Some might call him a controversial figure -- I just like reading and hearing about things I haven't heard a thousand times before. He’s got a background in nuclear warfare. He did a long stint at NAS getting the models up and running. He sued the charter school leadership organization that hired and then fired him. And now he runs the School Improvement Industry Weekly, a weekly publication that gives a glimpse at how education companies view the world of schools and teachers.

What is the "school improvement industry" and why shouldn't I be scared of something with such an ominous name?

DM: Any collection of sellers, buyers, regulators etc. is typically called an “industry.” The school improvement industry is about the firms and nonprofits that provide products and services premised on their contribution to student, teacher and school performance; the schools that purchase those services; the government that has created the market in such services and regulates it; the policy wonks and education evaluators who study it; the investors who finance the providers; and the politics surrounding it all.

OK. I’m still a little scared. Are you a gung-ho privatization guy?

DM: It is all about making public education better, rather than replacing it with vouchers or leaving it isolated from the rest of the American economy as it was for so long. Unless you believe public education is the one exception to the general rule that capitalism – while horribly flawed – is still the best means man has created for allocating resources to their highest and best use on behalf of everyone, you should be more afraid of a sector that bears closer resemblance to Eastern Europe under state socialism.

I’m just guessing, but I’d say that the test makers and publishers are the biggest part of the education industry, followed by textbook publishers, then -- far down the line in terms of size -- SES providers, school improvement outfits, and the like. Is that right? Paint us a picture of the school improvement industry.

DM: Publishers are the largest players in the teaching and learning value chain. Most of their products – books, and specifically content – have arguably been part of the problem. Never the less, at the industry’s current course and speed, it is likely that many if not most companies trying to change teaching and learning will become part of a big publisher.

So everyone gets bought up by a publishing company?

DM: Testing is a good example, with the publishers buying testing firms and those units buying newer smaller firms with related services. EMOS, CSR providers, EMOs, professional development still occupy a fraction of the market – but it’s the fastest growing segment and that fraction SII Weekly focuses on. The details of this information are available to clients.

Rumor has it you worked at RAND-- what did you do there, and why did you get out of the research business?

DM: I joined RAND in the 1980s to run large-scale nuclear war-related studies. I moved to public education studies after the Berlin Wall fell - based on then- RAND Washington Office VP Paul Hill’s response to my interest in another hugely complicated problem of public policy - but this time one that wouldn’t go away.

What did you work on first?

DM: I spent my time on the then-emerging policy initiatives of charter schools and school contracting. On the charter school side I did most of my work for the joint RAND-University of Washington Program on Reinventing Public Education (now independent of RAND). I had a role in writing some of the federal law governing DC charters and a statute the Washington State Business Roundtable pushed in that state legislature. I wrote guidebooks for charter organizers in general, applicants in DC and Pennsylvania, technical assistance organizations and chartering agencies.

On the school contracting side, I worked on the New American Schools Development Corporation’s problem of taking its eight independent R&D design teams’ programs to scale. NAS’s board – made up of CEOs like David Kearns and Lou Gerstner were serious about achieving this goal and understood strategy. We all agreed that the only way to approach national scale was to get schools to buy our teams’ programs. That strategy required helping our teams’ transition from R&D groups to professional service firms and creating demonstration markets in districts across the country. I drafted a roadmap for the first and the memorandum of understanding NAS used for the second.

I remember New American Schools -- so 1990s. But why’d you leave RAND?

DM: I left RAND for NAS, first because I always believed that as a client I’d be skeptical of any advisor who hadn’t had to face problems as a decision maker; second, because I was convinced that NAS was going to make a serious go at the strategy I’d helped to formulate; and third because I’d been going to law school at night (George Washington) since the Wall fell, and thought this was the best way to put all my skills to work.

What happened at NAS?

DM: We built a $15 million investment fund, I worked to help most teams spin out of their parents, we did a lot of creative high-risk venture financing and lending. I ultimately became NAS COO and CEO of that investment fund. Every one of the NAS teams was confident enough in the efficacy of their programs to undertake the incredibly painful process of harnessing market discipline to their missions. As their banker, our relations were not always happy, but they were ultimately productive.

Did the NAS investment strategy work? Are any or all of the 8 still in action?

DM: All but Audrey Cohen is in the market and financially self-sustaining. We did similarly effective work helping a number of organizations that were not originally NAS teams move towards fee-for-service – Accelerated Learning, Different Ways of Knowing, TurningPoints, and Voices of Love and Freedom come to mind. We built some side businesses in quality assessment, grant identification and business consulting. The designs are in thousands of schools, the fund was financially successful, and our investors were repaid. It was a great ride, but in the end I wanted to be my own boss.

You recently wrote a withering analysis of education think tanks and more on this site. What's your beef with Andy Rotherham -- and education punditry in general?

DM: I have no beef with Andy as the guy occupying the centrist DLC Democrat position in Washington’s ongoing education debate. I think he writes well and says sensible things. The question with all pundits is whether it passes the “so what?” test. My beef with punditry is mostly that it’s now all derivative. The last big policy ideas in public school reform were charter schools and school contracting. They are now over 15 years old. The real issues are simply the hard work of implementation and even good writing just doesn’t get us very far. I’d like to see them break some new intellectual ground - which in my view is all around empowering students and teachers in the classroom – or actually try to solve some of the problems they have dissected in such detail.

Tell us as much or little about the Charter School Leadership Alliance debacle as you can without being taken to court. You were hired to run it, you were asked to leave, you sued. Is that the gist of it?

DM: I was hired by the unanimous consent of the National Association of Charter Schools as its first CEO in the spring of 2003. The job lasted to about the fall. In retrospect, I was caught in the middle of a top-down change in the charter school movement’s direction made by its new philanthropy funders. They were tired of the “one school at a time” approach to scale, and somewhat dismissive of grassroots organizers. It had already committed itself to the nonprofit EMO strategy and a movement management by “leadership” rather than “membership.”

My search committee consisted mostly of old-timers I’d known from my RAND days, my executive committee was completely later to the charter game. At around this time there were “similar changes in management” of the movement occurring in DC and California and elsewhere affecting some of the original and more independently-minded charter leaders like Shirley Monestra, Eric Premack and John Ayers.

Was there a substantive disagreement about which direction to go, then?

DM: Based on my hands-on investment experience with almost every conceivable business model of program dissemination, my view of the strategic problem was that “one school at a time” and CMOs were both bad strategies for scale. The former lost every conceivable economy of scale. The latter lost diversity of approaches, shrank the pool of folks interested in running independent public schools, attempted to centralize school quality when it would always be owned by the sites, and disconnected the schools from their communities – which in my view is the foundation of charter schools’ competitive advantage.

What would you have done if you were in charge of growing charters?

DM: My plan was to create a backbone of services that would lower overall costs but maintain independent schools and lower the barriers to entry for those capable of running a school. It would be owned by the schools through their membership organization. I wrote a plan, it was unanimously approved by my board, and generally considered plausible by outside observers.

In the end, however, the bottom-up/backbone/membership model wasn’t funded, and the top-down/CMO/leadership model was. The golden rule (he who has the gold rules) applied here. My commitment to consult members before acting as the organization’s President, to think practically about the movement rather than ideologically, and my pointed opposition to heavy investment in CMOs proved to be disadvantages. My board and I came to an agreement on the end of my contract.

How long have you been putting out the SIIW, who gets it, and what's it for?

DM: I wanted to create the publication I wish I had when I moved from RAND to NAS and just didn’t have time to find the information that I should have been aware of in a more ideal world. School Improvement Industry Weekly reports on the players I described at the outset. It aggregates content across the wide range of sources reporting on each slice of the marketplace, and arranges them in a context relevant to those who see school improvement as an industry. It consists of excerpted items and hotlinks, so that readers can skim it like a newspaper, or go straight to the source for more detail. In addition, it contains an editorial of my views on the industry; seven rotating guest columnists from the industry; summaries of relevance to NCLB implementation, general school reform research, a program evaluation; and now your HotSeat interviews. A site license (for all employees at an organization) is $500 per year.

Who reads the SII Weekly, and how do people like it?

DM: Ironically, while the service was designed to give small organizations access to the kind of information large organizations take for granted, the bulk of our clients are large for- and nonprofit providers. The typical sale is first made to the CEOs or Chief Marketing Officers. An open door/phone/email policy for clients leads to lots of interaction with development and business planning staff. My guess is we have about a thousand regular paid readers between the two publications. We offer complimentary subscriptions to SII Weekly to state and federal education agency staff and education writers who are employed by recognized media.

What do you think is coming down the line in terms of private sector involvement in education that readers should know about but probably don't?

DM: While the media is focused on EMOs and SES providers that seem to substitute for the traditional public school, the revolution is occurring elsewhere. Until recently, all the processes and activities surrounding education have been entirely government functions. The only evidence of private sector involvement has been books. Today private sector providers are becoming more and more deeply and extensively embedded in that process and its underlying support. This trend will not be reversed, although the speed and extent of its growth is highly problematic. So the question of private engagement in public education is not whether we should permit it, but how fast it will happen and how intelligently it will be regulated.

Previous Posts
How The Private Sector Thinks About Education
So Much Business In Education -- And So Little Coverage


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