HotSeat 7: Todd Kern, Mr. Everywhere

You may never have heard of him, but Todd Kern has been everywhere in education over the past 15 years -- lobbying in Washington, dealing with the ed school mafia in New York City, and pioneering K12 venture capital. Now he's helping New Leaders for New Schools take over the world help improve public education. He even did a stint working for the Chicago Panel on School Policy.

On the HotSeat, Kern sets the record straight on what New Leaders is really up to, dishes ( well, not really) on what it's like to work for Jon Schnur and at Teachers College, explains "venture philanthropy" (sort of), tells us that the private sector is coming to K12 education (and that's not necessarily a bad thing), and plugs NYC's "autonomy zone" expansion process. As you'll see, Kern thinks about things differently than most folks in education. Check him out.


What’s your job at New Leaders?

TK: As Chief Knowledge Officer, my team is responsible for managing a comprehensive research & evaluation strategy to assess whether (and in what circumstances) the New Leaders model is working, and to learn as much as possible along the way to constantly improve it as we go.

Are you hoping to be able to find quantitative outcomes showing the impact of the program? Are there any already?

TK: Absolutely. It will still be another couple of years or so before our sample sizes are big enough to know what we’re actually seeing. But we are encouraged by early trends (based on very small N) that show positive gains in schools where a New Leader has served as principal of the same school for at least 2-3 years.

How has New Leaders changed in the past five years since most of us remember it launching?

TK: One big change has been our growth in scale – from an initial 15 New Leaders in 3 cities to the current total of 230 leaders in 6 cities, with another ~100 folks slated to begin this summer. Another change is that we now actually have principals (100+ this year) that we can learn from: what’s working and what’s not?

Some people seem to think that NLNS is just as much if not more about New Schools (especially charters) as it is about New Leaders. Are most NL working in charter schools? TK: No. Across the country, 74% of New Leaders are currently working in district schools (26% charter); 70% are in existing schools (30% new/start-up); and we’re in a great mix of grade levels: elementary (27%), K-8 (20%), middle (19%) and high schools (31%).

Is there some unholy alliance between NLNS and KIPP?

TK: Both organizations share a focus on getting results for kids. KIPP’s model is different than ours, but they do really great work creating outstanding charters around the country. We target on specific cities and try to take our model to scale within the existing systems (including charters.)

Is it true that all the offices at new leaders are arranged so that everyone can see Jon (Schnur) at all times?

TK: Cheap shot. When Jon’s not on a plane, his door is open. Next.

How does the private sector track education -- do they have their own research, or their own analysts? Is it still mostly higher education or is it coming for K12 as well?

TK: There are a handful of independent shops that provide good sector analysis (e.g. Eduventures) and several of the investment banks had education sector analysts a few years ago, but many have since pulled back somewhat. My sense is that most of the activity is still focused on proprietary higher education and corporate training. I think the “birth” of the K-12 segment– by far the largest segment of the industry (~$400 billion) – got lost in the boom-bust dot com cycle of a few years back, but will continue to gain momentum in the coming years.

What did you learn from your stint in the private sector that you didn't know before -- and that most folks in education probably still don't know?

TK: For three years I helped manage a small investment bank/consulting firm in the emerging education industry. Some of the things I learned: the “industry” includes a hell of a lot more than schools (ranging from early childhood to corporate training – or “K to gray,” as they say); profit motive is not necessarily a bad thing (and not just in the Gordon Gekko good greed way); and finally, and perhaps most important, this genie definitely will not go back in the bottle.

How is the profit motive “not a bad thing”? These are helpless children, for god’s sake.

TK: Sure, some folks might be out to make a quick (or not-so-quick) buck, but there are also many others who care about kids and view the for-profit industry as a wedge strategy to improve a public system that clearly isn’t working as well as it needs to.

So are you still pro-private sector?

TK: I’m not for privatizing the system – education is our most precious public good – but I welcome anything that spurs innovation. And the problem is so big that I think the private sector will have to be part of the solution.

What’s the scoop with "venture philanthropy" -- is it really any different from regular old philanthropy, or anything like real venture capital?

TK: Measuring the production of a public good is much fuzzier than reading a P&L statement, so the strict comparisons to venture capital eventually break down. However defined, venture philanthropy typically introduces a more explicit accountability for results, which I think makes it very different from most traditional philanthropy and is a good thing for education.

OK, but what does a venture philanthropy do that’s different from a regular one?

TK: It depends on who you ask, but a key difference is the willingness to play a more activist role. More than simply writing checks, a lot of venture philanthropists will roll up their sleeves and work with portfolio investments over time to help solve the problems that are holding them back.

You did a stint in Washington as well. What were the main lessons from your work with the CCSSO, and is any of that still relevant now?

TK: My key lessons had to do with politics and perspective. I was working in DC, representing the interests of state education commissioners, at precisely the moment that Gingrich-era Republicans swept into power during mid-term elections pledging to devolve authority to localities. It wound up being a very interesting vantage point, and helped me clarify that I was personally more interested in policy than in government relations.

You also worked at Teachers College, for Gaston Caperton. Got any stories or lessons for us from that experience?

TK: I only worked closely with Gov. Caperton for a few months before he left to go head the College Board. As for lessons, the TC experience mostly corroborated my view that universities are wonderfully weird and dysfunctional places and that it’s a lot harder than it should be for them to plug in and be part of the solution. Individuals do great work, but as institutions universities often seem oddly disconnected from the core problems we need to focus on, which is a real shame because we really need their help.

What’s next in education reform -- and what's probably on its way out?

TK: My crystal ball is pretty cloudy these days, so instead I’ll just share a few hopes. Given our track record over the past 25-30 years, I hope much of what we’ve tried is out – and that real, live educators get a voice in deciding what does work and is worth keeping. I’m also encouraged by interim assessment strategies and efforts to align district-wide incentive structures and performance metrics, especially when linked explicitly to greater school-level autonomies.

Say that second part again – the part about interim assessment strategies and incentive structures – or give an example.

TK: NYC is a great case to watch. After an ambitious and successful agenda in Mayor Bloomberg’s first term, Chancellor Klein is now laying out a new, system-wide accountability initiative. Building on a small network of “autonomy zone” schools, the new plan will invite up to 150 new schools to receive expanded control over key decisions in exchange for agreeing to hit aggressive student achievement targets. The devil is in the details, of course, but I think this type of approach is promising.

Further reading: The Change Masters (Fast Company), The Waiting Game (Education Next).


Blogger Michele at AFT said...

Interesting interview, but I would feel a little ridiculous introducing myself as Chief Knowledge Officer.

11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to see there are people out there who care enough about education to look for creative and constructive ways to make things better.

4:32 AM  

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