The following is a conversation between Brian Greenberg, CEO of Silicon Schools Fund, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Silicon Schools Fund funds the creation of new schools in the Bay Area that foster innovation and personalization to discover the next generation of schools in America. They have helped to launch or transform over 50 traditional district, charter, and private schools across Northern California in many of the highest-need communities.
And here to tell us more about what they do and what’s working, it’s a pleasure to have with us, Brian Greenberg, the CEO of Silicon Schools Fund.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Brian.
Brian: Thank you, Denver. It’s great to be here.
Denver: Tell us about the organization and how it got its start..
Brian: Yeah. So Silicon Schools has really set out to try to accomplish a pretty clear mission, which is to figure out a better way to run schools in America and to grow what’s working and to innovate new solutions. At our core, we’re much like a foundation, but we take an approach much more like venture capital. And what I mean by that is we raise money from really dedicated investors and philanthropists who want to support education in America. And they task us to go out and find the most interesting, innovative, and successful entrepreneurs doing the work in the country. And we find them, we fund them, and we help them launch new ventures. In the end, this is all philanthropic, so we use the language of Silicon Valley and venture capital because we believe in the rigor of good diligence and good entrepreneurs, but ultimately we’re making grants to nonprofit schools that want to create a better outcome for kids, particularly kids who would otherwise not have good options in their local communities.
Denver: You said a moment ago, “Find them.” So, what’s your process for identifying those schools where you will be investing?
Brian: One of the advantages I think I and my team have is that we come from this space, much like a lot of Silicon Valley now hires really successful former engineers themselves to go and do evaluations of tech companies. I’ve spent my career working in education from Higher Ed to preschool and mostly in K through 12. Almost every member of my team also has a pretty extensive background. We’re talking decades per person working in schools. So, I think that’s important because ultimately what we’re saying to our investors is we will be a great means for you to deploy your philanthropic capital and get the best return on the investment that you can get. And I don’t think you can do that if you don’t really know the space. Just like if you really want to make the best investments in aerospace, I’m not your guy, but if you want to know about education, we should spend time talking.
So, our process is pretty hands-on. When we meet an entrepreneur who wants to start a school, the first thing we do is spend time talking with them to really understand their vision. And I feel like this is a place where you can spend all sorts of time looking at financial models, and we do that. But ultimately, you can tell pretty quickly when you talk to someone whether they have that rare combination that we’re looking for, which is enough expertise to see around corners and know what kind of problems and to be wise enough about how the space works that they’re not going to make rookie mistakes. But at the same time, they have something that’s just driving them, a passion or a fire in the belly that it takes to do something as hard as launch a new school or build a new nonprofit to tackle really big inequities in our society.
And we often say that we’re looking for someone who’s seen a problem that they can’t unsee. There’s just something that they’ve bumped up against the wall that they feel this incredible passion to figure out a solution to. And so, for us, that combination of: you know enough to really understand what you’ll likely get hung up on, but you’re driven and passionate enough about solving a new problem is where we get the magic of new knowledge creation and outcomes that we think will really work well for kids.
Denver: Yeah. That’s well said. I was speaking to the executive director of Fast Forward and they invite, they invest in people who are starting ventures to solve a problem, but they always say they try to invest in somebody who’s actually lived that experience because they’re committed to wanting to see it solved and they’re not going to go for another job which is going to pay them $20,000 more. They got it in their belly, and they can’t let it go.
Well, having done all this and with the team you have, you’re pretty gifted at pattern recognition. You sometimes can see things that maybe the team itself can’t even see. Tell us about some of those patterns, maybe some of the good patterns you see, maybe some of the bad patterns you see.
Brian: For folks who don’t work in education, I will say anyone who thinks that education is easy, really needs to go spend a year in the shoe of an education entrepreneur. I’ve done a lot of things in my career from politics to Higher Ed to fundraising. I think the hardest thing I ever did was to launch a brand new school from scratch. You’re talking about quickly taking an organization from zero to 50 employees, having a P&L that might be $4, or $8, or $10 million a year in a highly regulated industry. Oh, and by the way, you have to manage the personalities of 400, 500, 1,000 teenagers or whatever age group you’re working with. And most of those schools are being run by a very, very, very small management team, and almost everybody else is a frontline worker– meaning they’re a teacher in a classroom with kids.
And if I could do something over in American education, it might be to over-staff the layer of people in schools who aren’t directly working with kids every minute of every day because there’s just no time to solve big problems in education. The teachers are working day in and day out tirelessly just to design the lesson plans, teach the lessons, and handle the classroom management issues that they’re faced with and maybe do some assessments. And then this very small level of management is doing all this operational work. When you really understand how complex that is, you realize how hard it is to hit a home run on just a basic school model, and then how really hard it is to redesign new models.
And I think one of our underlying philosophies of why we do this work is the American system of education, which is based off the Prussian system, a lot of people will tell you the factory model; it actually has been wildly successful at producing what it was designed to produce, which was to ensure a base level of learning for almost everybody. And we did, we took literacy rates up. We took basic numeracy rates. We got most people to graduate high school. We were wildly successful for what the system was designed for, which was a post-industrial revolution job force that needed people with a minimal amount of academic skills to go in and be good factory workers.
The problem is we’ve outlived the functionality of that. And now we need something very different, a knowledge economy with entrepreneurial ideas, with people who can create solutions for problems that don’t exist. And many would argue, including myself, that the current system isn’t very well-built for that. So you can ask an academic to find the solution to that, or you can go to practitioners, and we tend to think that practitioners are better positioned to understand the fundamentals of what the new system could be and how to implement that.
So what we’re doing is we’re going out there and looking for those patterns of people we think can solve these problems and who have big ideas. And then some of the same things that always hang you up, hang you up. So you might find somebody who’s an incredible academic leader, but they don’t really have the finance or operational chops to manage that sophisticated of an organization, or the person who’s the great political, strategic, external facing, but doesn’t know how to do adult leadership within the building.
And the hard part about the principalship. I use the analogy of it’s like a plastic bag– and we all have this bag, but there’s these little micro holes, places we’re not so strong in. And the principalship, especially a founding principalship, fills that bag with water and the water instantly finds the holes and it makes them much, much bigger. So a lot of what we do in our diligence process is really spend time so we understand: what are the strengths of this particular leader, and what are their weaknesses? And for their weaknesses, and we want them to be transparent, and we really spend enough time to understand those weaknesses, how can we help them build a team around them or shore them up so that those weaknesses don’t become fatal as they go to launch a new organization?
Denver: Yeah. I can see you really have to invest in teams and not just an individual, because things have become so complex; no single person has it. So you really have to take a look at everything, and I think the point you made about investing in operations in the school is something which is very much present in the nonprofit sector itself. Funders want to fund program. They don’t want to fund infrastructure. They don’t want to fund overhead. And these people are doing things out of shoe boxes when they shouldn’t be, and they don’t understand you’re going to get a much better impact and much better product if you invest in a little bit of some other things.
Talk about principals, that’s really an interesting thing. In New York City, when I go back to the old Yankees, they used to say that Reggie Jackson was the straw that stirred the drink. That was in the Billy Martin days. And I always look at principals as really being the straw that stirs the drink. Tell me what makes a great principal.
Brian: Oh, that’s such a great analogy, and I loved Reggie Jackson growing up so it’s a nice image to have of him with Billy Martin describing him. In schools we joke that the kids are the weather, how they feel every day, and the teachers make the weather. If a teacher comes in happy, if a teacher is well-prepared, it’s a sunny day in that school; the kids can experience the sunshine; the warmth, it permeates. But I’ve really come to believe, you can’t find a great school that doesn’t have a great principal; you just can’t do it.
The principal is this really unique, it’s almost like a founder of a company where their DNA is imbued across the whole organization. They’ve generally hired almost everybody who’s there. And if you don’t have a good principal, good teachers don’t stay, and good teachers can’t do their best work. And it’s a very funny combination of you have to be very good at adult leadership and very good at youth leadership. So it’s almost like asking the nonprofit executive to both be great with direct client services, but then also go off and talk to the funders and deal with the government. And it’s really… it is too much to ask any one individual.
And I will tell anyone out there who believes in hiring, if you can find me a principal, particularly a principal who’s been in a tougher, more urban, more diverse setting where you don’t have kids who instantly come in prepared on their own necessarily, who’s been successful there, you should hire that person for almost any job in corporate America or nonprofit America. They are exceptional leaders, and they have done so much with so little that everything feels easy afterwards. And sometimes people will say to me, “Wow, you’ve built this big organization; you’ve raised tens of millions of dollars.” I say it’s easy compared to what it was like to launch a school serving 400 kids, and I really believe that.
I think the same is true for teachers. A teacher who can get exceptional results with kids is really sort of magic when you drop them into an EdTech startup or a great nonprofit because they’ve all gotten used to working under a poverty of resources– so that when you get them around other adults who have a little more capacity, you have a little more time… It’s amazing what they can do. But the problem is we have to fix schools. We have to not make these places that are so difficult for people to thrive. And I almost have this analogy I’ve told people before, especially when you go into some big bureaucratic systems, these bright, crispy, young cucumbers show up and they say, “I’m never going to become a pickle.” You wait and see. I’m just so driven by great ideas. But then the bureaucracy itself is pickling juice. And if you drop a cucumber into pickling juice, you know what you end up getting? You get a pickle whether you want it or not.
And it is so hard to keep our teachers and our principals engaged in schools, especially when they feel like places that aren’t good for adults or places that don’t really look after the needs of kids. But when you get that right, when you do launch a new school or help transform an existing school to a vibrant, positive culture with academic excellence, it is like magic, it’s intoxicating. People want to be there. People want to join that school. They want to come to that institution. They want to be part of that nonprofit. And that’s where I just have this deep belief because I’ve seen it happen dozens of times, even in the last 10 years. And when you see it happen, you think: this is what every kid deserves; this is what every family deserves, which is why we’ve set out with so much time and energy and resources to try to make many more of those schools exist.
Denver: Yeah, I think another metaphor– when you were talking about somebody who can turn around one of those schools– it’s the same thing I’ve always felt about management. Until you’ve managed volunteers, you’ve never managed. And if you can manage volunteers, you can manage anyone. And that’s pretty much what you were saying about somebody who can turn one of those schools around.
Particularly in some under-resourced communities and in tough settings, how difficult is it to start a school in low-income neighborhoods? And it seems that that coalition of support that was there years ago, is it beginning to break up a little bit? Would I be right about that?
Brian: Say more, I’m curious to hear what that looks like from your perspective.
Denver: It’s fractured. It’s not as cohesive as it once was. It’s splitting and therefore, to try to get it going the way it was sort of coalescing, and maybe a little bit of the pickle juice, too– maybe where things started and the difficulty in getting results, I just see it beginning to splinter. But that’s been my perception in talking to some people, I’m not sure about that, but I observe a lot.
Brian: Yeah, no, I actually really love hearing people from other sectors sort of share their reflection. With education, it’s always tricky because we’re all experts. We’ve all been in education for a long part of our lives, either as consumers ourselves or through our children. And then when you talk to people who are really in the trenches doing the work, I do think there is a level of fatigue that people have experienced, and let’s just say even before COVID …because COVID is a whole nother story. We can talk about these last two years. But even before COVID, I think there’s a sense of fatigue because education is an inherently human enterprise.
And to your point about managing volunteers, it’s the same about: How do you manage kids? You have to get a whole bunch of students to agree to listen to a small number of adults to do something that’s very hard. And again, I’m not saying it’s easy if you’re in a rich suburb, but in general, the higher the academic level of the parents, the higher the income of the parents, the more prepared they show up in kindergarten. And if kids know how to basically read in kindergarten, school gets easier for them over time and easier for the teachers. And for schools, which is my life’s work, trying to go to places where kids would otherwise not just be fine on their own, who either… sadly in this country it’s tied to their race, their parents’ income… don’t have great options, what does it look like to open a great school for those kids? And I think the reason to do this at its core is like if we believe in the American Dream, and if we believe in democracy and capitalism, which I do, and say they’re all based on the premise of people having somewhat of a level playing field, and the sad reality in our country is that’s just not the case.
If you’re born in a low-income zip code to parents who have less than a college education, your odds literally at birth are so much less for success than your peer that it’s almost unfair for us to say, but then it’s just the meritocracy– the best students get the spots in colleges; the best students coming out of colleges get the jobs at Google and Facebook and in Bear Stearns or wherever it would be. If you want to address those inequities, I think it begins and ends with our schools. And the American education system is a doorway through which every student passes. Like we’ve already built a system that spends a lot of money. California, it’s about $10,000 per student. Some East Coast, New York, Massachusetts, it’s closer to $20,000 per student. So we’ve got the infrastructure, it’s just not doing the job it needs to do right now. And so my feeling is like we need to figure out how to open or to transform. And I think opening new schools is hard, I think transforming an unsuccessful school is even harder… to your point earlier. I think we know less about that.
And I think not only are educators a little tired, I think some of the funders and some of the policymakers are also tired because they want results. They say, we’ve been focusing on this for 20 years. How come it’s not better? And I would say two things. I’d say one, it is better. I think we have made some huge fundamental gains and better understanding of the science of learning, and better figuring out how to have some proof points of success where low-income kids and low-income schools can be doing really well. And that we started to build some interesting institutions out there, whether it’s alternative schools of education to potential teachers, or whether it’s better EdTech tools that make teaching a little easier.
But I think this is still decades-long work, and I’m still relatively young; I’m not quite 50 yet, and I’ve decided that like I’m uncomfortable that when I die, this problem will not be solved. And yet if I don’t keep doing my work on it, I won’t move the ball as far as I can during the period of time that I get to hold the ball and be part of this game. And I think that’s why education is hard, just like I think solving climate is going to be really hard. I don’t think we’re going to crack climate in 2026, but God am I glad that there are people putting everything they have into it for the next 20 years. And we have a window of time where we might make a difference, versus just saying, “Well, this is too hard. Let’s go write a little app and release a game that’s profitable in Q3.”
“I think if we abandon our schools and leave low-income families and low-income kids to basically suffer with the best of what our leftovers are, and only 5% or 10% of those kids can really escape their communities through their schools, we will never have the society that we all aspire to.”
Denver: I think you’ve really put your finger on this societal problem. I mean, our time horizon in this country is almost driven by Wall Street and quarterly results. People want to see returns really fast. And I know funders really well, and I know the nonprofit organizations, they don’t even invest in the long-term, in software or infrastructure or hiring the right people because they have to show what they’ve been able to do in the next year in order to be funded again.
I also think, and I’ll look at the business I’m in right now– the media– we don’t like good stories. We like bad results. We like to know that we’re behind. I mean, you look at the news here in New York City, it’s going to be what’s happening on the subway or whatever. If it bleeds, it leads. And I do think that schools have fallen into that trap. In other words, the media is going to cover how far we’re behind the rest of the world and not really give us a lot of information about what’s been working. Do you find that to be the case?
Brian: I think there’s a lot of great journalists out there who are trying to tell good stories about schools and what’s working. The fact is we are underfunding education journalism in general, like most journalism used to be at local newspapers and those folks are gone now. Those reporters… I’ve known many of these reporters for a decade or two through either consolidating in one or two big national presses, or they’re moving into other areas, just like we have underfunded educational research. The fact is like anything that’s going to touch this percentage of our country, is going to be a big, expensive initiative. And I understand why funders and taxpayers feel like: “But we’ve put a lot of money in education! Why is it not better?” I share some of that frustration with them, but I do think we have to say we have two choices. Either we commit to still working in education and solving these problems, even though it will take decades, or we just accept that we live in an inequitable society and we’re going to basically be on a path to the fall of democracy, because I really believe that’s one of the two choices.
I think if we abandoned our schools and leave low-income families and low-income kids to basically suffer with the best of what our leftovers are, and only 5% or 10% of those kids can really escape their communities through their schools, we will never have the society that we all aspire to.
So I’m willing to keep bashing my head against that wall, and I do see some real progress, but I think it’s incumbent on those of us in this space to tell some of those good stories and to shine a light to show people like, “Wow, even our small nonprofit, we’ve been at this for 10 years, we’ve raised and deployed about $75 million. But to show for that, we now have, it’s actually north of 75 schools now, serving almost 30,000 kids, getting demonstrably better results.” And it’s not just the schools that we’ve helped launch and support, it’s also all of their innovations starting to spread. And it’s literally not an exaggeration to say: “ If you want to understand new school models and what’s possible with some of these personalized learnings and the role of technology, most people will fly out to the Bay Area of California because in one small geography, we have dozens and dozens of schools of many different types and sizes and shapes that you can come and visit and see.” And I literally have people from around the world coming out, visiting these schools and asking: How do we do it in our settings?
And to your point earlier about this international competition, I’m by no means an expert on international education. There’s many people who know better in that space than I do. But I spent a lot of time talking to folks in China, Taiwan, Africa, Europe, and you’d be amazed how many of them say to us, What’s the magic behind the American education system? And I sort of chuckle because here the narrative is the rest of the world is eating our lunch. And on things like the PISA, the international test, we are not at the place where we want to be. But those tests measure a lot more rote learning, so if you really have just a drill-and-kill math curriculum, you can drive up scores on the PISA. But if you go to a place like Taiwan where the PISA scores are quite high or even mainland China, they’re saying, ”But we’re producing a bunch of engineers who know how to go and execute programs, but we’re not producing entrepreneurs. We’re not starting companies; we don’t have (International Property) IP.” And America, for better or worse, like we’ve got some of that American gumption. We’ve got a system that finds some of the best and brightest and accelerates them and puts them on a path to great universities with access to good capital, with rule of law.
And I think that advantage is something we have to seize on, but we have to pay attention if the vast majority of the students are not getting good reading skills, not getting good numeracy skills, especially because we’ve learned so much about how to do it. Like teaching a kid to read is now a knowable science. There’s very good information about how to teach reading, but it’s not yet permeating every kindergarten in America. And that’s a shame. That’s something that most people in education are waking up to now, saying we have to do a better job of transmitting what we do know from research into practice in our schools.
Denver: Yeah. And we do need to stay on top of that entrepreneurial track because it has really fallen off a cliff. I think we read a lot of things about these famous entrepreneurs, but I think the number of entrepreneurs in this country has fallen at about the same rate as smoking cessation. So we just don’t have the, I guess, the belief to be able to take those risks.
Well, you talked about 75 schools out in the Bay Area and well, I’m familiar with a number of them, the KIPPs and the Khan Labs and the Summit Public Schools. Tell us a little bit about the thread that maybe runs through all 75, but then also maybe a couple of the things that make them singularly distinct and special.
Brian: So the common thread is clearly a deep belief in kids and what they’re capable of doing, and the rule that a great school can play in the lives of the community, and the realization that it’s really up to the adults to make that happen– back to my point earlier of who makes the weather. Anyone who wants to blame the kids, blame the families, talk about how hard it is, you just need to walk away from those people. They don’t understand that this is possible. And I have to say when I’m honest with myself, early in my career, I was inside some big, large urban district settings in Los Angeles, and I think I was a decent teacher, but I don’t think I had really seen what was possible. So I had my own blind spots, and it really wasn’t until I went and had an incredible mentor and I got to do an apprenticeship at a great, great school in Boston that I came to realize, “Oh my gosh, the kids, aren’t the problem, it’s us. Like we haven’t figured out how to really run a great system that gives them what they deserve.” And once you see what kids are actually truly capable of, and I mean every kid; maybe there’s a few kids who have such severe cognitive disabilities that they really, but almost every other kid, if you could give them one-on-one support and tutoring, you could turn them all into real university success stories. Now, can we do that at a ratio of 25 to 1? I don’t know, that’s harder, like that’s what we’re all trying to crack. But these schools really do believe at their core: The kids deserve this, that it’s our job to find it, and that school should be a joyful place rooted in both academic excellence and a place where kids are like seen and heard and known.
And I would say another thread through all of these schools is that there’s this belief around the agency of each child. I think for too long, the education system has basically still treated each kid as a widget. I have a sixth-grader, so therefore on this day in 2022, she should be learning this lesson on a Tuesday. And the fact is it just doesn’t make any sense. Anyone who has more than two children in their own homes can tell you how different their own paths are, let alone when you put 25 kids in a classroom.
So I think a lot of our schools are really asking questions like: What do we do with the use of time, the use of our precious resource– meaning the teacher? That’s the most valuable resource in each school, the most expensive resource we have. What do we do with technology, and what do we do with the way we structure the day and the classroom so that each kid is getting closer to what they need when they need it, as opposed to what a pre-prescribed curriculum says they should be getting on this Tuesday of this year? When you start to see school that way, you start to question some of the assumptions. Should everybody be taking the same six classes? Should everybody be taking them for the same amount of time. Should school always go from September to June?
And if you start to say: Well, what are the alternatives? It’s easy to break the system. It’s easy to say: Let’s do this. And this goes back to the point of you need to have somebody who knows enough about what not to break. But how do you say it… I thoughtfully take these pieces of the constraints away, and what would I do instead of that? Now you start to get into what’s our sweet spot, which is: What are these creative new models, and how can that look? And they can take many different forms. We think this is early innings for what the innovation in this space looks like, so we don’t want to prescribe a single model. In fact, we think as venture philanthropists, our job is to bet on multiple plays and see what works rather than trying to think we’re smart enough to know the one answer. And across all 75 schools, there are these really outlier schools that… you mentioned a few of them and I could point to others… where even though that’s the thread line across all of them, you have others where something really different is happening.
So I’ll give you an example. We have a school called Design Tech High School. It’s in San Mateo. D.Tech for short. And we met their founders, Ken and Nicole, when they were literally a teacher and an assistant principal of a large, comprehensive high school in their district. And they kept saying: We want to do something different. We want to have a school where kids are being exposed to design thinking, which is a very in-vogue, but I think a meaningful way of seeing the world– as like a series of problems to be solved, where you really get to know your end user and design solutions for them.
And then if you teach that perspective to kids, they can apply that problem- solving to lots of different problems. And we want to create a place where it’s like a little more known, and kids are a little more innovative and more creative. And their districts sort of said: We like this idea but we’re not really willing to go all the way. So eventually they said, “Well, let’s do it as a charter school. And they said, “Well, how do we incorporate a charter school?” And literally they needed someone to give them money to quit their jobs and go try it. And we thankfully were built to do that, and we took our very first bet on them because they had that incredible expertise plus fire in the belly, plus that problem they couldn’t unsee.
We just believed that they would die trying, and we want it to be in the arena with gladiators like that. Well, they finally got the charter approved. They opened this little school, and it was a narrow hallway on an existing campus of an existing high school. But instantly you could tell it was different, and it was the kind of place that said “yes” to kids as the default answer. Not unlimited yeses, but: “You want to try that? Okay. We will find a way to make it work” Well, fast forward a couple of years, that school gets out of the hallway, gets its own little shed in the back of a county office building; the innovations continue to emerge. Eventually they convinced Oracle to start sending employees to volunteer with them because they were down the road. And finally at one point, the founder got to end up in the room with the CEO of Oracle, and the CEO said to the school founder, “What do you need? How can we help you?” And he jokingly said, “Well, it’d be nice if we had a building; we never had a real campus before.”
And lo and behold, five years later, Oracle has now built them this beautiful campus on the corporate campuses of Oracle, where there’s a showcase school that everyone in the world wants to come see. And if you say to them now, “Oh, that’s a beautiful school; of course you have a great campus.” People miss the story of the 10 years it took to get to that point and that the building is just the culmination; it started with that sort of deep belief that something better was possible.
Denver: Yeah, when something is done like that, it always looks easy, and nobody has any idea of what it took.
Well, we touched on the pandemic before, which of course leads me to remote learning. And I know you guys undertook a major survey and an assessment of remote learning or blended learning. What did you find out?
Brian: Yeah, so for the purpose of this answer, I’ll say remote learning to me means, by default, at a time when we can’t be in person, we’re going to shift to using technology. Where I think of blended learning, I think of much more deliberate use in-person of some technology where you can blend those two worlds. In remote learning, I would say the consensus was that the last two years have been pretty rough on kids, on teachers, on everybody. We see the data’s really inconclusive right now because last year, so few people took the test. In a place like California, you saw learning losses on the realm of 5, 10, even 15 percentage point dips of proficiency. So if before we could get about 55% of the kids to this pretty high bar of proficiency, instantly it’s dropping down to like 47, 40, depending on how you calculate it.
We sat in on a lot of classrooms during Zoom land where we were literally watching real classrooms in real time. And I will say despite the best efforts of a lot of great teachers, it was pretty depressing. It was pretty hard to be dealing with the isolation of the pandemic, especially in 2020 in that first year and how difficult it was for teachers to make learning engaging, and how many kids as a result tuned out. But there were clearly bright spots, and when you saw those bright spots, you realize this is actually possible. Nobody would say it’s ideal, but it’s possible. And you’d see schools where they built a culture of cameras on, kids engaging, teachers doing lots of call and response, effectively using breakout rooms, giving kids permission to sort of like better meet their own needs during the course of a day. And in some cases, you heard kids saying,” I even preferred it. I liked the independence, autonomy.”
The other thing it did is it taught every teacher in America how to use technology very quickly in a way that none of us could have expected. So what’s interesting is when we get to return, I know a lot of schools are back in session, but it’s not normal yet, right? We’re still under tremendous stress on the system right now. And I actually think right now is a more stressful time than it’s ever been for teachers throughout the whole pandemic…
Denver: Why do you say that?
Brian: …Because the combination of the fear that Omicron has created plus the incredible staffing shortages that it’s creating, I mean, just the quarantine alone, 5, 10 days, the kids are out; teachers are out, is putting so much stress on the system that literally an hour ago, a superintendent canceled an interview with me for like real dollars because she said I have to go to the high school and manage lunch duty because I’m down three principals and assistant principals at my high school. And I have a principal calling me saying, “I can’t do this meeting that we wanted to do with you guys because I have to go teach a classroom.” So at every level, there’s just so much stress on the system, and there’s no excess capacity, and people are just truly worn down at this point. So they’re all like public health officers. There are so many moving targets that we see a level of fatigue in our school leaders when we talk to them now that we literally didn’t see even in March and April of 2020.
Denver: Yeah. I think a lot of it has to do with the uncertainty, too. There was one thing when you were remote all the time, you kind of had that set, and I see this in the corporate workplace right now: You’re in for a week, you’re out for a week. Some of the people are in; some of the people are out. Hybrid sometimes can be more challenging than straight remote.
Brian: And I think people forget how hard it is. I mean, it’s exhausting to run schools, period. It’s exhausting to be a teacher, period. Even under the best of times, it’s just a really physically taxing job. It’s also incredibly rewarding, which people don’t tell you about. Like, I mean, you ask any great teacher, why do you teach? And like their eyes light up. It is magic to be in a room full of kids, excited about their content that we’ll learn with you. But when you have masks on, when you’re dealing with separation, when you have four kids out that day, when you’re contact tracing, all that joy and half the fun is just like high-fiving the kids on the way in the room and throwing out some papers and discussing in small groups, and all that stuff is really strange right now.
So I’m convinced, personally, the schools need to stay open. I really think despite the risks and I know they’re real, as long as we can have vaccinated staff members and hopefully mostly, if not all, vaccinated kids, I think that we know the risk of closing schools. We know how demoralizing it is. I, myself, have a teenager and a middle schooler who I see the difference when they get to be around their peers and colleagues.
We’ve decided we will take the chance that there will be an exposure in our family, especially now that we’re all vaccinated, rather than have them live in isolation and fear. And I respect people who have a different opinion. I’m not here to preach or try to convert, but I will say what we do know is if we do take kids out of their social sector, if we take them out of the support of adults who care about them, especially for kids who have the most difficult home lives, it’s so guaranteed to be even more disastrous. I’m just of the opinion that’s like all the health data seems to support right now– keeping schools open, but I think we should be taking better measures around testing, masking, et cetera. And hopefully by the time this hits the archives and people have heard this, this is a story of the past, but I will just say it’s an incredibly hard time as we all know for educators. And I think we owe them a level of support and appreciation like we showed towards healthcare workers early on in the pandemic that we somehow have forgotten because of all the sort of war on teachers and keeping schools open or not.
Denver: Yeah. Brian, let me ask you about personalized learning. I’ve always heard about that, but I’ve never really understood what it looked like in terms of teacher practice and what it is in terms of the student experience.
Brian: It’s a topic I love talking about, and it sort of helps to have an analogy. I think there’s 40 million kids in the American education system right now and I think of them as in this giant canoe. And the canoe goes in one direction, and it’s basically being pulled and the backbreaking work by a handful of teachers who are trying to move them further down the river. And that’s what happens when we sort of say: Everybody in one boat going at one speed– teachers do all the work. The idea of personalized learning is what if each kid kind of gets into the right size canoe for them, what if we hand them paddles, and what if they have more control over the speed at which they paddle and the navigation on the river? Yeah, they’ll make some mistakes. They might navigate up or down, but in general we think it’s like a force multiplier, and it really is.
The secret is that a lot of kids in school are pretty checked out. You walk into a typical classroom, and there’s a teacher at the front of the classroom doing a lecture right now. And maybe for a third of the kids, this is just too fast. It’s going to… they don’t know the background material. They’re sort of lost and they’re just sort of scrambling to keep up, but they get pretty demoralized. And for another third of the kids, they actually already know this material. In fact, if you give them a test right now, they would pass. And they’re good kids, so they just sit there and kind of quietly docily sit and waste their time, but it literally is a waste of their time.
Denver: Yeah, they’re bored.
Brian: Right. And maybe for a third of the kids, it’s the right speed, the right content. And then you sit in the back of the room, and you watch this and you realize, the teacher doesn’t know which kid is which. Maybe they have some insight, maybe they know this is a high flyer, but in general, on any given concept, wouldn’t it be better for me to have a quick assessment to know really kind of who is where? And then to allow different things to be happening in my classroom.
So that’s the philosophical paradigm. Brass tacks: what does it look like? It can take a few different models. So the easiest one to understand is something called a Station Rotation model. And this is actually getting more common now. Break the class into thirds, the kids who really could go faster, the kids for whom the average would be about right, and kids who need more support, and then have those thirds rotate through to the teacher. And during that time with the teacher, the teacher’s doing something slightly different. They’re either doing more remediation to catch them up or more support, or maybe they get longer time with the teacher because they need the most, or the teacher is giving them the same thing they planned, or the teacher is doing extension. So they’re really personalizing for that smaller group.
And then during the other two thirds of the blocks, maybe there’s a group activity happening for a third of the class, and then maybe there’s some time on the computer where there’s a program that is supporting that knowledge. So there’s actually a lot of good EdTech out there in areas like English, math, science. If you’re going to teach some basic concepts, it’s often really effective to have kids spend some time on tech first being exposed to it, either watching a video that their teacher has created or doing some adaptive software, and then getting to come in and work with the teacher in a more specialized way. I think where people often miss the boat on this is they think: Cool, this is about replacing the teachers with laptops. Let’s just throw kids in front of a laptop. And I would say kids and learners and families are only willing to take that exchange of more time working independently on tech if it buys them more personalized, smaller group instruction with the teacher later.
So I always think there’s something that computers are really good at. Computers are really good at coming up with endless variations on the same problem to make sure that kids have mastery… seeing what they do or don’t know and aggregating that data. So let’s let them do that work. Vocabulary quizzes, if no teacher ever creates or makes or grades another vocab quiz, I will be very happy, right? That’s not a very good use of a brain, but those moments when the teacher is asking the provocative question, leading a class debate, helping do reading intervention for a kid who’s struggling, that is a place where a computer has a very hard time and where adults are actually very good. So I like to think of this as how do we get teachers more time doing the work they love where they’re the most impactful, and then offload some of the work that would be easier done by technology.
Denver: So, the idea is to flip the class and I get that, I guess, but again, part of what I would be curious about is the teachers themselves. I mean, you said they’re very good at this and maybe they are, and I don’t know what, but are they trained? How do you train the teacher to not stand in front of the class and do a lecture on things, but really work with these little cohorts in different ways? It just seems that that’s, in some ways, a different skill set.
Brian: It is a different skill set, or it’s a different approach. I think a lot of teachers intuitively know how to do this and like knowing how to do it. They like small group instruction. They like when they get to have half the kids go do an art class so they can work with a smaller group. But you do have to train teachers on how to effectively run stations in their classrooms. And you ask any elementary school teacher, they know about that. They have the station where the kids are doing the cutting and the gluing, and then they’re doing the math problems with those kids. But if you see a classroom where this works, where there’s seamless transitions, where you know how to keep kids on task, where kids are held accountable for their work and all of their stations, it works really well. You take all those things away, it can look like chaos and it doesn’t work.
And what your point is, so how do we take the entire workforce of teachers in America and have them learn a new way to do things? And I’m not sure we can. Like I’ll just be fully honest with you. I’m a big believer in starting new schools where the coalition of the willing come to be part of this. I’m a big believer in finding the most ready schools where you have leadership and teachers aligned with wanting to do new models. I’m not sure I’m a believer in that we have this so figured out that we should be force-feeding this on every school in America, and I think some of this will be generational. And even through the pandemic, we have learned and seen the teachers can do a lot more with tech now than they could beforehand, but who wants to continue that when we do get back to more normal classrooms?
And there are some really interesting developments. I’ll tell you a quick aside: one of my colleagues runs schools in China. Obviously China was hit very hard when the pandemic started; it happened right around Chinese New Year, so a lot of teachers who had left to travel, couldn’t get back to their home schools even when the schools were reopening. And I know one particular school where literally I couldn’t get their physics teacher back and like: Good Luck finding a new physics teacher in a moment’s notice! So they called one of their schools in Singapore where they had colleagues and said, Hey, can we Zoom in your Singaporean teacher to our Beijing classroom? And the school said, Great! We worked out an arrangement to do so. It turns out they had an incredible physics teacher, and the kids were learning more with this one-to-many teaching, and the teacher could just as easily teach his class and visit this Beijing classroom. So the next year they said, “Well, why don’t we work out a contract with you to be doing maybe multiple campuses at once?”
And this idea… we do have some exceptional teachers. Why are we only limiting their reach to the 25 kids who are in front of them, is a really interesting concept. Now, I am not saying all the schools should be on video or that we should have one teacher teaching every kid in America, but I’m saying there are new ways to think about organizing our schools that technology does allow, that we would be foolish not to experiment with, not to try, because I would rather a kid gets an amazing physics lessons from an amazing teacher via video, and then maybe do a hands-on support follow-up with someone who’s not quite as skilled in their own classroom setting than I would be to say, “No, we only believe in the one-to-25 direct-instruction lecture model.
And I think we are, as I said earlier, in the very early days of what this could look like so we believe it’s time for some more thoughtful innovation and experimentation to make proof points. And then I have found with educators, when you show them an example of it actually working, and this is why we think laboratory schools and proof points are so important… when you can bring them in to see: this is what great education could look like with a slightly different approach, they are pretty good about saying: How could I take those ideas and incorporate them back in my own setting? But they’re wisely resistant to: This is the new flavor of the day. Some consultant wrote a report,–I promise you I can solve American education with one snap of the fingers, because they’ve seen that a hundred times now, and they built up appropriate scar tissue to resist those ideas.
“So we really have come to believe in: Get a really high quality curriculum; spend time learning how to teach that curriculum; adapt it to your kids; make it sing for your kids.”
Denver: Yeah. I think we all kind of agree with the fact that when somebody comes in and says there’s one way to do something, it’s time to head for the hills because there’s never just one way to do something.
Let me ask you that question too about education at large, starting with the education reform movement in this country, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core/ State Standards– what is your take on some of those initiatives? What has been positive? What hasn’t worked?
Brian: I’ve been in education a long time, basically almost my entire career. Starting back, let’s call it around like ’95, and I taught before the accountability era, and there were some things that were great about it. I could do whatever I wanted to do. I had a lot of autonomy as a teacher, but at the end of the year, I never really got any objective feedback about what my kids objectively knew or didn’t know. I could try to do my best to assess, but that’s really dependent on the quality of each teacher. And if we could attract the absolute best and the brightest and pay them what they would need to be paid to have all rockstar teachers, maybe the pure autonomy model works. But I’ve come to believe that it really is a mistake to ask, to allow each classroom to only be as good as the quality of the teacher in front of it, and to ask each teacher to start from scratch.
When I was a brand new teacher in Los Angeles Unified, literally fresh out of a couple years of working, and I walked into the school thinking I knew a lot and I said, Okay, great, where’s the lesson plans? Where’s the curriculum? They pointed me to the book room. I was an English teacher. And I said, what do I do here? They said, you pick the books you want to teach. So I literally wandered up and down these old hallways looking at where I could get a class set of which books. It’s okay, I’ve taught your—I’ve read Our Town before. No, I liked that Shakespeare play, and I was an English major at a good college. So I just picked the books I wanted to teach.
So then I walked back to my department chair and I said, Great, what do I teach when I teach Romeo and Juliet to ninth-graders? And he said, Oh, go to the English department lounge and look in the filing cabinet. You open up the filing cabinet, and there’s a folder with Romeo and Juliet, and you open up the folder and it’s got like Act Two, Scene Two quiz, and then a final performance note. And you’re like, That’s the curriculum? And so I just wrote it myself, and I figured it out. And some things I did exceptionally well, and some things I was horrible at. And I realized everybody in America is going home and designing mostly their own lessons for what they’re going to teach tomorrow. So they’re Googling or they’re going to sites like Teachers Pay Teachers and just buying other people’s materials, and there’s no cohesion across the board.
Now I don’t love scripted curriculum, or you say to the teacher, this is what you say on Tuesday, the 15th, with all the reasons we talked about earlier. But I do think really high quality curriculum that’s been vetted in research, which there’s sites out now, there’s a site called EdReports where you can go to EdReports and type in the curriculum that’s happening in your school and see how it’s been rated, red, yellow, green, by the best evaluators against a really clear criteria. There’s really no reason we should be using curriculum that’s not green-rated– that’s high quality. And there’s certainly no reason that every teacher needs to create their own. So we really have come to believe in: Get a really high quality curriculum; spend time learning how to teach that curriculum; adapt it to your kids; make it sing for your kids.
But when you give a teacher a great curriculum, they feel this huge burden off their shoulders because they don’t have to start over. So that’s the curricular movement, that’s the accountability movement. There’s clearly things about No Child Left Behind that were problematic. There’s clearly things about Race to the Top that are problematic. Most things done from the federal government level down to states, to localities, is going to be hard to get exactly right. But I remember that before No Child Left Behind, there was a lot of mediocrity that was going unreported, and NCLB shined a bright light into some very dark corners and showed how bad the education system was for a lot of kids that I think was a net positive.
I think it’s fair to say maybe we’ve gone too far and that we have to ask ourselves to what level we want these tests to be so high stakes. But I personally feel like there’s nothing on those tests that I don’t want my own kids to know how to do. And so if I want my kids to know how to do it, I think I should want all kids to be able to do it. So I think, could we lessen what’s on the test? Could we lessen the number of standards to have more of a consensus around what the core that we really want to make sure everyone knows? And then in exchange for that lessening, open up more opportunities for kids to find their passions to do the things that they’re really excited about? That’s the kind of school that we’re helping to incubate and try to support here. And they do exist within this broader regulatory world of what’s on the test each year that assesses whether the school can stay open or not.
Denver: I think it’s always good advice to embrace the gray. If they’re not good, they’re not bad, you just have to go and look for the gold somewhere in that gray area.
Let me ask you about being in charge. It’s not been an easy time to be a leader of a nonprofit organization over the course of the past two years. How have you adapted? How do you think leadership is going to change in the future and perhaps over the last 24 months? How has it informed your leadership in going forward?
Brian: I’ll say first off, I’m just extremely lucky. I have a really great team who’s very self-driven, and everybody here feels very privileged to sit in the seat that we sit in because like we’ve all done the really hard work of running schools, and now we get to help people run schools. So I think we feel this immense obligation to give back as much as we can and justify this position of privilege that we sit in. So I’ll start by saying, I had a much easier pandemic than all my friends who are still running schools who had full stop, and I see that, and I know that.
I will tell you when the pandemic first hit, it was very weird to be sitting in our seat, which is where everybody was aware of: Oh my gosh, schools are in crisis. Everybody needs to move into the world of technology. How do we run schools with technology? And we’re sitting there scratching our heads saying we’ve been doing this for 10 years. We know a lot about this. How do we help people? But everyone said,” But I have zero time to read anything, to listen to anything. Just find a way to imbue that knowledge into me via like osmosis.” And knowledge capture is hard; knowledge transfer is hard.
We also had a bunch of resources because we’re a foundation; we had raised money. So the first thing we did is we quickly emailed a very short email to all of our schools saying: What do you need help with? We have a couple of immediate ideas. We can help you in getting some more Chromebooks out to your families. We can help you in getting some hotspots, just some basic things. Do you need help figuring out where your food services are? And we quickly found out a lot of our schools needed a little bit of support, and we just made some fast, quick, very flexible grant dollars out the door to them. And I think that was really needed, and it was the best we could do in the short term.
I’d say the hardest part then was like my office went from being in downtown Oakland where our office is, to like my bedroom because that was the only spare space we had in my house, and my kids were doing remote learning in their rooms. And I’d sit in my bedroom every day, and I felt like I was just pretending to do my job because there was all this need in America, and I’m trapped in my bedroom trying to think of how I can be helpful. And I think the short answer that I’ve landed on right now is for education, right now, the problem is nobody has any bandwidth, and you can’t just give people more bandwidth. Even if we give people more money, which look, the Fed stepped up with a lot of dollars which have some resources now, but they can’t instantly find the people they need nor get them onboarded, trained, and integrated quickly.
So we’ve all kind of come to accept that this year as well, the 2021/2022 school year, is going to be a little bit of a treading water year. And I think everyone’s just got to accept that, like this is a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic we’re living through; we can’t hold ourselves to the standards that we would hold ourselves to in a normal school year. But this is a much easier year to get closer to normalcy than last year was, and we really have to get to prepare so that by next year, we’re really trying to get back. And when we get back, we have to be better at addressing how big the learning gaps are going to be for kids.
And I’m telling you like this is not a short-term problem; this is going to be generational. If you are a current second-grader and your entire experience in school has been kindergarten and first over the last two years, there’s a good chance you don’t know how to read. There’s a good chance if you don’t know how to read by second grade, that you may never learn to read, at least to the level we want. And schools are not built to take third-graders and start teaching them how to do letter awareness and decoding. And that’s true at every level. It’s true for the high school junior who’s never really got to spend…
Denver: I think it’s even actually true for young people in the workforce. When I think about my life in the workforce and how I kind of learned at meetings and looked at other people… just think of getting out of school a couple of years ago and getting a job and working remotely and never having been in an office… that’s hard to make up. It’s not even nearly as severe as a young kid, but there’s a lot of social skills that you really just absorbed but don’t even realize you’re absorbing them.
Brian: I think that’s exactly right. And at my core, I think I’m still optimistic in the resiliency of the human race. And that when we come out of it, and God willing, Omicron is the last major surge we get and that this is starting to peak in the States, and that maybe globally we can get more vaccination… But let’s say we can get back to some semblance of normalcy by the 2022 school year, then it’s like can we bring the fortitude to spend the next 4 or 5, 10 years really making up for what we missed, as opposed to like: Let’s just sweep those kids under the rug! Because you can’t just leave a generation behind. That’s like what happens after a war, and you see a group of kids who didn’t get educated during the war and how they’re sort of perennially underemployed and higher criminal rates and higher all sorts of negative life outcomes. Can we muster the courage to say this is a problem we’re going to really stick with, even when it’s not popular anymore? When people want to say: Let’s move on from the pandemic and say, “No, no, we’re still seeing the impacts in the data; we still see it in the kids.
And then in terms of personal leadership, I think I’ve just become, I think, more empathetic. I think sometimes it’s easier to just be an objective jerk and just be like: the facts speak for themselves; the data is here, as opposed to really remembering how much people are hurting right now all across the world and how hard of a time this is. And that doesn’t mean we don’t hold ourselves to high expectations, but trying to learn to do that from a place of kindness and goodness, and even something as silly as like just finding time to quiet the mind a little bit during the day and find a little more peace within myself so that I can bring a little more generosity of spirit… even though like I’m tough and I do want to see the analytics at the end of the day. How do you do that in a way that just has more compassion, because right now everybody needs a little more grace and nobody has extra grace to give. So how do we find that?
“Just reminding ourselves that the job of educating a kid is not to fill up an empty vessel, nor is it to control and to socialize a wild animal, right? It is to take this beautiful thing that is the young mind and to help it find its own way so that at the point in which it’s self-sufficient, it will thrive when we’re no longer there to guide it. And that is a different mindset.”
Denver: Yeah. I think a lot of that too is that when you’re talking to someone, you just have to recognize that there are a lot of things going on in their lives that you’re probably not aware of. And if you just have that little appreciation of what I don’t know, and then start with that relational field of thinking about the best of them and what they might be putting up with, it does change the way you approach those conversations.
Finally, Brian, what is the last thing, the most recent thing that you’ve learned or discovered about young people, both teaching to them and how they learn?
Brian: The pandemic was fascinating because for two years, kids as young as five or six years old, and as old as like high school and college kids and grad students, basically took their learning into their own hands, and it was bad. That’s not—but like considering how bad it could have been, if you had told me this was going to happen, I would have said absolute disaster. They did pretty well. They learned some resilience. They learned some time management. Kids learned how to take a break when they needed to go to the bathroom or make themselves a quick snack and come back in front of their cameras. It’s actually kind of amazing to watch a seven-year-old stay engaged on Zoom.
I was exhausted. I was sitting in my bedroom as a passive observer watching this, these kids were amazing. And then when we have a chance to bring them back into in-person, we didn’t really honor that. If anything, we kind of put them back into custody, told them, Okay, now you’re back on this schedule and you go to the bathroom when we tell you. And I think that’s a missed opportunity. And I know right now the whole system as we’ve been talking about is under so much strain that this may be the best that we can hope for.
But I’m hoping that when we get a little more normalcy, we can pause and ask ourselves what happened during that period of time. Like even if you asked my own daughters, they’d say: “I really liked when they told me what I had to do for the day, and I could just crank on it and get it done.And then if I finish early, I could find the things that I was interested in working on.” That’s a profound statement for an 11-year-old to make. Just reminding ourselves that the job of educating a kid is not to fill up an empty vessel, nor is it to control and to socialize a wild animal, right? It is to take this beautiful thing that is the young mind and to help it find its own way so that at the point in which it’s self-sufficient, it will thrive when we’re no longer there to guide it.
And that is a different mindset. Just like your point is around remembering where people are coming from and what they’re experiencing each day. And I will say it’s not for lack of trying. Teachers are almost without fail really good people who work really hard, even if they’re not always affected. Like I don’t like when people bash teachers; they don’t understand how hard it is, and it’s one of the hardest jobs in the world to do well. But it’s tough to remember the humanity of the kids sometimes when you’re dealing with them all day long and when you yourself are so depleted.
And I think we just have to find a way to help educators feel a little less depleted by how the school day makes them feel each day. And I think one of the answers is we have to give more agency to the kids, more freedom to the kids; let them make some mistakes, obviously within bounds, and that we find that sort of secret force which is that kids can be left on their own with some guidance to do lots of good work. And if you do that, that would buy us throughout the rest of the day in terms of better class sizes, fewer teachers to be always monitoring kids. I think there’s just something there on the inherent goodness that kids come in the agency that they’re capable of.
Denver: Absolutely. Brian, for listeners who want to learn more about the Silicon Schools Fund or financially support this work, tell us about your website and maybe some of the things that they will find there.
Brian: Absolutely. So siliconschools.com, very easy to find us. Also feel free to look up on Twitter, @briangreenberg, I try to keep updated on pieces of the education puzzle. We do launch a fund every five years. We’ve just launched our newest fund that we’ll be doing from 2022 to 2027. If someone can’t come in at the level that some of our donors can come in at, we can connect you to other schools locally where you might be able to give.
There’s lots of ways to support schools. You can serve on boards for nonprofit charter schools in your community. You can run for school board for your district schools. You can make financial donations. You can volunteer time. You can go to a site like DonorsChoose where you can just find projects in your community to donate to. And the biggest thing I would say is: We have to hold on to that paradox of it’s really hard work; it’s really important work. We’re not going to solve it. We have to keep working on it. And like we all need to take responsibility for the climate, like we need to take responsibility for lots of big problems. We all have to solve the education problem in America. It’s truly linked to the future of our country, and I think that’s a bright future, and I think kids are going to be a big part of that. So I’m excited if anybody else wants to be part of that journey, being part of it with us.
Denver: Well, thank you for ending on that optimistic note. Brian, thanks so much for being here today. It was a real pleasure talking to you. I enjoyed our conversation.
Brian: I really enjoyed it too, Denver. Thanks so much.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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