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School of Thought 

Dave Thier on a million-dollar think tank in downtown New Orleans that aims to reshape public education in the South

click to enlarge The innovators of 4.0 (l to r): Chapman Snowden, Cambria Martinelli, Beth Heaton, Troave Profice, Matt Candler and Josh Densen. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • The innovators of 4.0 (l to r): Chapman Snowden, Cambria Martinelli, Beth Heaton, Troave Profice, Matt Candler and Josh Densen.

4.0 Schools has made a point not to look like it's in the traditional education field. Located on the second floor of the IP building in the Warehouse District, the company shares its space with tech startups, design firms, freelance videographers and a conveniently located bar. The offices themselves are aiming for a look like a Silicon Valley startup from the height of the tech boom.

  One room has two drafting stools and a tall table in the center — that one is for working. There's another one with beanbag chairs — that one is for thinking. In the back, there's a windowless room they call the "wind tunnel" (narrowly beat out "the grinder") — that one is for presentation. They've ordered a big propeller off eBay to put on the wall.

  The other walls are all covered in writing, in different colors, with quotes like:

"The only thing that is sacred is that nothing is."

"Think about why, fail, reflect, ask why again, think, repeat ..."

"Epiphany: [drawing of lightbulb]

- Teaching w/ true hunger to know

- Learning while teaching"

  In the main room, there's a couple of Kindles on the wall and a funny, flat green couch in front of a TV. It's really uncomfortable.

4.0 Schools models itself after design firms, entrepreneur incubators and tech companies instead of what its participants see as a backward-looking education sector. Its members punctuate conversation with buzzwords and describe their mission with grand language about disruption, transformation and innovation. 4.0 is lean and young — its three staff members celebrated their one-year anniversary Dec. 2 — and its members have garnered a lot of friends for their inspiring language and bold approach. Other people trying to improve the public education system, however, worry such rhetoric has a way of taking education reform out of the realm of reality and placing it in the clouds.  

  The nonprofit has acquired considerable resources through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, which has already committed $1 million and has promised to match other fundraising up to $4 million. Each innovator school participant in 4.0 is paid $90,000 a year in a city where the median teacher salary is about $45,000.

    It's the brainchild of Matt Candler, an Atlanta native with a considerable track record in education. He's been a principal; vice-president of KIPP, a network of charter schools that's received national attention for impressive test scores (and local attention for taking over failing New Orleans schools); and most recently CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the city's public school system. But in those roles, Candler says, he felt he was churning inside a system that needed more than incremental change. 4.0 is his attempt to broaden the horizons.

  In Candler's view, education in America hasn't changed since the 19th century. He likes to show a map of what he calls America's "dropout factories," with the highest density in the southeastern United States. For him, the magnitude of the problem suggests no option except reaching for ideas that haven't been conceived of yet. For him, the degree to which the public school system fails to serve its families is an indication of the degree to which it needs to change.

click to enlarge Teaching veteran Matt Candler says the education system in the United States is broken. 4.0 is his attempt to bring about major changes in public schools. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Teaching veteran Matt Candler says the education system in the United States is broken. 4.0 is his attempt to bring about major changes in public schools.

  "The system we're dealing with now is fundamentally broken," he says. "Schooling requires much more aggressive innovation for it to become what it actually can be, not something 150 years old." (It's a philosophy in direct contrast to the "Waldorf method," a century-old back-to-basics schooling philosophy currently undergoing a new vogue, particularly in California. An October story in The New York Times spotlighted a Waldorf school in Los Altos, Calif., where computers and other technology aids are verboten. According to the Times story, the chief technology officer of eBay sends his child there, as do other well-heeled Silicon Valley executives.)

  4.0's group's goal is to remake the education system for the 21st century by fostering the ideas of six in-house innovators, as well as holding classes to explain their ethos to others. In five years, its members hope to have launched 50 "schools and tools," put 75 people through their innovator school, 500 through their essentials training, and begun 5,000 "conversations."

Chapman Snowden is one of 4.0's innovators. He left a promising career on Wall Street to pursue a different kind of dream: education reform. Sitting in the Warehouse District restaurant Capdeville, Snowden looks like the other members of the startup crowd that eat lunch there most days, and he talks with their same confident speed.

  Snowden and the other innovators spend much of their time in the community, talking to parents and students about what is and isn't working in their schools. The rest of their time is spent talking to tech workers, reading books, traveling, taking improvisation classes and discussing ideas.

  Snowden wants to build what he calls a "flight sim" for teachers — a way for new teachers to develop their teaching skills without the high stakes inherent in a classroom setting. The end product remains nebulous, but he's partial to a computer simulation. Snowden doesn't have any experience with programming or teaching.

  "When you're starting to prototype, you have three things to consider," Snowden says, citing a San Francisco design firm from which 4.0 borrows some of its thinking. "You have desirability, feasibility and viability. And they're like: Screw feasibility and viability for the first stage of it. Focus on what you think is desirable."

  He speculates that a computer simulation might require a functional artificial intelligence, and he's open to the possibility of making one, though he acknowledges it might be too expensive.

  "Is this a computer program?" he asks. "Is it a really cool virtual reality program? Or is it a board game?" he wonders. "It could be like a choose your own adventure."

Snowden has a more fully formed idea than some of his colleagues. 4.0 focuses on the process of discovery rather than the end results. The essential idea is to take out time from the crush of teaching and school management to brainstorm ideas that could change education.

  Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' growing reputation for education reform has attracted top-level talent to the city as educators and school leaders. But the charter school movement also has driven a wedge between outside reformers and communities with vested interests in their schools.

  Reform-minded thinkers like those at 4.0 tend to focus on what's new. But people involved with the school system in the past — and even those involved in New Orleans educational reform — question the wisdom of focusing on disruption of the system instead of making incremental changes. 4.0 talks a lot about what education has to learn from other industries, but some observers point out that industries are fundamentally different than education.

  "The problem with taking that broad strokes adaptation of another industry and then placing that in schools is that sometimes you miss the organizational context that led to that arrangement, which may not jibe with a school setting," says Andre Perry, former CEO of the New Orleans Charter School Network. Today Perry is the associate director for educational initiatives at the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education. "There have been many different models, like schools without walls, or new tech schools that mimic the Silicon Valley environment," Perry adds. "But I think there's something about the 200-year history of schools that isn't all that bad."

  For Kwame Floyd, a math teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, a charter school in Gentilly, the innovators at 4.0 are a continuation of a mentality that seeks to take those who have been successful in traditional education and asks them to apply their expertise to coming up with models for non-traditional education. But Floyd says there are other people who could be considered as innovators as well, and the money that goes to 4.0 might be better spent supporting ideas from someone who's worked at the front desk of a traditional school for 10 years. "Does [every school employee or parent of a student] even know that this program exists?" he asks. "They might have an idea that could change education forever. They might be the J.K. Rowling of education."

  

Josh Densen is another one of the 4.0 innovators. He started as a special-education teacher in Oakland, Calif. with Teach For America before working at the New York City department of education, teaching at a KIPP school in Harlem, going to business school at Wharton, moving to New Orleans and opening a assessment counseling organization called the Achievement Network.

click to enlarge Chapman Snowden gets comfortable in a beanbag chair surrounded by pictures and sayings meant to inspire creative thinking. He wants to develop a flight simulator for teachers so they can see how students react to a lesson before it is presented in a classroom. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Chapman Snowden gets comfortable in a beanbag chair surrounded by pictures and sayings meant to inspire creative thinking. He wants to develop a flight simulator for teachers so they can see how students react to a lesson before it is presented in a classroom.

  In contrast to the parts of 4.0's mission that can come off as audacious or lofty, Densen's ideas feel more down to earth. His interest in education reform started when it came time to send his daughter to school. Densen says he looked at the educational landscape in New Orleans and saw an intensely segregated system, despite the success of the charter movement. He couldn't imagine spending the money to send his child to a private school, but he felt there weren't many other options. He felt the best course of action was to make a school.

  "There's a lot of parents in the middle class who would like to send their children to a public school, who either feel that they can't or feel as though the schools that they would like to send their kids to don't really exist at the moment," he says. "I'm trying to work with them to find ways to make public education and public schools more responsive to both their needs, but also, in the end for the benefit of New Orleans at large."

  "It's not just about creating a school for the middle class, at all, but rather creating a school that's inclusive of them."

  Since joining 4.0, Densen has expanded his notion beyond the idea of founding a single school, but his core mission remains the same. He admits that some of the language they use can be grandiose, but he says it's necessary to describe the monumental problem of modern public education. His main goal is to listen and respond to what people in New Orleans are saying about their schools.

  "My goal is not to shake up public education in New Orleans — I might ask a question that has that effect," he says. "But the goal isn't to be a provocateur. The goal is to serve the needs of their public."

  Another 4.0 innovator, Troave Profice, is trying to develop a flexible focus-group style service where teachers will be able to get feedback from kids about their lesson plans before they have to give them. The other projects have yet to coalesce, but people are looking at efficiencies and inefficiencies in school structure, improving access to school choice, and using social media to combat summer learning losses in rural areas.

  Each project within 4.0 is an experiment, as is the organization itself. In a venture capital model, the investor expects failure from most investments. But the one that pays off makes it all worthwhile. For Candler, the methods that can produce results are worth funding.

4.0 is just more than a year old, and it will be a while before the effects of its work — likely in the form of new services, new schools, or revamps of existing ones — begin to manifest.

  And for all their language of disruption and attempts to mimic the structure of a high-tech startup, Candler says 4.0 emphasizes listening and caution above recklessness. One of the foundations of 4.0's school of thought is empathy — constantly listening to those who would be affected by their ideas.

  Floyd, the math teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, has an idea of his own. "I think it'd be more prudent for us to look at the ideas coming from the people who are doing it. Let's get out of the 30,000-foot cloud and get down to the people who are actually making the changes."

  "It's user-centric design. Every innovation has to be about solving a real person's described pain point," Candler says. "We're not in the business of just coming up with crazy ideas that we think are neat."

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