I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.
Steve Barr, the founder of GreenDot schools, has been on the front lines of turning around education in Los Angeles, where they’ve built 17 schools. Barr (after cracking a joke about the TED/Pop!Tech rivalry) tells us that he’s not an educator, but he is a product of the California public school system. He tells us that his class, the class of 1977 of Cupertino High School, represents the last year of the fully funded, truly high quality educational system in the US. Silicon Valley wasn’t about engineers who liked to surf – it was the product of a really good school system. “A couple guys down the street, Steve and Steve, went into a garage and built a pretty cool company.” And as a son of a waitress, Barr received the same education.
“In my lifetime, California schools went from the best in the world to the worst.” We debate about this. The left says “let’s give more money to a failed centralized system built for a manufacturing society.” The right is largely indifferent and blames the teacher’s union.
Barr was transformed from a career in politics by two tragedies – the death of his younger brother and his mother within two years. He started thinking about schools and how they’d changed. When he graduated from high school, he tells us, the schools believed that “20% of you are going to college and will do great, and 20% we can’t do anything for – the rest of you, if you can read and write, are going to do just fine” because there will be good jobs that will let you support a family and buy a house. That’s not how it works now. And “most of the people in this room have fled the system.”
Barr and GreenDot took over Locke High School in Watts. “Tough neighborhood” doesn’t begin to describe the location around this campus. It was founded in 1968 as a “sign of hope” in the wake of the Watts riots. The Blood and the Crips were founded within ten blocks of the school. The school has become a dumping ground for surrounding schools – for problem students and teachers.
Since the school opened, 60,000 people have passed through this badly broken school. Only 8,000 made it to four year universities. Only 2,200 graduated from those schools. How many came back to Watts to become a teacher, start a business, or be politically active? Basically, none. “Can any business overcome the infrastructural damange of that school?” Every city you’re from, he tells us, has a Locke High School. Until we fix this, there’s no widespread American financial recovery.
What would be the fastest way to change education in the US? We could make private schools illegal. (He’s joking. Sort of.) “What would happen if Bill Gates had to send his kids to public school? He’d go to McKinsey and demand that they turn this stuff around!”
Barr visited the big public schools in LA and observed that they looked like prisons. And then he went to the succesful private schools. “You’d never send your kid to a school with over a thousand kids if you were paying 25 grand – they’d fall through the cracks.” You’d have high expectations for every kid, and bring kids up to speed so they could learn together and so every kid would be focused on college prep. You’d call the school if they didn’t assign your kids homework – and they’d answer the phone. And you’d participate in the school’s culture – the bake sales and the teacher conferences.
Critically – and perhaps most politically – “You’d never spend 25 grand if half the money didn’t go to the classroom but to another building where folks walk around in suits.” 60% of the employees in the LA educational system aren’t teachers. Sure, he tells us, we need some principals and some school bus drivers. But the LA system is building the best bureacracy that money can buy.
GreenDot now runs 16 schools in LA, and one in the South Bronx. While they’re enormously succesful, Barr tells us, “I’m tired of charter schools.” He’s tired, because we’ve proved that you can succeed with high expectations for kids. The question is how we might create a movement.
He references Lucy of Lucy’s El Adobe, a Mexican restaurant in LA. She’s a Buddhist, and suggests that there are two things needed to make change: wisdom and method. Barr’s method, in no small part, focuses on finding politicans who are able to challenge their preconceptions about race, politicians “who actually know that black and brown kids can learn”. Politicians who don’t get it tell him that his students learn because they’ve got motivated parents. They do, Barr agrees, but the vast majority of those parents in LA are illegal immigrants. You don’t need rich parents to get a good education – you need committed, engaged parents and politicians who accept responsibility for turning around the American educational system.