How many industries that were around 100 years ago—and are still around today—are making their products almost the exact same way? Can you think of an industry that uses almost the identical methods of production they did 100 years ago, one that hasn’t undergone radical industrialization, innovation, or significant transformation?
How about the American classroom? Our method of teaching hasn’t radically changed over the past century. It’s stuck, it’s dated, and it’s in need of radical transformation. While there are bright spots in the private school system, the public education system—where the vast majority of our children are being taught, guided, and motivated—is a dated, bloated, inefficient, bureaucratic dinosaur. It lost sight and understanding of its consumer a long, long time ago.
Education is in large part the foundation from which our culture is built, and it should be the breeding ground for brilliance, optimism, and new thinking. I have an area of interest in human development, and specifically in children’s education, so meeting the brilliant Sir Ken Robinson last year was like a Stones fanatic meeting Mick Jagger. The author of The Element and Out of Our Minds has a compelling, common sense perspective on what’s wrong with the education system. He offers insights into the human potential and frames the implications of ignoring the problem.
Nations that formerly ranked far below the U.S. in terms of standard of living are racing ahead of us to educate their next generation so they can overcome their cycle of poverty (China, India, etc.), while first-world nations (Finland, Canada, South Korea) are greatly outpacing the U.S. in terms of educational achievement. Our systemic failure to educate and prepare all children to become engaged, productive citizens of the 21st century threatens the very fabric of our democracy. Children who do not graduate from college (let alone high school) face dim prospects at best, and at worst, a lifetime of crime, poverty, or both.
This is not new news, but it’s being drowned out by every other broken system crying out for help and transformation, and it’s being ignored because it’s complicated. This is why we must act and act now. I have hope for when organizations like IDEO, Fuseproject, The Khan Academy, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation get involved, and I’m inspired when prolific authors like Seth Godin stand up and fuel the debate, “What should we do about education?”
When I met Sajan George, the founder of Matchbook Learning, at a conference recently for social entrepreneurs and listened to this courageous man’s story of conviction and common sense, he filled me with hope. I promised to do all I could to share his story of transformation and his quest to change a broken system. Here is our conversation.
SHAWN PARR: What made you jump from the security of an amazing career at the start of the recession?
SAJAN GEORGE: I left a position as managing director and head of education practice at preeminent international corporate turnaround firm Alvarez & Marsal to start Matchbook Learning. While at A&M, I had a front seat to some of the most amazing turnaround assignments in K-12 public education’—restructuring the entire school systems of cities like New York, New Orleans, Washington, St. Louis, and Detroit. I left this work not because it wasn’t impactful—it was—but because the nature of that work was very top-down, driven typically behind a powerful and courageous political leader. This top-down type of reform is difficult to sustain (always a political election cycle away from being halted) and scale (these kind of courageous leaders to do our work behind are a rare commodity). I started Matchbook Learning because I saw a unique opportunity with blended learning to create a model of school reform from the bottom up that is both scalable and sustainable—something our country desperately needs.
How did Matchbook come into being?
It started with a hypothesis: that online learning had the potential to revolutionize public education by the nature of leveraging technology to customize both content and experience for each individual student. This radical customizing technology has disrupted entire industries from books (Amazon) to music (iTunes) to newspapers (Google) to social networks (Facebook). Education is one of the last industries to succumb.
However, most of technology’s forays into public education are happening at the fringes even still. Students accessing it for supplemental learning, advanced AP classes, dropout credit recovery, home schooling, etc.
There’s a missing opportunity to bring this technology into mainstream public education—directly to students in physical schools at the bottom end of the economic and academic spectrum. The Federal Department of Education has put out stimulus funds over the next four years for turnaround school solution providers like Matchbook Learning to turn around the bottom 5% of schools in our nation. This represents an unusual window of opportunity both in timing, funding, and momentum. Matchbook Learning was launched to seize this convergence of technology, funding, and opportunity.
What does Matchbook do?
We take over existing K-12 public schools that are in the bottom 5% of the country performance-wise (typically urban, poor, minority neighborhoods) and manage these schools day-to-day, turning around their academic performance by creating a blended model of school wherein every student receives a Netbook, online curricula, and a personalized path to learning. We train teachers in these classrooms on how to use the data to personalize instruction. This training is daily, in-the-classroom, and helps teachers review, understand, and ultimately act on the stream of real-time data they are receiving on their Netbook about how each student is learning, and helping them see where and when they can augment a student’s learning with their own instruction, guidance, and intervention. We call it a blended school because it blends the best of a traditional school (teacher-student engagement and instruction, peer-to-peer learning and socialization, music, drama, sports, home room classrooms, etc.) with the best of virtual school (real-time data, feedback, personalized content, multimedia platforms, pacing consistent with a student’s progress and capability, and predictability of outcomes).
We manage these schools for a three- to four-year contract period, at the conclusion of which the turned around school returns to its District or State. We do not wish to manage these schools in perpetuity the way charter schools do, but rather hope and intend to transfer the capacity we build back to the school, community, and school district so it stays where it belongs and the system begins to reform.
What problem are you trying to solve?
Children born in the bottom income quartile in the U.S. have just a 9% chance of achieving a college degree by age 25. These bottom income quartile children (and by default, their parents and communities) are trapped inside chronically failing schools, projected to reach almost 20,000 schools by 2014. I started Matchbook Learning because our country lacks a sustainable, scalable solution for turning around our underperforming public schools.
What business are you in?
Turning around our nation’s underperforming public schools.
Tell me how this is supposed to work.
The research shows that an effective teacher is the single most important determinant of a child’s academic success. However, effective teachers are a rare commodity in general, and even rarer still in neighborhoods of poverty. No sustainable, scalable means of producing and retaining effective teachers has existed until now. Today we can create “blended classrooms”—classrooms that blend the best of customized learning via technology that delivers online curriculum to individual students and their individual needs with the best of traditional instruction that leverages a physical teacher’s passion, presence, judgment, and intuition. The online curriculum can track, monitor, and adjust learning paths for each student, providing real-time feedback to the teacher on where and how to intervene with struggling students, as well as students that are progressing. This frees the teacher up to coach, facilitate, and engage students in smaller groups. This combined or blended approach with proper coaching, implementation, and leadership can create a highly effective teacher in every classroom.
We partner with content (i.e. curriculum) providers that meet the State and National Standards as well as our own standards. We also partner with hardware providers consistent with a particular School District’s IT policy. While there is an emerging landscape of numerous software (digital curriculum) and hardware (i.e. tablets, Netbooks, etc.) providers, we don’t feel that any one vendor has an offering clearly superior to everyone else.
Once we select the right software and hardware for the particular school and students we will be serving, we focus most of our efforts on:
The blended model design includes not only hardware and software, but also recruiting and training staff, optimizing class schedules, creating culture, developing feedback loops, and prototyping opportunities with the real-time data. When combined with successful implementation through on-site, full-time daily management and coaching, this can be considered the Matchbook Learning product.
Give me an example of the most transformational story/moment you’ve seen when implementing the program.
It was the first day of school in our Detroit pilot this past September: We handed out
Netbooks to each student, providing each of them with their own log-in usernames and passwords. It was symbolic in how it ushered these students into a new era of learning—one that is personalized both for the teacher and the student. The wide-eyed stares, joyful smiles, and sheer giddiness in the room was tangible—visible signs that this kind of education reform is different from every other kind of reform that has preceded it. Ask the average student what the past impact has been of reform initiatives such as new textbooks, new teacher training, lower or higher class sizes, or new standards, and they will shrug their shoulders and perhaps yawn at the question. Teachers will probably respond somewhat the same but perhaps with a greater degree of frustration upon the impact, or lack thereof, of such failed attempts. However, ask our students what the impact of a blended model has had on their daily life, or better yet, see what it did on that first day of school, and you get a completely different response.
Give me an example of one life changed as a result.
Public schools have the potential to transform the lives of students, teachers, parents, and the community by creating a beacon for an entire city of what is possible when we enable children to dream and provide them pathways for achieving those dreams.
We only launched our blended turnaround model just over five months ago, but we are already seeing signs of life-changing transformations as a result. In a city like Detroit, enrollment is shrinking: Even our school, as recently as four years ago, had an enrollment of 1,000 students. We started the year below 200 students in our blended pilot and it has steadily grown to over 215, bucking the citywide trend. We have stories of one parent with two children enrolled in our school who refused to pull them out when she got a job across town. Those two children take two city buses just to continue attending our school. We had over 200 parents attend our first Parent Night. We’ve seen evidence of students logging in during the evenings and weekends to continue learning online without being asked to do so. We had students actually complain when we had a Christmas assembly that was cutting into their blended classroom instructional time. I’ve had parents tell me in the hallway, “Thank you for what you are doing in our school.”
What’s been the hardest part of starting Matchbook Learning?
Convincing people outside of these communities that what we are doing is not only possible, but completely probable with the right vision, leadership, and conditions. There’s a high degree of skepticism with anything new, particularly in education that challenges the traditional axioms of how to create effective schools in neighborhoods of poverty (i.e. close the school, start from scratch, lower class size, fire teachers, etc.).
What’s been the most rewarding part of Matchbook Learning?
Watching children and their expressions when they realize they have a personalized learning path with real-time feedback on their progress. Watching the proverbial light bulb go off in their minds and faces when they realize that their time is now, and nothing but themselves can stop them when the vast array of our world’s information and knowledge is but a few keystrokes away.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to start a new business in education?
Understand the problem you are trying to solve. Diagnose the root cause(s) of the problem. Be patient and develop a vision for a solution that scales to the breadth of the problem you are trying to solve. Leverage conditions that enable you to pilot, launch, and scale your vision.
Note: Matchbook Learning is leveraging a unique set of turnaround conditions over the next four years wherein the Federal Government is offering radical turnaround solution providers up to $2M per year, for up to four years, including operating autonomy and flexibility to turn around our nation’s bottom 5% of schools.
Do you have a long-term vision?
Matchbook Learning is starting at the very bottom—the bottom 5% of public schools because:
Because we are willing to “give back” to the school at the end of four years, we think states and school districts will be receptive to this kind of model. Since these schools will remain public schools (no name change to Matchbook Learning; they remain in their local neighborhoods serving the same kids and not replacing teachers, but improving the ability of teachers), we believe they will not be viewed as competition by unions or school boards. The stakeholders become partners with us in scaling our model. This enables our solution to scale. Secondly, as students and parents become enamored with a 21st-century way of teaching and learning that finally “gets” their kids and meets them where they are academically speaking, they will never want to go back to the old traditional way of teaching and learning (a single textbook, teacher, and blackboard for 30 students in a classroom). This enables our solution to sustain itself.
This is the vision for our scalable and sustainable solution for public education reform. As a nonprofit turnaround management school organization—one that turns around and then gives back the school after four years—we can have tremendous influence operating just a handful of schools at any given time. Every year there would theoretically be new failing schools coming on board while turned-around schools return, which in turn could influence an entire state over a five-year period. We can create enough proof points in a given state (or two at the bottom of the spectrum), all the while having them remain local public schools. We have an influence on an entire state and in turn, other receptive states, by building and transferring capacity back to the customers we are serving.
Where do you see Matchbook Learning in five years?
In at least two different states, having created powerful proof points of what is possible in school turnarounds with our bottom 5% of schools, and ushering in, along with others, the future of education.
Who else is helping to transform the school system?
Matchbook Learning is not the first, the best, or the last to help transform the system of public education. There’s a growing movement of students, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, and government officials that are appalled at the lack of effectiveness of our nation’s public education system, particularly for children of poverty and color.
Students on their own are taking courses online even if their local school does not offer them. Teachers are using social learning platforms like EdModo to connect, create, and disseminate their own digital content for learning. Government leaders like Chris Barbic (Tennessee’s achievement school district superintendent) and former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein are forging powerful visions of what systemic education reform looks like. Entrepreneurs like Sal Khan are offering students virtual lessons for free. Venture philanthropists like our funder, New Schools Venture Fund, are taking risks and betting on the next generation of education entrepreneurial organizations to positively disrupt the K-12 public education system. Foundations like The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are funding important research that help incubate the next generation of learning tools, apps, etc.
Was there ever a moment you thought you’d fail?
Yes. In February 2011, a couple of weeks after leaving Alvarez & Marsal and trying to figure how and what to launch, or what to even call this venture, I woke up late one morning. The house was quiet, as my wife had left to drop off our three children at school. I realized that I had no appointments, calls, or scheduled meetings that day. In other words, I had no real reason to get up. A sense of fear came over me. What am I doing? I had left a great career in the midst of arguably the deepest recession in our country with a family of five to care for, and no business plan, no funding and just a vision in my head—a concept. I thought to myself, “I am the stupidest man on the Earth.” Two questions came to mind quickly: “God, do you love me?” and “God, is it okay if I fail?” While no audible voice answered, I deeply sensed the answers to be yes.
After that I was good, and have been good since. We launched our first blended pilot school in Detroit in August 2011. We had received a late notice that the contract would happen and had only three weeks to hire, structure, and get our blended solution in place. It was stressful trying to get the right Program Director hired (we found a great option in Dr. Susan Claiborne), making sure my subcontract vendor providing the technology piece didn’t walk (they got nervous and almost did), and getting the school’s leadership and faculty ready to embrace this radical approach to schooling (it took a few months but we got through the hump and they are strong advocates for this new kind of blended school).
If you can ask for one thing for Matchbook Learning what would it be?
That stakeholders in a particular state—state and local superintendents, philanthropic funders, principals, teachers, parents, and students—who collectively embrace a vision of customized education and personalized learning can come together to launch, implement, and successfully scale Matchbook Learning’s blended model.