Chris Whittle Interview

Interviewer: You're a parent; you're a media mogul in some people's eyes, an entrepreneur, a financier. What (parts) of that recipe drove your interest in education? How did you get involved?
Chris Whittle: I went to my first education reform conference 45 years ago. [laughs]
Chris: I was in college. It was out on the plains in Manhattan, Kansas.
Interviewer: Wow.
Chris: There was a student group, called the National Student Association, that was kind of running a training program for student leaders on how they might go about reforming their university and special programs. I was smitten immediately with the whole idea that schools could be better and that we didn't have to just accept the old plan, if you will. In college I spent a lot of my energy and time on that. Then for the 20 years immediately after college, I was in the media business so I wasn't working on education reform matters. Then I returned to it about 20 years ago with the founding of Edison schools. We were one of the early pioneers in the world of charter schools, so it's been a big part of my life. I think Avenues is chapter three, and my last professional chapter, if you will.
Interviewer: [laughs] So, thinking back, you mention being smitten at this conference. And thinking back to the education you enjoyed, or maybe tolerated, depending on how you look at it, and your kids, how have those experiences formed your views of Edison, and now Avenues? What have you picked up from that, and said, "Oh, this has got to change," or "This is good." What have you picked up from that?
Chris: It's really a good question, because there's no question that both my own experiences and that of my children have impacted the way I think about this, and I'm sure that's true of anybody that's... [coughs]
Chris: Excuse me. I have a little bit of a cold. That is in the movement today. In terms of how my own educational experiences impacted, I think that very early on, and I don't think this was by design, I think it was dumb luck on my part. The schools that I went to, and I went to public schools, both K-12 and at the college level, for some reason, they allowed me a tremendous amount of freedom to pursue things that I cared about.

I was released from conventional class all through high school, and all through college. I think one of the things I took away from that is that allowing children and students to pursue independent work leads to all sorts of lessons that are not your conventional classroom lessons.

For example, I think my entrepreneurial skills grew out of the fact that I was allowed to start things when I was in high school and college. A big part of what we're trying to do at Avenues is to allow students to have a degree of independence, to pursue things they care about.

The second thing is that my family life--I grew up in a small town in Tennessee, am a monoglot through and through.


Chris: But can barely read anything.
Interviewer: [laughs] Oh, no.
Chris: Pardon?
Interviewer: No, OK. [laughs]
Chris: I had my two years of Spanish, my two years of French, but I can maybe get through a menu. My wife is from Italy, and she speaks four languages. One of the things she made sure of is that our children spent a couple of years overseas, during their high school days, actually.

They all grew up bi or trilingual, and I saw the impact on their world view from that. So, in some respects, that has been baked into what we're doing at Avenues, as well.

Interviewer: You said, Avenues, where the students have a degree of independence. What does that mean?
Chris: An easy way to describe it is if you look at our--I'll tell you a story. When we designed the architectural aspects of the school, we invited a number of headmasters, heads of schools, to come review our architectural drawings. Just a kind of peer review and just give us their reactions. One of the reactions was that we had half as many classrooms as we needed. I said, "That's right. That's exactly the design. We took the other half away and we provided, instead, large areas in the school where students can work either in small teams or on their own." If you were to come into our high school, if you think of the high school that you went to and every other high school just about, there was a long hallway and there were classrooms on both sides of it.

Essentially, there are classrooms on only one side of our hallway and the other side is independent work areas for kids. They spend half as much time in conventional classrooms as you would typically see in a high school.

Interviewer: So does that mean that they have directed work during that time, or does it mean that it's the Google 25 percent of your own time to do whatever you want, in theory, which really isn't the case, but how does that play out?
Chris: We don't do that. It's not do whatever you want. It's monitored. It's mentored and supported. But you might be doing a course online, that may have been if you're in and your advisor's choosing. You might be doing a team project that you and a group of other students have decided to do in science or in math. You might be using that time for research or reading. It's work time, but one way we think of it is we think of it is much more like college than it would be high school.
Interviewer: Looking back at the larger, let's say, the reform efforts you've made. Today, here we are in 2012. I have a daughter in college and one in high school. I've been involved in these things for nine years, and it's remarkable how little it's really changed. Even in my short time, and you have a longer arc of experience. You talk about Edison and Avenues, but today, across at least the U.S. public education landscape, a very small percentage of kids have any sort of choice or let's say, a non-traditional option, a non-assembly line option. So, why is that? You have the experience, why are we stuck in the mud largely, as a society?
Chris: By the way, you were breaking up slightly. Can you hear me OK?
Interviewer: I can hear you just great, I'm on Skype.
Chris: OK, I think I caught everything but I just wanted to double check.
Interviewer: Sure.
Chris: First of all, I agree with you, and I'll even raise you a little bit. I think if you look at a 20-year arc, unfortunately, what you just said, I think, holds true for that 20-year period as well. In private sessions with colleagues that have been in this for that stretch of time and even longer. We all remark, in many ways, on the disappointment of how far things have or have not come. And why that is, I think it's multiply determined. One, we often all forget how enormous the public education sector is, and that roughly 20 percent of the entire population of the United States is involved in it daily. If you include the students and the staff, it's in the zone of 60 million people. You know, that's the population of France.


Chris: So this is not an easy ship to turn and that's one thing. The second thing is that what school is, and I use that as just a phrase, is almost imprinted on all of us. There was 15 years of imprinting that occurred that this is school. You know, it starts in September, it ends in May. It's divided into six parts each day. There's a teacher with a group of some number of kids in a classroom, and on and on and on. To breakdown that structure, it is remarkably hard because it's so difficult to even imagine what the new world looks like because how deeply that has been imprinted on all of us. So I think that's the second big factor. Then, obviously, there's a third, which is there are a lot of people who are quite happy with the way it is [laughs] and would like to keep it that way. Many factors go into it, but this is not a short process that we're all involved in.
Interviewer: [laughs] No. So given that, and again, given the entrepreneur experience, let's say, and the thing that strikes me about my observations, my close observations over the last eight-nine years, is that the organizations are afraid of failure--I should say afraid of the perception of failure. And, therefore, the antibodies come up quickly regarding almost anything. That's obviously very different from people who start things and are used to your initiative not working, or the strategy changes, or what have you.

You've sort of aimed in one direction with Edison, and then, now you've gone, let's say, at the very high end, with Avenues. Traditional disruptions often occur at the very low end, right? They're beneath contempt, whatever they would be. Have the reformers shot at the wrong target?

Chris: I did lose that question a little bit. Would you just say that one again?
Interviewer: Sure. You've spent a lot of time on Edison and now Avenues. Especially Avenues is aiming at the very high end, but traditional disruption across many industries, many organizations occurs beneath contempt. It's typically at the low end, right, that comes in and people say, "Ugh!" Some might say Khan Academy or that sort of thing is like that today. We'll see. Have Edison and Avenues been aimed at the right place?
Chris: Well, one, I would say innovation can occur at any part of the spectrum. Indeed, I would go a lot of innovation typically does occur at what you might view the high end. I mean, it trivializes it in some ways. If you look in the whole world of technology, often innovation begins at relatively high price points and then, over time, people try to figure out ways to bring price points down. Example, if you look at large, flat screen televisions. Five years ago, they were five times what they are today. I've always thought NASA was a similar example. So much of what we enjoy in technology today sprang from a lot of the work that was done at NASA and, obviously, [laughs] I would put that at the very high end of the spectrum.
Interviewer: Right.
Chris: When it comes to school reform, one thing I often say to people is that I think, broadly, there is one model of schooling worldwide. And I would also tell you I think there's kind of one model of schooling across both public and private sectors, and even across different price points. Meaning, top private school education in the United States today is in the $30,000 to $40,000 per pupil zone. If you look at public education, on average, it's probably in the $10,000 to $12,000 zone. I'm a little dated on that. So you would look at that and go, "Well, that's a very different model," where one is working with one-third of the resources of the other.

Interestingly, though the resources are different, I don't think the models themselves are that different, as they currently exist.

I've always been agnostic about where reform should occur. I go, "If it occurs in the public sector, or the private sector, I think the important thing is that we change it." Where we change it first doesn't matter much, because I think, once it gets in the water, it'll spread in all directions.

Interviewer: Then the secret reform lever, or the Ponce de León search for the golden reform strategy, remains unknown. We're all still seeking it, it sounds like. Looking back again, the last 20 years, what wins and losses are you most proud of, Chris?
Chris: It's very interesting that you combine... [laughs]
Interviewer: Well, of course, that's how we learn, right? [laughs]
Chris: No, no, no, it's very important. I find it impressive that you imagine you can take pride in your losses and your wins.
Interviewer: Of course.
Chris: I've never heard it phrased that way.
Interviewer: I've had some losses. [laughs]
Chris: I like the way you said that. I'm thinking.
Interviewer: You know, we can continue this again. You said you have to go in about nine minutes. I have three more questions, but we can...
Chris: Oh, no, three more questions, we can squeeze in. The reason I'm pausing...
Interviewer: [laughs]
Chris: There's a rich number of choices, in both categories, of wins and losses. I would say on the win side, one that is right at the top is Edison, and Avenues, I think understood very early on the importance of professional development in schools. That professional development is being defined as, "Arrive at school two days before school begins, and we'll show you your classroom, give you your orientation." And then, a couple of days during the year, when outside speakers would come in. That was nowhere near what we needed. And I feel like, all along the way, we've done very good work in that area.

I'll give you an example. One of the requirements for being a teacher at Avenues, we had 4,900 teachers apply for 120 teaching posts at school.

Interviewer: I saw that.
Chris: When they would apply, we would say, "One thing we want you to know is that you won't have this summer off. And that we want to do several weeks of orientation, and culture building, and professional development, so everyone needs to show up on July first." It's made a huge difference in the way that we open school tomorrow. We open as a team, and as a culture. I would say that's a victory that we experienced in our Edison days, as well.

On the loss side of the ledger, where to begin?

Interviewer: [laughs]
Chris: I think, very early, Edison was one of the first systems of schools to understand the potential for technology. Looking back, Edison was pre-Internet, which is amazing. I think, largely, over the last two decades, there's been a failure to figure out how to bring technology into the brick and mortar world of schooling. I can remember early on, in Edison, where we said we were going to put four computers in every classroom, and the number of times I walked into classrooms, those four computers were sitting there at the back of the room.


Interviewer: Right, of course.
Chris: I remember that many times. On Friday, all of our ninth graders were arriving for their technology orientation. Each of them received an Apple laptop, and an iPad, and I was looking at the immense difference of what can be done now, versus then. And I think, though that area's been disappointing over the last 20 years, we are about to see that come into its own, in a huge way. So those are two.
Interviewer: OK. That's a good start. If you were 18 today, what would you do? Knowing what you have learned, and then, obviously, seeing your kids, what would you study? What would you do?
Chris: Well, I have no idea, as I had no idea then. I do know one thing I would do differently that I didn't understand then. Obviously, that's a big question that we could go on, but I know I would do language very differently. But the important thing, maybe, is what would I have done--as a parent--differently? I think, making sure that my children had very early language acquisition programs. In fact, thanks to my wife, that did happen, but I don't think I understood the importance of that. Language is something you need to get on very early, because that's the easiest time to acquire it.
Interviewer: Agreed.
Chris: I know I would do that differently. At 18, you've basically missed the window.
Interviewer: Right.
Chris: That's too harsh, but you've missed the best window.
Interviewer: A bit more specific on that, would you still pursue a more traditional education? Or would you focus more on, let's say, sciences, or the underpinnings of technology today? Or would you say most people should just go get a liberal arts degree, as we've done for many decades? What's your sense of that?
Chris: Two things. I think, if we could think of education in two buckets, we'd broadly be better off. One bucket is a content bucket, where there actually is a benefit in understanding the arc of human events and history, understanding basics in mathematics, and reading, and science. And then the other bucket is a set of skills. It's the whole idea of learning how to learn, but it's more than that. It's learning how to conduct a life. I think schools of the future will think more and more in that way. And if I had known what I know today, I would try to organize my own education that way.
Interviewer: OK. Then the last question. Looking ahead, you've taken another deep dive in the system, with Avenues. 5, 10 years from now, what would make you smile, or be proud of, from that initiative?
Chris: If, in most of the great cities of the world, there was an Avenues campus that was viewed, in the city that it was in, as one of the finest educational options in that city, but was also viewed as deeply connected to its sister campuses worldwide. We're deeply involved, as we speak, in preparing our campuses in Beijing, and in São Paulo, Brazil, and in London, which are our next three sites. I'm in Beijing every month, and my partner's in Brazil every month. One of the things we realized, is the collective intelligence of an educational organization that spans many different cultures is a much richer collective intelligence.

In some ways, I do this as the educational equivalent of cloud computing. All of these campuses collaborating just winds up being a better milieu for the students and the faculty with them. We have a pretty clear picture of what we want to be a decade from now and it's an exciting time for us.