Category Archives: Philanthropy

Education philanthropists should not take advice from Larry Summers

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Tyler Cowen just interviewed Larry Summers.

In a blog post about the interview, Tyler wrote: “if you think you know someone who is very smart, Larry is almost certainly smarter.”

This may be the case when it comes to economics. While I’m in no position to evaluate his economic policy claims, I found Summers to be reflective, curious, and thoughtful. He seems like the kind of person I would enjoy working with.

But Summers also discussed education philanthropy, and I came away with a strong belief that I almost certainly smarter than Summers on this subject.

I don’t say this because I for sure know that I’m right and Summers is wrong; rather, I say this because I have a firmer grasp of the research, more hands on experience, and a clearer strategic vision for scalable and sustainable change.

Given that Summers likely has a good 20-30 IQ points on me, and that he has risen to the top of an extremely competitive field, the fact that I’m likely smarter than Summers in this area is a testament to the powers of specialization and the domain specific nature of knowledge.

How should you spend a $100 million? 

In the interview, Tyler asked Summers how he would advise a philanthropist in St. Louis who wanted to give away a $100 million to help her city.  After admitting the he knew little about St. Louis, Summers answered the question more generally, and said that he would focus on public education.

As it happens, my job is to advise philanthropists who want to improve public education. Currently, our team manages the philanthropic giving for Reed Hastings and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Given my day job, I was curious to hear how Summers would respond.

Moreover, while he may not remember, Summers was once asked about relinquishment during an interview on education reform (I was in attendance and vividly remember him saying “Ah, relinquishment…”), and I was curious to see if my ideas had impacted him at all.

They have not!

Summer’s advice: avoid charter schools and work outside the system 

In the interview, Summers gave two pieces of advice to education philanthropists:

  1. Avoid charter schools: Too many philanthropists set-up charter schools that cream students, pay teachers salaries that are not sustainable on the public dollar, and then ultimately cannibalize the traditional system of good students, good teachers, and public funds.
  2. Avoid the K12 system: Instead of trying to tackle the core K-12 system, it’s better to fund efforts that work around the system, such as after school or summer school.

I think both of these points are wrong.

Summers ignores a large evidence base on charter schools

I recently summarized the evidence on charters schools on this blog. Summers ignores most of this research:

Achievement: Urban charter schools outperform traditional public schools, posting annual effects of .05-.1 standard deviations. This holds true with both quasi-experimental designs (where researchers try to control for student selection) and experimental designs (where student selection is randomized). Charters are not achieving their impacts because of student creaming.

Funding: Charter schools, on average, receive much less funding than traditional schools. As I previously wrote about, in numerous cities where charter schools receive less money, they still outperform the traditional system.

Teacher Pay: Nationally, traditional school teachers have higher average salaries than charter school teachers. And while some of this is due to the effect that charters hire younger teachers, I have seen no research that indicates that, at scale, charters are picking off the best teachers by offering them unsustainable salaries.

Impact on Traditional Schools: Lastly, most research shows that charter schools have positive or neutral effects on traditional school achievement. Moreover, cities that have improved their educational systems over the past decade have often seen rising charter school enrollment during the same period. Washington D.C. and Denver stand out as primary examples of cities where all schools got better as charter schools expanded.

All boats rising – and not cannibalism – is the norm.

It appears that Summers is reasoning from anecdote rather research.

I am sure there are  some charter organizations that cream students and spend way above the public dollar (I can think of a few!), but these are outliers.

At scale, urban charter schools achieve more and spend less than traditional public schools.

Working outside the system is low impact and not leveraged with existing public funds

Summer’s second piece of advice – work outside the system rather than fix the system itself – is also flawed.

Yes, fixing the system is hard. But kids spend a lot of time in the system. It will be very difficult to improve public education if you ignore what happens to students from 8 AM to 3 PM for 13 years.

Moreover, to the extent that a philanthropist funds an outside the system intervention that works, the only way to scale the intervention is with more philanthropy or increased public revenues. There is no leverage with existing public dollars.

While I am not against raising additional public revenue for things that work, I think we should spend most of our energy improving the effectiveness of the dollars we already spend, especially given that systems level K12 interventions (like urban charter schools), are achieving success at scale.

If there was no evidence that the system could be fixed, I would tend to agree with Summers. But as more and more cities breakthrough and achieve citywide gains, the logic of working mostly outside the system is increasingly flawed. The one exception I’d make to this claim is pre-school, which has a reasonably strong evidence base and is increasingly funded with public dollars.

If you are a philanthropist who wants to improve public education in your city, please contact me 

In the event that Tyler’s question was not hypothetical in nature, and that there is a philanthropist in St. Louis who wants to donate a $100 million, I do hope she contacts me (neeravkingsland at gmail) rather than takes Summers’ advice.

I am a firm believer that philanthropy well spent can forever positively alter the trajectory of a city’s public educational system.

And while those of us advocating for systems level change still have much to prove, we now have numerous examples of cities achieving citywide improvements for their most at-risk students. Philanthropists should double down on their successes, evolve the model based on local conditions, and continue to fund further research so we can keep on learning.

Career advice for young people who care about education

Bill Gates recently just tweeted his career advice to you people:

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It’s great advice.

But to the extent you want to work in education, here’s where I would focus on.

I. 10 Million Students

There are about 50 million public schools students in the United States.

According to the NCCP, about 44% of these students live under 200% of the poverty line (~$50K for family of 4). And about 22% live under the cover line (~$25K for family of 4).

For this modeling exercise, let’s set the goal scaling great education opportunities to the poorest 30% of public schools students.

In most cities I work in, usually around 25% of low-income students are currently being served by high-quality schools.

That leaves about 11.25M students underserved.

To make the math a little easier, let’s call it 10M students.

To date, charter schools are one of the few interventions that have consistently shown positive effects.

Roland Fryer recently reviewed 196 studies and identified charter schools as one of four interventions that seem to work.

If we want to meet the needs of these 10M students, scaling high-performing charter schools is a solid big bet to work on.

Of course, it’s not the only possible path to better serving 10M students, but I think it’s the most likely path for success.

If I was young and figuring out what to do, this is where I’d begin my career.

II. Getting to 10 Million: the 50K CMOs

KIPP, which serves around 80K students, has already passed the 50K mark. This is amazing.

Others, such as IDEA public schools, and Success Academies, have publicly stated they want to get near or surpass the 50K mark.

A few organizations I know of our considering this type of growth as well.

All in, let’s say that over the next decade we’ll serve 500K students with the highest growth CMOs.

III. Getting to 10 Million: the 10K CMOs

I did a quick scan of CMOs I’m familiar with and identified another 20 CMOs or so that have growth plans for around 10K students.

There are also a lot of 1-2K CMOs coming out of various incubators, so let’s assume another 20 or so emerge.

Give or take, that’s another 500K students.

IV. Where Will the Other 9 Million Come From?

Assuming current trends continue, and we don’t see that many +100K CMOs emerge, then we’ll need to build a lot of 10K CMOs.

About 900 of them… are there 900 people in this country who can operate high-quality 10K student CMOs?

Or 1,800 5K CMOs… are there 1800 people in this country who can operate high-quality 5K student CMOs?

Or maybe CMOs will start to scale and we’ll need 20 500K CMOs… are there 20 people in the country who could accomplish this amazing feat?

You get the idea.

I don’t know how the sector will develop.

As a career choice, it’s interesting to think about helping a single CMO scale to 500K or to try and lead a CMO that gets to 10K.


V. The Incentives to Scale

The more I ponder this question, the more and more I keep coming back to incentives.

Places like Silicon Vally intentionally construct every incentive toward scale: founder wealth comes from equity and investor wealth comes 10-20% of investments being home-runs.

Even more physical companies (fast food chains, retail stores, etc.) operate under similar incentives.

In the charter world, the way to get large amounts of philanthropy is to grow, but this money is different: the investors are losing money (they give it away) and the founders are personally gaining nothing (all the money goes to their organization).

Spot the difference?

All that being said, we do have for-profit charter schools in this country, and they have failed to produce great outcomes at scale for children.

Another twist: the best emerging international school organizations have often been for-profit organizations.

So why has the profit incentive had more effect intentionally than domestically?

I’d try to think about that if I was young and trying to scale great schools.

VI. The Knowledge and Technology to Scale

Even if the incentives are right, sometimes a job is just too hard to achieve with our current knowledge and technology.

Perhaps the reason we only have ~50 high-quality scaled CMOs is that right know our knowledge and technology significantly restricts the amount of people who can succeed as a CMO leader.

It’s possible that further codification of knowledge and better software could increase the number of high-quality CMOs.

Maybe that’s a problem you could spend your life solving.

VII. It’s a Hard Problem

This is why we need great people working on it!

My 1st podcast, covering: my story, race, NOLA, mgmt, platforms, philanthropy, etc.

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Ryan Knight was kind enough to interview me on his podcast. He is a great interviewer (and thinker) and you should listen to his podcast.

You can listen to our talk here.

Next time, I will drink more coffee so I talk a little faster. Perhaps you should listen to it at 1.5x speed.

A risk in a podcast is that you say a bunch of things you don’t believe. On that metric, I think I did ok.

Is Philanthropic Capital Scarce?

Over at this blog, Albert Wenger has been arguing that private capital is no longer scarce.

He writes:

This means that global investable capital exceeds by 2x the capital required to operate the economy. In fact working capital needs have been declining substantially due to just in time manufacturing, faster electronic payments and better working capital management (eg. through C2FO). If you can reduce the working capital needs of firms by 25% you would move investable capital to close to 3x of required operating capital for the economy.

That means we have massive amounts of capital available to invest in new endeavors. It explains why interest rates are low and there is fairly little that central banks can do about it unless they figure out a way to dramatically reduce investable capital – they can certainly shorten their balance sheets but even that impact is likely to relatively small in the overall scheme of things (eg US Fed about $3 Trillion).

Another way to think it about it is this: we have an oversupply of money and an undersupply of good ideas to invest in.

I’ve been in philanthropy for a year now, and Albert’s thesis led me to reflect on philanthropy.

Broadly speaking, philanthropy can be used to either (1) directly alleviate suffering or (2) help solve complex problems.

For the foreseeable future, there will not be an oversupply of capital to directly alleviate suffering.

If a philanthropist wants to save lives and reduce suffering, there is plenty to invest in; and there is always the option of simply giving cash to people living in poverty.

Many philanthropists, however, also desire to support efforts to solve complex social problems; i.e, to try and create better education, health, and criminal justice systems – or to invest directly in technological solutions in areas such as energy.

The goal here is to reduce future suffering rather than simply alleviate current suffering.

It is not easy to solve such problems. In my work, my days are not chalk full of meetings with people pitching tested, operationally scalable, and financially sustainable interventions that will lead to major improvements in our country’s educational system.

Working in areas such as education, criminal justice, and health is extremely difficult, and scalable solutions are hard to find.

So perhaps Albert’s thesis, in some form, is beginning to hold true for philanthropy.

For this second part of philanthropy’s mission – working to solve complex social problems – it is unclear to me that capital is scarce.

If this is true, it has numerous implications for philanthropists, non-profits, and government.

If I’m able to wrap my head around these implications and organize them in a thoughtful manner, I’ll write a follow-up post.


5 Dominant Theories in Education Philanthropy

It is important for funders, entrepreneurs, and policy leaders to understand the dominant theories of change in education philanthropy.

Funders should be clear about what they believe, as well as understand why other funders hold different beliefs.

Entrepreneurs should seeks funds from aligned funders and be pushing foundations to align their theories to what’s actually happening on the ground.

Policy leaders should be evaluating, debating, and challenging funders on how their theories might be improved – and calling out when the theories are simply wrong.

I see five dominant theories in education philanthropy; they are detailed below, with some minor commentary on areas of agreement, admiration, and concern.


#1: Teachers! 

Theory: The most effective way to increase student achievement is to improve teacher recruitment, preparation, development, and evaluation.

How to Identify these Funders: These folks often start their sentences with “research shows that teachers are the most important in-school factor” and end their sentences with “as Finland and Singapore have shown.” I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: In my work in cities across the country, few high-quality charter schools are satisfied with teacher preparation at colleges of education. Moreover, colleges of education have done a poor job of developing a knowledge based around effective teaching. Improvements in these areas (if feasible) would be of great use.

Concerns: I think this theory’s greatest flaw is that teachers are in fact not the most important factor. As I recently wrote, I’m highly convinced that school operators are the most important factor. An over emphasis on teachers may come at the detriment of a focus on operators.

#2 We Need Better Products

Theory: Innovation in products (schools models, software, platforms, etc.) will radically improve the student learning experience.

How to Identify These Funders: You’re in Silicon Valley talking to a 29 year old billionaire who begin his sentence with “factory model” and ends his sentences with “disruption through exponential growth.” I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: I’m bullish on much of this theory of change. I’m extremely excited by many new school models (see Silicon Schools portfolio), software (Zearn, Dreambox, etc.), and platforms (Alt School, Summit). Education reform has a history of not being end user focused, and the consumer oriented discipline of this crew is welcome.

Concerns: I worry that these funders underestimate the power of regulatory change in creating the conditions for better products. The “we don’t need more charter schools we just need to scale Summit” ethos is dangerous, as Summit will inevitably not be the pinnacle of education delivery. If the product folks will shy away from necessary regulatory battles because these battles are not as fun as creating new products, we will have far fewer great education products.

#3 Turn the Battleship 10 Degrees 

Theory: If you don’t focus on the where the kids are at now, you’re going to lose a generation of kids while you build all these great products / charter schools / etc – minor improvements in big systems matter.

How to Identify These Funders: When you go to pitch them they begin by presenting you with a 90 slide ppt deck which begins with “district proof point” and ends with “teachers really, really do love VAM.” I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: Most students in this country do attend traditional public schools, and the regulatory policy framework governing these schools – especially in areas such as standards and assessments – is worth trying to get right.

Concerns: Outside of a few key areas (such as standards and assessments), I’m skeptical that over the long haul many of these reforms (such as teacher evaluations) will work or stick. And even if they do stick the political opportunity cost is so high that they will have to achieve major impacts to warrant the cost.

#4: Social Justice 

Theory: Radically increasing educationally opportunity will require significant improvements in racial justice, economic inequality, integration, criminal justice, and healthcare (including early childhood services).

How to Identify These Funders: The Bernie Sanders lapel pins. I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: It’s been exciting to watch a new wave of reformers who believe in this theory and also believe you need to push on in-school reforms as well; for too long, many of the most vocal leaders of this theory were paradoxically nihilistic about making schools better (teachers can’t improve student achievement! pay teachers more!). Given the obvious importance of these social issues, I’m eager to watch how these leaders make the reform movement better.

Concerns: When it comes to actual policy making, I sometimes find that these leaders have a somewhat naive belief on the ability to improve districts, as well as an under underappreciation for how hard it is to scale effective social services.

#5: Governance! 

Theory: The governance of public education is the root cause of most of our system’s ills.

How to Identify These Funders: They start their sentences with “there was this groundbreaking voucher study that gave 14 kids a $600 stipend” and end their sentences with “Freedom!” I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: Most of it. I believe that will we see increased educational opportunity and, yes – freedom – by allowing educators to start and run schools, as well as giving parents the right to freely choose amongst these schools. And the only way this will occur is if we overhaul how we govern schools.

Concerns: There’s a ton of internal debate within the governance community about how to best regulate these systems, and I have concerns about all the most popular models (vouchers, education savings accounts, charters, portfolio, etc.). The tension between innovation and equity is one I struggle with here, and I’m eager to watch more experiments unfold.


All right, this was just a quick run down. I’m sure I’m missing a dominant theory or two.

And I admit that I cheated by lumping in early childhood with social justice, but 5 theories seems tidier than 6.

Lastly, I think this is less of an issue of “one of these theories is true and the rest aren’t” and more of a case of resource allocation.

In a world of limited time, talent, and money – what should we focus on?


Team Update

Very excited about this update: Ken Bubp and Chris Barbic are joining the combined efforts of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and Hastings Fund.

These additions to the team will help us further support communities that are trying to empower families and educators.

Ken will be joining us in the role of Education Director, where he will manage a portfolio of city based and national investments.

Chris and I will share the same title, Senior Education Fellow, and will serve as general partners in the overall effort. With this partnership, we will be copying the structure of venture capital firms, with our aim to serve children rather than make profits.


Ken is joining us after spending time on the management team of The Mind Trust, which is amongst the best city-based education organizations in the nation; in this role, he has been supporting extremely innovative governance reform that is transcending the district / charter divide.

Most readers of this blog will be familiar with Chris and his work: he founded YES College Prep (winner of the very first Broad Prize for best charter organization in the nation) and was most recently the founding superintendent of the Achievement School District, where he did some of the toughest work in education reform in leading an effort to increase opportunity in a stagnant system.


I’m looking forward to learning so much from Ken and Chris.


Ken has a rare combination of intellectual curiosity, strategic aggression, and moral depth.  In a single conversation, he might ask you to summarize the arguments of the last few books you’ve read; question whether you’re moving fast enough to achieve what you said you’d achieve; and then engage you in a conversation about how we might understand if we’ve found our life’s calling.

Ken’s work at The Mind Trust is indicative of these traits: few cities are moving as fast or with as much integrity as Indianapolis. Moreover, Ken’s internal work at The Mind Trust led to all-time organizational highs in staff satisfaction and performance. He will be playing a big role for us as we continue to develop our culture.


Chris’ talents are immense: he rallies the best people and instills great loyalty through ambitious vision, strategic clarity, and having a huge heart – moreover (and unlike many visionary leaders) he also moves immense amounts of work with an operational drive that simply gets things done again and again and again.

In the time it takes most organizations to write a strategic plan, Chris has usually moved mountains; built deep relationships with those around him; and found a new thorny problem to tackle.

While many might point to the success of Chris’ work at YES, I view his work at the ASD as the greatest embodiment of these traits. Yes, the jury is still out, but I strongly believe that in 10 years time we will look back at Chris’ work in Memphis and appreciate that he, his team, and the city’s non-profit partners built the foundation for sustainable and effective reform.

Lastly, I’ve never heard so many people say – “I’d do anything for him” – as I’ve heard people say about Chris.

You just can’t quantify the importance of something like that.


Perhaps most importantly, both Ken and Chris will tell you about the mistakes they’ve made; the struggles they’ve had; and how these experiences have shaped who they are.

Ken was very open with me about his struggles early in his career as he attempted change management at an organization that was trying to find its way.

And the letter Chris wrote when he left the ASD embodies his humility and ability to self-reflect.


We will continue to rely heavily on Noor Iqbal, who joined us from MIT’s Poverty Action Lab and has been a one person chief of staff + chief operating officer + grants manager + deep thought partner on our original two person team. I’ve rarely seen someone grasp the strategic underpinnings of reform so quickly, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have Noor’s help in getting the work off the ground.

I hope that with this team we can accomplish a lot of amazing things for children in this country. They deserve our best and we hope to give it to them.

3 Reflections on 9 Months of Working in Philanthropy

I’ve been working in philanthropy for 9 months. See below for a few reflections.

And ping me in the comments if you have any feedback or advice.

1. The Best Thing I Did was Pitch a Mission and a Strategy for a Fund

This might be idiosyncratic to me, but I think I would have been unhappy and perhaps ineffective if I had joined a philanthropic organization with a set mission and strategy in education.

For both the Arnold Foundation and the Hastings Fund, I submitted an investment plan that included mission, strategy, and estimated budget *before* I joined.

In this sense, the dynamic was more akin to a venture capitalist raising a fund than it was a foundation hiring an employee to execute an existing operational plan.

I wonder if this might be a better way to do philanthropy, whereby philanthropists are more akin to sole or limited investors in funds and projects (perhaps like Alphabet?) than they are uniform operational entities.

I think that this model would be more conducive to entrepreneurship, risk taking, and innovation – with foundation boards evolving into resource allocation bodies that increase or decrease investment across a portfolio of  funds that are each led by very autonomous executives.

Instead of only hiring employees and soliciting grant proposals, foundations should also seek proposals for issue based funds.

2. The Biggest Mistake I’ve Made (So Far) has Not Been Developing My Investing Skills Quickly Enough

At New Schools for New Orleans, one of my weaknesses was investing: I don’t think our school creation hit rate was good enough and there were a few projects we should have completely avoided. The organization is better at this now, but it was not my strength.

To prepare for a role where an even larger part of my job would be investing, I read a lot of books, talked to a lot of people, and tried to build a tight framework for selecting organizations.

And yet I still made some unforced errors. I brought projects to be approved for investment that, in hindsight, were not a great fit for what we’re trying to accomplish.

Specifically, the errors generally fell in a few categories:

  • The investment was best made at a local level: Given that we almost always work with local partners, we have to determine when we invest directly and when we rely on local leaders to make calls. A few times, I brought forth investments to be made at the national level that were really local decisions.
  • The upside was not high enough: A national foundation’s most limited resource is time. It is not money. There are only so many projects you can do diligence on and only so much time you get with your board. The opportunity cost for spending a lot of time on low-upside endeavors is very high.
  • The investment was not tightly enough aligned to achieving our goals, strategy, and expertise: There are a lot of good ideas out there, that, ultimately, should be funded by other foundations. I spent too much time on good ideas that weren’t in our sweet spot. I should have just quickly recommended that the entrepreneur talk to a more aligned foundation.

3. I’m Not Sure About How to Navigate Investment Structure

There are numerous ways to define an investment relationship. Some foundations act like VC firms and take a board seat. Some foundations are extremely operational and play a shadow management role, which can include everything from weekly phone calls to shared staffing. Some foundations write checks and then just monitor annual goals and benchmarks.

Any of these models can probably be effective in the right situation and disastrous in the wrong situation.

In my situation, I happen to have previously held the role of many of the leaders of our grantees (being CEO of NSNO); we work with leaders with very different experience levels (some have been CEOs for 5+ years and some are launching new entities); we work with leaders across very different local environments (some localities are in the infancy in their reform efforts and some are 20+ years in); and we work in localities with varying levels of foundation activity (in some places we are the primary funder and in others we are one of many).

And in every case I’m not actually living in the community where the work is taking place.

All of these variables make it difficult to adopt a singular structural approach to an investment relationship.


Overall, it’s been a great nine months. I feel lucky to be doing the work.