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Straight Up Conversation: New NSNO CEO Neerav Kingsland

I recently had a chance to chat with Neerav Kingsland, recently named CEO of New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO). NSNO has been a pivotal player in New Orleans' post-Katrina reform landscape. A Tulane and Yale Law School alum, Neerav previously served as the chief strategy officer for NSNO. You may also recall him as a former guest star at RHSU. Neerav is taking the reins from Sarah Usdin, the founder of NSNO who is stepping back after a half-dozen years at the helm. Given the centrality of New Orleans to various reform debates, including those over charter schooling and "recovery districts," I thought it worth chatting with Neerav about NSNO and the work of transforming education in New Orleans. Here's what Neerav had to say.

Rick Hess: For those unfamiliar with New Schools for New Orleans, what is it? What does it do?
Neerav Kingsland: NSNO is a city-based organization that focuses on three areas. The first is strategic leadership. We try to work with thought-leaders in the city to set a vision for the future of education in New Orleans. The gateway there is creating the nations' first high-performing charter school district. Right now, 80 percent of kids go to charter schools and that's going to keep on rising. We want to make sure those charter schools are excellent. The second thing we do is launch charter schools and support CMO expansions; so we raise money and fund entrepreneurs and organizations to grow excellent schools. The third piece we do is what we call the landing pad. We invest in the start-up and scaling of support providers, who are then contracting with charter schools to provide some supports that an individual school might not be able to provide on their own.

RH: How big is NSNO? How much does it cost to do this work each year?
NK: We're roughly 15 people. Traditionally, we've been running at 4 million to 5 million [dollars] a year. We're in an extended state right now in that we have two major federal grants: an i3 grant and a TIF grant. So, our budget this year and over the next year or two will be more in the 10 to 12 million dollar range.

RH: You've been with NSNO pretty much since the start. What are a couple of the key things you guys have learned about this work along the way?
NK: I think the two key takeaways for us are that people are incredibly, incredibly important. Anytime we're launching an organization or making an investment, we look at the management team and the leadership team. Additionally, systems are really important. The governmental system, the regulatory system, the accountability system, moving away from a government monopoly to a more decentralized state of education, is highly important. I think some people focus solely on people and they don't think about markets and systems and accountability. And I think some people focus solely on the accountability and ignore the importance of people. Our biggest takeaway is you need to get both right.

RH: New Orleans has got a lot going on. It can be confusing from outside. What's the relationship of NSNO to the Recovery School District, to the local charter school operators, and to the state education agency?
NK: It's been remarkably fluid and good in terms of relationships. We sometimes joke that this is kind of like the Silicon Valley of Ed Reform. Whatever it was like in the '70s, when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates used to drink beers and envision the next generation of computers... I think there's some of that going on in New Orleans.

RH: Are there ever any tensions or points of conflict with the RSD?
NK: I think what we're trying to figure out here is, "What's the proper role of government, long term, in a decentralized system?" When government's not operating schools, not hiring teachers, not evaluating teachers, what should they be doing? In our minds, they should be doing two primary things. One is being a performance manager and ensuring great schools can expand and failing schools can close. And the second thing is ensuring equity. It's particularly in the second piece where you can start walking a fine line of what the government role is and what the school's role is.

RH: What are a couple of the biggest missteps you guys have made along the way? What can folks learn from that you've gotten wrong?
NK: There is plenty that we got wrong. I think the quality variance in chartering at the outset wasn't exactly what we wanted...I think some schools got approved that probably shouldn't have and if we would had been a little tighter, we could have prevented kids from being in situations they shouldn't have been in. We just didn't have the vision in place where we were setting up whether it would be a 100 percent charter district or a 90 percent charter district. And, I think we're thinking about those things a little late. If the city was doing this now, I think setting the end vision of what the city's going to look like in ten years and then building that system now, would be a huge advantage to the situation we were in.

RH: There's been a lot of conversation about the academic results in New Orleans. How do you characterize the results so far? What do you see when you look at the data?
NK: I think, in laymen's terms, we'd characterize it as a move from "F" to "C." New Orleans was perhaps the worst school district in the country in 2005. We've stabilized that system. We closed the gap between New Orleans and the state by over half in terms of proficiency ratings. We've reduced the number of failing schools from 80 percent to 40 percent. We had CREDO [the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, based at Stanford University] do a quasi-experimental analysis of our charter schools and we out-performed the national averages by three times the amount of charters who are highly effective. So, in so many senses we've made huge gains and can unequivocally say kids are in a better situation now than they were before the storm.

That being said, the fight for a move from "C" to "A" is going to be an incredibly hard battle, and no urban district has ever gotten to "A." That's what lies before us. I'd say data-wise, maybe a quarter of the schools in the city are truly high-performing, and that needs to go from 25 percent to 100 percent before we can say we've truly accomplished our mission.

RH: One of the critiques is that efforts like NSNO and the influx of charter schools into New Orleans represent a racist, exploitative effort launched by folks from outside the community. How do you react to those kinds of critiques?
NK: Well, I think you have to be sensitive to historical context and given the state of public education in the city over the past couple of decades, I would be highly suspicious of any reforms if I were a parent who had basically been ill-served by the powers that be. I don't want to underestimate the amount of trust that needs to be rebuilt. [But] I think going to jumps like "racist" are jumps I wouldn't make. I mean, on a personal level, given my own race, it'd be somewhat odd positioning for me to be called a racist given the work I do.

But I don't really find credit in those criticisms, and I think really anybody who would come down here and spend time with the educators in New Orleans would find some of the most incredible, devoted people that you'll find anywhere in the country. Trying to make kids' lives better, people are working incredible hours, and are really making this their life's work. So, I don't find much credence in the idea that what's happening is a racist reform, but I do want to validate the emotional bridge that needs to be [spanned] for this to truly be a unified system where everybody believes that everybody's working in the New Orleans children's best interest.

RH: Louisiana's RSD model is now being imitated elsewhere, in places like Michigan and Tennessee. Are there lessons from the New Orleans experience that apply in other states as they're trying to use the RSD model?
NK: I'm both excited and worried about the expansion of this because execution matters so much. You know, the analogy we use is this is sometimes akin to the transition from communism to capitalism. You can end up with a Poland or a Czech Republic, which are vibrant economies...or you can end up with a somewhat corrupt oligarchy [like] Russia.

So, decentralization is, I think, a very useful way to approach this work, but it's not a silver bullet and it can go wrong very quickly if you're not thoughtful about it. I think things to think about when you're replicating this model are keeping an extreme eye on the quality. That's really the role of government, to act as a good regulator. Also, I think focusing on talent is huge. An economist I know once said something akin to, "Conservatives always overestimate the power of markets, and liberals always overestimate the power of people." I think you need to get both right.

RH: How important has philanthropy been to the work that NSNO has done?
NK: It's been hugely important. [Especially] to the extent that philanthropy's invested on the edges of reform...you're not necessarily going to get tax payer dollars funding the kinds of things we've been doing right off the bat. My hope is that long-term, philanthropy doesn't have to carry the burden. Long-term, states need to be allocating resources to their highest needs students in a way that works around whatever philanthropy would give. I think, [when it comes to] being a first mover, philanthropy can be incredibly important. But I think the long-term game is for state leaders to understand what it takes to create a vibrant educational reform dynamic, and state dollars should be carrying that.

RH: Looking forward, now that you're really charged with leading NSNO, are there new directions or priorities you're going to be emphasizing over the next year or two?
NK: The first, as I mentioned before, is we just don't have enough great schools yet. So, we are increasingly asking, "How can we scale our best local operators to serve more students?" And then, "Do we need to look nationally and bring in a couple of new operators so we can get every kid in an excellent school as quickly as possible?"

For the second piece, I would argue, New Orleans has one of the most talented groups of educators in any city in the country, but a lot of it is raw talent. It's either people who've been working in the system for years and it's just plowed through out of sheer will, or you have a lot of young folks coming in who are incredibly driven but don't yet have the skills...now we need to go to training the best.

RH: Last thing, we talk a lot about accountability today. How do we hold an outfit like NSNO accountable? What are the metrics by which you gauge your own performance?
NK: At the end of the day, we are morally accountable to the students of New Orleans and that's what motivates our staff. More practically speaking, we're accountable to where we get money from. That's the only reason we operate, is because other folks invest in us with the belief that we can drive student achievement in New Orleans. So, just like anybody else we have to prove our worth and every couple of years we have to go back to the folks who have invested in us and show them results for them to continue investing. The results we would like to be held accountable for is the success of the schools and the providers we've launched.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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