It's About Innovation, Not 'Privatization'

I recently published an opinion piece on The Atlantic’s website entitled The Case for the Private Sector’s Role in School Reform. My aim was to explain that today’s educational challenges require an “all-hands-on-deck” mentality, in which the best talent and ideas from the public and nonprofit as well as private sectors are tapped to raise the achievement of our kids.

The private sector is one of the few forces in our society that can bring together the talent, capital, and urgency that today’s situation demands.

When the private sector is mentioned in the same breath as the public schools, the usual assumption is that we’re talking about the “privatization” of education and not about innovation for education. In my view, this assumption too often ignores the history of business’ contribution to society. At Amplify, we believe the private sector has a role and a responsibility in accelerating the pace of beneficial innovation for education—the kind of innovation that has brought progress to nearly every other sector of society, but which K-12 education has sorely lacked.

Critics—including some commenting on my Atlantic piece—rightly point out that many investments in education innovation haven’t lived up to their hype. I couldn’t agree more. In an era of substantial fiscal pressure at all levels of government, it’s essential that such investments deliver on their promises. That’s why at Amplify we’re working closely with teachers, principals, students, and parents to ensure that the products and services we’re creating truly enhance teaching and learning.

The critique that really ignites a response in me, however, is the idea that education companies are motivated only by money. Like any other business that invests its capital to develop and market products or services, educational businesses need to secure a return on their investment. But there are no guarantees for educational entrepreneurs, just like there are no guarantees in other fields. You take a risk and hope for a return. But that doesn’t mean that entrepreneurs are motivated solely by profit. If you have any doubts about that, just ask the people at Facebook or Twitter, who surely want to change the world (but won’t be able to unless they can provide their investors a return).

This kind of attack on motive—i.e., that profits are all that innovators care about—is not only wrong, it’s frankly deeply offensive. It’s hard to know others’ true motives, and so, when addressing them, a healthy dose of humility is a good thing. Speaking for myself, I decided to devote the last decade (and still counting) of my career to K-12 education because I think it is the most important issue our country faces. In addition, I have a personal reason: Having grown up in humble circumstances, I am enormously indebted to public schools and the great New York City teachers who never let my family’s poverty limit their expectations of what I could achieve, or impair the quality of the education they gave me. Because of them, I’ve lived a life that was unimaginable for someone growing up on the first floor of a public housing project in Woodside, Queens.

For those reasons, after spending several decades in law, government, and business, I decided to accept Mayor Bloomberg’s invitation to serve for eight years as chancellor of New York City schools, the country’s largest district. Believe me, you need a thick skin to try to change what’s not working in public education. Powerful forces with a stake in the status quo fight you every step of the way. I’m proud of the improvements we made during my NYC DOE tenure, but I also know there’s much, much more to be done. That’s why I’m now trying to drive education transformation from the private sector. I came away from the chancellorship convinced that if we can get it right, new education technologies can have the power to reimagine teaching and learning in ways that can truly improve our children’s prospects.

I’ve also been around long enough to know that the private sector is one of the few forces in our society that can bring together the talent, capital, and urgency that today’s situation demands. Private firms can accelerate the kind of innovation that Shravan Goli, the CEO of Dictionary.com, recently wrote about in Forbes. As he points out, new technologies are poised to reinvent education in ways that radically boost access and quality at the same time. I wholeheartedly agree. We’re on the verge of breakthroughs in K-12 technology—breakthroughs we shouldn’t let old thinking or ideology hinder.

Anyway, I hope you’ll look at the argument I lay out in The Atlantic. And then, whatever your views, please join the conversation. Let’s just try to stay focused on the merits of the discussion, rather than the motives of the discussants.