By the Company It Keeps: Ethan Gray

Ethan Gray is the executive director of one of my very favorite organizations. CEE-Trust, an initiative of the extraordinary The Mind Trust, convenes and collaborates with reform-minded, city-based education groups, like foundations and advocacy organizations. The goal is to bring about transformational education change in America’s major urban areas.

CEE-Trust’s explicit focus on cities is noteworthy; rather than focusing on state or federal policy—or even the district’s activities—it seeks to generate and support fundamental reform via an array of metropolitan leaders and a cross-sector approach. Its members are some of the most important and exciting groups in the business.

But CEE-Trust has been successful to date and holds such promise largely because of Ethan. He’s as sharp as they come, highly collegial, and remarkably entrepreneurial. Recognizing his great, budding talents, my colleagues Sara Mead and Andy Rotherham scooped him up early, and he’s been excelling ever since (see Sara’s recent piece on Ethan here).

Urban districts have been so dysfunctional for so long and are so enmeshed in their cities’ politics and power structures, I’ve been of the mind that meaningful change in inner-city education would require drastic state action. But CEE-Trust and its members have given me renewed hope that lasting reform can be driven locally.

I’m very thankful that this nation-leading effort has Ethan at its helm.

Lots of people work on education policy at the federal level, even more at the state level. You’ve decided to focus on the city. Why?

At CEE-Trust we’re pretty focused on one central question: How do you create the optimal conditions for great schools and great educators to thrive in cities across the country. Policy is one enabler of good practice, but it doesn’t guarantee good practice. The members of our network all want to see strong federal and state policy conditions, but as city-based “harbormasters” for ed reform that sit outside the system, they’re taking a multifaceted approach to creating the strongest education ecosystem possible. Our members are investing in talent pipelines, supporting the growth of high-quality CMOs, working on policy issues, and thinking creatively about how to position their cities to attract the best and brightest into the education sector. Without capacity-building organizations like our members at the city level, great policy reforms would be less likely to fundamentally change what’s happening in urban schools.

In five years from now, you’ll know CEE-Trust is succeeding if what things happen?

I hope that in five years our members have created much better conditions for schools and educators in their cities and that there a growing number of schools in those cities that are delivering dramatically better results for kids. We’re at a very early stage in this work, and few cities have significant clusters of schools that are close to or outpacing state averages. In fact, New Orleans is on a trajectory (within the next two or three years) to be the first city in the nation to outperform the state.

To get these kinds of results, we believe every city needs an effective harbormaster. That’s why we hope to help existing harbormasters get better while working to seed new harbormasters in cities that are lagging behind.

One challenge for us is that we’re not a direct-service organization so we would never take credit for something big that happens in one of our members’ cities. Our power is the power to convene, share ideas, foster collaborations, and offer consulting support to our friends and partners. That said, we have begun to catalogue what we consider national best practice, and we’re hoping to help move our members further up the spectrum of effectiveness relative to those best practices. These best practices are part of a recent report, “Kick-Starting Reform,” through which we profile three of our most effective members and draw some core lessons learned for leaders in other cities.

What do you love about your job?

We’re fortunate to get to work with some of the most passionate, driven, and visionary people in our sector. Leaders of city-based harbormasters have to have a long-term vision for their city’s education system. They have to have deep relationship with stakeholders in their city. They have to have strong connections to the national ed reform sector. And they have to make a compelling case to their community for how all the pieces of their reform strategy fit together to lead to great results for kids. With all of those pressures and demands, it’s no surprise that the folks leading CEE-Trust member organizations are such impressive individuals.

CEE-Trust is also a great platform for my team and me to help shift attention to issues or trends we see as important. We’re not a charter school organization, or a blended learning organization, or a governance reform organization, but we think any strong harbormaster should have strategies dedicated to creating a vibrant charter sector, fostering blended learning pilots, and transforming outdated governance models. It’s an honor to have the trust of our network of partners to design and deliver programming that unpacks these issues and others that come up over time.

Prior to CEE-Trust, you worked on national and community service. What drew you to those issues? Would you support an American draft for short-term but mandatory military or other public service?

Coming out of grad school I was recruited to be the education policy director of a start-up in Boston called Be the Change. The Founder, Alan Khazei, had previously founded and led City Year and had a vision for leveraging the social entrepreneur community to get more involved in policy and politics. When I was hired, I was tasked with building a working group of education entrepreneurs—folks like Jon Schnur, Mike Fineberg, Kevin Huffman, and Earl Martin Phalen—and co-developing a policy agenda that we could mobilize the entrepreneurs’ organizations’ communities around.

In the run up to the 2008 presidential election (and before we could get too deep in the education work), Be the Change’s first campaign, an effort to expand national and community service called ServiceNation, started getting real traction. It became all hands on deck for ServiceNation, and I helped pull together and write the policy agenda for the campaign, which strongly influenced the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009. Once the Serve America Act was signed into law, I was able to shift my attention back to education reform, and I joined the team at The Mind Trust in Indianapolis.

Through the ServiceNation campaign I became a strong proponent of national and community service. Though I’m no expert on foreign policy, it seems to me that many of our foreign and military policy decisions have a disproportionate impact on the small percentage of our citizenry that volunteer for military service. I would be a proponent of mandatory military or national service for all young people (like in Germany) both as a mechanism to increase civic engagement and as a strategy for increasing the public’s engagement with foreign/military policy.

What organizations or organizational leaders do you most admire? What big lessons have you learned from them?

It’s tough to pick just a few here. I admire all of the leaders of our network members for having the courage to envision different ways to deliver a great public education to every child in their cities. They get beat up every day for pushing against a failed status quo and I am inspired by their persistence and creativity. But to pick a few specifics: From David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, I’ve learned to go big or go home and to always end the day by asking “what more can I do?” From Tony Lewis, Executive Director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation in Denver, I’ve learned about the real power that comes with being a convener, and that there’s at least one other ed reformer who loves working in dirt as much as I do (I occasionally labor on Tony’s little farm outside the city). And from Kye Hawkins and Carrie Douglass, my colleagues at CEE-Trust, I’ve learned that the best move leaders can make is hiring people who are nicer, smarter, and more talented than they are.

You know my thesis: Urban districts are broken, can’t be fixed, and must be replaced. What do you think?

I think you’re probably right. No big urban district anywhere is living up to its mission. There are a lot of really, really smart people who have tried to fix districts. There are a lot of really, really smart funders who have invested in fixing districts. And there are a lot of talented educators who have given their hearts and souls to their kids in urban districts. I think we need to agree that it’s not the people; it’s the system.

No offense to our members or funders who work closely with districts, but districts don’t seem to create the conditions system wide that great schools need to thrive. That said, I know a lot of great folks who are investing time and energy into district improvement because districts still serve a lot of kids. I get that strategy, but I still think we need folks like you, Neerav “Relinquisher” Kingsland, and our friends at CRPE who run the Portfolio District Network, to help education leaders plan for a future with a different district structure that’s capable of delivering better results.

When I was vice-president of The Mind Trust I worked intensively on the “Opportunity Schools” plan for transforming Indianapolis Public Schools. As part of that project, The Mind Trust and its partners at Public Impact looked at high-performing urban schools nationally and identified a few core conditions that seemed necessary to their success. These conditions were autonomy (over staffing, curriculum, culture, calendar, etc), accountability, and choice. Districts aren’t really designed to give individual schools full autonomy, nor are they staffed to serve as authorizers, nor do most districts provide full school choice to their families. With CEE-Trust’s focus on helping city harbormasters create the optimal conditions for great schools, we plan on continuing to focus on school governance and district transformation as a long-term change strategy.

You’re an accomplished cellist, and I’m told that you nearly became a professional. Impressive! When I learned the concept of a “tri-tone substitute,” I was so amazed my head nearly exploded. Are there any particular aspects of music theory that had a similar effect on you? Do you have favorite composers or pieces of music (classical or otherwise)?

Of course you had to ask about music theory – the one area of music I know basically nothing about! I’m a super music nerd: 95% of my mp3s and CDs are classical, but I barely know about the circle of fifths let alone tri-tone substitutes. I do, however, have a lot of recommendations for great pieces of music your readers should check out.

My favorite composers in college were the French Romantics: Faure, Debussy, and Ravel. Grab a glass of wine and listen to the Faure C-minor piano quintet or the Ravel piano trio. Oh-la-la!

If you’re feeling a bit more austere and religious, listen to Bach’s St. John Passion and keep a translation handy so you can listen to how Bach builds tension through his incredible matching of lyrics to music.

I also like blue grass, and there’s a fantastic band of virtuosos called Punch Brothers that I can’t recommend enough.

You have two degrees from Harvard, including one as an honors graduate.  Again, impressive! I, on the other hand, have been rejected by Harvard three times: by the undergraduate college, by the law school, and by its education press (for my proposal for The Urban School System of the Future). What were the best parts of getting to study there? For example, did any particular classes or professors have a major influence on you?

Between you and me it sounds like Harvard screwed up five times. Side note: when I got into Harvard College I was told that I was a “character admit” since my SATs weren’t mind-blowing. The admissions officer told me, “after your interview, I thought to myself, Ethan would be a good guy to have on campus when there’s a suicide.”

So, yeah, wasn’t really sure how to take that, or if going was the best idea at that point. But I did. And I’m hugely glad I did so. The best part of being there for me was that I met Ted Sizer, and he took me under his wing. He was my senior thesis sponsor and really shaped my thinking on how schools are moral places that shape kids’ values (for better and worse). I also got to meet some pretty cool students who were driven and passionate.

I remember one religion seminar I took had a Hindu, a Buddhist, an orthodox Jew, a Reform Jew, a Muslim, a Southern Baptist, two Catholics, and an agnostic (me). Aside from being the set up to a great joke, it was also an incredible opportunity to learn from peers who had a different set of life experiences from me. In grad school, the best class I took was Jal Mehta’s class on Schooling and Society. It was basically a survey of every interesting education policy and practice turning point over the past 150 years. I liked the class so much I made Jal be friends with me and he ended up officiating at my wedding several years later. We’re still close.

I’m told you love Vermont and the outdoors. Have either of those affected your worldview in some way—whether your politics, your approach to work, your relationships, or something else?

Well, anytime I say anything remotely progressive in front of David Harris (the top education aide to former Democratic Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson, I might add), he accuses me of being a Bernie-Sanders liberal. And yes, I did use to have a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker on my cello case.

But I’m not sure Vermont has had a big influence on my ed reform orientation (despite its long running, statewide school choice program). It has, however, had a huge impact on me personally. I’m enormously proud that Vermont has universal health coverage, was early to support civil unions then gay marriage, and continues to outlaw billboards on the side of the road (just contrast the pleasure of interstate driving in Vermont to the hideousness that is driving in New Hampshire). It’s such a beautiful part of the country; my dream is to find some excuse to hold a CEE-Trust event in Burlington.

Lastly, and most importantly, your colleagues tell me that you’re an aficionado of mind-numbing YouTube videos. What do you recommend to BTCIK readers needing a mental reprieve?

It’s important to know that there are lots of different genres of mind-numbing YouTube videos. I usually use YouTube for pick-me-ups so I like surprise proposal videos, surprise military homecomings (for pets or people), and anything about animal inter-species friendships. As my colleagues will attest, I also love to tell jokes so this site is a constant source of material.

-Andy Smarick

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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