By the Company It Keeps: Scott Morgan

I met Scott Morgan on a bus nearly five years ago.

During a short ride from an airport to a hotel, we had the most natural, engaging, fun conversation imaginable. He asked me about my work, my family, and my interests, and as we were walking into the lobby, I felt like we had known each other for years.

Only later did I come to realize that I had been talking to the Scott Morgan, the founder and CEO of Education Pioneers (EP). He had spent our entire conversation showing such genuine interest in me, asking about my life, that I hadn’t had the chance to learn about him. It hadn’t clicked that I was talking to the guy who started one of the most valuable organizations in our space.

These memories came rushing back to me last week, during EP’s 10th-anniversary gala. Speaker after speaker said the kindest things about Scott, sincerely thanking him for his modesty and commitment to the cause. It turns out that lots of people have had the same experience I had—meeting him initially and immediately recognizing his modesty and talents.

But what came through during those talks and in my subsequent research for this interview is that Scott’s initial, get-to-know-you humanity carries through in seemingly all of his interactions. Those who know him best gushed about his authentic care for others, his penchant for asking questions instead of giving answers, and his studied avoidance of the spotlight.

This is all the more remarkable because one could understand if he had a swollen sense of self. EP has brought thousands of talented people into the world of K–12 schooling and has built lasting partnerships with our sector’s most influential organizations. EP’s fellows and alum are now scattered across the education-reform landscape (including my organization), and they are accomplishing big things.

Despite all of this and the countless, well-deserved public accolades he’s received, Scott remains the wholly decent guy on that bus. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if some number of BTCIK readers once bumped into Scott at a conference or a coffee shop and had the most delightful conversation without realizing they had just met an extraordinary former schoolteacher, Stanford Law grad, and education-reform superstar.

I so admire Scott and the successes of Education Pioneers. I’m proud to call him a friend, and I sincerely hope that each and every one of you has the chance, even for just a few minutes, to keep his company. It’s a wonderful thing.

Ladies and gentlemen, Scott Morgan.

Education Pioneers’s first 10 years were extraordinary. Congratulations. But your new 10-year goal (10,000 leaders in education by 2023) is downright audacious. How in the world are you going to pull this off?

I’m a fan of big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs). When Education Pioneers launched in 2003, our first BHAG was to bring on 300 Fellows a year, working for outstanding partner organizations in 15 cities across the country by our 10th anniversary.

In EP’s early years—when I pounded the pavement at graduate school campuses to recruit top leaders, and hauled supplies for our Fellowship workshops in my car—that BHAG of 300 Fellows in 15 cities seemed like an incredible stretch.

But through a true team effort we exceeded that first audacious goal in just nine years. And this year, our 10th, we brought on nearly 450 Education Pioneers Fellows, partnered with 180 education organizations, and work in 20 cities nationwide.

Getting to 10,000 leaders in education—by continuing to scale with a relentless focus on quality—will be tough work. It will require us to grow at a compound annual growth rate in excess of 20 percent for our second decade (with growth expected from our existing fellowship programs and new offerings designed to provide on-ramps for leaders and managers to enter the education sector). At the same time, we must continue to innovate and search for new ways to create even more value for the leaders we bring on board and the partners we support through our talent network.

At the end of the day, hitting this BHAG will require us to live our core values of courage, optimism, collaboration, and action; to model the talent mindset that we think is essential for the sector as we build our team and culture; and to continue to learn, grow, and partner with great people and champions.

At your celebration event, you were kind enough to put me on stage, and I unkindly reciprocated by kicking EP in the shins (sorry!). I argued that our field’s talent organizations (e.g., TFA, TNTP, Broad, EP) are wasting human capital by sending people to work in the failed urban district. My case was that if you have high-quality fuel, don’t put it into a broken-down car. The stage is now yours: How do you respond?

No apology necessary, Andy, as I thought your panel featured one of the best exchanges of ideas that I’ve seen on a panel at an education conference. In response to your question, I’d offer up three points from my perspective as the leader of Education Pioneers.

First, I fully agree that the status quo is not working and we need to change it—for the sake of our kids and our country. This view is shared by a large cross section of people in the field. We’re seeing strong, transformation-minded leaders who have a talent mindset at a number of urban school districts, like our mutual friend Kaya Henderson at D.C. Public Schools.

We’re also seeing bold and promising ideas for reinventing school districts and redefining the role of government in education. That’s why we partnered with the Center for Reinventing Public Education this year to design a portfolio district workshop for all Education Pioneers fellows across the country. And that’s another reason I was excited to have you and Neerav Kingsland share the stage with Kaya Henderson to discuss system leadership as part of our 10th-anniversary leadership summit.

We need not just incremental, but transformational change. Therefore, we are going to need new strategies and structures that will serve all students well. But here’s the thing: strategy and structure are tools that leaders—people—leverage. So we’re focused on building the pipeline of those people who can drive transformational change by designing and building systems of great schools that provide all students with an exceptional education.

Second, I’d point out that Education Pioneers works with a portfolio of partners, including, but not limited to urban districts. While we partner with a number of reform-minded districts across the United States, only about 20 percent of EP alumni in education work for school districts (including exciting new models like Louisiana’s Recovery School District and Tennessee’s Achievement School District). The vast majority of EP alumni work for other education organizations, including high-performing charter school networks and education nonprofits, state and federal agencies that allocate billions of dollars across the sector and impact millions of children, education policy and advocacy organizations, and ed tech companies. We continue to assess and refine our portfolio on an annual basis and are focused on finding high-impact opportunities for Education Pioneers to drive change.

Third, I’m a big believer not only in providing parents with great choices in deciding where their children go to school, but also in helping really talented adults determine where their passions and skills can be applied to make the greatest impact. We place talented Education Pioneers with our partners, connect them to our network, and expose them to leverage areas for driving change in education, but they are ultimately the ones making decisions about where they can make the most impact during the course of their careers.

Through those choices, we see a number of incredibly talented leaders from EP and other talent networks voting with their feet in deciding to join Kaya Henderson at DCPS or other strong leaders in reform-minded urban districts across the country. As a result, we have talented people in many districts relentlessly focused on transforming results at scale for kids. At the same time, we have a critical mass of EP alumni working to innovate and scale new solutions.

You run a huge, successful organization but also have a successful edu-wife (a former vice principal of a high-performing school), a beautiful little girl, and another on the way. Do you follow any family-life-balance rules that help you manage it all?

First of all, I feel incredibly fortunate to have an amazing and supportive wife who shares my passion for improving educational opportunities for underserved students. Doran is an exceptional school leader and talking shop is one of the things that makes our marriage tick. I often turn to her for advice and know she will always give it to me straight.

In terms of balance, I’ve prioritized getting home by 6 p.m. after I went back to work following the birth of our first daughter 2 ½ years ago. This habit of having dinner and spending evenings with my family is important to us, though there are plenty of nights when I end up burning the midnight oil after everyone has gone to bed. I also try to turn around my out-of-town trips much faster than I used to so that I’m home as much as possible.

That said, there’s no way I could have gotten EP off the ground without putting in serious startup hours during our early years and there are times now when the thought of managing it all is truly laughable.

You worked for the nation’s first—and still among the nation’s best—CMOs, Aspire Public Schools. What did you learn there, and can you talk about your relationship with its founder Don Shalvey?

Working at Aspire Public Schools provided me with an amazing opportunity to learn from two entrepreneurial leaders, Don Shalvey and Gloria Lee. It also opened my eyes to the tremendous power of hybrid leadership teams with both education expertise and business know-how to innovate and deliver excellent educational opportunities for students. I saw firsthand what could be accomplished through the contributions of talented leaders coming from different backgrounds and bringing different skill sets and perspectives. In fact, my time at Aspire convinced me that the model for success in education must have at its core a commitment to diverse leaders working together to deliver high-quality educational opportunities for students.

The fact that I got to work with Don Shalvey, and that he has continued to offer his guidance and support as Education Pioneers (and I) have grown, is one of the great blessings of my life. He helped inspire the idea behind Education Pioneers and is the embodiment of our core values of courage, optimism, collaboration, and action. He has also lent an ear at the most critical times in the growth of Education Pioneers and I know that the organization would not be where it is today without his guidance and support. Finally, his generosity in sharing his time and gifts with me and so many other education leaders over the years is the reason why I prioritize making the time to meet with and mentor other education entrepreneurs who seek me out for guidance.

Your colleagues say the same flattering thing about you, and it’s something I’ve noticed in our time together: that you’re among the most humble leaders around. You avoid the spotlight and never talk about yourself. Is this conscious or just part of your hardwiring? How would you describe your leadership philosophy?

I grew up with four very talented siblings, so I’m used to sharing the spotlight. Honestly, for me, it’s so much more interesting to hear other people’s stories and ideas and to try to integrate them into the work that we are doing.

My leadership philosophy is largely about getting the right talent into an organization and then empowering that talent in a way so that top performers and the organization thrive. It’s something I think and read a lot about and I continue to refine my approach. I know that this is an area that I’ll need to continue to grow in to help us achieve our 20-year goals.

I’m told you’re a huge admirer of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Imagine this is a final exam. Take Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural and King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and “I Have a Dream…” speech, and tell me a short story about America and your work.

You’re right that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., are two leaders whom I deeply admire and look to for inspiration. You also picked four great examples of their eloquence to advance the fight for freedom and justice for all.

As I think about the larger cause that connects our work today to the words and deeds of Lincoln and King, I’m also reminded of Lincoln’s First Message to Congress on July 4, 1861 when he described our nation’s struggle “to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

While we’ve made considerable progress as a nation in the past century and a half to end the evils of slavery and segregation, we still have a long way to go to ensure that all of our nation’s children are afforded the opportunity for an unfettered start and a fair chance that Lincoln talked about. The extent of our current crisis is clear when we have less than 1 in 10 students from low-income families graduating from college by age 24. Transforming that result is the new frontier in the long struggle for freedom.

Our work at Education Pioneers fits into this larger narrative, since talented leaders and managers are essential to create and build high-performing systems of great schools—and an ecosystem that supports them—to ensure that every child in this country has the opportunity to thrive.

To me, this story is one about courage, since all status-quo-challenging work—especially what Lincoln and King undertook—takes extraordinary courage. That’s why courage is our first core value at Education Pioneers; from it, everything else flows. Our ability to summon the courage to boldly confront the challenge at hand will ultimately determine the next chapter of our story at EP and the larger American story.

If you were teaching a class on leading an entrepreneurial venture in K–12 education reform, what books would be required reading?

I’d start by recommending The Circuit and Breaking Through, Francisco Jiménez’s moving stories about overcoming incredible odds as an undocumented Mexican child growing up in the U.S. Francisco, who crossed the border in 1947 at the age of four and spent much of his childhood working in the fields of California without consistent access to an excellent education, went on to get his PhD from Columbia University, to become an award-winning professor at Santa Clara University, and to raise three boys who also went on to attain advanced degrees with his wife Laura. Given our nation’s failure to educate millions of students of color from low-income families, Francisco’s story is a powerful reminder of why we do this work and a challenge to all of us to make his story of success the norm, not a powerful exception.

Second, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, served as the guidebook for Education Pioneers during our first year of existence. We read and discussed chapters at board meetings and retreats, which ultimately helped us to build a strong, enduring foundation for the organization by deciding on our four core values and identifying our core purpose. The book also inspired us to cast our BHAG for our first decade.

Third, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Business and Life, a compelling new book by Chip and Dan Heath, provides tremendous insights about how to utilize a smart process in making important decisions. I’ve been applying the 10/10/10 rule since reading about it and have found it very helpful to shift the spotlight beyond my short-term emotions. Also, as a fan of the rock band Van Halen during my youth (which unfortunately influenced my hairstyle choices for a stretch), it’s nice to see David Lee Roth held up as a decision-making genius (seriously).

In addition, it doesn’t seem right in the year 2013 not to throw a MOOC into the mix, especially for leaders who are preparing to launch new education ventures or innovate within existing ones. I learned a ton about lean startup principles and the search for a business model by taking Steve Blank’s Udacity course on “How to Build a Startup: The Lean LaunchPad” and have been applying these insights with members of my team on a new pilot we are launching next year.

You began your career as a teacher in a Catholic school via the University of Notre Dame’s ACE program. What are the most important things you learned from Notre Dame, ACE, and teaching at St. Jude High School in Montgomery, Alabama? Can you tell us about Miguel?

My Notre Dame, ACE, and St. Jude experiences truly changed my life and career trajectory. Above all else, I learned how challenging – and rewarding – it is to take your passion and skills and direct them towards the most difficult challenges we face in our nation and to do this important work side by side with incredibly talented and committed people and in partnership with underserved students, families, and communities.

I was very fortunate that ACE sent me to teach social studies at St. Jude High School in Montgomery, Alabama. This school was started in the 1930s by a dynamic priest, Father Harold Purcell, who was outraged by the educational injustice facing African American students in Montgomery. So, during the Great Depression, he traveled around the country to raise enough money to build not only a school but also a beautiful church, a social services center, and a hospital. And today the City of St. Jude has an incredible history—it served as the final campsite for the Selma-to-Montgomery march, the two eldest children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King were born at the hospital, and many of my students’ relatives were active in the civil rights movement.

My teaching experience was incredibly tough and truly transformative. From my time as a teacher, I learned how challenging and rewarding the teaching profession is, how meaningful real connections with students can be (I’m still in contact with quite a few of my students from St. Jude), and how important it is to take a growth mindset to this work.

Miguel Jiménez, the son of Francisco Jiménez whom I mentioned earlier, is a dear, lifelong friend. We actually met in pre-school and have been close ever since. I immediately called upon Miguel when founding Education Pioneers because of his passion for education, the trust I had in him, and the financial expertise he could bring to EP. Fortunately, Miguel said “yes” when I asked him to join our founding board and he has played a vital role in helping me start and grow Education Pioneers during our first decade.

Why’d you go to Stanford Law School, and why did you decide not to practice law?

I like to think, and I like to learn new ways of thinking. Law school provided a great (and expensive!) opportunity to do just that. I was also attracted to the chance to study law and build my network in Silicon Valley, and believed that the degree would provide me with the flexibility to pursue different career opportunities while utilizing my legal training to drive change.

Largely as a result of my teaching experience at St. Jude, I arrived at law school with a deep desire to combine the new set of skills I would develop in law school with my passion for improving educational opportunities for under-served students. The big question was: How? How could I combine my passion and skills to make a difference in the world?

Three years later, I managed to land my dream legal job as the first in-house counsel at Aspire Public Schools, where I drafted charter petitions to open new schools and oversaw other legal work for the organization, including contract law, employment law, and education law. So, I did practice law for a few years (I need to remind myself of that every month as I continue to make my student loan payments 13 years later) before I decided to take the entrepreneurial leap and launch Education Pioneers.

That decision to move from lawyer to entrepreneur in education came when I realized that there were plenty of great attorneys who could oversee Aspire’s legal work better than I could, but I didn’t see anyone else moving to seize the opportunity for what ultimately became Education Pioneers.

You’re based in the Bay Area, a—shall we say—“progressive” environment. A quick Google search turns up a Scott Morgan who’s a prolific marijuana-rights writer. You do know that when you’re trying to pull a Bruce Wayne–Batman thing, you’re supposed to pick two different names, right? You might have to go back to Superhero Moonlighting 101, Scott.

Andy, I’m surprised that you’re using this interview to reveal that you view a prolific marijuana-rights writer as a masked superhero! Maybe you should move out this way? I think there are still some high-quality seats open at Oaksterdam University.

In any event, I think I’ve got Batman beat. He only had two different identities, but Scott Morgan has at least four, also including Scott Morgan, the American rock & roll and soul musician, and Scott Morgan, the .

Seriously, as you and many of your readers know from personal experience, work in the education sector requires wearing a lot of different hats, sometimes all at once. So while this Scott Morgan may not be a marijuana-rights activist, a musician, or a rugby player, I am honored to be part of a high-impact organization—powered not by a cape but by an amazing team and board, an equally amazing alumni network of 2,000 leaders, and partnerships with 180 education organizations across the country—working for an all-important cause on behalf of underserved students and our nation.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute”s Flypaper blog.

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