Early education and the success sequence – interview with Ian Rowe | VIEWPOINT

Early education and the success sequence – interview with Ian Rowe | VIEWPOINT

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Ian: The proficiency rate for 8th grade black
boys was 18%. For white 8th grade boys, it’s 19%. Maybe there are other factors outside of race,
class, and gender driving these outcomes. Nat: Ian Rowe, thanks for coming to AEI and
talking to me. Ian: Great. Great to see you. How are you doing? Nat: Yeah. So, Ian, you are CEO of Public Prep, which
is the largest and oldest national network, the only national charter network of single-sex
elementary middle schools. Is that right? Ian: That is correct. Nat: Tell me what are you doing at Public
Prep and how is it different from other charter schools in New York City? Ian: Sure. Well, the fact that we are the oldest and
only network that, unto itself, makes us different. Like other charter school networks, we are
obsessed with ensuring that our students remain on a path to college completion. So, we are pre-K through eight, and yet stay
connected to our kids, even when they’re in high school. And now, our first cohorts are entering college,
which is very exciting. We have about 2,000 students in our all-girls
and our all-boys schools in the lower East side of Manhattan and in the heart of the
South Bronx. Nat: And how many campuses do you have? Ian: We have six campuses right now. You know, right on in Hunts Point in the Bronx
and Lower East Side and the vast majority of our kids come from low income backgrounds,
predominantly kids of color, and we have the highest of expectations of them. We’re really proud to say the first cohorts… So we started in 2005 with 45 kindergarten
students and 45 first graders. And in 2013, we graduated 47 of those original
first graders, meaning that we accepted… Nat: That’s amazing. Ian: Yeah. We accepted students along the way. And then last year, that first cohort, 43
out of those 47. So, 90% of the original cohort that graduated
from our schools in 8th grade entered some of the best colleges and universities in the
country. So, Yale, Howard, and we’ll soon be announcing
that the cohort that started in kindergarten in 2005, 45, we graduated 65 of those students
in 2014 and we’ll soon be announcing that more than 91% of that class is now heading
to some of the best colleges. Nat: That’s fantastic. So, you’re topping out at 90%. Now, that is a fantastic track record, but
I’ve heard this before, right? Charter school focusing on kids with low opportunities,
delivering for them, expecting a lot. But Public Prep is doing more than just that. That sets it apart, so. Ian: Well, I mean, so we agree that these
are interim achievements because at the end of the day, we wanna see not only our kids
going to complete college, where they’re gonna be in terms of life success, right? And when we say complete college, we mean
complete college in four years. Many other schools use a six-year metric for
a four-year, and that’s… Nat: But even that is your interim goal, because
your long-term goal is this diffuse idea of success in life. Right. Ian: And success in life can be defined economically,
it can be defined in terms of the strength of your family. There are many dimensions. We want our kids to be empathetic, resilient,
bold, intellectually curious girls and boys. And so, it’s incumbent upon us, if that’s
the end goal, to do more than just teach about math and reading, right? It’s important to ensure that our students
have the kinds of immersive experiences that may place them in environments that they may
not be used to at home, or ensure that they get exposure to information that they may
not be getting through other institutions – I can talk about some of these things – to
ensure that by the time they graduate from 8th grade, they have the armor, the information,
the self-confidence, the self-regulation skills, all those non-cognitive…even though we sort
of hate that term because character-based strengths are very related to your cognitive
and academic ability. But all of those are part of a package that
ensures that you have the ability to overcome the inevitable hurdles that one will face
in high school, in college, and in life. Nat: So, how do you teach this stuff? Is this just part of Public Prep’s culture
or do you teach it explicitly in classes? How do you impart these things? Just through school? Ian: Yeah. So, as you might imagine, there are a lot
of different touch points, right? So, in some ways, you want to create a future
orientation, right? So, one example of that is that starting in
pre-K, we work with all of our families to open New York State 529 college savings accounts. And we have $50 that we match and we create
an economic incentive for a family to say even for your four-year-old, we are thinking
about when that student is going to be graduating from high school 12, 13 years from now. And that’s one of multiple little and small
things that we do to reinforce this idea that self-control today means lots of benefit later. And our four core values, you know, responsibility,
scholarship, merithood, and sisterhood or brotherhood, these are all parts of elements
that we do to ensure that, again, obviously, academics are critical, but your ability to
persevere, to have a determined effort to achieve your goal, those are the kinds of
things that we believe ultimately are useful not only in academic success, but in virtually
every other kind of challenge that one encounters. Nat: Sure. Absolutely. So, you guys are making some bets and I want
to ask about two of the bets you made. One, you’ve been making some bets where you’re
willing to spend more money than you may have to in your home visiting program. I wanna hear about your home visiting program. And then, after that, I wanna hear about the
bets that you’re willing to make and the stand you’re willing to take on the success sequence. So, help me. Ian: Sure. So, home visiting is something that’s actually
been part of the DNA of girls prep and boys prep from the very beginning, from when we
first started in 2005. And that’s something that we did. Every single student every year, the mountain
goes to Muhammad. We go to the home, we spend time with whomever
the caregivers are, and we talk about the commitment that we will be making as a school
to your son or daughter. In return, we also ask for the caregiver to
say, “This is what we need from you,” because the thing is, schools, we cannot do this alone. We need the full participation of families
because as much time as we have with our kids, they spend more time at home. So, the home visiting component of what we
do has always been critical. We’ve added a new element this year, which
is that even at four years old, when students come in to pre-K, we notice that they do not
always have access to the vocabulary or the social and emotional development. Some of our families do and they’re, you know,
very stable situations, but not all, right? And so, we’ve been trying to think about how
do we create a better environment even for those younger siblings of our current students
who are not even in our schools yet, right? Nat: So, under four years old? Ian: Under four years old. So, we’ve created a partnership with the parent-child
home program, which has been a home visiting literacy-based program that’s been around
for 50 years, has a long evidence base. And so, we now are the first charter network
to say to the younger siblings of our current boys prep or girls prep students, especially
in the Bronx, that if you’ve got a younger sibling at home that’s 18 months old, for
two years, an early literacy specialist will go to your home, spend time with the caregiver
and your child, twice per week, 30 minutes per visit, to literally sit with you to talk
about how do you create a literacy-rich environment at home. How do you physically build a library? How do you take advantage of your trips to
the supermarket or the local bodega, whatever it is, to use that as a learning opportunity
to build a vocabulary of that 18-month-old student? We’re making the bet that even before that
18-month-old is a student, that two years from now, because we know that that student
will have preference in our allotted… Nat: Sibling preference. Ian: Sibling preference. They will have a guaranteed entry. Now, it’s possible that a family may move,
but since we have such high retention, we believe that that’s gonna have a significant
impact on the readiness levels of the kids that are entering our schools. Nat: But you’re taking on those costs? That’s a bet that you guys are making? Ian: It is so critical. I mean, it would be amazing if there was a
public funding stream that recognized…because I think there’s this belief somehow that school
systems starting in kindergarten, we just have to accept kids where they are. And we just know, particularly in ages zero
to three, the science on brain development, so much work that’s happening in those very,
very early years, before children enter formal schooling, if we can reach that, if districts
and charter networks like ours can reach back in highly effective research-based ways such
as this parent-child home visiting program, we believe that can have a dramatic impact
on kids as they enter pre-K or kindergarten. Nat: So, that’s how you’re looking back? Talk to me about the success sequence in looking
forward. Ian: So, you know, so we…and there’s a little
bit of backstory here. So, we started in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Then when our growth was in the South Bronx. And when you look at the South Bronx as a
neighborhood of opportunity, it’s pretty challenging. So, there’s data that if you’re a boy, particularly
districts in the South Bronx, if you’re a boy and you start ninth grade, only 2% four
years later will graduate from high school, ready for college, meaning that you started
ninth grade and you dropped out or you didn’t graduate high school at all, or you did finish
but the high school degree that you earned did not empower you to do reading or math
at a level that didn’t require remediation once you got into college. So, for us… Nat: And that’s at 2% threshold? Ian: It’s hard to do worse than them, right? Nat: Them’s long odds. Yeah. Ian: It’s pretty challenging. And so, our belief was we should have…any
growth that we do should be in neighborhoods that have that massive a need. And so, we decided to move our headquarters,
the Public Prep headquarters, from lovely Tribeca to the heart of the South Bronx, right
on the 149th street, 3rd Avenue. And so, we decided to do a little walking
tour of the team to just to get to know the neighborhood. Like where’s the local deli, where’s the bank,
just so we would get to know the neighborhood. And as we were walking, I saw this 27-foot
Winnebago, baby blue truck that people were excited, like, “Oh my gosh. There’s the truck.” What is this? It’s almost like the ice cream truck, right? But it had these words emblazoned on the side. “Who’s your daddy?” And I said, “What is that?” And as it turned out, the “Who’s Your Daddy?”
was a mobile DNA testing center where the guy who started it, you know, has a thriving
business. I saw the first truck. They’ve since opened up a second truck. Nat: And the service is actually identifying
who is your daddy? Ian: That’s exactly what it is. And it costs between $350 to $500, where people
are using the service to answer questions such as “Who is my father?” or “Are you my
father?,” “Are you my sibling?” And it was the kind of thing that like…literally
like, “How can this be?” And so, as I saw that, and over time, learned
that even though this truck existed in the South Bronx, the phenomenon that it represented
was something that was emblematic of this kind of phenomena happening all across the
country, specifically, as it relates to non-marital birth rates, particularly amongst young women
and men aged 24 and under. Nat: So, you’re talking about birth outside
of marriage or under-aged birth? What is it exactly the phenomena that we’re
worried about? Ian: So, it’s a combination of the two. So, it’s non-marital births below a certain
age, right? I mean, most people agree that the unbelievable
success of the teen pregnancy effort over the last few decades has had enormous impact,
because most people agree that having a child at 16 years old is probably not a good outcome
for the child nor the…right? Many of those same characteristics exist for
a woman or man aged 24 and under who’s non-married. And in fact, if you look at the data across
race, the percentages are staggering. So, among whites, so they’re about 800,000
to 900,000 births each year to women and men aged 24 and under across race. So, 60% of white births aged 24 and under
to white kids are non-marital births. Among the black community, it’s 90%. Among Hispanics, it’s about 70%. So, across the board… Nat: It’s a vast majority across all races. Ian: That’s the point, right? And when I thought about the schools that
we are building, there’s a lot of things that schools can do and overcome. We can get our kids to certain levels academically,
very high expectations, really focused on character development, all the things that
we just talked about in core values. But as a school, we cannot ignore these cultural
shifts that have happened over the last five decades to know that, particularly as it relates
to the shifts in family structures, have a fundamental impact on things like what happens
aged zero to three for our kids and what happens even afterwards. Nat: I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, this
is a contested point of view. You might get a little pushback. You put out the importance of family structure. What kind of pushback have you experienced
and you’ve gotten and how do you react to it? How do you try and, not defend it, but make
clear what you are arguing? Ian: Yeah. You know, what’s interesting is, so a few
years ago, Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution were also asking
this question about… So, we’ve studied failure ad nauseam, right? You know, why does entrenched poverty just
continue, continue to continue? So, they asked an interesting question like,
“Is there a data set of people who have been in poverty, most notably children, and over
time have emerged into the middle class and beyond and sustained that presence. A, is there any data out there, and if there
is, is there anything that helps to define any kind of behaviors that led to that transition?” Nat: So, they moved from studying failure
to studying success. Ian: Yeah. And guess what they found? There’s actually a set of behaviors that for
many people is common sense and what you practice every single day, but it’s pretty overwhelming. So, they identified that there are these three
or four behaviors, right? One, finish your education. So, in the study, it’s mostly high school. I think, you know, we believe that college
is the new high school. So, you know, finish college, full-time job
of any kind, just so you learn the dignity and discipline of work and all those responsibilities,
marriage, then children, in that order. That’s what the data says, right? There are other iterations that, you know,
don’t get married, don’t have children, right? So, there are other iterations and that’s
kind of the point, that they have shown that there are correlations of likely success based
on different orderings of those decisions, right? And so, for us, when we think about this,
where are kids actually hearing this information? Where are kids getting the fact that there
are rewards or consequences associated with certain life choices? It used to be that the institutions through
which kids learn this information…might have been within their own family, it might
have been within a faith-based institution, it might have been in their neighborhood,
it might have been in popular media. But generally, those institutions aren’t reinforcing
those messages. In fact, you could argue that they’re reinforcing
something very different about what is valued. And so, if not us, who, when I think about
public education, because we’re the remaining institution that actually has kids in our
doors every single day. So, we’ve decided to pilot… And there’s a lot of pushback, even within
my own organization, of how can we do this. “This is not the role of school. You’re moralizing. We run the risk of offending the very children
and families that we’re working so hard to serve,” right? But that’s not what we’re doing at all. And one of the things that’s so important
about this is to actually have a conversation with parents to say regardless of decisions
or situation that you found yourself that may have led you down a certain road, our
belief is that most of our parents actually want us to be the adult in the room in the
sense of we won’t let the fear of offending people or the fear of being accused of blaming
the victim, we actually won’t let that deprive the very young people who would benefit from
this kind of information. We have to have the courage to share that. Nat: So, there’s a number of things that we
have studied, the general we. Gender, race, poverty. These are sort of standard metrics. When I’m talking about running a model, I
say put in the usual suspects, right? These are the normal things. Family structure, sometimes it’s in there,
but it’s not one of the mainstays. You’ve talked before about the need to enter
a family structure on there. That’s a contested notion, but can you make
the case? Why do we need to know more about family structure
from a statistical point of view when we are looking at the outcomes that our educational
systems are putting out? Ian: Yeah. It’s a really profound and important question
because if you look at any data set and you say, “Look, the usual suspects…” or we believe
the world exists through the prism of race, class, or gender, right? So, if there’s a racial achievement gap, then
that must be driven by some kind of race-based explanation. Either it’s racism or the inherent inferiority
of races, which is absolutely wrong, right? And yet, there might be something that’s as
fundamental to human development that goes underneath all of these things. And so, almost every other sector. The CDC just recently released an analysis
looking at child health outcomes. And they actually broke it down by family…like
there’s seven different categories. Two-parent family, single parent, grandmother,
and it makes sense. And guess what? This data pretty profoundly shows that there
is a correlation between certain family structures and much different outcomes in terms of child
health. That kind of data just does not exist in public
education. In economics, in economic research, there’s
all sorts of data that shows correlation between family structure and economic outcomes, but
for some reason, in education, it’s almost taboo. We have to break that. The NAEP data just came out a couple of weeks
ago and everyone’s wringing their hands again because once again data was stagnant and the
racial achievement gaps… You know, in West Virginia a couple of years
ago, with NAEP data, the proficiency rate for 8th grade black boys was 18%, which is
horrible. The proficiency rate for white 8th grade boys
was 19%, which is also horrible. But let’s say we close the racial achievement
gap so that both are now at 19%. That is not the victory point. Maybe there’s something else that is driving
these outcomes. And in the absence of not even having data
such as family structure, which I think is certainly a factor in some of these outcomes…but
if we don’t even have the courage to measure it, then we certainly can’t manage it. And it doesn’t give us the permission to actually
say maybe there are other factors outside of race, class, and gender that could be driving
some of these differences. Nat: So, in Public Prep, you’re trying to
teach this directly to your students. Give me a little bit on exactly how you’re
doing that. And as you do that, some people that would
say, “Well, you have these things in the success sequence,” right? Finish high school and, you know, get married,
and then have kids, get a job, so forth, and this is a sequence. But there’s also gonna be some people who
say, “You know, it’s not those things. Those things are reflecting something else
that drives those things,” whether it’s a coherent, you know, lessons from your parents
about how you grow up and succeed and so forth. So, how do you respond to those things? When you’re teaching kids, how do you make
sure that you’re teaching them actually how to succeed and not sort of cover of the sequence? Ian: Right. I mean, what you just said is very interesting. It might be that you’re growing up in a home
environment where you just learn those things from your parent either by example or explicitly
taught. Or you’re in a faith-based institution. Somehow, you’re getting the message to the
point where it doesn’t need to be taught in schools, right? So, our fundamental premises…unfortunately,
we think our kids are not getting this exposure through all these other vehicles through which
they may have been exposed to this kind of information. So, it is important to us to teach it. Now, the how, for us, is really important. And we’re still in pilot mode, we’re still
experimenting, and in some ways, part of why I’ve embarked upon this journey is to have
other schools take on this effort and say, “How do we wanna engage our students?” We’re taking the approach there. Our graduating 8th graders, the second of
the year, we have a class called Like Knowledge. It’s twice a week. And in that class, the first thing starts
with speaking to our scholars about what are their life aspirations 10 to 12 years from
now, right? So, we go through 8th grade, and in the next
12 years of your life is the first four years of high school, then four years of college,
and then the first four years of young adulthood, right, because decisions that are made in
that 12-year span will have lifelong impact. So, it’s really important for us to have our
8th graders leave with this kind of information. So, what are the goals that you want to achieve? Everything starts with the goals that you
want to achieve. And then we have the scholars say what are
the kinds of impediments will likely take me off course. And from then, I mean, our kids live in the
communities we serve. They see the other kids who are not necessarily
achieving their objectives, and so it’s things like having a child out of wedlock or not
getting a job, you know, that pays well. So, they know it, right? And so, then we use “The 7 Habits of Highly
Effective Teens” as our anchor text. And over the course of 20 or so weeks, we
try to embed information about the rewards or consequences of a series of life choices
that could involve the kinds of majors that you choose, but it also should include things
like if you have children out of wedlock or in this sequence, those things matter. And to say that we shouldn’t expose children
to that, in our view, is a disservice and it doesn’t honor the fact that we want our
kids to have personal agency. We want them to have the kind of information
that gives them the armor to insulate them from the inevitable hurdles of whatever kinds
of systemic barriers that might exist outside. Nat: So, the life choices are the choices
that they have to positively make to affect their lives. That’s what you’re… Ian: I mean, you know, a 12-year-old can’t
solve the mass incarceration problem, right? A 12-year-old can’t solve systemic racism
and the historical challenges that existed in this country. But a 12-year-old can learn that they have
their own personal power to make decisions even in the face of these challenges. And part of why I think the success sequence
data is so interesting is that a component of the people who are in the success sequence
data are people who are in the same exact situations or who were in the same exact situations
as our kids, faced many of the same challenges, and yet have emerged. So, how do we take the reality that exists,
right? And yet give our kids the kind of information
that they thrive even despite these challenges, which, by the way, all of us are committed
to overcome systemic barriers, but our kids don’t have the luxury to wait. Like, “Oh yeah, mass… That will be solved in a couple of years,”
right? So, because we can’t have this kind of learned
helplessness where, you know, our kids hear constantly of all these systemic issues that
are gonna keep them down. Well, if you hear that enough, you know what
you start to do? You’ll just kind of be like, you know, what’s
the point, right? And you lose the sense that you have the power
to change outcomes in your own life. Nat: Now, some people are going to come to
you and say, “You’re moralizing. You are moralizing.” And so, I have two questions on that. Number one, a lot of attention gets paid to
the family structure question, as if that is the only argument you are offering. Is that a primary part of the offering or
is that part of the suite? And then, when it comes to moralizing, are
you moralizing or are you just trying to teach your kids consequences? I’m not sure I can get my head around it. Ian: Yeah. I mean, it’s a tough question. I mean, you know, the data is the data, right? So, you could say, “Look, moralizing or not…” In the same way we’re teaching our kids if
you go to a four-year college versus a community college and you look at the college completion
rates of four-year versus two-year. It’s slam dunk, right? So, this is data. It’s not moralizing that we tell kids, right,
because it’s just information that is very likely to be useful. Nat: The two-year path is not morally inferior. It’s just statistically inferior. Yeah. Ian: Right. So, take that to the entire span, and that’s
why I believe the success sequence is so powerful. So, first off, it’s just data, right. For some people, they can’t get around the
moralizing issues, and truthfully, I don’t know what to do about that other than to say
this is real. And for many people who have been successful,
this is the path that they’ve chosen because they know that that was the best decision
for themselves, as well as for their children. And it does bother me sometimes when people
who seem to be against like sharing this information…this is exactly what they’re choosing in their
own lives. And yet, somehow, it’s moralizing or paternalistic,
so therefore, we can’t tell that to these children who are not getting it in any other
areas. Nat: Don’t preach what you practice, right? Ian: Yeah. We have to have the courage to have this conversation. We have to have the courage to start to include
family structure in the mechanisms by which we measure student outcomes, especially in
education, because we seem to be brave enough to do it in health, crime, economics, all
these other areas, and somehow in education, it is taboo. Nat: Well, Ian, thanks for coming by and talking
with us. Best of luck at Public Prep and this crusade
that you’re having the courage to take on. Ian: Thank you. Nat: Thank you. All right. Hey, everyone. That’s the end of our discussion with Ian
Rowe. Thanks for watching. As always, let us know what other topics you’d
like AEI Scholars to cover on “Viewpoint.” And be sure to subscribe for more videos and
research from AEI.


  1. A most enlightening and enjoyable discussion. I'm guessing Mr. Rowe will NEVER be lionized by CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, NBC…and others of their ilk. He should view this as a profound honor.

  2. Phony, fakehypocrite.  I worked at Public Prep = Ian Rowe allows teachers to show up every day of the school year without having planned lessons for the students. The way out of poverty is through education.  Not only is he not obsessed with college completion – he  doesn't  even care – although he is being paid to do so.  The factor that is driving the outcome of failing students is him.

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