Brian Greenberg

CEO of Silicon Schools Fund

Funding Schools Of The Future - Brian Greenberg of Silicon Schools Fund

Feb 8, 2022
Brian Greenberg

Funding Schools Of The Future

What changes can be done in the educational system to adapt to being in the 21st century? That is what Brian Greenberg asked himself, and so the Silicon Schools Fund was created. It is a nonprofit organization that supports a new generation of schools and innovative education models, and Brian is here to share what they do, how they do it, and why they do it.

Beginning his career dabbling in politics, it was Brian’s later experiences working as a teacher that motivated him to want to improve the learning system. Through hard work and a bit of luck, he was able to start a venture fund that supports a new kind of learning. Not all children learn as quickly or as effectively from the traditional education system, and so the Silicon Schools Fund envisions a more personalized learning program that leverages technology and innovation. As it turns out, there were many wealthy investors who found this to be a meaningful and impactful proposition. Since its inception 10 years ago, they now have worked with over 75 schools in California. 

Brian explains the three types of schools in the American education system, how they select and fund schools, and what it takes for that school to actually open, teach students, and break even. He also talks about the long road ahead to truly make an impact in the way kids are being taught. If you’re an entrepreneur who is interested in the education space and seeking advice on how to go about it, you’ll want to listen to this episode.

Brian’s key lessons and quotes from this episode were:

  • “The difference is, whereas venture capitals [are] raising money from limited partners and investing it for profit, we are raising money from limited partners and investing it for social impact.” (11:24)
  • “What if we unlocked this amazing potential of the kids really caring about what they were doing and having a chance to have a little more control over the speed or topics that they were covering?” (23:28)
  • “Anyone who says this will be easy, you should just walk away from them. Anyone who says it's impossible, you should run away from them.” (33:24)
  • “If we don't solve making education more equitable and more effective for everybody, we will never have the kind of society we want.” (33:38)
  • “Get closer to the action, so you can understand what the real problem is, and try to build solutions that matter.” (39:13)

In this episode, we also talked about:

  • What led Brian to founding Silicon Schools Fund and the kind of schools they support (3:47)
  • How the Silicon Schools Fund operates (11:11)
  • How they select schools (18:30)
  • Entrepreneurship in the education space (27:26)
  • How Brian sees the world in 10 years if Silicon Schools Fund succeeds (39:36)

Transcript of the episode

Maiko Schaffrath  00:00

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You are listening to Impact Hustlers, and I am your host, Maiko Schaffrath. I have made it my mission to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to solve some of the world's biggest social and environmental problems. And for this reason, I am speaking to some of the best entrepreneurs out there who are solving problems such as food waste, climate change, poverty, and homelessness. My goal is that Impact Hustlers will inspire you, either by starting an impact business yourself, by joining the team of one, or by taking a small step, whatever that may be, towards being part of the solution to the world's biggest problems. In today's episode, I speak to Brian Greenberg, the CEO of Silicon Schools Fund. Silicon Schools is funding the creation of a new generation of schools that personalize learning and leverage technology and innovative education models to create the schools of the future. Silicon Schools has launched about 75 schools serving more than 30,000 students so far. 

So, the lack of innovation and the ignorance of state-of-the-art learning science has been a really personal frustration of mine. I remember since being a school kid that I was super frustrated with the way the school system worked. I like to think of myself not as bad old, but we had super scrappy computers. They asked the students to actually teach IT to other students, so I was one of the teachers suddenly, because the teachers didn't know how to teach it. And also, the educational methods were really still stuck in the industrial age, I would say. It seems like the change, at least from a European perspective, from what I've seen in Germany, from what I've seen in the UK, is really painfully slow in terms of bringing the school and education system into 21st century. And that's why I'm really excited to talk to you, Brian, because you're one of those people bringing the education system into the 21st century with Silicon Schools Fund and excited to have you on the show.

Brian Greenberg  03:26

Well, thank you for having me. I'm excited for the conversation.

Maiko Schaffrath  03:30

Thank you so much. So, you've actually spent your entire career pretty much in the education space. You've worked as a teacher. You've worked across different leadership roles in the education industry. Give us a bit of an introduction of yourself, and why are you doing what you're doing?


To tell my story, I probably have to go back to literally how I was raised. My parents had these three values that they talked to me about which was family, education, and repair of the world, make the world a better place. It wasn't a mantra that was beat into me, but it was this subtle part of our upbringing. So, I just always felt like, "What would I be interested in? Go do something that will make the world better for everybody else." And it turns out education was the single best pathway I could find to do that. I spent about a year working in politics thinking that might work just enough to realize that politics is mostly about fundraising, and direct mail, and dialing for dollars, and decided that wasn't the pathway for me. And very early in my career, I left college and went right into higher education for about two years working on a college campus and really loved it, but felt this pull back to the classroom. It was when I really stepped in as a teacher for the very first time in Los Angeles in a big public government-run school, that I just really fell in love with the interaction between a learner who wanted to learn something, a teacher who knew it, and this idea that we were collectively trying to bridge this distance between the two of us. If it weren't for some of the paths in my life. I might have just stayed a teacher forever. But my wife wanted to go to grad school, I took a few other pathways, I learned a little bit about nonprofit management and fundraising. And eventually, it was actually my wife who said to me, "You should go become a principal. You should be running a school," and I said, "Well, why do you think that?" She said, "Well, you love administration, you're good at it, but you really want to be close to the classroom." Right around that time in America, the concept of charter schools was starting. So, I went and got trained and learned how to run a school and got all my licensure and credentials. But it was really a chance mentor that I had, who was this incredible teacher who was starting a charter school in Boston that's gone on to be a very famous school called the Match School, and they have a Graduate School of Education. And this mentor of mine, Charlie Sposato, who was actually the backup to Christa McAuliffe, on the Challenger missions. So, had she had a cold that day, he would have been the first teacher to go up into space, and we all know how sadly that story ended up. But instead, he went on to have this illustrious career, and he showed me a model of how you run a school based on extremely high expectations and grounded in incredible love and care for the children and the adults in the school. Once I saw that, there was no turning back. I came out to California where I'm from to try to start a school and had the experience of entrepreneurship and starting a school from scratch. I can talk a lot more about that, because one of my big philosophies in life is the power of the entrepreneur, and even in education, that we can do things that are much more entrepreneurial than we thought. And then, I had a chance to run more of a network and be in a superintendent type seat and run a series of schools, and I realized I wasn't cut out for just pure management. I wanted to be closer to the action and closer to the entrepreneurship. And then. [I] had this incredible opportunity, literally 10 years ago, almost to the day, to start a venture fund that was working in education with philanthropy and find more people who were on the same journey I had been on which was wanting to start a school and figure out how the combination of technical assistance and funding and belief in people and introducing entrepreneurship and energy into an ecosystem could really transform things. And as you mentioned, we've been doing it for 10 years and now have 75 schools all up and down California that we can point to as real international models to show people, so I'd love to dig in and talk more about that together.

Maiko Schaffrath  07:05

Exciting. We'll dig into that in a second. I think we quickly realized in advance that obviously, sometimes, terminology may not be shared across the globe. So, maybe explain to us which type of schools are you working with and maybe the terminology of what type of schools are those? Are those government-run schools? Are those fully private schools? What [are] the models that you're supporting?

Brian Greenberg  07:29

Great question. So, in the United States, we have essentially three types of schools. We have purely government-run schools or usually referred to as public schools or district schools. The funding comes from the state. It follows the child to the local district. It's run by that school board in that city, and those can be anywhere from a single school district in small rural settings to New York public schools, which has a million kids within that one school district. Talk about a hard job to go be chancellor of that system and try to oversee a school with that kind of budget and that kind of size. And then, we also have purely private schools, which is where the funding comes from the parents. A low-cost version of that in California in a parochial setting run by a church might be 6,000 or 7000. A very high-end version of that might cost $40,000 a year in San Francisco in a big private school. So, the range of economics, but the parents are funding, and it's a more direct relationship with the consumer. And then, we have this third bucket, which started about 25 years ago, called charter schools, which are government-funded. The dollars still follow the children, but parents choose to go to a usually nonprofit. Almost all the schools in California are nonprofits, and most of the schools in the country, and I'm a big fan of nonprofit charter schools. I have more mixed feelings about for-profit charter schools, but there's really very few of those now. The idea there was a group of educators or parents or community members come together and say, "We have a better bolder vision for what we want for our community." They write this very extensive Charter, which is where the name comes from with all the details, and these applications are 200-300 pages long with appendices and budget tables. And then, the local district or maybe the county over which the district sits approves the charter, says, "You're authorized to run a school." And then, for every child that comes to that school, the public state dollars follow that kid, and it's a pretty simple formula in a place like California. It's about $10,000 a kid. A typical charter school might start with 100 kids. 100 times $10,000 is their first year budget. They pay teachers and principals and rent a facility. It grows to about 400 kids at full size. And usually, then, it's about a breakeven proposition where with the smallest bit of bake sale type fundraising, those schools can exist into perpetuity and bring some choice for families into the districts. And in some cities and locales, it's 25% charter now. Typically, it's more like 5% or 10% across the country. And we work with all types of those schools. We've always said we're agnostic to the governance structure. We think private schools are the most nimble and flexible sometimes, because they really can just decide to do something. Charters are closer to that in that they don't have the same level of bureaucracy, and then the government-run district schools are probably the most stuck in terms of how hard they are to move, so speedboat to oil tanker. But the truth is the majority of the kids are sitting in government-run schools, so we need to have to figure out how those get better. Also, we can't just grow our way out of this problem by just opening new schools. And in the United States, this has become a very controversial political subject, and people are drawing battle lines. Are you for district schools? Are you for charter schools? and I just feel like, I'm for great schools, and I want schools where kids are thriving. I don't really care the governance structure there. I do think district schools are hard to reform, but there are some great examples of district schools, and I do think a lot of charter schools are doing magic. And then, there's some bad charter schools. So, it's not as simple as just which type of school; it's much more about the complexity of how hard it is to run a great school.

Maiko Schaffrath  10:51

That's super interesting that you're actually able to work with every type of school, and that brings me a little bit to your model. I'd love to understand a little bit about your model. Obviously, you're structured as a fund. You even likened it a little bit to a venture fund. I'm sure there's some differences, but how does your model work in terms of the fund, and how do you fund the schools?

Brian Greenberg  11:11

Yeah, so Silicon Schools Fund is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Typically, people would call us a foundation, but we very much model ourselves and build our structures off of a venture capital model. The difference is whereas [are] venture capitals raising money from limited partners and investing it for profit, we are raising money from limited partners and investing it for social impact. And so, really, it's a very simple proposition. We go to a handful of incredible investors, and we should talk more about venture philanthropy, because it's a really interesting model, and even the collective version of that, like we are as a fund. An individual family could have chosen to do this with their own set of funds and donated it. We work with some very wealthy people who've had incredible success in the business sector. But by doing it collectively, with a group of 10 or 15 of them coming together, we write a business plan, a Silicon Schools Fund, and Silicon Schools Fund itself is quite small like a lot of venture funds. We're only a five-person shop, and we do that, because we don't want to spend a lot of money inside our doors. Our whole point is to be a pass-through to deploy that capital. And we go to these very dedicated investors, and we say to them, "We think if you give us this funding, we can have an incredible social return by going out and finding the best entrepreneurs working in the space, and doing really hard diligence on them, spending time with them, evaluating their business model, getting into the educational system that they're proposing, walking classrooms with them, speaking to a ton of references." We really go deep like you would if you were making a venture investment. And then, when we do decide, "This as an entrepreneur worth backing," we write a pretty substantial check that was trenched out over several years. So, in the United States, give or take, we think it cost between $1-$2 million to launch a new school, and that's the money you spend before the school opens, because you have to have somebody who's doing all the planning and the recruiting of teachers and recruiting of students. And then, that year zero before they open, there's no funding, because you don't get funding until you open. So, they need that startup, just like a startup organization before their pre-revenue needs to have funding. And then, in years one, two, and three while the school is growing, they're spending more than they're bringing in, because they have all their fixed costs still, but they haven't yet grown to full enrollment, and enrollment is your revenue source. So, they're essentially pure loss centers in year zero and then slowly moving towards breakeven. And by the time they hit breakeven, that $10,000 or so in California that follows the kid usually is enough to pay for their full operation. So, that $1-$2 million is a big hurdle for a young educator who wants to go start a school. They don't have that access to that kind of capital. So, we exist to find the investors who care deeply about education, who want better models, who want better outcomes for kids, particularly the kids who would be the least likely to have a great school on their own, which in the United States, sadly, ties too closely to race and economics, as we all know. And we think of schools as this great social leveler but sadly, right now, it's not. Sadly, your zip code pretty much determines your future economic outcomes unless a great school enters into your community, or if your school becomes a great school, and then the sky's the limit for what kids can become. So, we raise this philanthropy. We then make these investments in schools, and our investments might be $600,000, $700,000, or $800,000 to help launch a school. And usually, we try to limit the amount of that that we'd spend before the school opens, because that's the riskiest capital. And then, as the school opens and grows and shows us that they are enrolling students as they said they would, they're getting great outcomes for kids, we can walk the classrooms, we're very hands-on as an investor. We'd like to go in and see the schools. We really believe- most of my team members are former educators themselves, so we really are very high touch in what we do, which is why we think the power of being in one community, in one region is helpful versus we have to fly there to visit the school. And then, we support them in those first few years. And then, ultimately, the school hits breakeven and it's wildly successful, hopefully serving a lot of kids. They don't need us anymore. They become an alumnus, and many of those 75 schools we work with are in this bucket now, and we move on to the new crops. Each year, we have the class of 2022 coming, and the five or six or seven new schools that we're going to open, and they need a lot of support in that year zero and year one. And by year four, we're usually just shining a spotlight on them, learning from them, or networking with each other.

Maiko Schaffrath  15:26

Amazing. And then, is there any sort of cash flow again from the schools back to you, whereas some sort of...?

Brian Greenberg  15:32

There is not. Yeah, this is pure philanthropy. We give them money, and they give us outcomes for kids. But that deal has worked really well for us, because if you go to our investors and say, "Look at these 75 schools. Look at the outcomes they're getting," they think, "I could not have bought that with my money without this exchange." So, it really is a philanthropic fund. We are dependent on philanthropy into the perpetuity, but each five years, we set a new business plan and go out and raise a new fund. Our first fund, we raised about $25 million and said, "Could we raise this much money? Could we start 25 grade schools?," and we came in underbudget and overnumbered, so people were really excited. We did it a year earlier than we thought we would, and everyone said, "Do it again. Go a little bit bigger." So, our second fund was a five-year $40-million fund, and we're now just about to launch, or we have literally just launched this last month our third fund, which will be about a $45-million fund over the next five years. And I really like the discipline of this structure, because we really spent almost a year mapping out, how many schools can we open? What else besides launching schools do we need to do? What does this look like to improve existing schools? How about the training of teachers, and each fund, we map out a little bit of a different value proposition of where we want to invest and the kind of innovations we want to support. So, this newest fund, the opportunity fund that we're now launching is a really neat combination of launching new schools, which we'll do about 25 more schools over these next five years, and then a big bet back on our origin story around betting on innovation. We are going out there saying, "As much as people think a lot has been discovered around new models of education, we think we're in the very early days of this movement, and there needs to be flexible, risk-tolerant capital looking for great entrepreneurs and great ideas." We're going to be making some bigger, bolder bets and knowing that they won't all pay off. But especially if they're not in the form of an actual school, if they’re a new tool or a new training model, we can take even greater risk there, because the worst thing that happens is we lose some philanthropy. The best thing that happens is we get this incredible outcome that shapes the education system. And then, like I mentioned, we are spending more time thinking about how to improve existing schools too. We've broadened from just being about launching schools to being launching schools and proving schools and then really going after big bold innovations. 

Maiko Schaffrath  17:48

Wow, super exciting. Is there a very common set of criteria that you apply to all the schools that you invest in, in terms of, let's say, use of technology or teaching methodology? Obviously, there is all kinds of scientific insight into how people, and especially kids, learn now that needs to be updated in schools, but there's also different methodologies. There’re people that love the Montessori model. There's like mastery-based education, things like that. Do you follow a certain type of model? Or do you have certain criteria by which you say, "This is a good school. This is a not so good school"?

Brian Greenberg  18:30

I've been answering a version of this question for about 10 years now, and it's a great question, and everybody wants to know. I think the best answer I can tell you is that we have come to believe that different communities and different kids need different solutions. Although I love Montessori, my own child went through Montessori Preschool, and we work with some Montessori schools now that are trying to figure out what that looks like for early elementary grades, it's not for everybody, and it's not the only model that works. And then, we have other schools that are much more back to basics. They really believe in classical studies and some of those things, and for some families, that's a great option. What we do know is across all of them, something should be true. Thing one, we believe that you need to be run by great educators, and that's a lot about, what is their track record? How clear is their vision? How much do they have the full suite of tools it takes to launch a new school? And I'm telling you one of the hardest jobs in the world, literally one of the hardest jobs in the world, is to be a founding principal of a brand new school. You have to be exceptionally good at teaching yourself, teaching and coaching adults on how to become great teachers, external communications and politics to win an approval to get the school open and deal with all the politics involved, operations on a daily business for that might be about a $5-million P&L, give or take, finance, and school culture which is, how do you get a group of teenagers to believe in your vision and do something extraordinary versus rolling their eyes and just walking away? And to ask any one human being to do that almost by themselves is truly unfair, and that's why so few schools are able to2 just hit a home run by themselves. Obviously, it's usually a team that's doing this, but the margins in schools are quite small. By the time you pay for all your educators, you don't usually have a lot of extra adults running around a building, so it really is a little bit of this exceptional leader or team of exceptional leaders that usually pulls off a great school. We're always looking for that as the number one indicator. We obviously dig deep on their finances like, does this model make sense? Are they paying a competitive salary, but not spending so much on facilities that they break their budget and won't be able to make it work? And sadly, most new schools end up shutting because of financial issues more than educational issues. But then, to your real question is like, what are the schools we're most excited about? We do think there's this element of what we call personalized learning. In other words, these are new models. These are not just "stand and deliver," teacher lecturing at kids, kids regurgitating back to teachers. Most of the schools that we've worked with over the last 10 years have really been on the leading edge of trying new things, and I think this is an important topic for us to dig in a little bit and something I think your listeners will probably be really interested in, which is the existing model really says, "We're going to take this canon of knowledge, and we're going to transmit it to the student. The student will ingest it and then regurgitate it back out. And then, we will stamp them as certified to go to college, and they'll be off to have a successful life." That might work for a third or half of the kids in the country. The more motivated you are by traditional success measures, the more your parents were college-educated and read to you as a child, the more you came in with the basic learning blocks in place, you can probably thrive under many, many, many conditions. And for a lot of middle- and upper-income people, that's their experience with the education system. But as you alluded to, even those of us who have succeeded in the traditional education system see the lost opportunity. We've realized that more could have been done, and that's true if you are a gifted and talented student where you felt slow and frustrated at the pace of things and wanting to go explore your interests. It's true when parents have kids who have special needs or learning differences and they realize, "Wow, this system is not at all flexible to them," and I think about that. I remember being in a classroom on time, and I was watching this teacher teach, and it was a great lesson. It was the song, the dance of a great teacher, and they were transmitting, transmitting, and everybody would have said, "Great teacher, check." But I stopped and looked, and I was in the back looking at the back of the kids’ heads, and all of a sudden, I realized, for about a third of these kids, this lesson is too slow. They already know this material, and they're just sitting there because they're good kids, and they're polite, and they listen, but it's essentially a wasted hour because they could have tested out of this if we had given them a chance. And then, for another third of the kids, this is actually way too fast, or it's built on knowledge they don't have as pre-knowledge, and they're lost. And if they had a chance to hit a pause button or to ask some redirecting questions, they would need to go at a different pace or cover some different materials. And maybe for a third of the kids, this was their sweet spot, and they were doing just fine. And then, you realize, neither the teacher nor I know exactly which kid is which. And when you see that, you realize how ineffective this transmission model is. I think of it as like, we've made kids passive passengers in this giant canoe in which they're traveling down the river. American education has about 40 million kids give or take, and they're sitting in his canoe, and a handful of educators are breaking their back trying to paddle themselves down this river, and what worth talking about is, what if we gave all the kids a paddle? What if we unlocked this amazing potential of the kids really caring about what they were doing and having a chance to have a little more control over the speed or topics that they were covering? And intuitively, most people get this idea. and they get excited by this idea, but then you say, "But how do we do it in practice?" Because if it's just one-to-one education, it's easy. We know that one-to-one tutoring works exceptionally well, and if we could afford every child having their own tutor, the tutors pretty quickly, even a not-so-well-trained tutor can figure out what the kid does or doesn't know, help them, ask them, the kid participates. They're off to the races. But economically, we can't afford that. We can afford about 25:1, because we're only willing to pay about 1/25 of the average teacher's salary per kid across the whole system to make this work. And then, you say, "Well, how do you do this for a classroom of 25 kids?" And until you've been that teacher standing on the front of the classroom realizing, "I don't know who knows what. Not all these kids are ready to learn," and to your earlier point, and then the learning science now is becoming so much greater. We know so much more about how kids learn, but the methods of transmitting that knowledge that's happening in academia and research down to the classroom level is quite broken right now. So, if nothing else, I think what we're helping to do is build new schools that have the muscles, the aptitude, and the desire to be keeping up more with what's happening in learning science, to be taking risks and trying new things, to be figuring out what works, and then to be these little laboratories of innovation. And then, if they succeed, they also become proof points of what's possible, and one of the reasons we set up the fund in the Bay Area initially was we said, "We have three international airports within driving distance of each other here and all this innovation and all this technology mindset, but our schools look quite traditional. What if we could create all these outlier type schools? Could we make this as a hub where people wanted to come to the Bay Area, visit these schools, and see many different models with many different populations of what this could look like?" And 10 years later, that's the reality, and we have delegation after delegation of international visitors coming across the country as well, to see some of these schools and take inspiration. And now, the hard part is inspiration is the first step of the journey. What they also then need is the tools to make it easier for them to do the knowledge and the knowledge capture of how it worked, and that's a whole 'nother value proposition that is quite difficult to figure out and a place where we're, frankly, a little stuck. Even if we have schools that have proven how to do it, we haven't yet figured out how to transmit that so we can get wide scale adoption. Because unlike technology, human-centered things don't just inherently scale. We can't just push a button and transmit it to everybody. We have to do the slow work of convincing people of what to do, helping them learn how to do it. And just like if you roll out a new piece of software, you spend just as much money on the training as you do on the software. We don't do that in education. We presume once the teacher has been minted by their university and approved, that they can just do a few days of professional development a year and that's enough. And the truth is, we won't solve our problems if we don't have more time and more money for teachers to be getting trained and learning some of these new solutions.

Maiko Schaffrath  26:35

Just a really quick break from this episode to let you know a little bit more about our podcast producer and content agency, Content Multiplied. With all the moving pieces of a business, you can't be stuck managing and creating new content all the time. That's why I've started using Mhyla and her team at Content Multiplied. It's really an all-in-one content management and repurposing solution that can handle all your content needs. Visit them at contentmultiplied.com today. Contentmultiplied.com. Okay, let's get back to the episode. Do you think that's a problem that you'll put much more focus on solving, or do you think that's an opportunity for entrepreneurs to go in and look at teachers' training, educational methods, having something that could scale potentially to much more schools?

Brian Greenberg  27:26

I do think this is a great ripe area for entrepreneurs to enter. I can tell you so many stories of amazing entrepreneurs. There's a school of education out here now called Alder. It's based out of California. Now, you see them Alder, the Alder Graduate School of Education, and they're on their way or now certified to train teachers. But six years ago, when Heather Kirkpatrick, this great entrepreneur, decided to start the school, she was just working within a charter network saying, "We need to do a better job of training our own teachers," and they spent years building a model to do so. And then, finally, we and others said to her, "You should be helping more schools. It shouldn't just be for your organization." Now, districts and charters come to her and say, "Can we send you our teachers? Will you train them? Because we think what you're doing is better than what we're getting out of the traditional state-sponsored universities of the teacher training." One of her big insights is a model of apprenticeship, where she puts these teachers with a master teacher in the local setting, somebody who's proven themselves to be successful, and the idea is to try to replicate those successful practices within the system that you will ultimately work, and that what they're being trained on in one system might be a little different from another. But they're getting these tremendous outcomes, and they're getting a more diverse teaching pool, and they're getting teachers who are staying longer and having better outcomes for kids. I also think on the issue of entrepreneurs entering this space, the traditional vision of "kids go to school from, call it, 8am to 3pm from the fall till the late spring" is, in many ways, just way too antiquated, and I don't know if this will ever change. I thought the pandemic would be the thing that broke this all open. And then, after two years of disruption of schools and seeing the kids could learn online by themselves, albeit not particularly well, I think the average student really suffered during the pandemic, but I thought with all that we've been exposed to essentially for two years, many children took their learning under their own control. They decided when to get up and get a snack. They decided when to go use the restroom, what to work on next. I watched it in my own home with my elementary and middle school-aged kids figuring all this out that when they came back to school in person that inherently, we would build on the agency that they had shown during these years. And sadly, I think it was the opposite. I think the education system was like a rubber band that had been stretched and reflexively pulled right back to the old. If anything, it may be calcified more so, and people have returned right back to desks and rows and chalkboards and lecture. I'm hoping that that's in part just because we're still all traumatized by the pandemic and we're not over it yet and people don't have the mind space to innovate yet. But I think parents have shown a lot more flexibility to new models. I think everybody's learned that technology can play a much bigger role in education than we have thought it would. And the one benefit that will come from the pandemic is every teacher in America actually got a crash course on all of the ed technology. They all learned how to use Zoom, and Google Classroom, and all these new apps that are out there, and I think people will come back two years from now, let's say, if we're really out of the pandemic and walk into a typical classroom in most developed countries in the world and just see a huge amount of technology somewhat seamlessly integrated. And that would have felt like a win 10 years ago when we had talked about, how do we bring more tech into education? The one thing I always say, especially when I talk to Silicon Valley audiences, is the tech itself is not the solution. The tech is the thing that enables more personalization. A simple visual for this is if you think of a classroom with those 25 kids in it, one teacher has a really hard time meeting all the needs of those 25 kids. But if we break that into three little pods of eight each, give or take, and one is working with a teacher, and they're able to do more of what each of those kids need with eight kids at a time. Maybe one is reading an independent book or working on small group work, and then one is using a really good piece of educational technology that is leveling what the students are working on, like a Khan Academy, like many other tools that are out there, then those kids rotate on the half hour. In that same hour and a half period of time, they can each get more of what they need when they need it, and the teacher has this gift of getting to work with an 8:1 ratio. That's one model. It's called the station rotation. A lot of people have started to use it now. Other people are trying, what if all 25 kids in the room are working on something different? And my job as the teacher is not so much to lecture, but to guide and answer questions. And then, some people are saying, "What if we just do everything in small group work, and my job is to just facilitate group work?" But all that "what if," the asking of what's possible, that's what we feel like we need to imbue a lot more of into the system, because otherwise, it just gets stuck in this old way of doing things. And people think, "Of course, you have to lecture. Of course, every fifth grader in the world should be learning the exact same thing on Tuesday." And the answer is anybody with more than one child knows that that's not true within their own household, let alone across an entire classroom full of students.

Maiko Schaffrath  32:16

Got it. What we've got in the audience of this podcast is we've got a lot of people that are maybe at the early stages of considering to start a company. Some that may be listening to this episode are looking to start a company in the education space, maybe supporting schools, and so on, and I'd love your insights on that space and opportunities in the space. I feel like whenever I talk to entrepreneurs, a lot of them are really scared to even sell to schools or collaborate with schools, often because they're just really long sales cycles, sometimes not enough funding or priority to actually implement solutions. What do you think are actually exciting opportunities for entrepreneurs to leverage in the education space, especially in schools?

Brian Greenberg  33:09

Well, I very much agree with you that education is not the place to go for quick and easy wins. You'd be many better settings in the world to work on innovation if you just want a quick and easy win. When people ask me, "Is it possible to fix schools?," I always have this little heuristic in my mind. Anyone who says this will be easy, you should just walk away from them. Anyone who says it's impossible, you should run away from them. The truth is, we need to find the people who understand how hard this is and are willing to engage in a longer, more deliberate process, because it's such an important problem. If we don't solve making education more equitable and more effective for everybody, we will never have the kind of society we want, full stop. Even if you believe in universal basic income, the best that gets us is everybody has enough to eat, but you're not fulfilled, you're not contributing. If everyone had a great education, we've built this doorway through which every child in the world walks, and the key now is make the doorway effective, make it the thing that transforms them, so when they enter, and we spent a lot of money. Do that $10,000 per kid times 12 years. We're investing $120,000 in every child's education, maybe $130k now with TK walking through the education system, what if that $130,000 did a better job of what we wanted it to do? So, to your point directly, what are some of the opportunities? I like to think of people who've done this as great examples. I remember a company called Clever that came along and said, "We see a problem." These are just educators working in schools. Every time we have a new piece of software, we have to take all the kids in that teacher's roster and get them imported into that new piece of software. And then, if one kid changes classrooms, we have to manually do that," and it's one thing if it's one teacher but to do this across a whole school or whole system, this is an impossibility just to keep up with which kid is in which classroom at what time. But if the teacher logs in and the kid's not on the roster, the software literally doesn't work and the classroom breaks. They said, "This is what APIs were built for," and they basically launched a company to do APIs between the rostering systems, these learning management systems that existed, and all these little pieces of software. And then, they had the brilliant insight of, "Let's charge the software companies to integrate so it's free to the schools," and Clever quickly took over something like half the schools in America, and they were just recently acquired by a company called Kahoot, which is a European company with this really fun testing software. I think it's been a universal win for kids. I think it was quite successful for their investors and their entrepreneurs, again, folks who saw clear problem and went after it. You also see entrepreneurs entering in the education space. We have a school that we love called Design Tech High School. It's over in the South Bay of the Silicon Valley area. When we met these two entrepreneurs, Ken and Nicole, they were a teacher and an assistant principal in a big government school and they said, "We have a vision for a better school. We want to use design thinking," which is a very common concept out here based out of Stanford University in many ways of get closer to the users, have the people understand the user's problem, and design solutions for your users, "And we think that's a good organizing principle for a school and teaching kids design thinking and layering all the education into it." And when we met these entrepreneurs, you could just tell that they had seen a problem that they could no longer unsee. They were going to die trying to solve this problem of, how do we have kids own their own learning, be more excited by what they're doing, and become creators themselves? We gave them the "quit your job" money. We said, "Go try this," and they got these little, tiny, two classrooms in a district facility, and they were given permission to start the school, but it kept growing. It was more and more successful. They were close to where Oracle's corporate headquarters were and Oracle said to them, "We really like this school, and a bunch of our employees are volunteering here. Can we do something more formal?" And they started sending more volunteers over and building these intersessions together where the employees from Oracle were teaching, giving their teachers breaks to do training and learning on their own. Eventually, Oracle just said, "We should build you a campus," because that's the thing they needed most was a physical building. And literally, one of the first examples in the world of this, if you go to the Oracle Corporate Campus now, there's a beautiful brand new high school built by Oracle, purely philanthropically for this government, public charter school, being run by these two entrepreneurs who just said, "We have a vision of something better." Now, that's obviously beyond all expectations, but we were so proud of the little bit of money we could give to make this possible and these incredible entrepreneurs who could make it happen. In terms of what I think is coming, I think people should spend a lot of attention on what we call "one-to-many teaching opportunities." In other words, if you have a great teacher, why are they only able to reach 25 kids at a time per hour? In the best of settings, maybe they're reaching 125 kids a day. That best teacher, Sal Khan is a pretty great teacher. What he's done through his platform is to be literally reaching millions of kids a day, and that may be one format, but it also may just be that we've saw during the pandemic. One of our colleagues' schools in China couldn't get their teachers back because of the shutdown, so they called a partner school in Singapore and said, "Do you have a calculus teacher who we can watch?," and they said, "Yes." And they started Zooming that teacher in, and it turns out that teacher was a much better teacher. And so, suddenly, their kids were thriving, because they had this great calculus teacher, even though they were in Singapore, teaching them while they were in Beijing. And those sorts of opportunities now, people are starting to innovate. Well, what if we did provide on-demand teaching? I think everyone's curious; does it have to be live, or does it work if it's recorded? And I think the answer is some hybrid is probably important. If it's purely done and recorded and candid on the shelf, it's hard to keep the relevancy. If it's always live and always present, it's hard to get the logistics of scheduling. So, there's just all these incredible opportunities. But the thing I often remind people is if you just want to make money and be successful, go build a little tool that deals with the efficiency of schools. If you really want to have impact, you've got to get under the hood of teaching and learning, and you have to figure out something that's closer to the core of, why are children having trouble learning something? What's a better way to help them teach it? And you have to be in proximity to schools and to kids, and that's why it's hard, to your point, if you're a complete outsider. One of the best things I would say is find some local schools, find people you know who work in education, volunteer, join the board of a school, get closer to the action, so you can understand what the real problem is, and try to build solutions that matter.

Maiko Schaffrath  39:19

Amazing. I've got one more question for you, and that is about the future and Silicon Schools Fund. If you think about the next 10 years, how does the world look like in 10 years' time if your work with Silicon Schools Fund is successful?

Brian Greenberg  39:36

So, one of the things we're trying to do is we're trying to bring more investors, philanthropists, policymakers, decision-makers, influencers into the world of innovation and education, and part of the way we do that is by not giving them false promises. I will not solve this problem 10 years from now. I promise you when my children are 10 years older, they will not have the dream education system I hope for them yet. Fifty years, 100 years, I'm hoping we can make some serious progress. But just like anyone who's honest about the environment knows, we're not going to turn this thing around in just 10 years' time, so this is a longer event horizon than most people have. I think if we can attract more people and give them hope, one of the hard parts about working in education is you see all the downsides. It's hard to see some of the hope and the opportunity, and I think that's where finding these examples where we can show what's working. Video on the internet is a game-changer. Being able to capture things and show people and have this training opportunity is a game-changer. I also think the EdTech products are getting better and better and better. When I started Silicon Schools 10 years ago, we had a few good math programs, and that was about it. Now, you can get incredibly good software in the sciences, English, learning foreign languages, and that's only going to get better. That's Moore's law. Technology will keep improving, but helping educators learn how to use those tools and have a much more dynamic classroom feeling. My hope is 10 years from now, we have more decision-makers, influencers excited about education, believing in it. We have more proof points of what's possible, and that a typical day still has a kid going to school, most likely, because there's a custodial function, and parents need a place to send their kids. But that when the kid walks into school, the kid has much more agency about saying, "I know what I'm here to do today, or this week, or this month, and I've picked some decision-making my own of how I'm spending time." And there's some flexibility built into the day, where maybe a kid can go to a library-type setting and work independently for a large amount of time. And guess what? That's a cost savings to the school, because now, you have smaller class sizes for the teachers who are working one-on-one with kids, and that kids could get more clarity on exactly what they need to do to be ready to go be successful, and that there's more pathways for kids to be successful. Because right now, if you like math, or you like reading and writing, you're pretty likely to succeed in school. If you don't, it's really hard. And the fact is, the world needs lots of different skill sets. So, I think part of the solution is saying, "Let's not try to teach every kid everything just to this very surface level of knowledge. Let's allow kids to go a little deeper in the areas they're most excited by." We need to ensure every kid knows how to read and write. We need to ensure every kid has basic numeracy skills. But if we allow more time for kids to develop some passions, if school makes them feel a little more alive and in charge, we think kids will just bring 2x the energy, 10x the energy, and that's the secret resource we're not tapping into in education is that the kids care and want to do better, because the educators are trying. They are working so hard, but they're working on a system that is almost doomed to fail, because it is just so difficult to do this old-fashioned model for every kid, and I don't pretend to know the exact solutions. I know the kinds of problems we should be working on, and I think the more that we attract great entrepreneurs, capital decision-makers, and flexibility for these schools to try this, the more we figure out what's actually working through real research, through real documentation, and the more we spread those practices, that gives me hope for what 10 or 20 or 50 years from now schools could look like.

Maiko Schaffrath  43:09

Thank you, Brian. This was truly inspirational to listen to you and see you make a change for real in that space. Thanks so much for joining us today, and I can't wait to catch up again in a few years and see how it goes. 

Brian Greenberg  43:23

I really enjoyed it, Maiko. Thanks so much.