Why The Next Big Ideas In Education Will Come Out Of New Orleans

With 71% of New Orleans schoolchildren attending charter schools, the atmosphere is ripe for testing new educational ideas. Enter 4.0 Schools, a nonprofit incubator that helps turn teachers into entrepreneurs.

Seventy-one percent of New Orleans’s schoolchildren attend charter schools, a legacy of Katrina. While charters' performance as measured by student test scores both nationwide and in the city has been mixed, they undeniably increase the local appetite for trying new educational ideas. “If you’re an edtech entrepreneur who wants to pilot an idea, you have the most efficient and smartest market in the country here,” says Matt Candler, CEO of 4.0 Schools. That's because instead of a centralized bureaucracy, there are more than 40 schools making independent decisions on both hiring and procurement. Organizations like KIPP, Teach for America, and the Gates Foundation have established beachheads, drawing top teachers and fresh blood from all over the country. These are intersecting with a nascent startup scene dubbed “Silicon Bayou” to produce a hothouse of ideas to change education: for-profit and nonprofit, from school redesigns to apps, often from younger, female entrepreneurs.

As Silicon Valley capital becomes increasingly interested in education--witness ur-angel investor Jason Calcanis holding his first ever LAUNCH event focusing on education, and Benchmark making its biggest ever seed investment in startup university Minerva--it’s a fair bet that a surprising number of successful companies will come from the Big Easy. “This is a place where you can do entrepreneurship AND do some amazing things for kids who really need it,” says Candler, who knows a bit about both. He opened schools all over the country for KIPP, did similar work for Joel Klein in New York City, and founded New Schools New Orleans, a program for aspiring school leaders.

Unique in the country, 4.0 Schools is a nonprofit incubator founded in December of 2010 that runs four-day intensives, book clubs, unconferences, and other programs to turn teachers and others with a passion for education into for-profit or nonprofit entrepreneurs with solutions. In February, four participants went up to Startup Weekend – Edu in New York City, where they swept first, second, and third place in the competition. The winners were Jess Bialecki's Classroom Blueprint, a social network for teachers to compare classroom design ideas; Aliya Bhatia's Dash, a mobile app that helps teachers keep in touch with parents; and Chapman Snowden's Kinobi, which uses the Microsoft Kinect to help train teachers in classroom management. 

The role of teachers in improving schools is a subject of surprising controversy. The reform agenda popularized by high-profile chancellors like Joel Klein in NYC and Michelle Rhee in D.C. has been criticized for  scapegoating, sanctioning, and making it easier to fire teachers. Others might argue that being with kids in the classroom is more than a full-time job without asking teachers to wear the entrepreneur hat. Candler and others in New Orleans look to teachers as an undertapped resource for school transformation.

“As they were racing to catch a plane, because they had to teach the next day, VCs were chasing them out the door,” says Candler. “This is our vision of success: to encourage classroom teachers who work their butts off already so that they believe in themselves and investors think they can have an impact.”

Candler has a more roundabout connection to the current star of the local edtech startup scene. Jen Medbery is a TFA alum with a CS degree from Columbia who originally came to New Orleans to teach at a New Schools New Orleans startup. Her application, Kickboard, is a dashboard that aims to help teachers make better use of data on students’ performance and behavior--information that's now scattered in gradebooks and Post-it notes. They’re marketing directly to teachers who are turning around and convincing their colleagues and entire schools to adopt the platform--it’s now in use in 11 states. “"As we head into the summer and the start of our second sales cycle we’re on track to double our national customer base of schools,” says Medbery. “We’ve taken this not only as evidence of the demand for a product like Kickboard, but of the eagerness of teachers and school leaders to adopt a more analytical approach to teaching and learning."

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #USInnovation.

[Image: Orange Line Media via Shutterstock]

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