NewSchools CEO Ted Mitchell Advocates for Nontraditional Forms of Education - Higher Education
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NewSchools CEO Ted Mitchell Advocates for Nontraditional Forms of Education

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

When NewSchools Venture Fund CEO Ted Mitchell spoke about what he would do if he had a magic wand to transform public education, he said he would change the way students are assessed and the way teachers teach.

“My wand would wave over the current structuring of the progress that kids make through school, and I would make it all based on the mastery of concepts and courses, not on seat time or quarters or semesters,” Mitchell said at a 2010 Google forum titled “Innovation in Education: The Next Generation of Education Entrepreneurship.”

He also spoke about the need to “reconceptualize what we think of as the role of the teacher” and create a pipeline of “the most talented people” into education, find ways to assess them and help them “grow as professionals” but “exit them” if it “isn’t working out.”

These are the views of a venture capitalist who is set to become the next undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education, pending confirmation in the U.S. Senate.

Observers say Mitchell’s appointment signifies how the Obama Administration plans to continue its support for nontraditional forms of education and reform of the way the nation’s teachers are prepared.

“If some in the traditional education sector hoped for a moderation of the moves toward nontraditional providers and educational technologies, they’ll be disappointed,” said Jeffrey Henig, an education and political science professor who chairs the Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“I expect more of the same, perhaps delivered with a more openly articulated sense of vision and rationale,” he said.

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Frederick M. Hess, Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, expressed similar thoughts.

“He’ll [Mitchell] be an advocate and ally for high-quality teacher preparation and forward-looking leaders in higher education, but a real burr in the saddle for those bent on defending their turf,” Hess said, referring to traditional university-based teacher prep programs.

“He’s someone who knows teacher preparation from inside and out,” noted Hess of Mitchell, who previously served as president of Occidental College, vice chancellor and dean of the School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, and professor and chair of the Department of Education at Dartmouth College, according to an online bio.

“He’s a university insider but has also sat on the California board of education,” Hess continued. “He is smart, savvy, enormously informed and genial, and will be a very effective voice for the department.”

Sharon P. Robinson, president and CEO at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, released a statement saying her organization looks forward to working with Mitchell in his new role “to ensure that every PK-12 student has a skilled teacher who is ready for the classroom on day one.”

Robinson cited various steps her organization’s members “had already taken” toward improvement, such as adopting new teacher performance assessments and making efforts to improve the quality and availability of clinical teaching experiences.

“We will be eager for Dr. Mitchell’s guidance on how we can further support these important initiatives under way and develop additional initiatives that will strengthen educator preparation, higher education and public schools as we strive to improve student achievement outcomes,” Robinson said.

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The Office of the Undersecretary deals with federal financial aid, postsecondary education and various White House initiatives, such as the White House Initiative on HBCUs.

Henig said he is skeptical that Mitchell will be able to develop solutions to some of the biggest problems that have plagued higher education as of late, such as rising tuition fees and record-high student loan default rates.

“Do I think he’ll solve thorny problems? No.”

Mitchell’s NewSchools Venture Fund has enjoyed considerable success in its dealings with the federal government, corporate America and philanthropy. In its 2010 tax filings, NewSchools stated it has “successfully received support from over 28 foundations, 47 individuals or corporations, and the U.S. Department of Education.”

The tax return shows that the organization generated $23.1 million in revenue and distributed $17.6 million in grants to a range of organizations that included charter schools, The KIPP Foundation, The New Teacher Project, and Teach for America.

NewSchools, which spent $1 million on lobbying each year from 2008 through 2010, says its mission is to “transform public education through powerful ideas and passionate entrepreneurs so that all children—especially those in underserved communities—have the opportunity to succeed.”

The organization’s benefactors have included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave NewSchools a $3.2 million grant this past July to “support the development of new teacher preparation programs and training tools that will improve academic outcomes for students.”

One expert on nonprofits credited NewSchools with being on “the leading edge of change in the nonprofit sector.”

“From my point of view, Mitchell and his team have broken the conventional mode of the nonprofit organization and created a far more workable, effective model,” said Ellen Bristol, president of the Bristol Strategy Group, a consulting firm for nonprofits, adding that NewSchools has been successful at “running the business based on concepts of performance excellence, rather than attempting to constrain it by underinvesting.”

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“They’re spending money to make money, as far as I can tell,” she said.

Bristol said the total that Mitchell was paid by NewSchools in 2010–$467,000 in salary and benefits, $80,000 of which came from bonuses and incentives—seemed “appropriate [and] empowering.”

“Nothing would be gained, and a great deal might be lost, if the CEO of a venture fund, even one with a charitable purpose, were to be compensated at levels considered ‘conventional’ in the nonprofit sector,” Bristol said. “It looks to me like a very strong case can be made for the way they’re raising—and spending—their money.”

Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO at the Lumina Foundation, which focuses on issues of increasing the number of college graduates with valuable degrees, said Mitchell’s experience as an innovator in K-12 education delivery and as a college president “uniquely qualifies him for the role of undersecretary.”

“So much is at stake, and my hope is that Ted can lead the team at the U.S. Department of Education with the same level of conviction, commitment and ingenuity that has defined his career to date,” she said.

A call to the Senate HELP committee for information about Mitchell’s confirmation hearing was not returned by deadline.

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