This interview was conducted earlier this year, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent school closures. As a result, it does not reflect Andrew Morrison’s views of the issues, challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 has impacted, or his position on future needs for improvements to the education system due to transitions and changes that have occurred.
Addressing the needs of children with disabilities. Nationally, we’ve made a robust commitment to addressing the needs of children with disabilities, and we’re continuing to make progress toward this goal. There are meaningful resources and services available, and we are seeing more acceptance and inclusiveness — not only in educating our kids in the least-restrictive environment but also towards authentic social inclusion and acceptance.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system, I had the pleasure to interview Andrew Morrison.
Mr. Morrison is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Camelot Education. Over the past 25 years, Mr. Morrison has served as CEO of education organizations in a variety of areas, including language and literacy development, special education, distance learning, offerings for disengaged students and professional learning for educators. He has served as a governmental advisor on both state and federal education policy. He is passionate about advancing the causes of social justice and economic access through education and educational equity. He also has been recognized for his educational innovations, including his work on micro-comprehension and instructional strategies, intervention solutions for re-engaging students and the integration of technology for true educational impact. Mr. Morrison is a seasoned business executive who has three private equity education exits to his credit. Earlier in his career, Mr. Morrison worked as an attorney at a nationally prominent law firm and also as an investment banker at a national investment bank. His educational background includes a JD from the University of California, Berkeley and an MBA in Finance from the University of Chicago.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I began my career on a very different trajectory. I started out as a lawyer at a large Wall Street firm. After practicing for some years, I left law and went into investment banking. During this period, I also launched a software business with my former college roommate. We developed an automated hyperlinking and annotation technology for the publishing industry.
So, there I was, an investment banker and I had this side software business. And then my first child was born. Suddenly, the next 40 years of my life flashed before my eyes, and I questioned why I was spending my time this way. I pondered how I would feel about all this at the end of my career. So, shortly after my daughter was born, I wound up quitting my job as an investment banker.
I spent the next year consulting for a variety of businesses while trying to become more metacognitively aware of what I really cared about. At that point, I had a background in business, law, finance, technology and investment banking, but what did I really care about? Over time, I observed that my emotional engagement was centered around questions of social justice, economic access, the abuse of power and the decay of empathy.
So, I was left with the question of what kind of job is out there that has something to say about things like this? And this journey led me to the field of education. Education can be the great leveler, and that is where I decided I would spend my career. That’s how I began my journey on this career path.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
I’m reticent about calling myself or others “authorities” over the broad and diverse domain of US education, but I’d say that I am very qualified to contribute to the education conversation.
First, I’ve been devoted to the field of education for 25 years now, and there is something very real and meaningful about knowledge and experience that is developed over time. I sometimes come across younger leaders full of passion about their new insights and innovations. They have no idea that this all has been tried before. They could learn a lot from the past, but at this stage of their experience, they typically are not ready to hear it, and will miss the opportunity to build on the lessons of the past.
Second, I have very deep and very broad experience in virtually all aspects of how we do education in the United States. Over the years, I have gone very deep in pedagogy and curriculum, instructional best practices, SEL and student engagement, intervention solutions, technology, special education, ESL, assessment, professional learning, community engagement, education funding and a lot more. I think I have a perspective that is well-informed and comprehensive.
Third, my background is pretty unique and so I bring many additional skills and insights to the conversation. As I already mentioned, I have experience as a lawyer and as an investment banker. But I’ve run various businesses, consulted with state and federal governments on education policy issues, worked with a number of education leaders and private equity firms. I worked multiple jobs in college, put myself through law school and business school, traveled extensively, lived in Spain, built a factory in China. Also, I’m currently a school board member in the school district where I live, and I lead a not for profit the makes grants to aspiring students who are grappling with the effects of extreme poverty.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
That’s a difficult question to answer because it implies that we have a single US education system that can be rated in a meaningful way, whereas we actually have thousands of distinct education systems all loosely bound together into a national whole. And the question also implies that you and I have already aligned around what we should be evaluating and the best evidence to use for measuring those results. So, any single answer I give to this question wouldn’t really be a substantive response.
Both by design and structure, the US education system is locally driven and highly fragmented. While this can help improve the fit to the needs of the local community and serve as a spark for innovation, it also leads to “A Tale of Two Cities” scenarios — all the best for some school districts, and sometimes the least for others. No two school districts can be assumed to have the same funding, resources, infrastructure, etc. So, for these reasons, it’s difficult to answer this question. If forced to answer though, I’d say the results vary from A+ to unacceptable, depending on what you’re assessing and where within the country you look.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really well?
- Addressing the needs of children with disabilities. Nationally, we’ve made a robust commitment to addressing the needs of children with disabilities, and we’re continuing to make progress toward this goal. There are meaningful resources and services available, and we are seeing more acceptance and inclusiveness — not only in educating our kids in the least-restrictive environment but also towards authentic social inclusion and acceptance. Also, I’m happy that we seem to be placing more focus on educational benefit rather than primarily on regulatory compliance. While there is still more funding needed and much work still to be done, overall there is a lot to be proud of.
- More attention on the student, not just their test scores. I’m encouraged by the tidal wave of interest in SEL and related fields. Schools are increasingly committed to engaging with their students as whole people, not just as empty vessels in which to dump academic knowledge. Teaching and learning happens best in schools when there are meaningful relationships between teachers and students. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to look back over our years of schooling and remember that one special teacher that we made a connection with, that inspired us, that made a difference for us. This “whole-child” approach to education has the potential to dramatically improve the experience of both students and teachers in all of our schools. It’s my hope that future graduates will look back at their school years and remember their schools as a whole community of educators that inspired them.
- Embracing vocational education. For many decades, we did a disservice to both our children and to our communities by devaluing the merit and value of vocational education and jobs. I view our renewed support for vocational education as a very positive thing.
- Examining education data/science more thoughtfully. When I entered the field of education decades ago, I observed that there were often heated philosophical disagreements that seemed to be based upon personal preferences, opinions and tradition-based teaching methods. Overall, I think we now tend to have more insightful and thoughtful discussions about what works and what doesn’t, with the discussions centered more on data, empirical evidence and research outcomes rather than tradition.
- Welcoming diverse perspectives/diverse experience. There is increased awareness of the importance of having more diversity among our educators. Our students are diverse, and our teachers should be, too. The racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds of our educators is increasingly valued, and I see more efforts to implement more inclusive hiring and training practices. Similarly, diversity of real-world work experience also is improving. It’s not unusual these days to find people getting involved in education from backgrounds in business, technology, science and industry. These are wonderful ways to bring a richer variety of viewpoints to the classroom.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- Equitable funding. We must squarely face the reality that the US doesn’t have a single “education system.” Local control of education is highly valued and a worthy cause. It tends to encourage swift innovation by helping the best ideas for community rise to the top. But it also breeds a “we take care of our own” mentality that’s great for those school systems with money and resources, and not so great for those school systems that don’t have the same advantages. To ensure the best educational opportunities for all kids, we must create more equitable funding practices.
- Student engagement. With the implementation of No Child Left Behind, a lot of the joy was taken out of school by our intense focus on core curriculum and extensive testing, and the reduced presence of music, art, and other “non-core” classes in schools. Extensive testing and homework continue as the norm. It should come as no surprise that in a recent national student voice survey, the three most common words students used to describe their feelings about school were “bored,” “anxious” and “tired”. Yet we all know that motivation and engagement are key factors in student success. We can do much better to make schools meaningful, engaging and relevant.
- Support for Recent Immigrants. Some of our schools could be more supportive of students who recently immigrated to the US. Many of these students may have limited economic resources, and all too often may be grappling with the effects of trauma or insecurity. Many aren’t yet conversational in the English language. Too often, students who have recently immigrated to the US are left behind. The US dropout rate of students born outside the US is almost three times higher than the rate for students born here. With more supports, these students could do much better. It would be helpful for educators to study some of the supports Singapore and Finland have in place for foreign-born students.
- Teacher turnover and training. Teacher turnover is a significant challenge across the country. On average, 44% of new teachers leave teaching within five years. For all teachers across the country, each year roughly 8% leave the profession and another 8% change jobs. Taken together, we have too few teachers in the profession, and over all roughly 16% of teachers leave their jobs every year. By contrast, teacher attrition rates in Finland and Singapore are half the US rate. While increasing teacher pay in many areas would likely help reduce attrition, better training and support for teachers would also go a long way.
- Administration retention. It’s not just teacher retention rates that we need to do better on; it would be great to reduce administrative turnover as well. It’s destabilizing for school districts when superintendents have such a short tenure. When leadership is constantly changing, it’s tough to commit to and follow through on the longer-term initiatives that are often required to achieve systemic improvements in a district.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Modify Teacher Training Programs. Teacher preparation programs historically have emphasized curriculum, assessment, classroom management, some aspects of special education, etc. But I would go deeper on childhood development, the adverse and persistent impacts of trauma and adverse childhood experiences, the science of brain development, and best practices for getting to know your kids — especially kids who seem to be different from you. I would provide more training and coaching on developing relationships with students and understanding group dynamics.
- More Comprehensive Systems for Evaluating Schools. I think it’s imperative for schools to continue asking what their students need — not just to perform well academically — but to develop into happy, healthy young adults who can successfully navigate their lives, and set and achieve a vision for what they want their lives to be. For this to happen, schools need to be measured on and celebrated for more than academic test results. I’d promote an educational structure that authentically values the time, dollars and resources spent on programs that enable kids to thrive as human beings.
- More Equitable Funding, and Support for Richer Offerings. Needs and resources are not evenly distributed across the country. And, understandably, needs are often greatest where resources are scarcest. I would fundamentally alter how we fund education in the US so that it is not primarily based on local real estate taxes. Funds from the federal government account for only 8% of education funding. I would also seek to use more funding on more diverse offerings to help develop our students’ interests and to make schools more engaging, I would re-infuse programs like art, music, vocational arts, hands-on and project-based opportunities and other authentic opportunities for learning through doing.
- More Robust Training and Support for Superintendents. Being a superintendent is a very difficult job. Part educator, part business leader, part politician, part spokesperson, part community leader. On the whole, very few people come to this work experienced in all of these domains. Perhaps the turnover rate for superintendents could be reduced if they had more resources to turn to for support, if there were more structured professional learning groups for superintendents, ongoing mentorships, and best-practices developed and shared (e.g. forms and processes for parent communications, community engagement, fundraising and corporate support, etc.).
- More Supportive Programs for New Arrivals. Much like Singapore and Finland, I’d like to see us consistently welcome new arrivals to our schools with positive, supportive integration strategies. Keep in mind that Singapore and Finland have vastly different educational philosophies from each other. Yet both nations have a very receptive, welcoming, supportive approach to new arrivals. They make it a national priority to embrace immigrants, and their results are better than what we see in the US.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.” — Dr. Steven Covey
This life lesson quote is familiar to many and sounds simple enough, but it’s not always easy to actually do. Over the years, I’ve seen that it is most challenging when emotions get triggered, and that is also when it is most important. When emotions are involved, it is most important to take a breath and really commit to listening and understanding.
In today’s social and political climate, it seems so many people are now taking the opposite approach — people seem to be practicing “outrage” as a reaction to what they see, hear and read. Now more than ever, it is important that we try to “Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.”
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I’d really like to meet his Majesty Juan Carlos. He was the King of Spain from 1975 to 2014. In my view, he’s a modern-day hero. Spain and its constituent kingdoms were monarchies for most of their histories. Then, in 1939, Francisco Franco staged a coup and ruled as Spain’s fascist dictator for nearly 40 years. As Franco aged, he sought to identify and groom his successor. He chose Juan Carlos, who was a grandson of the last Spanish king. Nobody knew if Juan Carlos would seek to continue Franco’s legacy, ruling both as king and dictator. When Franco finally passed, Juan Carlos stepped forward and, to many people’s great surprise, impaneled a constitutional convention, appointed a prime minister, encouraged political parties, and birthed a democracy. It would be fascinating to discuss his experience over lunch.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
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