Wednesday, November 16, 2011

“Hedge-Fund Guy” Emails Support to School Reformers

A nice article in the upcoming issue of Education Next about my involvement in (and blogging about) school reform, which ends:

Tilson spent several months in New York helping Kopp launch TFA, in 1989 and 1990. ("I take no credit for what TFA has become," he says, "but I take full credit for identifying a great idea and a great entrepreneur.") The rest is history, of course, and Tilson was there as TFA celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this year.

Factors, Not Excuses

So what does motivate Tilson? "OUTRAGE!" he writes. "Almost every day, I read and hear stories that shock and infuriate me." Interestingly, the "OUTRAGE" of his writings is not apparent when you meet Tilson. The passion is, however. He believes that "there is still no school district in America that is doing an adequate job of educating low-income children." That doesn't mean he thinks it's easy to do so. Schools face "extraordinary difficulty." But he believes that "the great majority of these kids, the vast majority of these kids, can be put on a different trajectory, so they have a really good shot in life, they can go to a four-year college and with that you have a pretty good chance in life."

And why does he care? "I believe very deeply in the promise of this country," he explains, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But there is nothing more fundamental about what America stands for than equality of opportunity. That it doesn't matter who your parents are or what color your skin is or what neighborhood you were born in—every kid in this country should get a fair shot at the American dream. And there's nothing more important to that than getting a decent education.… The outrage comes from the fact that we have a public education system in this country that systematically delivers a massively inferior education to low-income and minority kids. The kids that most need a good education, to escape the disadvantages of the life they were born into, are systematically given a lousy education. That violates every sense of fairness, every belief I have about this country and thus the outrage."

He acknowledges "the massive deficits kids face outside the schools" and says, "I'm not a 'It's all the teacher unions fault' guy. I'm very cognizant of how difficult it is to educate these children who come from poverty, single-parent households, little or no support from home." But he doesn't buy the argument that you can't fix schools until you get rid of poverty.

"It's exactly the opposite," he says defiantly. "You can't cure poverty until you have good schools."

And do you think you can have good schools for poor kids?

"I don't think, I know," he says, "with 100 percent certainty, because I've been to dozens, if not hundreds, of such schools that are successfully educating these kids to a very high level. The most disadvantaged kids. I'm not saying it's easy. It is incredibly difficult, but there's no question that it's absolutely possible. And it's possible at scale, not just one classroom."

That, Tilson admits, is not something he thought possible 15 years ago. And he's bullish about the future.


"Hedge-Fund Guy" Emails Support to School Reformers

A conversation with Whitney Tilson

By Peter Meyer

WINTER 2012 / VOL. 12, NO. 1


It's sunset over Manhattan, and from the 35th floor of a Park Avenue skyscraper the vista is pure gold. The soaring buildings are bathed in the deep rich colors of, well, money. As visitors take their seats in the sedately cavernous room, a slim, middle-aged man is pacing in front of a large projector screen with a picture of a black child and the words, "A Right Denied: The Critical Need for Genuine School Reform." (

If it is a jarring juxtaposition, it is meant to be. The slim man in the gray suit is there, at a meeting of the New York chapter of the Young Presidents' Organization, to talk about something that many of these financiers and business people don't often talk about because they can afford not to: fixing public schools.

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