By the Company It Keeps: Neerav Kingsland

By 08/08/2013

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I met Neerav Kingsland in 2009. I was on my tenth trip to New Orleans post-Katrina, meeting with a foundation newly interested in supporting the local reform effort, and I wanted to spend a little time with New Schools for New Orleans, the organization leading much of the most promising work, to learn more about their efforts. Neerav and I spent a few hours together, and I walked away impressed beyond words.

I liked to think my ideas about systemic reform were advanced—heck, I was writing a book about it—but his ability to thoughtfully answer every question I could muster and precisely explain how big concepts were translating into practice demonstrated that he was the real leader in this business.

In the years since, my admiration for Neerav has only grown. On reform philosophy, he’s my intellectual doppelganger; but he’s so much smarter, and his experience helping to bring our shared beliefs to life put him in a class of his own. I learn a great deal every time we’re together—from theoretical issues associated with governance or residential catchment zones to NSNO’s daily activities related to charter incubation and human capital

But his interests extend far beyond K–12 education. His twitter feed is a master class in polymathy; in a single morning he might point to articles about venture capital in the developing world, immigration, emerging technologies, and artificial meat. His answers below will show you what I mean.

And beyond all this, Neerav is just a really nice, humble guy. With so much intellectual horsepower and professional success, you could forgive him for having some ego. But he’s understated, contemplative, curious, and kind.

I think NOLA is easily the most exciting city in America for K–12 education. Its progress since the storms is astonishing, both in terms of student learning and its redefinition of the delivery of public education. Many, many people deserve credit for all of this.

But, in my opinion, no one has Neerav’s combination of a comprehensive understanding of the revolutionary ideas at play and a Gantt-chart vision for actualizing them. And as the NOLA model expands across the nation, his influence will only grow.

I’m privileged to call Neerav Kinglsand a friend and colleague. The kids of New Orleans and other American cities are fortunate to have his big brain and strong back on their side. And the education-reform community is lucky to keep his company.

Ladies and gentlemen: Neerav Kingsland.

What led you to attend Tulane in New Orleans, and why’d you become an English major? (And since “New Orleans” and “English major” are in one sentence, I have to ask: Do you agree with me that A Confederacy of Dunces is the best American novel of the last half century?)

I came to New Orleans because, well, it just seemed so alive when I visited. And it still feels this way—socially, intellectually, culturally—the city is truly alive. That’s why the first adult decision I ever made was to leave small town Indiana and move to New Orleans. And I’ve basically been here ever since.

I became an English major because I wanted to be a novelist. Now instead of writing I mostly tweet. If he were alive, I think Hemmingway would be doing the same, though perhaps with less of a focus on education reform…

As per the best American novel of the last half-century, that’s Blood Meridian. Followed by Beloved. And then Jesus’ Son. Then Gilead.

You actually volunteered in the Crescent City’s schools pre-Katrina. What should people know about the state of public education in New Orleans today, especially compared to pre-Katrina?

I attended public schools growing up and had no idea how inequitable public schooling could be. But what I saw tutoring in 1999 in New Orleans changed my life. The school was dangerous. The building was falling apart. And there was no instruction going on. No child deserved to be sent to such a place.

Fast forward to 2013 and the school where I tutored, Woodson Elementary, is now operated by KIPP and is doing amazing things for students in the neighborhood, with the school being one of the highest performing in the city. To have been there 14 years ago and to be there now—it’s remarkable. It’s a striking example of how the New Orleans system is one of the most improved school systems in the nation.

Yes, we definitely still have a long way to go. But we’ve made real progress: educators and families in New Orleans have turned this school system around. And I’m humbled to have been a part of this effort.

New Schools for New Orleans is a type of organization that didn’t really exist a decade ago. What does NSNO do? What does organizational success look like?

The reason we exist is because Sarah Usdin is a tenacious entrepreneur. In the wreckage of Katrina, she got us off the ground (and convinced me to basically drop out of law school and move back down to NOLA). Now, seven years later, we focus on three things: citywide strategic leadership, charter school development, and human capital. Or to put it another way: We’re trying to build a well-governed system where great charter schools are led by great educators.

Success is very clear to us: a high-quality seat for every child in New Orleans. We’re predicting a population of 50,000 students in the city. So 50,000 high-quality seats is our North Star. It drives everything we do.

And this is not a narrow vision—it will require great instruction, great mental health services, great special education services, great governmental leadership—we’re fighting for both performance and equity in achieving 50,000 high-quality seats.

You’re now famous for introducing the concept of “relinquishment” into the education-reform vernacular. How do you describe it?

Well, I’m not sure that adding to the vernacular of policy wonks constitutes fame! But Relinquishment is based on three principles: (1) educators should operate schools (2) families should choose among these schools, and (3) government should hold schools accountable for performance and equity.

That’s it. It’s intuitive. It’s simple. And in that sense it’s surprising that New Orleans is the only city in the country to follow these principles—to let educators run schools and let families choose amongst these schools. I hope other cities will follow and also hand power back to educators and families.

Do you have a philosophy or particular approach to organizational leadership? In other words, how do you see your role, and what do you prioritize?

My leadership is still a work in progress. But, for me at least, I view my job as:

(1) Providing rationality to the organization—setting clear goals, with clear strategies, with clear roles, guided by clear values

(2) Building and supporting an excellent leadership team

(3) Communicating our work to educators and policy makers

We have such incredible people at NSNO that I feel that if I can do the above, the team will drive us toward achieving 50,000 high-quality seats.

What big ideas outside of education do you find most compelling? I hear you’re interested in Artificial Intelligence and “The Singularity”? Tell us more!

Well, it’s always good to keep tabs on our future overlords. So, yes, huge interest in artificial intelligence. I think it will be the next major disruption in humanity (language, farming, industry, and information being the previous four). It’s also an issue that strikes at the heart of what it means to be human—what does it mean to be sentient? I’m often overwhelmed by how much we feel and how little we know. And artificial intelligence happens to be one of the topics that triggers this feeling (with a good sunset not far behind). And all this puts education reform in context. The world is vaster than our daily occupations.

You’re a world traveler (central Asia, Sierra Leone, Colombia…). What’s the best place you’ve ever visited? Where haven’t you been that you’re itching to go?

Sierra Leone had the most profound impact on my life. I was working at a war crimes tribunal for six months (another time where I dropped out of law school) – and I was completely unprepared to work in such an environment.

To name a few of the complexities: The lead lawyer of our team was running for President of Sierra Leone; we were defending the High Priest of a civil defense force that fought against Charles Taylor; and three weeks in, all the other international lawyers on the team quit. And I failed time and time again in navigating the legal, political, and cultural maze of the case. It was the most humbling six months of my life.

That being said, I did introduce the phrase “Tall Boy” to Sierra Leone, which previously had no method of describing a 16-oz beer.

As per where I want to go: China. I’d like to better understand the country that has both committed some of the most atrocious acts of the last century (Mao) as well as lifted more people out of poverty than any other country in the world—all the time violating many of the Western norms we hold to be necessary for human flourishing (like democracy). Whether or not China develops into a politically stable middle-income country is simply one of the most important issues of our time.

You went to Yale Law School (another BTCIK smarty pants!). Why, what was your favorite class, and why did you decide not to practice law full-time?

I went to law school because I needed a way forward. At the time I applied to law school I was waiting tables in the French Quarter. Unfortunately, in our country credentialing is extremely important, and I felt I needed a credential to open doors. And this proved to be true.

My favorite class was pretty telling of my lack of desire to practice law—instead of writing the traditional 100-page legal article to meet my graduation requirements, I asked if I could write a novel about my time in Sierra Leone. The wonderful folks at Yale (who by this time had probably lost all hope for me) said: Sure, whatever. But I learned a ton in writing that novel. It helped hone my writing ability—as well evolve my views on what it means to be alive in this day and age. And, ultimately, it convinced me that I didn’t want to be a writer, which was incredibly useful in terms of getting clarity on where I wanted to head.

If you could have dinner with any five individuals—living or deceased—who would they be, and what would you talk about?

For the sake of not boring everyone, I’ll go with five people who don’t get enough attention, who are still alive, and who have dramatically affected my thinking: Robin Hanson (how status drives human behavior), Jonathan Haidt (the biological underpinnings of ideology), Ha-Joon Chang (the fallacy of simplistic free-market rhetoric), Deirdre McCloskey (the interplay between culture and economic systems), and Ta-Nehisi Coates (on race). All of these people have obliterated prior opinions of mine. I’d like to have that happen again over a nice meal.

I’m told you really like two very dark television programs: The Killing and Dexter. Umm…is there something you’d like to tell us?

Modern mysteries are the intellectual heirs of Shakespearean tragedy. The season finale of the first season of Dexter clearly proves this. Full stop.

—Andy Smarick

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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