Robert Pondiscio — Success of Success Academy
Robert Pondiscio Transcript
We’re going to move on to our next speaker, Robert Pondiscio, who will discuss his book, “How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice.” Robert, please go ahead.
Thank you, Larry. Shortly before my book was published, I wrote a piece for an education news website with the title, “Here’s My New Book. I Hope You Hate It.” And I meant it earnestly. It’s a bit of a Rorschach Test, whether you are a fan or a foe of Charter Schools, of Success Academy or its controversial founder, Eva Moskowitz, you’ll find evidence in my book that will support those views. But my hope was that leaders would also see things that challenge those views and made them a bit uncomfortable.
Let’s start. Charter Schools are not private schools. They are publicly funded, but privately managed. The Charter School movement is only about 30 years old. Its greatest successes have been urban charter school networks, including names you might know, like KIPP, Achievement First, YES Prep, and others. But the most successful is Success Academy.
Here’s some facts. Since its founding in 2006, Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Success Academy, has grown her organization from a single school in Harlem, in New York City, to 47 schools, educating 17,000 children in every borough of New York except Staten Island.
That rapid growth has not diminished quality in any measurable way. Two years ago, there were 37 Success Academy schools, with children in testing grades, that’s grades three through eight. Among those schools, listen carefully, the lowest performing had 85% of its students pass the New York State English language arts test. Yes, that was the worst one. The school with the lowest pass rate in math had 92% of its students at or above proficiency.
And let me not bury the lede. More than 90% of Success Academy’s students are children of color, mostly Black and Hispanic, mostly low income, living in neighborhoods where public schools have failed families for generations. About one in three Black and Hispanic children in New York city, by contrast, test at or above grade level in math and reading.
So the level of quality and the consistency is astonishing and quite literally without precedent. There is no such thing as a bad Success Academy school based on test scores. But it’s incorrect to say that Success Academy gets these results with a random assortment of kids and families. So, spoiler alert, here’s the news that emerged from my book.
Charter Schools, as you may know, admits students by lottery. But at Success, winning a seat in the lottery is just the first step in their enrollment process. There are several small, but non-trivial hoops that parents must jump through in between the lottery in April and the start of the school year in August.
First there’s a welcome meeting at which Success Academy staff, to their credit, could not be more clear or more emphatic about what they stand for and what they will not stand for. Success makes significant demands on parents to read with their children every night, to support safe and orderly schools, and to understand that kids, yes even kindergartners, will be suspended if they break school rules.
Parents are expected to be 100% onboard with Success Academy’s so-called “culture” demands. That means things like long days, half days on Wednesday for teacher professional development, no transportation, no after-school programming. All of this is non-negotiable. The one staffer told parents, “This isn’t Burger King. You can’t have it your way.” And they mean it.
Next, families have to confirm their interest by email. Then comes a uniform fitting. Then there’s a dress rehearsal, where new students meet their teachers and learn classroom routines. So, parents have to be motivated or curious enough about alternatives to zoned neighborhood schools to at least enter the Charter School lottery in the first place. Then Success makes them vote with their feet, affirming and reaffirming their commitment repeatedly over the summer.
The results is that the families whose children end up matriculating at Success Academy are not there by happenstance or by accident. They are either buying what Eva Moskowitz is selling, or they’re desperate enough to sign up and go along with the program. Moreover, they have demonstrated a base level of competence, of organizational skill, and the bandwidth to keep up with the school’s demands to show up and show up and show up again.
All of this appears to favor a disproportionate number of two parent families who are employed, stable, religious, and who value the very thing that critics of Success Academy derive: a safe, strict, and orderly school environment. Now critics look at this and say, “Well, this is creaming. This is cherry picking.” But it’s not the smoking gun they imagined.
For starters, Success Academy gets better results with self-selected families than New York City’s gifted and talented programs get with kids who really are hand-picked, and better test scores than wealthy suburban schools get with the children and parents in multi-million dollar homes, whose property taxes might as well be private school tuition.
So is there something wrong with offering opportunity to families whose principle assets are ambition, and a willingness to sacrifice and work hard for their children? Well, for some, there is something wrong with that. We think it’s unfair. And, bluntly, it is unfair. What about the other children? But unfair to whom? To parents who want their children to go to school with the children of similarly engaged and ambitious parents? Or unfair to those left behind when neighborhood schools suffer an exodus of those families?
What Success is demonstrating, what my book I think demonstrates to my mind, is what is possible when you allow families to self-select into high functioning schools and when every adult in a child’s life is pulling in the same direction. But, the argument cannot be, “Well, this proves that we can do this with virtually any child. Nor can we impose this brand of schooling on the unwilling.” It would not be appropriate.
But rather than try to explain these things away, to insist that we can do this for every child, or conversely insist that unless we can do it for every child, we shouldn’t do it for any child, I wish we would lean into these differences. However much it varies from the standard narratives in education, however uncomfortable it makes us, however complicated the ramifications.
So let Eva be Eva. Let families who are eagerly buying what they’re selling have Success Academy, let’s have more of them. But let’s stop comparing them to neighborhood schools. They’re different, and that’s why they’re excellent. So, if Success Academy is a poor man’s private school, that’s okay. There’s a role for that in New York City in this country that hasn’t been filled, really, since the heyday of Catholic schools. Frankly, I think most Americans would probably say, “Well, it’s about time.”
Pondiscio and Gelber QA Transcript
Why do you think there is this focus on fairness? Why did that come front and center? Is that just part of this new mindset that we have to help the most poor or the most downtrodden? We don’t usually ask that question to parents of suburban schools.
No, and that’s why the title of my book was, “How The Other Half Learned.” It’s an ironic title, which some folks may recall, or it does recall the Jacob Rees book from over century ago, “How The Other Half Lives.”
The things that Success Academy families are striving to get are, frankly, the things that affluent families take for granted. It is simply not controversial if you’re local, if you are a person of means, if you are typically white in this country, and your local school is not up to snuff. It is completely uncontroversial for you to pick up and move to the suburbs, where you’ll get as much school as you can for as much houses you can get, so to speak.
But when somebody comes along and tries to do this for low income kids of color, well suddenly it’s a problem and these issues of unfairness and inequities are raised. I think there is an article of faith in contemporary education that we can fix this. It almost doesn’t matter where you are in the political spectrum. If you’re to the left… how many times have you heard this phrase? If we just fully fund schools, then every school can be this. Then on the right, if we just inject competition into the system, through Charter Schools, through vouchers, et cetera, then schools will have an incentive to improve.
But it is almost the monomaniacal focus of both right and left, fixing urban schools in particular and closing the so-called achievement gap. I think I’m oversimplifying, but not hugely, to say it has been the almost exclusive focus of education policy for the last 25 years.
Why do you think Success Academy is successful? You’ve mentioned some of the aspects about the uniforms, and the test prep, and the buy-in, uniform appearance, and the reading to the children. There’s certain things that Eva is doing that is scalable and there’s certain things that aren’t. If you had your top 10 list what she’s doing right, what would you say? Or do you think it’s impossible to look at it that way holistically? If you don’t have a safe environment, it just won’t work. Or if you don’t have parent buy-in, it won’t work. Or if you don’t have a uniform, it won’t work.
I think you’ve just answered the question. It’s a facile thing to say, “Well, what’s the answer here?” I don’t mean that your question is facile, but that’s just what we do all the time in this work is say, “What’s the single most important thing? And I don’t think there is a single most important thing. It’s a cocktail, it’s a suite of things. Somebody, not me, said “It’s 100 different 1% solutions, not one 100% solution.”
The one thing I will say, which was an epiphany to me in writing this book. I’m a curriculum and instruction guy. My strange role in education policy is, where most people who do what I do are focusing on structures and funding and things like chartering and teacher quality and testing, I’m the guy who says, “Hey, can we talk about what the kids do all day?” Education policy tends to be somewhat indifferent to classroom practice. That tends to be my exclusive focus.
I walked into Success Academy assuming I was going to write about practice, cause that’s what I write about generally, and I surprised myself by writing a book that ended up being almost exclusively about school culture. That’s the function of those, I want to call it, winnowing, because I don’t want to leave the impression that what makes Success work is that it’s a cleaning or selection engine. When you have every parent and every adult in a child’s life heading in the same direction, it creates that coherent cohesive, high-expectations environment that’s just really, really hard to just drop into schools just anywhere.
This is Dan Gelber. I have a question for you, Rob. My mother was a teacher for about 40 years and she always said at back to school night at the beginning of the school year, that percentage of participation was usually the best indicator of what kind of year she’d have. The greater participation with parents, there’d be less discipline issues and kids would tend to do their homework on time.
When the self-selected group of children go, what happens to the schools where they come from, if there’s any appreciable amount coming from one of our schools or others if it’s a great amount? My question is how does the other half’s other half learn at that point?
It is a fantastic question. It’s the one that, I’ll be quite candid with you, I think we’re dishonest about. Those of us in educational policy love to produce these studies that show that Charters and competition. And look, I’m a Charter and choice guy. I teach in a Charter School. There’s this tendency to want to say that it creates a rising tide that lifts all boats.
What inspired me, though. A bit of a backstory here, I spent a year mostly in a school that was literally across the street from a school where I was a student teacher, and in the same neighborhood where I was a fifth grade teacher at the lowest performing public school in the South Bronx for five years. So I know that the “right answer” is that rising tide.
In other words, if I think back on my classroom experience and think, “Okay, who were the kids that I had who were most likely, would have been most likely, there was no Success Academy, to have left my school and classroom to become a Success Academy student?” It’s just sensible to suggest that that would not have a deleterious effect on my class and my school.
But the key thing here is, is we simply don’t have the right to treat other people’s children as public resources. In other words, it’s quite common to have a complaint against Success Academies and say, “Well, you’re robbing the system of the resource that is this motivated child in this motivated family.” Well, to be blunt, nobody tells me that my child is a public resource when I moved to the burbs. Nobody tells me my child is a public resource when I enrolled her in a private school or a Catholic school. So it just seems a perverse, almost, to have that mindset and attach it to Black and Brown families, low income families, and to them only.
Something just to follow that up, we used to have, or there currently may be, gifted programs in suburban schools. In those gifted programs, we lift out the best students and separate them as well. Do we face that same sort of hostility when we do that? And others think that we need to have these gifted programs. If we’re going to have new ideas and productivity, we really need to invest more money in gifted programs than otherwise.
Yeah, this is a large controversy. It’s not my area of expertise, but as I’m sure a lot of our listeners know that in New York city and elsewhere, this is a bit of a third rail right now. Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza in New York city have been trying to dismantle one of the better systems in the country, in terms of student outcomes, the so-called specialized high schools. The familiar names like Stuyvesant High and Bronx Science, which are test-in schools.
Because of this general feeling that’s at loose at the land that these are on equitable, there is a large movement to dismantle these kinds of schools that have historically been real engines of opportunity for low and moderate income people. I have personal opinions about that, but I don’t really have data to suggest whether or not they are effective or not. In other words, is it a selection error? Are the kids who are going to go to those schools, would they have done well anyway, because they are axiomatically brightened good test takers? I just don’t have the depth of knowledge on the research to comment intelligently on that.
Okay, so going, then, down a different tack, last week, we had Bill Fischel speak on What Happens Next and I asked him a question about the ending of college board subject tests. Bill mentioned that he doesn’t like it when we teach for the test and he would prefer more creative solutions.
I want to break that into two questions. One is, in reading your book, you highlight that test prep is a major component of how they think about their education. That’s number one. And number two is, we split up. There’s a sense that in the suburban schools, the teacher can be very creative about their curriculum choice, but here at Success Academy, they split the role. There’s one group that does curriculum, and there’s another group that does the teaching. How do you think about?
We danced around the question of how much of this is scalable, and if you ask Eva Moskowitz, she would give you the answer, “All of it.” My answer is less than that, but not none of it. One of the things that I think is, and should be, scalable is exactly what you just described, Larry.
I’ve written it out this as recently as two days ago. This may be a subject almost for another time, but there is an extraordinary inefficiency at the heart of American education where we expect… And there’ve been studies from Rand and elsewhere that show that the average American teacher spends an ungodly amount of time, either creating or curating, finding materials to teach.
In other words, the expectation I think that most of us has, is “Well, there’s a curriculum, right?” Well, not really. That time that is spent finding materials to teach is time that is not spent on studying student work, preparing to teach a lesson, and building relationships with children and families, on and on and on. So it’s not that that customization is necessarily a bad thing, it’s just the opportunity cost is profound. If there’s one change that I think that we can learn from Success Academy, and that I would strongly encourage, it’s that we need to rethink that expectation.
I’ve written about this over the years and pointed out that we just literally make the job of a teacher too hard for mere mortals. We expect them to be both expert curriculum deliverers, pedagogues if you will, and curriculum designers. My standard line is that nobody thinks that YY Ma is a second late musician, because he did not write the Brandenburg concertos. But we have this expectation that teachers should be both playwright and actor, both musician and composer, and it just comes at an enormous cost in terms of efficiency.
What about that first part of the question, about the fact that at Success Academy there is a lot of teaching for the test? I guess one of the concerns about teaching for the test is that limits the education, it may not be as fun. But when you were writing in the book, the teachers seem to make it extremely fun, and gave them challenges that, although it helped them in the test, it would help them in anything, in terms of how to read, how to think about a word they don’t know in context. Is teaching for the test, which has got a horrible reputation among the education establishment… Are they just wrong on that?
It’s funny. I say this all the time, “I’ve got a complicated relationship with standardized tests.” “Nobody should sentimentalize the time before we had testing, when we could just pretend that all the children were above average,” Garrison Keillor said. Now we know where the gaps are and we can’t ignore them. The moral authority of the entire education reform movement comes from acknowledgement of those gaps, and that means tests.
But it would be also naive, I think, to blind oneself to the downstream effects of this. I’ll bet almost everybody has seen this if they have school age children in their own children’s schools which end poor. Teaching to the test, the obsession with test prep, the concern over those annual state tests. On the one hand, and I think I wrote this in the book exactly this way, seeing that extreme test prep is the type of thing that normally rubs me the wrong way, but it didn’t rub me the wrong way at Success Academy. And I had to ask myself why not?
The answer that I gave to myself, others can make up their own mind, is, if you are a low-income Black or Brown child in America, you have absolutely no reason, historically, to expect that you’re going to have a relationship that’s positive with a thing called the school.
But now you find yourself in a thing called Success Academy, where your teachers are telling you that there’s this thing called the test, and it’s hard, not easy, but they’re going to prepare you for it, give you attack strategies, on and on and on, test prep you in an inch of your life. Then, lo and behold, the test comes and you get a four, the highest possible score, or a three. But more to the point, all of your friends do too.
Now suddenly, put yourself in the mind of that child who goes home thinking something very different about a place called school. They go home thinking, “Hey, I’m good at this.” And it’s not just my teacher and my mom who says so, it’s the State of New York and this piece of paper that says so.
So I’m willing to bet that game changing relationship with the thing called the school, even though I don’t necessarily love test prep, I do love the idea of having a school and a school community where every child, particularly the ones who are historically least likely to have this relationship, go home thinking, “This is taking me someplace.” I think that’s valuable. We don’t know this, but my bet, my hunch, is that that’s going to pay dividends in the long-term.
I want to go back to Dan Gelber’s question to you and ask it a different way. You have two students. One is a high achiever, one is a low achiever. There’s an assumption, that Dan’s mother was telling you this, that if you have that high achiever next to the lower achiever, it will have a positive impact on the low achiever.
But I wonder having that low achiever next to the high achiever, how much does that bring down the high achiever? It can’t just be one way. How do we think about, I’ll call it, bad influence, bad behavior, bad culture, drug use, whatever those things are. That kid is trouble. That kid doesn’t make this room safe.
The technocratic answer is what I said before, which is that effect of the rising tide that lifts all boats. As a teacher, as a writer, I’m not persuaded by it, because also, I think, all of us who have children in school, who had been in school, realized that, we don’t just send our children to school to get good scores on standardized tests.
There’s more going on in a school. There’s peer effects. There’s any number of other factors that matter to us as much, or more, than whether they get that three or four on a reading test. So, we are concerned about the environment in which our kid goes to school.
My long answer to the question, Larry. There’s a figure in this book who was not a student at Success Academy, but I say that she haunts the book like a ghost, and she was a fifth grade student of mine when I was a teacher a few blocks away at P.S. 277. There was this girl named Tiffany, who, in retrospect, was the Success Academy kid from central casting.
She came to school every day in the school uniform. She never missed a day of school. She never missed an assignment. The way I describe her in this book is, she was a double three, meaning she was solidly on grade level in a school where almost nobody was a double three.
The big moment for me in my trajectory in my career was mentioning to my special ed supervisor one day, “Look, I’m not doing anything for this girl, Tiffany.” She said, and the verbatim quote was, “Well, she’s not your problem.” Which is such a hell of a thing to say about anybody’s child. In other words, what she was trying to say, I assume giving me good advice is, “Pondiscio, you’ve got ones and twos. Why are you worried about this kid who’s delivering the results that you need?”
I’m haunted, frankly, to this day, thinking what if this girl had gone to my daughter’s very nice private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan? What if there had been a Success Academy? She ended up moving to Pennsylvania, graduating from a perfectly fine state university. She’s working in a marketing position for a dot com, I believe, in Pennsylvania. I’m still in touch with her.
So, this is the point of making the book. We would look at that data point and say, “Well, we did right by her. She graduated. Her chances of graduating as a single child, as a low-income, person of color in the South Bronx was less than 10%. So it worked.” Then I say, “Well, wait a minute. Did you not hear what I said? I was told to ignore her.” So she got what she got, not because of us, but in spite of us.
I’m not answering your question, Larry, because I don’t think there is an answer to that question. The large point is we don’t make these decisions, or don’t allow these decisions to be made, for our own children if we are White and affluent. But we are perfectly comfortable making these decisions for other people’s children. When I say, “Here’s My New Book. I Hope You Hate It.” I hope people hate wrestling with that question, because it’s essential that we do so.
Robert, you asked Derek Lowe a question about when we can open schools, and the issue was safety. Safety for the teacher, safety for the student. I think safety is even more important than the good test scores. I think a parent that feels his child or her child isn’t safe, “Screw it. I don’t care what he learns in history.”
I think safety is what might have driven the original White Flight in the 1960s, and why my father went to a school in West Rogers Park and why I went to a high school in the suburbs. I think it was safety. And so is the Success Academy successful because it is a safe environment, they don’t need to worry about that, is that a huge factor in the buy-in?
I think that’s a factor. It’s an understood, but not necessarily well-documented factor in charter schools, urban charter schools in general. This is again, anecdoted, I don’t want to present or pretend that I’ve got data on this, but anecdotally it is something of an open secret that charter is a synonym for safe, at least in New York City and I assume elsewhere. So, the point I make here is that when we make these, I think rather facile comparisons between neighborhood schools and charter schools, and then Success Academy, you almost have to think of this in social science, we do demographically matched research. And my point is, well, no, you have to consider this, to use a marketing term, psychographic. So, imagine three three mothers, there’s the one who just sends the kid to the zoned school down the street.
Because that’s where we go. There’s the one who’s concerned about safety and says, “What’s a charter school? I want one of those.” And then there’s the next level up, which is no, I don’t want my kid in just a safe charter school. I want Kipp or Success Academy or Democracy Prep, where I teach sometimes. So, those parents may be demographically matched, but they are not psychographically matched. Success Academy seems to be a magnet. And through these various mechanisms I discussed, that’s kind of a soft enforcement or soft sorting mechanism to ensure that they are getting families with the most buy-in.
So this is, I think another mistake we make in the education policy world is we have this kind of attitude that’s urban neighborhoods, they’re under undifferentiated masses of poor unfortunate people. And we have to save them, so to speak. We want to be careful here. I think we undervalue the amount of parental efficacy that is there for us to tap. Say what you will about Eva Moskowitz. She does not engage in the soft bigotry of low expectations. She absolutely expects quite a lot of the parents and gets it.
Bringing my last question for you on parents. It sounds like when you said, “This isn’t Burger King, you can’t have it your way.” I think, I assume there’s no PTA or an ability for parents to kind of weigh-in to change, way most school districts work and that Eva is offering this Double Whopper. What is the role of parents in the changing or influencing the educational process? Albeit, curriculum, uniform choice, methods of teaching, or is this really look, take it or leave it we’d love you to play if you don’t like it, take a hike?
Well, what’s interesting. I think there’s no discernible role that I can determine in terms of curriculum and pedagogy and school culture, and whatnot. It is what it is, but they do, interestingly, recruit parents to be political advocates. Moskowitz is famous in New York for bringing thousands of parents to Albany on charter school lobbying day for marshaling, tens of thousands of parents to March across the Brooklyn Bridge to open more charter schools.
So she’s an unusually well-organized woman, very dynamic leader and inspires, either through loyalty or fear, she gets parents to turn out and advocate for their own schools and for opening others. And this, by the way, is something else that is made quite clear to parents from the get-go is that is an expectation that you will be a participant in these public marches, to help grow this movement, not just the Success Academy, but for charter schools in general, in New York.
Zvi Galil — What Georgia Tech Is Doing Right That 11,000 Students are Enrolled in its Master’s Program in Computer Science?
Zvi Galil Transcript
Alright, let’s begin today’s program with Zvi Galil who will introduce us to the very innovative online master’s program offered at Georgia Tech.
In March 2020, universities moved almost all their courses online. Six years earlier, Georgia Tech introduced its online Master of Science in Computer Science program. Some say we were prescient. In my six minute lecture, I will tell you about the programs unique features, what we have learned so far and share with you some thoughts about the future.
The program has five unique features:
One, it is the first MOOC-based online program. This means it is based on MOOC technology. MOOCs are massive open online courses.
Two, it is highly affordable. The total cost of the program was initially $6,600, now $7,000. In comparison, the cost of our on-campus program is $40,000 for out-of-state students and $25,000 for in-state students. The cost of private universities is $70,000 or more. This drew everybody’s attention. Our motto is accessibility through affordability and technology.
Three, we accept every candidate with the B.S. that meets certain requirements, i.e., everyone that we believe can complete the degree successfully. So far, we have accepted 74% of applicants. This compares to 10% or less for other well-known universities. The program is a fundamental, even revolutionary, shift from the prevailing paradigm of higher education in which brand is bolstered by exclusion and high tuition fees.
Four, the students make extensive use of social media, where they created 74 communities. Their academic interaction on social media is much more intense than that of the on-campus students.
Five, the program’s size. In January 2014, we started with 380 students, and this spring, we have over 11,000. It will exceed 12,000 in the fall. The sky’s the limit, and we cannot see the sky. So far, we have had over 40,000 applications. The program has graduated life to date more than 5,000 students and will graduate about 2,000 in 2021. A 2017 Harvard study predicted that we will increase the annual number of graduates with master’s degree in computer science in the US by at least 7%, but today these degrees are growing at rate of almost 10%.
What we have learned.
A top-tier university can create a high quality online program that can scale.
Two, the demographic of the online students and the on-campus students is quite different and the online program has not cannibalized the on-campus program. Since the start of the program, the number of applications to Georgia Tech’s on-campus program has tripled.
Three, the program caters to a population of potential students that has been underserved by higher education institutions. There is large and growing demand for such programs as ours. Over 30 universities followed in our footsteps and created over 40 programs, more are needed.
Four, you can’t learn what you don’t try, never say never.
Five, the online students are much more involved in the classes and the on-campus students.
Six, students love our program. The Harvard study discovered that most would not pursue the degree if such a program did not exist. We hear it from them directly as well. I’ve given dozens of lectures in 16 countries and met students and alumni everywhere, in my lectures, on the street, on the plane. They thank us for creating the program.
We have almost 400 TAs, 40% are alumni of the program, 25% are students in the program. They work for little pay, even though they have full-time jobs and many have families. It is their way to give back. We could not scale the program without their help. This is heartwarming.
During the pandemic, many teachers and students were exposed to online for the first time. After the pandemic, online teaching will be much more pervasive than it was before the pandemic. There will be more online degrees like ours, more online courses and more hybrid courses. Georgia Tech now has three MOOC-based, highly affordable, online master’s degree programs. The University of Illinois, the first that followed us, now has three as well. A book, The Distributed Classroom by David Joyner, the current executive director of our program, and Charles Isbell, the current dean, will come out in September. It captures the lessons we learned and shows several new ways that classroom teaching can be combined with online learning in the future.
At Georgia Tech, we started online teaching on our own campus and the graduate program. In 2017, we introduced an online section of the first computer science course, Introduction to Computing with Python. It has been a big success. About half of the students took the online version. They performed slightly better and were more satisfied than those who took the course in-person. In 2019, we added two more courses. I envision a future where undergraduates will have a choice of a hybrid program. Students will be able to take into introductory courses online even before arriving at the university, and students will be able to take courses online while serving as an intern and or working. If universities adopt our model of moderate pricing, students will graduate with no debt. Thank you.
Zvi Galil QA Transcript
Let me start out with a question about the economics of the program. You mentioned that it only costs $7,000 for a student to attend your online school, to get a master’s degree in computer science, and then you compared it to $40,000 for out-of-state students. $40,000 actually doesn’t include, I don’t imagine, books and housing-
Room and board.
And room and board, nor does it include the opportunity cost from work that they may want to do on the side to earn some money as well. Can you take me through the economics of the $7,000, and does the university break even on that? How much does it cost for the professor and for the TAs, et cetera? How do you break down that number?
With pleasure. What is the income of the program? The tuition is small, but when you multiply a small number by a large number of students, it may be large. What are the expenses of the program? Creating the course initially cost $300,000 because it’s a MOOC, a good MOOC, it’s like a movie. Now the cost of a new course is about $100,000, still very expensive. The teachers, the faculty, this is not the normal instruction obligation and they get extra compensation. I’m a strong believer in incentives, so they get added comp.
We were lucky, AT&T gave us $2 million even before we started and after a year of the program, another $10 million. As a result, we were always in the black. That was hugely important because Georgia Tech already doesn’t have an enormous endowment, it has only less than two billion. As a result of AT&T, we were always in the black.
In the first five years, we had a net income of $13 million. This year alone, we will have $13 million, next year, $15 to $18 million. This is it. We could do other things, it can cost us more.
I think what’s amazing, what you’re telling me, Zvi, is you’ve got a business that’s making 10 million bucks and growing at 20%. I mean, that’s a business that’s probably worth three to $500 million if you sold it, at least, I mean, that’s a mammoth business.
It’s not clear where’s the sky. We have been growing it slowly and judiciously and always looking if we can handle it. So far, we could. We think that we can, in the fall, it will be 12,000 or even 12,500 students.
Even if we paid a little bit more for the TAs. People ask, “How do you update the course? They change.” Initially, in the model, we included one-third of preparing a course to modify each time. The faculty tweaks it for no cost. Two of the courses, we had to do from scratch. And you ask, $6,600, now the tuition is $7,000. It’s the lowest among all that have followed us because we really didn’t care about the price. The other two online master’s degree programs at Georgia Tech cost $10,000 each. The other university programs are mostly higher. The University of Illinois, the business school, they charge $22,000, but it’s still less than the $70,000 on-campus program.
Can this program do it on its own? The answer is no, because the one big component of university budget is faculty salaries. Here, the professors don’t get the salary, that’s already their salaries. I believe that probably, in order to sustain it as an online university, you probably need to have it about 15 or 20,000, but this is still a much, much lower than we thought.
Well, I’m actually surprised to hear that. I would have thought that if you double the number of students, the price would come way down.
Yeah. This needs computing. I don’t know exactly the sensitivity to all the parameters, but you’re right. In fact, Sebastian Tron came to me in 2012, which was a year of the MOOC-led new program with a thousand dollars and I told him, “It won’t do, 4,000 will do.” Actually, with 4,000, we would have broken even. I have very good intuition for numbers, especially with the dollar signs. But our leadership wanted to play it safe, justifiably, and we offered tuition at $6,600. The numbers need to be studied.
Who are these kids? Where are they from? What do they look like? Are they American? Are they foreign? Who are these students?
This is the demographics. The demographics of the on-campus student and the online student is very different.
First of all, age wise, the average age is 32, while on campus it’s 22, immediately after they receive their BA. We had somebody graduate from our program, and he was 68, but that’s atypical. But the average age is 32.
Second, on campus, a majority are international; online, a majority are domestic. The main reason is international students want to pay the higher price to study on-campus because they have a foot in the US door, the student gets a visa. With online, you don’t get an American visa.
You mentioned that the students make extensive use of social media. What does that mean? What are they doing? How are they interacting with you?
The students have 74 groups, some by geography, some by gender, some by ethnicity, some by course. If there is a group for the course, they exchange information on the course, they help one another. Some of them even talk to potential applicants, they do part of our work. I said so about TAs, but also about publicity. Also, we had 1,250 stories in the media in the first seven years and sometimes on the web, people in the comments berate us. Online it can be terrible, and we don’t answer it, our students respond to the negative criticism. They say, “It’s hard. It’s a regular program.” They don’t accept it easily because they know that Georgia Tech’s brand requires very hard work, and we make them work hard.
I want to go back to your comment about how the average age is 32 years old. That is so much older than I imagined. They’re in a different part of their career. Do they want a different sort of education at that age? Is it more of a supplement? Are they changing careers?
It’s everything. Actually, many just want to learn. Some want to switch jobs, some engineers or scientists, they want to move to computer science. We have a smaller number of PhDs and they need computer science for their research, machine learning and data science. There are all these reasons. Some of them, for computer science it is a new career, some of them want to get promoted. We have this table, I don’t have it in front of me, with a percentage that this happened because we surveyed them in February.
This is Todd Benson. Zvi, I’m curious about how this all shakes out for the professors, they’re kind of the talent in the equation. I think about in an analogous industries, whether it’s college textbooks and you have a few superstar professors who make multiples of everybody else, and what this means about the future of the teaching profession and what it might mean about the future of tenure and the superstar professor, if a professor now can teach thousands of students, whoever has the best calculus program or the best computer science program. The best teacher and the most valuable program gets all the students.
Let me start by saying that I don’t have prophets in my family, but there were some doomsday articles. One of them was Scott Galloway. Scott Galloway says 25% of the university will not exist in five to 10 years and that like 50 will survive, the rest will be satellites, to provide social life. Universities have been very, very sustainable since the year 1180 when a university opened in Bologna. There will be more online. You still need the infrastructure. We had online also when I was at Columbia and my friend had this idea that the one Nobel Laureate will teach everybody and the other professors will be out of a job. You still need the infrastructure and the support. It might affect some. It might affect the incredible, insane rising tuition that has already slowed down. Some of the universities will have to cut tuition and some will have to close, but I don’t think it will devastate the industry.
Well, my question is really more about what it means for the talent. Will this lead to the rise of the superstar professor?
We already live in this era. But maybe in teaching, because in teaching also in every department, there are two, three fantastic teachers who will attract more students. They described in some university, I think in Yale, one professor is teaching a million students and everybody takes a course online, but I don’t think they give them extra compensation.
I want to ask a question similar to Todd’s about interactions with specific teachers. I went to University of Pennsylvania and I had a superstar history teacher. I loved him, and then I decided to take a second course taught by the same professor. I noticed diminishing marginal returns associated with taking the same professor twice. Even though it was a completely different topic, the core ideas that he had were consistent across both courses and I didn’t learn as much. I’m just wondering whether or not in your class, because of the online nature of it, why it should be taught by just a single professor. Why not use a team so that you could get the best out of each one and not have the diminishing marginal returns associated with a specific professor.
Most of the professors teach only one class. There are some exceptions, but most of them teach only one class. We play as we go. We don’t know all the answers, so we don’t know yet. In terms of interaction with students, it’s less than on campus, but when you have the 300 students on campus, the interaction with the professors is minimal.
You mentioned in your talk that online students are much more involved with the classes than the on-campus students. What does that mean? How do you evaluate that and why is that true?
First of all, online, they can ask many more questions, potentially also on campus they can do it but they usually don’t. They can ask many more questions, and one answers the other, with the TA intervenes and other times the professors answer directly. On campus, say after five questions, the professor will say, “Hey, we have to finish the material. We don’t have time.” Also, some of the students, they are professional in computers and they know some of it. Sometimes they say, “Hey, the professor doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In real life, it happens ABC.” We also have anecdotes. We have a course in educational technology, we have teachers taking the course. We have a medical informatics, physicians take the course. They give input, also, these computer specialists give input. So actually, the class is much richer in content.
Is there a positive feedback loop? Let’s imagine you’ve got, let’s say, 200 questions on one of the points that the teacher discussed. Does the teacher go, “Oh my goodness, there’s so much confusion about what I said in that paragraph or in that section, maybe I should redo it.” Is there a constant positive feedback loop? [
A little bit, it hasn’t been measured, but the professor tweaks the class every time they give it. Some of it is based on feedback, some of it is because the field is changing, but it doesn’t change overnight. It change slower than people think.
Do you think we’re going to really grow the college participation rates when college is more affordable, and it would be terrific for our global competitiveness?
First of all, I discussed in my six minute presentation that we have not yet got to college, only the master’s program. We are moving in this direction. Colleges will be much more accessible. Also, even if students take part, they will have an option to take all of it online, some of it online, in the beginning, in high school, or if they take a job before college and take the introductory courses online in the middle. When they take an internship or co-op nowadays, they have to stop learning, but if it’s online they can take one course. Then when they graduate, they take the advanced courses for the online master’s degree. Even being on campus three years or two and a half years, you still finish the rest of it online. As a result, universities, if they’re smart enough, will reduce the tuition for the online and they will not lose because if they have students on campus, they can accept many more students and can fill all the beds in the dorms. Most of them, the best of them, certainly the ones in the top 200 can grow.
Zvi, thank you very much.