Ep. 339: What’s Up with the F.R.E.E. Plan with Ian Rowe

August 26, 2022

On this episode of What’s Up, we chat with Ian Rowe about his new book. The publication titled, “Agency: The Four Point Plan for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power”, details the four point plan for children to achieve success.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice. And today is a podcast in part of my series, What’s Up? What’s Up? with Mike McShane. Again, not people concerned about my wellbeing, wanting to know what’s going on or my whereabouts. But rather, this is a podcast series where I interview interesting, inspiring, thought-provoking people in education.

We talk about a whole variety of things. Maybe they work in policy, or they are thinkers, or they’re school leaders. And we just try and talk, half an hour, 45 minutes, understand their world and help people understand the world of education in America in 2022 a little bit better.

On the podcast today, I’m interviewing Ian Rowe. Ian Rowe is a super fascinating person. I wish we had much more time to talk because he has had his finger in many pies. A very, very brief background of him. He got his start in education in the early ’90s as a Teach for America teacher. He was in the USA Freedom Corps in the White House back at the sort of turn of the century 2002, 2003.

He actually worked for years for MTV. He was senior vice president of strategic partnerships and public affairs. He then went from there to the Gates Foundation, and since then he has been a school founder and a school leader. He was the CEO of Public Prep, a charter school network in New York City for about a decade. And just recently, and we’ll talk a little bit about this on the podcast today, he is launching a new set of charter schools called the Vertex Partnership Academies.

And when we talk a bit about that, the big sort of what’s up topic for today is really about his new book. So he has a new book out, which everyone should check out, I highly recommend. It’s called, “Agency: The Four Point Plan for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power.” So without further ado, here’s my interview with Ian Rowe.

So Ian, you have a new book out entitled “Agency: The Four Point Plan for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power.” Well, here on the What’s Up? podcast, we like to get straight to brass tacks. So I got to know what is your four point plan?

Ian Rowe: Wow. Well, right to it. I love it, I love it, I love it. Well, in setting up the four point plan, let me just say that I’ve had the pleasure to work with kids now for many years throughout my time running public charter schools in the Bronx, in Manhattan, and even before that, in different aspects actually, working at MTV, Teach for America, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

And through that whole process, I think I’ve observed and learned a lot about what really drives young people to flourish or not. And especially in the last 10 years running public charter schools, the reason I run schools is I want kids to know that they can do hard things, that they can overcome barriers, and that there are pathways. There are pathways to success, even if they might find themselves in situations that are challenging.

But over the last couple of years, I’ve sensed this acceleration of a narrative that impedes young people’s ability to believe that they can do hard things. This kind of victimhood narrative, which I can go to in more detail. This kind of blame the system, or blame the victim, or blame the system is if you’re not successful, if you’re not achieving the American dream, that’s because America itself is this oppressive nation based on your race, your class, your gender. Systems are rigged against you. There’s a white supremacist lurking on every corner. Capitalism itself is evil.

And these systems are so powerful that you are powerless as a young person. It’s like unless there’s a massive government intervention, you’ve kind of got to wait for someone else to solve your problem. But on the other side is what I call “blame the victim,” where again if you’re not successful, it’s not America that’s the problem. You’re the problem. You need to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, you’re the architect of your own failure. Somehow you’re responsible for the fact that you’re not successful.

Ignoring, when kids are potentially born into unstable family, or don’t have a personal faith commitment, or faith community around them, or haven’t had access to a school choice, it’s really hard to pull yourself up by the bootstraps. So those two narratives, “blame the system” and “blame the victim,” in my view, add up to a singular lie that really hurts young people. And rather than just shout in the rain, I felt I needed to put forward empowering alternative. And that’s where my four point plan really kicks in.

It starts off with this definition of agency. Where agency has been a concept for eons, but I felt we needed to sort of reanimate the word and almost create a new definition where I define agency as the force of your free will guided by moral discernment. The force of your free will guided by moral discernment. So if you think of agency as a vector like velocity, where velocity is not just speed, it’s speed and direction.

So if every young person has free will, has the ability to make decisions, the question is where does the ability to become morally discerning come from? And I’ve put forth FREE: Family, Religion, Education, and Entrepreneurship. And we can go in each one, but those four pillars as part of my four point plan, if more young people were to embrace these pillars of agency, I think we’d usher in a whole new era where young people felt that they could lead a self-determined life, that they could have the epic life that is within their grasp, and so that’s why I wrote my book.

Mike McShane: Well, I think it’s so interesting you bringing up this idea of freedom paired with morality, moral discernment, et cetera. I think it’s such a fascinating way of looking at it. Obviously I’m an education guy, you’re an education guy. So I think about education’s role in this. I think it’s really interesting.

If you go back and read the kind of writings of the founding fathers or from the enlightenment or others, they were so concerned with this idea of, “Hey, if we are going to have a free country and Kings and despots aren’t going to make our decisions for us, if we don’t have a kind of moral population or if we don’t take time in this, this thing is all going to go south.”

Now, it’s true that that’s probably true in any system. If you have a socialist system and it’s run by evil people, it’s just centrally planned evil. But I’m fascinated, when you think of education’s role in shaping that morality. Again, I think a relatively uncontroversial statement, though I’ve seen you talk before.

As I’m listening, I’m like, “Yeah. This makes a lot of sense.” That wasn’t necessarily shared in every room we were in together.” But I’m fascinated you think about education’s role in shaping that kind of moral discernment and helping children understand how to use their freedom appropriately.

Ian Rowe: Yeah, no, I think it’s actually a fascinating question. Because when you bring up the founders, it is true that there was a huge focus on this idea that freedom actually requires constraints. In order to be a self-governing free society, we actually need individuals who have the ability to self-govern. It’s this whole idea of temperance and self-regulation.

So when you do look at totalitarian countries and you say, “Yeah. I guess this idea exists everywhere else.” But in totalitarian countries, the presumption is that the governance or the “morality” is coming from the State, top-down, completely dictating to you what is in and what is out in terms of behavior, what is right and what is wrong.

America works on a very different premise, which is that it’s really much more from the bottom up that this idea of like, you’re free. You’re a human being that’s free. However, and this is the key part of agency, agency is individually practiced, but socially empowered.

Mike McShane: That’s super interesting.

Ian Rowe: So we’ve all got free will, but there are a lot of folks with free will that do a lot of bad things. And so that’s why the role of these mediating institutions, and I have defined them as family, religion, education. Then if you have those three, entrepreneurship is kind of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

And so education is one of the pillars. It’s important to note that I didn’t create a one point plan called E, I called a four point plan called FREE. Because sometimes I think there’s so much onus put on schools to be the shaper of character and moral development of kids, which of course it is, but that burden can’t fully fall on the institution of schools themselves.

But to your point, absolutely, anyone who thinks that schools aren’t playing a role in shaping the ability of young people to be self-governing or to have self-control is completely out to lunch. I mean, and you could mix this up into character formation, moral formation, the whole point is let’s be deliberate about it.

I’m launching Vertex Partnership Academies, this new International Baccalaureate school, which an extension of the Brilla and Public Prep charter schools, and it’s all organized around the four cardinals virtues. Because those four cardinal virtues are the basis for all other virtues, and that’ll be weaved throughout the school day in our curriculum. We’ll have literature that exemplifies these virtues.

It’s one of the ways we think we are going to try and inculcate these beliefs and attitudes and behaviors into kids. But again, it’ll just caution that we play one element. We need strong families, strong faith commitments as well to also help kids develop this ability to be self-governing.

Mike McShane: When you’re talking about this now, in some ways I think you are almost born like 3,000 years too late. Because when I hear you speak, and again, the cardinal virtues going back, you sound like kind of one of the ancient philosophers who talked about freedom. It’s really interesting because we have this sort of American conception of freedom. Oftentimes, that’s you’re free to do whatever. I never watched that show-

Ian Rowe: We’re on horseback and our hair is flowing behind us.

Mike McShane: Yeah. And it’s like, was it Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation said something, “If I want to eat two steaks and drink six whiskeys and do whatever. I can do that ’cause I’m American.” But the kind of ancient conception of freedom was actually freedom over oneself, that a free person was one who had conquered their kind of baser desires.

And so it’s like when I’m hearing you talking, I’m just like, “Yeah. This was a classical conception of freedom.” Was that before one could be free kind of externally, they had to be free internally. They had to master their greed and their sloth and their avarice and all of these things, and by pursuing things like the cardinal virtues.

Ian Rowe: And again, what’s so interesting about what you’re saying, first of all, I take that as a compliment to be 3000 years too late. The fundamental point, the nugget of gold in what you just said is that, this has to happen every time. Every generation has to go through this same process.

So it’s not as if, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, no, we figured out self-regulation, self-governance a hundred years ago.” Well actually, guess what, this new generation that’s being born right now, without us actually having a deliberate approach to re-instill these same ideas, we’ve lost the society that we’ve been able to hold onto. That’s why education is so important.

That’s why, again, I think concepts like agency, it’s almost as if we have to refresh them every couple of generations before we get too complacent in our ability to self-govern. Because as our society starts to fray apart, we might start to think, “Oh my goodness, we need some artificial interventions to try and control human behavior.” When we’ve actually lost sight of the core role of the mediating institutions, which is what we rely on in the first place.

Mike McShane: And it’s very difficult to replace. And I think of your FREE, F, the first one, I think is appropriate to be first because it’s probably the first, it is the first mediating institution that any human encounters and that is family. So talk about family’s role in developing agency.

Ian Rowe: Yeah, and this one’s a little controversial. ‘Cause when I write about family, I’m speaking to young people, I’m speaking to the rising generation, kids or young adults, 15 to 24. It’s not about the family that you’re from, it’s about the family that you’re going to form.

I have many, many kids in the schools I lead, in the Bronx, kids who have been born into tough situations and also kids born into married, two parent households. But I’ve definitely seen situations in which the family that you’re from can be both supportive as well as a challenge in your development. But even still, whatever the situation that you’re in doesn’t dictate what you have to create for your own life.

So that’s one of the reasons teaching things like the success sequence in schools, I think is so important. And the success sequence, maybe your viewers might know this data, but basically, if a kid finishes just their high school degree, earns a full-time job of any kind, just so they learn the dignity and discipline of work. And if they ultimately have children, but got married first, that series of decisions, 97% of the people who follow that series of decisions avoid poverty. And the vast majority enter the middle class or beyond.

It’s not a guarantee, because it’s not a 100%, it’s 97%. And believe me, I know lots of single parents who would crawl through broken glass for their kids and they did amazing things. And I also know kids who’ve been raised in dysfunctional, married, two parent households. So life is not a guarantee, but the data is overwhelming.

And so that first F in FREE, establishing family, it’s the most proximate mediating institution. Running schools, I remember when I first started running schools back in 2010, I ran a network that went from kindergarten through fifth grade. Look, a lot of stuff happens before a kid is five years old. And a lot of that preschool activity or environment is determined by the strength and stability of the family that you’re raised in.

And so if we’re really committed to improving the outcomes of kids, we have to think about it in a multi-generational fashion. We have to think about the kids who are here today, plus helping them influence the decisions they are going to make about the type of family they form and when they form it.

Mike McShane: Yeah, it’s really interesting because in the past 15, 20 years of a lot of the kind of “education reform movement,” there was a big push. I think the term has gone away a bit now, but sort of “no-excuses schools.” Part of that was I think a misunderstood part, because it was as much talking about no excuses on the part of the adults as it was part of the kids and people tended to focus on thinking about the part of the kids.

But I will be honest with you, there was part of it that always sat a little uneasy with me for some of the points that you just raised, which is this kind of idea that schools, the belief is that there should be no excuses in the adults there. That sort of no matter what happens to kids outside of schools, these schools should be able to “fix” that or should be able to thrive. And I’m kind of uneasy about that.

How do you feel about that? Thinking about it? Because you want to hold schools accountable and you want them to do everything that they can, but you also have to be kind of realistic. I don’t know. How do you think through that?

Ian Rowe: Well, I mean, Mike, you’re now entering the landmine territory. Look, schools can’t do everything. I had this epiphany moment when I write about this in the book, and literally it happened on July 11th, 2016 at about 4:00 PM near 149th Street in the South Bronx. I had been running my network of public charter schools. I was about six years in. We had just made a decision.

Demand in our schools was really high. We accepted maybe two or three hundred kids a year. But then we had about nearly 5,000 kids on our wait list, especially in the Bronx. We’re in the Bronx. Single digit percent of kids are graduating from high school, ready for college. It’s just unbelievable.

So we’d moved our headquarters from Tribeca in Manhattan to near 149th Street because that’s where all of our future schools were going to open. And when we moved, there was a needle exchange right on the corner. We had drug addicts walking by our front office door, but that’s where our kids were. That’s where they deserve great schools too.

So to acclimate ourselves to the neighborhood, we decided to go on a walking tour. And that’s when I had this epiphany moment at 4:00 PM on July 11th, 2016, because as we were walking we saw in the distance a group of adults around this truck. They were really excited that it was there. And as we got closer, I saw a graffiti lettering on the side of the truck and it said, “Who’s Your Daddy?”

I was like, “Wait, what is that?” Because literally it’s almost like the ice cream truck, the adults around it were really excited. It’s like similar to seeing kids seeing the ice cream truck. Well it turned out that Who’s Your Daddy? truck was a mobile DNA testing center where low income folks were spending somewhere between 350 to 500 bucks to answer questions like, could you be my sister? Are you my father? Really deep questions about identity.

Imagine not knowing the answer to those questions that I just posed. And the founder, Jared Rosenthal, who’s an entrepreneur, he saw market need and there was enough demand for a second truck. VH1 actually had a reality show on the truck called “Swab Stories.” Because this is all kind of entertainment. They did DNA swabbing, and this was almost entertainment. And yet I saw that and I was like, “Wow.” I’m trying to run great schools, but I feel like running schools is necessary, but not sufficient.

When I saw and I learned that in this particular area of the Bronx, the non-marital birth rate was 85%. We have to play some role in helping kids understand that their reality can be different. So I had maybe the no-excuses kind of mentality that you just described, but we’re not Superman nor it should be that schools have the expectation that you’ve got to be Superman to take care of every single issue.

So the whole no-excuses thing is a level of hubris that I think many of us in the sector recognized. Maybe at the time it was the right talking point because we were coming in as, we’re coming in, the unions are giving excuses. Everybody else is giving excuses. But we’re charter schools, we’re no-excuses, we’re going to get it done. And I think it’s a false hubris.

There is an important role for schools, obviously, but we can’t do everything. And that was my epiphany moment for me to recognize that, again, we don’t even get kids till five years old. Thankfully, now there’s pre-K and other things, but we just have to be honest about what all the other factors are that really drive kids flourishing, where schools play an important singular role, but there are others to be affected as well.

Mike McShane: Well, if that was full of landmines, the R in FREE, let’s just keep tiptoeing through this. So the R is religion. So I’d love to know your thoughts on that.

Ian Rowe: So I just described the success sequence, which is very sort of economic framework. You finish high school, get a job, get married and have a kid. And economically that has a certain predictive power in terms of your financial future. But again, I define agency as the force of your free will guided by moral discernment.

So there are a whole bunch of factors that drive decision making. Certainly one, economics is certainly. If I can earn a hundred bucks to do this, I’m going to go do it. But if you earn a hundred bucks doing something that make you knock over an old lady to get her purse, that’s not good.

So there have to be lots of different things that you think about or student or young person thinks about, and there’s just morality is important. I feel like somehow in our society, we’ve gotten very fearful of talking about these things, particularly around religion. I just thought I would be doing myself a disservice because frankly, I was raised in a faith-based environment.

My parents, they surrounded us with love. I mean, my parents were married for 48 years before my dad passed away. So there were a lot of elements that made us feel very secure as a family and as a young person, always knowing that they had my back. But I can’t deny the power of being part of a faith community.

I put a lot of data in the book. If you look at what’s happening with young people today, the high levels of loneliness, depression, alienation, all this time spent on social media and yet kids feel alone.

When you look at the data for kids who have a personal faith commitment in their own life, dramatically different outcomes. Lower levels of loneliness, lower levels of alienation, lower levels of depression. They’re part of real world rituals, with communities, with people that love them. And again, I don’t think anything I’m saying is rocket science.

And by the way, there are lots of kids in the United States have a personal faith commitment. They don’t need Ian Rowe to write a book to say this is important. But unfortunately there is a rising number of kids who are abandoning or never even adopting personal faith commitment in their own life. So yeah, I decided to go there.

I also talk about, by the way, the role of religious institutions in running schools, because that’s another component. The FREE, the R in FREE is both geared towards individual kids to understand the benefits of religion and faith, while also trying to encourage more religious institutions to become more relevant in the lives of young people.

You see a lot of the social issues today, where is the church? And again, that’s a blanket statement. There are lots of faith leaders who are engaged. But when you look back at the civil rights movement in the sixties, I mean faith-based leaders were at the forefront and I think there’s an opportunity for resurgence there.

And then last thing the Supreme court decision most recently is making it now somewhat easier for religious institutions become more of a school choice environment for parents and I think that’s really powerful.

Mike McShane: It’s so funny, you were talking about earlier having to teach a new generation things, every time a new crop of kids comes up. One of the funny things about religion and others is these are lessons that have been accumulated over a long period of time. So it’s like there’s actually a store of this stuff that we can draw from. But I think, it was just while you were speaking I was thinking about, how people have this kind of religious impulse, the rituals that you talked about in those that help bring meaning and sense to people’s lives.

It’s kind of one of those things that if you’re not religious or you don’t have some religious tradition, you’ll try and find it somewhere else. And many of those things that we’ve replaced, some of them are probably harmless. I laugh because for years I did CrossFit, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with the workout. It’s this workout program thing that’s been around for, I don’t know, 15 or 20 years now or whatever. But the hilarious thing to me was I did a few of these classes and I remember telling my wife, “I’m Catholic. This is mass, right?”

Because it’s an hour long. It’s broken up into parts. A bunch of there are rituals, there’s language, there’s even all these workouts that are named after soldiers and sailors who had passed away and so they’re saints and there’s a hierarchy. And I was like, there’s all these terms of art that people use in there. I’m like, this is basically kind of church for non-religious people, because people look for these rituals and people look for people to look up to and they look for order and they look for explanations like, well, why things are the way that they are?

And it’s really, obviously I’m biased as a religious person, but you think other ways in which maybe if people replacing church with gym, isn’t the worst way of doing it. But a lot of other people have chosen to worship politics or they’ve chosen to worship money or they’ve chosen… And when that becomes your religion, bad things happen.

Ian Rowe: Mike, I think that’s very prescient. I mean, I think it’s Karl Marx I think who said, “Religion is the opiate of the people. If God didn’t exist, people would create one.” I think that’s the quote.

I think actually what is happening is that there is a big replacement going on and maybe it’s not gym, but when you look at things like woke racism or woke ideology or critical race theory. I mean, John McWhorter writes about this in his book and he treats some of these beliefs around anti-racism as a new religion that young people are substituting a personal faith commitment, because guess what, you do become part of a larger community. You do become part of an ideology where they’re true believers. And if you don’t sign up, you’re excommunicated from the community.

So there’s a lot of perverse incentives to feed that kind of organic desire for a spiritual faith, but to feed it with some things that are kind of perverse. So I don’t think your analogy is far off at all. I mean, I wish it were into gym and religion. But again, part of the reason I put up FREE, and by the way it’s F-R-E-E, it’s family first, then religion, then education in terms of your sort of organic development.

And again, I think there’s a fear of talking about it. I’ve been doing a lot of presentations on college campuses and I ask, how many of you have a personal faith commitment? And it’s very tentative. It’s just very interesting. You just said I’m Catholic very easily and I presume you’re proud of that, but even people with a faith commitment, particularly young people are not always sure. Even if they embrace it themselves, they’re not sure if they’re going to be accepted in their particular community.

I want to change that. I want it to be celebrated. That this is an important part of how you’re going to be as a person going forward.

Mike McShane: I think it’s very interesting that the types of things that you can say that you believe in, or even the ritualistic, someone says, “I microdose LSD to get to the,” “Oh, that’s super interesting. That’s wonderful.” But if you’re just like, “I’m a Presbyterian”, people are like, “Whoa, who’s this guy?” It’s such a strange.

Ian Rowe: Strange.

Mike McShane: Right. It’s such a strange way of looking at things.

Ian Rowe: I mean, this is a complete non sequitur, but I read that. I mean, this is completely not related to religion, but it’s just this point of what it’s okay to say. So Beyonce, she just released a new album, which is like, “Oh my God, Beyonce’s really…” Lead story on CNN. I’m like, “Hey dude, can we talk about the fact that only 30% of kids are reading?”

So Beyonce releases her first album in X number of years. And as you might imagine, some of the lyrics are very risque, very sexualized, the videos, all of it. But there’s evidently a line in one of her songs where she says something about a “spaz,” which is a term that has been used in the past around people with mental health issues.

And so after there’s some initial outrage, she says, I think she’s going to replace that word, but meanwhile, leave all the other stuff.

Mike McShane: I think Lizzo got in trouble for a similar thing. People can go and Google it themselves. The line that replaced it from my vantage point it’s like, it’s not clear to me that’s any less offensive. It’s just sort of offensive in a different direction. But yes, there are certain ways in which folks take particular offense to things.

Ian Rowe: I think, honestly, there’s a role for the R there. There’s got to be some kind of moral code. And again, this is back to the fundamental point that we talked about earlier. Free will, I mean, we can say all sorts of things, but we as a society, have to come to terms with what do we think are the reasonable way to have an inherent respect and dignity for all?

And so here’s one of the leading female artists of all times. I mean, again, she’s an incredible example of female empowerment. You’re probably going to get all sorts of callers saying, “No, Beyonce’s great. She’s great.” But you can’t deny the oversexualization particularly of young girls in our society and part of that is fueled by some of these images that are seen.

And again, try to bring this back down to FREE, a personal faith commitment is just one of those things that you start to develop where you almost create a kind of cocoon around yourself. This is what Urie Bronfenbrenner, the bioecological development theory, says that there are lots of forces that are going to compete for the attention of young people, but it’s these local institutions that help give you the armor, give you the cocoon.

So whether it’s mass media or popular culture, trying to send all these images around who you should be as a young person, well, your family, your personal faith commitment and your school are letting you know that it’s okay to be who you are and we’re the institutions that are going to help you cultivate your own sense of personal agency. Anyways, it’s long digression.

Mike McShane: No, I think it’s a really important one too, because you had brought some of the woke stuff and others, and you see people, even if someone as big as Beyonce can be at risk of something like “being canceled” because of these things.

One of the things that faith also brings into our lives are concepts of sin and redemption, and that human beings are not necessarily defined by their sins. So what was in Lizzo’s lyrics or what was in Beyonce’s lyrics is a sin. Well, taking it outside sort of an actual faith tradition saying but saying, “You did something wrong that hurt people. Okay, so then what do you do?”

And most religious traditions give us some kind of framework to admit our faults, seek sort of apology, restitution, whatever, and then be a member in good standing again. So it gives us a pass so that we’re not constantly defined by our sins. But that’s another thing that it seems like in so many of these controversies and others, because we don’t have those conceptions of faith or that language around faith, we don’t have a means of welcoming people back into our communities after they’ve made a mistake.

And I think the next E is education and I think that’s such an important part of education. Because kids make mistakes all the time. Anybody who’s ever been a teacher knows not because they’re bad kids or whatever, but because they don’t have impulse control yet. And if you don’t have some means of (a) correcting the behavior that people have; but then (b) giving them a path to come back. You’re not actually helping anybody.

So that was my sort of ham-fisted segue to talk about E and the role of education. We’ve touched on this a little bit, but how you see education playing a role in all of this?

Ian Rowe: Yeah, I mean, fundamentally education. I mean, part of it is just choice and educational freedom. Kids who are growing up in middle and upper class communities generally, their parents are in a situation where they can choose a great school for their kid and they’re off to the races.

So that may mean being able to move to a nice suburb and going to a great public school or getting the resources for a great private school or going to a religious school. And so a lot of the E starts off with, do you even have the ability to go to a school that is able to give you that uplift? And for millions and millions of kids, that is not the situation.

Again, when I was running a public prep with nearly 5,000 kids in our wait list. And in New York city, in 2019, that’s the last year for data being available, there were 81,000 families that applied for public charter schools for only about 33,000 seats. And these are almost all low income families who are just desperate for their kids to have an equal shot.

So the first thing in E is just, can we have educational freedom? Can the most vulnerable kids in our society be given a real shot? And look, I’m a product of New York city public schools, K to 12. I’m a huge believer in public education. But I’m also a huge believer in not forcing a kid who’s seven years old to somehow wait for their local school system to get their act together.

And maybe actually, in order for that local school system to get their act together, they need a competing force, which is a good school that can either provide best practice or put pressure on them to change the way that they’ve been running schools. So a lot of it starts there. But then within school, I mean, school is where joy can happen.

You’re reading literature about where you live as well as places that you could never even fathom ever living, and yet it’s all coming into your brain. Again, it’s not the only place because you do social relations in a faith community as well as home. But school is undeniable, and it’s the first real public function that has the responsibility to take all of its kids and create this common pathway.

E. D. Hirsch writes a lot about core body of knowledge. That in any society, if you know what that core body of knowledge is, you have the ability to flourish. But if you’re on the periphery, then you’re on the periphery. You’re never really penetrating. So schools introduce the great works in our society. What is that canon?

And I know there’s all sorts of challenges. Well, there’s old white men and blah, blah, blah. But let’s have those rigorous debates about what should be in and what should be out of what every kid in our country should know. So it all starts there and it’s almost trite. And yet in New York city, for example, again, there’s a cap on charter schools.

If you had an idea to start a great school, in a district where only 2% of kids are graduating from high school ready for college, you couldn’t do it. And so these things seem obvious and yet we have enshrined into law, the very barriers that are impeding young people to get on the first basic rung of success.

Mike McShane: So now you have in the past and are continuing to build schools, in addition to being academically rigorous, but around things like teaching the success sequence, now teaching the cardinal virtues.

And again, I think as I mentioned before, you and I have been in places where you’ve sort of given this idea to the room and education confabs, people perhaps have looked at scans of it. But what I’m curious for you is not what those folks think, but you have to go out and talk to parents and convince them to go. These are schools of choice. They have to go there. I would love…

When you meet with a parent or a community meeting, or when you talk about this and say, “Hey, this is what we want to teach kids.” What is their reaction?

Ian Rowe: Yeah, it’s so great because this introduces the whole concept of gatekeepers. ‘Cause it’s the gatekeepers who are the ones who are at those education meetings with you and I, and they hear the success sequence, “Wait, what? Wait, what? You can’t teach this to these kids. You’re trying to impose middle class values.” “Well, yeah, I am kind of guilty I guess.” “No, but you can’t do that. You’ll be insulting them. Their parents likely didn’t follow these steps. So somehow you’ll be ostracizing them.”

But here’s the thing, when I talked to parents because we got this pushback when we were teaching this content or attempting to teach at eighth grade, we said, “Okay, well then let’s meet with parents.”

And in my anecdotal conversations, what was so interesting was that, I said, “Look, you’ve chosen our schools. I mean, you entered a lottery to enter our schools ’cause you wanted something that we were putting forth and you chose our schools because you knew we were going to have rigorous math and science and reading and college visits and all this stuff.”

“But you also chose this because you wanted us to ensure that your kid understands the kinds of decisions that will make a huge difference in their life. And guess what, there is this thing called the success sequence. Regardless of what you may have decided in your own mind, this is the data associated with the success sequence.”

“We’re not going to be teaching this in a prescriptive way. We’re going to be teaching it in a descriptive way. Meaning that here’s one pathway, these are the likely rewards or consequences associated with this series of life decisions. But if you make decisions in this order, here are the likely consequences rights because ultimately you choose.”

And the feedback that we got from parents was thank God someone is teaching my kid about these things, because I wish someone had taught me when I was growing up. That’s when I realized, you know what? Screw these gatekeepers. Seriously, they’re the ones who become the self-appointed arbiters of what’s right and what’s wrong for these marginalized people. Well, you know what? Let’s speak to the very people that we’re all seeking to serve and see what they want their kids to learn.

It’s similar to the whole defund the police conversation. I don’t know, most parents who live in communities with police, they want to feel safe. They want their kids to be able to go to school without being fearful of being hurt in some way. And most parents want the ability to choose a great school for their kid and they want their kid to learn the things about life that they know are so important. So that’s been my experience.

Quick story. When I spoke to kids, when we were designing Vertex Partnership Academies, this International Baccalaureate high school we’re launching, I visited great high schools and I went to New Orleans and visited this classroom of ninth graders in a very low income part of New Orleans, almost all Black and Hispanic and Asian kids, but almost all low income, because I was grappling with these issues at the time.

And I said, “I’m in New York and we’re designing a high school, but I want to ask you because I’ve been having some challenges here. If I were to tell you that there’s information that when kids like you, 97% of the time make decisions in a certain fashion, you would avoid poverty. Would you want to know that?”

And students looked at me and said, “Well, yeah. Why wouldn’t I? Of course we want to know.” And I said, “Well, there’s some grownups who think that if I tell you, you might be insulted or you might not be ready and better that I just don’t speak about it at all.” And they looked at me like I was crazy. These are ninth graders. They said, “Wait, why would you not tell us? Why? Why? Why?”

And of course, and so we proceeded to have this discussion about the success sequence and the different pathways of decision making, what the likely rewards or consequences are. And at the end of it, I really felt that these students, they felt like they had been respected as future decision makers in their own life. We’re educators. We’re trying to cultivate young men and women who are empathetic, intelligent decision makers of their own life. That’s what we do.

And so these experiences remind me of why we do this work in the first place. Young people have the right to have access to that information so they can know what’s right for them. And so that’s the reaction I get, ignore the gatekeeper. I mean, listen to them, see whatever grain of truth there might be, but then speak to the very people themselves, the families and the students. I think we’ll find that there’s often a clash between what the gatekeepers say and what the real constituents say about what they want.

Mike McShane: Yeah. It struck me as so funny of like, “Wait, which one of those is patronizing?” To say, “I’m not going to tell people what I think is true because I don’t think that they’re capable of handling it or telling people the truth is best…”

And was also the hilarious thing is always how dare you tell these children the exact same things that I tell my children, and how dare you tell them to follow the exact path that I and all of my friends took and where we are right now. So it’s like, “What is that?”

Ian Rowe: Honestly, this is at a national scale. I mean, I’ll take it up a level. Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is the lead author of The New York Times 1619 Project, which paints America is this fundamentally racist country. The founding principles were false when they were written, all of that. She wrote an 8,000 word essay in The New York Times magazine called, “What We Are Owed.”

And it’s a treatise on how basically Black people have been persecuted and the racial wealth gap can never be closed without reparations. And she literally says 15 trillion reparations program. She says, “It doesn’t matter what a Black person does. Doesn’t matter if you get married, doesn’t matter if you get educated, doesn’t matter if you buy a home, doesn’t matter if you save, none of those things can overcome 400 years of racialized plundering” in her words.

I mean, first of all, think about a teacher who embraces The 1619 Project and starts sending that message to kids. I mean, talk about hopelessness. But here’s the thing, Nikole Hannah-Jones has done all four of those things in her own life to lead a very prosperous life. And good for her, but we cannot stand here and then not tell young people that they have that within their grasp too, that those choices exist for them.

And that, no, no, no, there’s some larger system that you have no choice. That’s what really frustrates me. And that’s why honestly I’ve written my book amongst many reasons, but I got to counter these gatekeepers who say one thing, but then do something very different in their own lives. And then by the way, that’s something very different in their own lives usually has to do with the tenet of family, religion, education, and entrepreneurship.

So preach what you practice in your own life. Come on, let’s not do a disservice to young people by withholding from them the very information that is so crucial to lead a prosperous life.

Mike McShane: So your last E is entrepreneurship. You mentioned it there. So explain that bit, the kind of bow that comes to your whole four point plan, ties it all together.

Ian Rowe: Yeah, it’s like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Because entrepreneurship, it’s not a pillar in the same way that family, religion, and education are. However, if you have been able to form a strong family, if you have a strong faith commitment, if you got a great education, especially by having school choice, you are now much more likely, not only to work, because work is part of entrepreneurship, but also you are now more likely to be an informed risk-taker.

So entrepreneurship is about your vocation and it’s also about problem solving. Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute during Jim Crow era was very frustrated at the state of education for Black kids. It was completely segregated. It was pretty terrible, for many, many reasons. And rather than just shout in the rain, he said, look, you know what? I want to build a network of exceptional schools, especially for the Black community.

So he partnered with Julius Rosenwald, who at the time was the CEO of the Sears, Roebuck and Company, and together they built 5,000 schools. So I think 14 states in the south exclusively for Black kids. John Lewis, Maya Angelou, and the data that shows that dramatic increases in academic achievement and reading are off the charts. And this incredible example of entrepreneurship, even in the face of Jim Crow segregation.

And I just think these are the kinds of actions one takes when you have build the foundation; strong family, strong faith commitment, strong educational outcomes, usually leads to this idea of an entrepreneurial life where you have control, or at least you understand what you can control so that your environment around you isn’t dictating to you, the quality of your life, but that you are still able to drive forward.

And so that’s what I want, again, entrepreneurship in many ways is the payoff. It’s a thing where if you do those first three pillars right, you’re now equipped with a whole different set of tools to lead your life in the direction that you’d like.

Mike McShane: Well, Ian, I think I’ve kept you for way longer than I said I would. And that was strictly, I will tell you, for entirely selfish reasons. I honestly don’t really care about this podcast going out because I just had such a wonderful time chatting with you. So thank you so much for taking even more time than I asked of you to come on the podcast today.

Ian Rowe: Well, this is great, Mike. Very great. And I really appreciate it. Thank you.

Mike McShane: Well, like I said at the beginning, I wish we had much more time to talk. There were so many things, so many questions that I had for Ian about his sort of experience. I would love to do just a whole podcast of him working at MTV. ‘Cause he was an MTV in like the time in my life when MTV was important to me. So I was like, I would love to know that whole story, but obviously we didn’t have time to get into that and all the interesting stuff. We’ll have to have him back on the podcast after his new schools are up and running. I imagine he will have any number of entertaining and hilarious stories to tell.

As we mentioned on the podcast a couple times just to reiterate his book is Agency: The Four Point Plan for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power. I’ve checked it out right now, it’s on Amazon. You can buy it in any number of different places so definitely check it out. Thanks so much to Ian for being on the podcast and for being so open to allowing the conversation to go at any number of different directions.

As always, please subscribe to this podcast. You can do it on iTunes, you can do it on any number of different places. Give us a nice five star rating. I’d really appreciate that. I think that sort of bumps it up in the search queue, helps people understand it a bit better.

And as always, I’m looking for people to interview on this podcast. A lot of the people that come on the podcast are because people send me an email and say, “Hey, I’m doing this interesting thing. I listen to the podcast, I’m doing something interesting. Do I qualify?” And I’m like, “Yeah, actually that is super cool. We should talk about it.” Or their child goes to a school or they read about something and they say, “Check it out.” So you are kind of my crowdsourced resource for figuring out who to interview on the podcast. So please give me a shout. If you know, shoot me an email, hit me up on Twitter and let me know ’cause I’d love to talk to them.

As always also, I think that’s like the third time I’ve said as always, but I’ll say the fourth, as always I really want to thank Jacob Vinson, our podcast producer who stitches all of this stuff together and fixes any technical problems, really appreciate all the hard work that he does on this. And I look forward to chatting again with all of you on another episode of What’s Up? or any of the other sort of EdChoice Chats podcasts that I do. Thanks so much. Take care.