Ep. 373: Reinventing America’s Schools – With Curtis Valentine at ASU+GSV SUMMIT Episode #2

May 18, 2023

In part two of a collaboration with RISE Reports podcast and ASU+GSV, Curtis Valentine and panelists, Sharif El-Mekki and Matthew Mugo Fields discuss in detail what schooling, education, and learning look like in the future. 

In part 2 of this two part series, PPI’s Reinventing America’s Schools (RAS) Project Co-Director Curtis Valentine, in collaboration with EdChoice, sits down for a live panel conversation and podcast recording at the ASU+GSV Summit in San Diego with Sharif El-Mekki, Chief Executive Officer at The Center for Black Educator Development, and Matthew Mugo Fields, General Manager of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, HMH and President of Heinemann Publishing. They discuss the future of education, the future of teaching, and importance of school choice for families across America. 



Curtis Valentine: Welcome to our panel. My name is Curtis Valentine, I am the co-director of the Reinventing America Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, a DC-based think tank. I’m also the founder of Real Men Teach, a National Campaign to diversify the teaching profession. Want to welcome you all to the RISE Reports podcast. 

This podcast and this event and this discussion is in collaboration with EdChoice. I want to thank my brother Emory Edwards for bringing this to ASU+GSV. This is an immense pleasure for me to have these two brothers here with us today, two of the brightest, greatest minds in education, period. I’m not sure whether they’ve been on a panel together at the same time, but we do have a Philly connection. 

Sharif El-Mekki: As we should. Always. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: As we should. 

Curtis Valentine: I am, as they would say, a Jersey Bowl. And actually, I would come to South Street on Saturday nights, but from the metropolitan area. But again, so excited to have this conversation. I’m going to allow them to introduce themselves, both Matthew Mugo Fields and Sharif El-Mekki. Tell us who you are, what you do, and what about your work most excites you right now. Who you are, what you do, what about the work you’re doing right now most excites you. I’m going to start to my immediate right with Sharif El-Mekki. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah, great to be here. Good to see everyone. Glad to reconnect. We’ve done this a bunch of times. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Oh, yeah. 

Sharif El-Mekki: This is our first time. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: This is our first time. 

Sharif El-Mekki: So, Sharif El-Mekki, I’m an activist child, grandchild of activists, was a school-based educator for 26 years. And then now at the Center for Black Educator Development. Our work is to rebuild a national Black teacher pipeline. 

What excites me the most is when we get to work with youth directly and share with them, pull a curtain back about what teaching and leading classrooms could look like if they haven’t experienced it themselves. And so, seeing them being in those positions of leadership, teaching first, second, and third-graders, watching that. Matter of fact, one of our apprentices over there. Horace Ryans III. You know what I mean? And watching him teach first, second, and third-graders, for me, that’s the most exciting piece. 

Curtis Valentine: Matthew Fields. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yeah, Matthew Mugo Fields. I have spent the majority of my career as an education entrepreneur, education technology sector. I’m an ASU+GSV OG. I went to the first one of these things, Alvin and I, we OGs now. I’m glad to see it has demographically advanced since those days. Some of us been pushing for that. So it’s great to be here. 

Curtis Valentine: I like to think they’re demographically advanced. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yeah. Yeah. Now I’ve spent the last five and a half years or so on the executive leadership team of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, HMH. The company has four divisions. I lead two of them. So, supplemental and intervention solutions. Also, I am president of the Heinemann Publishing Division. I am also responsible for our shared learning platform. So, that supports all of our products. 

And so, in a lot of ways, the thing I’m most excited about is the possibilities that this moment of transformation and change that we’re in, in education presents. Many of us who’ve been working in particular aspects of the problem space around teaching and learning have labored for, in my case, a couple of decades, hoping that one day we would have opportunities to accelerate the adoption of useful technologies, I have a very particular definition of what that means. We can get into it later, that could give teachers much needed assistance in their very difficult assignments. 

One of the sort of silver linings of the pandemic is the increased adoption of certain forms of educational technology. At HMH, we’re in 90% of US schools and classrooms. And so, that’s a powerful opportunity that we have to touch lives and to also help teachers get time back so they can focus on the higher order things, like creating community in their classrooms and deepening meaningful relationships with their students. So, that’s what I’m excited about. 

Curtis Valentine: I want to jump right in with a quote. Toni Morrison once said, “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have power, then your job is to empower somebody else.'” Sharif, how does your work free others, in the spirit of Toni Morrison’s quote? 

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think we free others, but we help youth educators freedom themselves. But I love that quote because I also think about, it pushes you to remove, if you think about it correctly, remove your ego from the work. Because a lot of people think that they’re in this universe to do something to get the shine to do to the work. But when you actually think about it, in the context of this quote, the biggest contribution could be who you help, who and what you teach. So, if you look at it from that angle, then they’re the ones that’s going to free the next generation, the next people. 

Matter of fact, earlier today, I tweeted out a picture of me and one of my former students who is now a teacher, really dope teacher out here in California somewhere. A lot of people like, ‘Oh, each one teach one.’ And I’ve always thought, ‘No, each one teach a thousand.’ You know what I mean? What are you talking about one? What’s one going to do to the movement? No, each one teach a thousand. So when I think about her and all the students that were in the school, then what she’s doing and all the folks that she’s teaching, that to me is just really about advancing the work. I won’t see it, but it’s going to be hell to pay for the system. You know what I mean? With the folks who are coming up. 

Curtis Valentine: Yeah. I like the way you said, freeing one person and whoever they free and whoever they free, it is a cascade effect. Matthew? 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yeah, I love that, as you know. I love that quote. I try my best to live it. A little bit of history. So I am an immigrant, born in Barbados and came to the United States to the suburban Philadelphia area. That’s why I’m not… And when I was- 

Sharif El-Mekki: You have to put the jacket over. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. When I was 10 years old and was put, like many of the students at the time was told, if you weren’t from certain countries, mostly in Europe, you were put back one grade level and in the lowest track, back tracking. And I went from being a top student in my homeland, which has a very solid school system, to being tracked towards and told at 10 years old, I need to think about was I going to be a plumber or a carpenter? Noble professions, but shame on them for telling a 10-year-old that those were his only options. And so, kind of coasted along. 

And then I had some educators who in interrupted that malpractice and insisted that I get on track to go to college. Making a much longer story short, those folks stayed in my life, made sure I got back on track, insisted that I go to Morehouse College. When I couldn’t afford it, my family couldn’t afford it, raised money in the community to send me to Morehouse. The night before I left to start my freshman year, they said, “Now go do for other kids. What we just did for you.” 

My career, in many ways, has been trying to honor that promise on the one hand, but also scratching the itch that I had to be an entrepreneur since I had a paper route to get my family out of poverty, but yet keep that promise. And so, it’s taken different forms. I’ve been fortunate that I spent most of my entrepreneurial career working and building companies that were majority minority, that were grounded in community. And then five or six years ago found myself in the, for me and those who know me, the awkward position of then coming into what is the most senior leadership role in this industry in a company that was shaped and looked a lot like things I had never done before. And so, it made it my business and have found great partners in trying to transform the organization. 

And so, today, my way of honoring Toni Morrison’s quote is not just inside of the organization and how we do the work and making sure that our children see themselves and are firmed in the solutions that we create, but that our systems and solutions are supportive of educators that are trying to change the trajectory of our nation’s education system. And more and more, so much of my work as a leader is helping build other leaders. And so, both inside our organization, and as Curtis knows, outside of our organization, I have really prioritized and tried to prioritize Black leadership as a key dimension of how we transform education in this country. It’s helping develop Black leaders across the ecosystem. 

That’s the other thing. So, many of you, maybe this is your first time at ASU+GSV or seeing this, but we often don’t think of education as the second-largest sector of the global economy. There have been conferences like this going on before we knew they were around. I went to a conference like this when I was in grad school, and it was literally me and some Puerto Rican dude from Stanford. We looked at each other like, where are we? And they were talking, as Curtis said, about our children in our community. So, I think part of that work is trying to create spaces and where rooms this exist more often. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah. I’ll just add this idea of sometimes people think, “Well, I don’t have power to do, not just relationships and connecting the dots for folks.” You had Dr. Gilbert on earlier. And so, I was campaigning for Dr. Gilbert to come to Philly. That was where we like, no, you need to be in Philly. You need to be in be- 

Curtis Valentine: You need to be at Morehouse. 

Sharif El-Mekki: No, it was before I even knew Morehouse- 

Curtis Valentine: Is the campaign over? 

Sharif El-Mekki: It’s over. Yeah. Yeah, it’s over. No, she’s exactly into part of this constellation where she needs to be. But the conversation was, Morehouse wasn’t in the picture at that moment. 

Curtis Valentine: Okay, all right. 

Sharif El-Mekki: It was more or less like, “No, we need you in Philly. We need you in Philly.” And then she was like, “Hey, I got this Morehouse thing.” Then Horace, he was trying to figure out which school. I’m like, “Oh, you need to connect with Dr. Gilbert.” 

Curtis Valentine: Gotcha. 

Sharif El-Mekki: And now what they are doing and what she’s doing at the center is, I mean, it’s phenomenal. You couldn’t even imagine. I couldn’t even imagine. I didn’t have a vision for that, but I knew they needed to be connected when we were. So, that to me is also part of that quote. 

Curtis Valentine: So, Matthew talks about he loves that quote and we’ve discussed this quote in a different space. And a good brother, Dr. Chris Emdin, who is not here, did a very big piece on this. And he mentions one part of the speech about if you are free. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Yes. 

Curtis Valentine: And so, he talks about the fact that we have to recognize in some spaces, in some terms, that we are yet free. And it’s the idea of the work that both of you are doing around the future of the educator. I want us to predict ourselves forward, 2050. I like to use this point because it allows us to look forward to a date and time that we can work backwards from. The educator in 2050, what are we doing now to ensure that that educator is free and operates in a sport space of freedom and how they move, how they present themselves, how they walk into that space, the information that they are sharing with their learner, how they can self-actualize who they are, what their greatest talents are in the education, in the classroom? And so, I want to start with you, Matthew, project forward the future educator. What do they look like? What skills do they need to be successful? What training do they need to be successful? What materials do they need to be successful? 

Matthew Mugo Fields: That’s all? 

Curtis Valentine: I would like an answer, but you’re doing it, which is like I could ask anybody, but they wouldn’t. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yeah. We talk a lot about trying to create an era of high-tech, high touch education. So the idea is powered by advanced technology, but centered on human connection and relationships. And so, kind of challenging this whole notion that these things are somehow oppositional. These things are actually quite reinforcing. If you get the tech right, it frees up teachers and their ability to build deeper relationships with their students, which is the lifeblood of education. 

I think future educators, because many of what we consider today sort of the “hard skills”, I hate that term, but translate, people know what you mean when you say it. Those hard skills are sort of machine enabled. And you can then, as an educator, focus on the higher order, more important task of helping students. You’re a community builder, that future educator. You are a connector. Your students, you’re maximizing the utility of that space and those relationships, you’re connecting to families in a different kind of way. You’re inviting families in. I think one of the gifts of the pandemic, quite frankly, was many families got to see what was actually happening. There’s probably less traumatic ways for us to create that kind of visibility for families so that they can play the essential role as co-educators in the process. 

And then I have this notion, and it’s beginning now as educators, as collaborators amongst themselves and not being such an isolated profession. What does it mean if your team teacher is in Ghana and you are in West Philly? That kind of thing. What are the possibilities that can be created there? I think of all of that. So, the idea is really to enable more humanness by using technology to help us do that. 

Curtis Valentine: High-tech, high touch. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yeah. 

Curtis Valentine: That’s a Tweetable right there, bro. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yeah. 

Curtis Valentine: I’m serious. And you mentioned there seems to be, in some place, a tension or perceived tension between the two, but you’re saying it could also be an asset. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Two words, Black Twitter. 

Curtis Valentine: So, Sharif, you mentioned in a different conversation that you taught, you were an educator and principal, how many years? 

Sharif El-Mekki: 26. 

Curtis Valentine: 26. So, 26 years from now is 2049. And so, you mentioned horse. There is a good chance that Horace will still be an educator either classroom or Horace in 2050. And so, the seed we’re planting now again are not as farfetched as you would think. And so, what will Horace need to be successful for the students, and what students will need in 2049? 

Sharif El-Mekki: I mean, I think some of it we know just look at the history. When I think about me being in elementary school, they had no idea what was coming. I mean, we watched The Jackson, so we had an idea. Dick Tracy. You know what I mean? They’re talking on their watches and all this kind of stuff. So they knew some of the things that were coming. But what they armed us with the shields and the tools and the armor that they gave us was all what people call disrespectfully and little dismissively as soft skills are actually the hard-wiring of what they gave us as students. So the courage, the intellect, the literacy, the numeracy, the problem solving, the leadership. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Teamwork. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah, all of that. Just how do you channel your skills and your thoughts and your ideas. How do you organize your thoughts and your mind and work with people. How do you have a servant leader orientation? So, those are really the hard-wire. They didn’t look at it soft skills, they look at it as- 

Matthew Mugo Fields: That’s right. 

Sharif El-Mekki: … this is your core and then you can add whatever else you want to that. They had no idea about a lot of the things that we are now just take for granted. I know that’ll be very similar. I think often we’re trying to raise kids or teach kids in the same way that we feel most comfortable, which was played out as soon as we got through school, if not even before then. So I think a lot of it’s like, what’s the hard-wiring? And then they will be the ones to adapt or create what that next generation of things is. 

I think the other piece that I think about is really … I was reading an article the other day where they’re like 80% of people around the world can’t see the Milky Way. There’s a light pollution 80%. And I was just like, wow. They showed this little island off coast of Africa where they can actually see it. So, very few places where you can still see the billions of stars that are out there. And I think on earth those stars are people, the human connection. So, the constellation that we would’ve been able to see, but can’t because of light pollution. 

Down here, we can’t see the connectivity or what we should be the constellation of human beings because of other type of pollution, mindset pollution. We can’t see, I can’t work with that, bro. I can’t work with … Right? So it’s like parallels; universe, earth and would it mean if we got rid of some of pollution and made the connection. So, that’s what I would hope for, so he’s my student, my grand students and his grand students. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: That’s a bar. 

Sharif El-Mekki: That they would continue to have that type of connectivity, because really ultimately there’s no individual win when you really look at it. It looks like it. There’s no individual win. 

Curtis Valentine: No such thing. 

Sharif El-Mekki: If it’s not a collective, if it’s not in community, it’s really a loss. For more than just that individual, it’s for all of us. 

Curtis Valentine: Yeah. I know both of you. So I know parts of your bio that you have not mentioned that I think- 

Sharif El-Mekki: You don’t have to mention it now. We can just keep it confidential, man. 

Curtis Valentine: The three of us in this room, and in a podcast you’re going to go out. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Non-disclosure contract. You can talk about the Eagles. 

Curtis Valentine: I know that, Matthew, you are a co-founder of a school, and that, Sharif, you two are men who have created LED, driven what school looks like, not necessarily to the educator, but as a space. And so again, 2050, you could create a school in 2050. What does that look like? 

Sharif El-Mekki: Wow. 

Curtis Valentine: Is it a building? Is it everyone gets their VR headset and, I don’t even want to call it education for Netflix, you could download and you could say, I’m going to binge on some multivariate regression analysis. I want to give you the freedom to do that. Understanding everything you mentioned before, high-tech, high touch, community, the connection. Because again, this idea of a quote that Dr. King said is the idea that during the movement, I’m just fearful that we’re integrating into a burning building. We’re doing lots of recruiting. 

What the center is doing is bringing in hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of young people. But the space in which we’re pushing them into, when we look back on this and say, you know what, that was our block. We brought them in, but the space was not ready for them. And they did not to, what Chris Emdin talked about, the space could not recognize their genius when they got there. And so, what they saw not fully appreciate what we brought to the table and saw our value as a liability. 

And so, talk about, again, this future that you … Again, I’m not waxing hypothetical, you all both have started in LED schools. Let’s predict it forward. If you could do it all over again in 2050, what does that look like? 

Sharif El-Mekki: Sure. My mother used to always say “Everywhere is a classroom.” And when I think about schools, it is often people are more interested in schools than education because schools protects a status quo. Whatever people think this is school, and then they get schooling as opposed to education, which I tell schooling can actually undermine your education, right? Like you got to go to detox centers a lot of times after you go to school just to get your mind right, because what kind of experience? And you do that either in the community or you do that as you evolve and get older. Like, ‘That was a whack experience.’ And so, for me it would be more or less around education. 

I don’t know if I would necessarily settle for a building and do that. What does education look like? What does the ability to access information and education and experiences, what would that look like? That’s where I would spend most of my time. When I think about what America would consider third-world countries and how they educate, and how radically different and how more advanced it is for human centered effectiveness. That’s really what I would be pushing for. 

When I first became principal, it was 2003, we had this NASA grant. Our students were Skyping with NASA scientists. And then I didn’t really see it again until COVID, right? Where people were using. So way back then, but it depended on where you were, who gave you access. So they were talking to NASA scientists about their science project and doing experiments, long distance and all these kinds of things. So again, it has access to. And if we didn’t have a grant, I would’ve never heard of it or thought of it or anything like that where this was the norm. 

Plenty of other schools, you have places that routinely take trips, international trips as part of their education. They’re like anywhere, you can learn. Hayes took kids to Ghana. It’s like, “Hey, this is part of your education.” And so, whatever it would be, that’s what I would hope what I’m doing, and Horace is doing, and others are doing is really thinking about what does the education look like and how do we ensure that experience and perspectives are broadened so that blind spots are shrunken and so that they’re really prepared to lead. 

Curtis Valentine: So, future of school, future of education, and also this idea of learning. People ask me all the time about the future, I’m like, well, there’s learning, and then there’s this school building. Where you are, Matthew, again, how do you see this future world, and how much we define what learning and education mean in this discussion? 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yes. 

Curtis Valentine: We have a common definition, right? 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yeah, we do. And I definitely agree. Schooling is one thing, education is another. That being said, I don’t see schooling necessarily going away, but maybe there’s a possibility and opportunity to transform. Just real quick on the Dr. King quote, and this is a conversation that me and our good friend Chris Emdin have had many times. I think sometimes the lens in which we approach these things, it’s almost suggestive that we aren’t the ones in charge who are actually creating whether or not it is a burning house or not. 

In other words, that’s the work of us too, as leaders. That’s why you need him doing what he’s doing, you need me doing what I’m doing. We need to be in different positions on the field to ensure that we maximize the possibility of positive outcomes that’s affirming and supportive. And sometimes we don’t see ourselves as, no, I’m a creator too. I’m getting to decide whether or not this house is going to be burning or not. So, I think that’s super important. Acknowledging then- 

Sharif El-Mekki: But they need independence for that, right? They need something. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: You need interdependence. You can leverage. I mean, I don’t put anything past our creativity is what I’m saying. I’m not presupposing a particular outcome because I think that part of that’s how we’ve been able to create many beautiful things in this world. So, if you accept my premise temporarily anyway that we are creators too, then the question becomes what do we try to create? What are the things that we should be doing? And I have, Curtis, disbelief that there’s going to be many models and many of them are going to work. And yeah, there will be places where you got the VR headset or the glasses or whatever. I’m a skeptic on some of that stuff, believe it or not. 

I recently looked at a piece of software that took me down, struck me down to the inside a cell to the size of the mitochondria. And I was like, ‘Oh, I see the educational benefit of this now.’ Because that’s the thing, one of the things don’t realize is that the innovations that stick are those that solve real problems. There’s a lot of things that are cool innovations, technology in search of a problem. And then there are things that are actually real problems, pain points that we know exist today. How do I, as a teacher, customize or tailor an appropriate course of study for 30 kids for a different points on an achievement spectrum who have different skill sets, who are coming in with different mindsets or in different social emotional places, et cetera? How do I do that task? That’s what we ask teachers to do. And oh, by the way, help them do better on the test at the end of the year and all that kind of stuff. 

I got to believe that we’re going to make some meaningful progress on that assignment and that we’re going to enlist other innovations to help us do that. And it’s going to take different forms. Some of it will be remote, some of it will be learn anywhere, every place, every room, every room is a schoolhouse. That kind of thing. And some of it will look, at least on the outside, very traditional in this set. But maybe the content, the conversations, the nature of what students are learning in a post-ChatGPT world. I said ChatGPT. That’s a required statement at ASU+GSV. Said it now. I get some kind of points. But in that world, maybe the content and the conversations are focused on other things in the classroom, but they may still look in what we would think of as traditional. 

Sharif El-Mekki: I mean, the one thing I would just push on that, so I- 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Please do. 

Sharif El-Mekki: … will hold on it. You said temporarily. So by temporary, it’s over. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: It’s over. 

Sharif El-Mekki: No, I mean, but the one thing is- 

Matthew Mugo Fields: This isn’t a panel if we don’t have this. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah, yeah. No, absolutely. I mean, the one thing that I can’t stop thinking about is just this idea of how long, there’s some things that have endured. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Like us. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Like us, but also the shackles on us. And if we don’t really think about it independently. That’s what I mean by all time. I think, yes, the creativity, one hundred percent. But we’ve also been creative with the leftovers. That’s what we did for Survivor. We’ve been creative with hog maws and chitlins. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: For sure. 

Sharif El-Mekki: But that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s where we want to spend all of our- 

Matthew Mugo Fields: We don’t don’t want to survive. We want to thrive. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Exactly. Right? Bettina, right? And so, I think that’s a part that I keep missing, when we say we know people have said with evidence that there would be no lynching without the schoolhouse. If we also know that people say, “Oh, they let us in our schools, but they don’t educate us. They crucify us.” These quotes are from educational Star Wars from the 1800s. Prodigy was W. E. B. Du Bois, right? 

One, they don’t want you in school in some parts of the country, other places they’ll let you. And W. E. B., he went to school in New England, which is supposed to be the liberal part. So, that’s where the liberal spaces, the enlightened space. And it is like, “They don’t educate us. They crucify us.” And so I don’t want to rely just on our creativity, ingenuity, and genius without also bolstering and protecting it and doing it in other spaces. You know what I mean? 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yes. 

Sharif El-Mekki: That’s what I mean. The independence of autonomy, the Black-led, Black-founded, that type of space that has a different mindset in orientation instead of, “Hey, let’s use our creativity to make this shackle as beautiful as we can.” 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yeah. I’m not talking about optimizing dysfunction, but I’m also saying that we must also embrace the possibility, it’s not even a possibility, reality that if we look at our modern context, sometimes we are they ‘they’ in your statements. And if we have the power to be the they and to perpetuate oppressive systems, and do all of that, we have the power to change it, too. 

Sharif El-Mekki: If we had the right mindset because some of us waived that anti-Blackness harder than the folks that trained it on. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Agree. Agree. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Right? Because we think anti-Blackness actually preceded White supremacy in a global sense. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Oh, break that down for me. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Anti- 

Matthew Mugo Fields: You’re getting heavy now. You’re getting heavy. 

Sharif El-Mekki: No, no, no. You think about anti- 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Educate me, don’t school me. 

Curtis Valentine: Deep learning. It’s about deep learning. 

Sharif El-Mekki: White supremacy. In the height of just what they called the Dark Ages for them, they weren’t thinking they were supreme. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Oh, I see what you mean. 

Sharif El-Mekki: They were being taught by Moors. Right? That was flipped at some point. When they took stuff from Egypt, when they burned and stole stuff. Some of those folks that are quoted, they were spent decades in Egypt and then went back and they were criticized like, “No, don’t bring foreign information here. So at that point, you started seeing White supremacy, White supremacy. Arabs were involved in this. There were other folks who were involved in anti-Blackness. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Okay. 

Sharif El-Mekki: And so, that continues to be a thread throughout. And it’s internalized, you learn best from your oppressor. Everything you learn ain’t something that you’re changing. Sometimes you’re just learn it and absorb it and then regurgitate it. So, I was just saying, I agree with you. The dysfunction isn’t just in one space. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yeah. 

Sharif El-Mekki: And so, I think sometimes we try to- 

Matthew Mugo Fields: I hear you. 

Sharif El-Mekki: … with the … We’re just like, ‘All right, here’s the status quo. Let’s fix it. Let’s tinker with it. Let’s address it.’ And the whole time it is reinventing itself to survive pushed back. And to trick you into thinking you changed it. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: So, to me, I hear what you’re saying and it sounds incredibly deficit-minded. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Oh, no. I thought the exact opposite. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: I’m- 

Sharif El-Mekki: And the system is a deficit. And so, if you don’t acknowledge this system is a deficit. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yeah. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Oh, yeah. No, I’m not saying that we’re … No, we’re the exact opposite. The system? Yes, I’m acknowledging. This system, the status quo is 100% unadulterated, seeped in deficit. Now, what do we do about it? Do we tinker with it or do we build and create something? 

Matthew Mugo Fields: I think that we have many lessons to learn from those who came before us in our shared endeavor to maximize your- 

Sharif El-Mekki: We’ll let you back in a second. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: This is Philly. Like the Jersey Bowl can just … You know what I’m saying? 

Curtis Valentine: I’m just here. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: In our effort to maximize human potential. And my mission is about maximizing human potential. I really believe that. I believe that we get in trouble when we think our assignment is tethered to the constraints of the past and not tethered to the lessons of the victories too. I really do believe that. 

Sharif El-Mekki: I can’t argue with that. 

Curtis Valentine: So, what I’m hearing, and this is something that I think least what I’m hearing from Matthew and from you, is that I want to put it back on Horace. If Horace is still in the classroom or not in the classroom in five or 10 years, if he’s not in the classroom, it can be because someone who looked like him did not create the environment for him to fully thrive. It meant- 

Matthew Mugo Fields: It can be. 

Curtis Valentine: Yeah. It can be someone who looks just like him and has the same background and said, “I thought, in this space with this person, I was good.” 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yeah. 

Curtis Valentine: At the same time, if he’s still in that space, it could be because someone who does not look like him embraced all this and pushed back and understood his value in the light. And so, this brings me to my question to you, and it’s off a Tweet that you recently tweeted and someone asked- 

Sharif El-Mekki: Is it the jawn that got me blocked for a minute? 

Curtis Valentine: Nah, I don’t think so. 

Sharif El-Mekki: I was in Twitter suspension. 

Curtis Valentine: No, no. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Were you, really? 

Curtis Valentine: Well, saying this person’s name could get you- 

Matthew Mugo Fields: On Twitter? 

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah, they be hating. Yeah. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Even now? 

Sharif El-Mekki: Even that joker. Yeah. 

Curtis Valentine: Well, saying this person’s name could get you blocked in any place. And so, someone asked you, “Who’s invited to the cookout?” And for those who don’t understand, we’re talking about White folks. And you said, “John Brown and his sons.” And so, I want you to tell us who was John Brown? Why is he invited the cookout? And for those who want to be invited to the cookout, those who want to be co-conspirators in this space, who don’t look like us, what do they need to get invited to this cookout? 

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah, that’s not the one that got me blocked. Yeah. So, I mean, one, it was trying to be a little snarky towards Black folks who were invite folks to the cookout because they did a book club. Like, “Oh, so-and-so bought a book. Come to the cookout.” I’m like, “Hell, they don’t deserve to come to the cookout because they joined a book club.” You know what I mean? Remind me, one of our folks was murdered in the street, then White folks saying, “I’m going to wear a safety pin and you know I’m safe. You know it’ll be safe for you to talk.” People were like, “Come to the cookout.” I’m like, “No, they can’t come to the cookout.” 

For me, John Brown, I mean most people have heard of him, but John Brown I think should be a national holiday. He was part of the catalyst to spark the Civil War. So, he was just like, “Hey, you know what? Negotiation is taking too long, tired of eating around the edges and so we are going to spark this.” And so, as a White man with privilege … And this was ongoing. It wasn’t one of those just spur of the moment. He actually tried to get Frederick Douglass and Harriet to join and they were just like, “Yo, bro, that doesn’t make sense.” You know what I mean? Like, what are you doing? His strategy was flawed, but his commitment was there to say, “Hey, you know what? No. We’re going to advance this movement a little bit further and faster than what’s going on with all these side arguments.” 

And so, I just appreciate a White person, him or other. You’re talking about allies, we don’t need allyship because he took risk. He actually took the ultimate risk. He was hanging from the gallows, right? Well, he took risk, him and his sons and Black folks who were part of this. They would say it’s treason. But it’s like, is it really treason as to ensure humanity is free? And so, for me, that that’s the level of commitment, sacrifice, and putting themselves in harm’s way instead of just saying, “Hey, I’m an ally. Being in harm’s way. I’m back here, but I’ll buy your book,” you know what I mean? While you’re out there making the ultimate sacrifice over and over and over again. And so, what would it mean to have more co-conspirators? 

Just a quick aside, when I was at a meeting, organizing meeting back in the day, and it was a mixed crowd and there was a White woman, we were going to a protest, and a White woman was like, “Hey, you know what? I will take the frontline.” And there was another White person like, “No, don’t take their shine, don’t center yourself.” No, my friend, she was came with some Black sisters. She was like, “No, listen, they can’t afford to be fired right now in this protest. We may end up losing the job and I’m going to put myself in that position because they’ve always been in the front. These sisters have always been in the front and put all this stuff at risk.” She was like, “I actually benefit if they’re freer, there’s more justice than it’s not just them.” So, for me, who deserves to come to the cookout. You know what I mean? 

Curtis Valentine: Matthew, we’ve, again, talked about this saying in a quote that you often highlight is, “Nothing for us without us.” And again, you are a self-proclaimed OG of ASU+GSV, also the creator of Innovation For Equity. And so, as we move forward into this future, into this world that we want to create, this world of our dreams, for lack of a better term, what does this mean? What does that term, “Nothing for us without us,” mean as we move forward? And those who share our vision, who are listening and are saying, “Yes, I’m ready. I don’t know what it fully means, but I’m willing to at least take the first step towards, and I want to come with you, but I don’t know whether I should be in the front or the back or the side.” So, what does that mean to you in work that you do? 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Well, I think it operates on a couple of levels for me. One, is kind of straightforward, making sure that representation matters. And it’s about more than just representation, belonging, inclusion, feeling like the spaces that we occupy are co-created by those who occupy them. All of that is important and essential to building institutions to making change happen. So on that level, I think it’s pretty straightforward. 

There’s another level for me as someone who has spent now the majority of my career building software products and leading teams that build software products. There’s this notion of what you call in the software development called contextual inquiry. So this is the practice in which you are observing users’ behaviors because surveys are notoriously very bad tools for getting data. Survey, they’re valuable, they’re good at some things. But surveys are too dependent on self-awareness and honesty. And sometimes human beings don’t have that. So one of the ways you evaluate, well what users actually prefer, what they actually want is by just observing them quietly and looking at them. Contextual inquiries or practice in doing that. 

We talk a lot in software development about having empathy for our users, being able to empathize with them. By the way, this is how they get us addicted to the apps on our phone is because it’s deeply, deeply scientific. Now, imagine if the exercise is not to just get you addicted to some social app, but actually help kids learn and accelerate the rate of math and address learning loss and reading, et cetera, which is the stuff we focus on. That takes on another dimension because knowing your users and designing solutions that help your users requires that the people who are doing the building actually are able to even interpret what’s happening with their users, are able to have proximity too. 

This is why you can build better, more appropriate solutions if the folks that you are aiming to serve are helping build them. So from just a straight mission perspective, quality of execution of the thing we say we care about, I will even go as far as say, and quality of do we generate the kind of market returns that we want? Because if those things are aligned, then you can see why having folks who are from the communities we serve involved in the process is so important and so central. It ain’t a nice to have. It ain’t just like, “Oh, we’re trying to be good people.” Yeah, we’re trying to be good people, but we’re also trying to actually solve real problems. And if you’re going to solve real problems, you have to involve the peoples who you’re serving. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Contextual inquiry. 

Curtis Valentine: And that’s what I appreciate about the space that you created and Sharif is creating is that oftentimes we have blind spots. To even know that there’s someone in the room doing the observations. If we don’t know, we just don’t know what we don’t know. And so, to know that that is a space for us to occupy and basically we’re were lacking that is a blind spot. 

As we wrap up, I want to sort of ask you all the final question about blind spots in many ways, particularly in the questions we’re asking ourselves within this space. So, shout-out to my amazing wife, she is Dr. Daria Valentine. But for one reason or another, you could call it gender bias. I often get attributed as doctor. I am not a doctor, my wife is a doctor in the family. But I often talk about if I would go back to school and do a dissertation, what would I study? That’s about five minutes and then I move on something else. 

As you just sort of projecting out, if you were to have an opportunity to get a dissertation. Two of you all have done work that is obviously worthy of an honorary doctorate and they are multiple coming. I know it. But is there a research question that you say, “I want to know that has not been done,” that you believe this requires deeper research and thought that we’re not talking about at ASU, we’re not talking about at Sotheby or wherever you want to call it. What is lacking in this space? And if so, what would that be? And I’ll start with you, Sharif. 

Sharif El-Mekki: I want to write a dissertation. But I would not mind just reading, studying, just learning. Going back to that piece. I think one of the things, and it has been done, so I’m glad you added the context of going further and deeper, is this idea of the Black teaching tradition. The TED Talk that I recently did, that was what I proposed the name of it, that the Black teaching tradition can save America. 

For me, what I would want to write a dissertation on or what are the things that Black educators have always contributed both to pedagogy and andragogy? What are those things that could be codified and shared and where other people train? I don’t even say 80%, because some HBCUs teach this as well. But suppose instead of educators and others being trained on White educational, White behavior theorists in theory then come into Black and brown schools and armed with that and not just armed intellectually, but armed with policy based off of folks that couldn’t even imagine Black kids and brown kids being in public schools. But that’s who people are still being trained on and development. 

You got Freud… Skinner. If you read some of the ways that they talked about people who weren’t White, and we’re still using those theories and frameworks. It’s like there are Black professors at Temple who assigned Diane Ravage as the book they want their students to read. These are Black professors. They’re like, “Diane Ravage is our classroom book.” That’s a travesty. And for the context, Diane Ravage said, “Kids shouldn’t learn about African culture because it may make them feel superior.” So here’s a White supremacist saying, “You know what? Don’t learn about African culture.” That whole Black center pedagogist will make them uppity. You know what I mean? Uppity negro. But this is who people are using to talk about education. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: She said that? 

Sharif El-Mekki: Yes. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: I didn’t realize she said that. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah, yeah. Look it up. African pedagogy, African center pedagogy and what she said about that. So, what were the Black teaching traditions? People who actually thought about Black children teaching and learning relationship between education and self-determination. Suppose that’s what grounds theory around child development, human psychology. What did Amos Wilson say about development of Black children? That’s what centers and grounds and how much difference our collective experiences would be in school. 

Not just us, but also what I mentioned in the thing. This centers Black children, but it’s not exclusively for. When Black folks contribute things, really often, it’s for humanity. That creativity, everyone can benefit from that because it’s not coming from a deficit basis. It’s really coming out of love. “This is what you need. This is what I’m contributing to the space. I’m not trying to take you over.” 

Curtis Valentine: And that centering of Black educator, it’s not just for Black students. It’s for all students. 

Sharif El-Mekki: It’s for all students. Yeah. Yeah. 

Curtis Valentine: Matthew, soon to be doctor? 

Matthew Mugo Fields: So, can I get two questions? 

Sharif El-Mekki: Hey, man. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Two things, I mean. 

Curtis Valentine: If you can afford two doctors. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: So, one actually I’ve been working on for- 

Sharif El-Mekki: He said if you could afford two doctors- 

Curtis Valentine: I said doctor. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: … good chunk of my career. So folks here know about Benjamin Bloom, Bloom’s taxonomy, the sort of hierarchy. I’ve been thinking a lot about that because I spent a good chunk of my career. People think of Benjamin Bloom, he’s a researcher and he basically created the sort of pyramid, the sort of basic skills. Think like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the top is higher order creative. I think we’re entering an age where we’re going to be focusing a lot more on the top part of Bloom Taxonomy. But that’s not why I’m thinking of Bloom. Why I’m thinking of Bloom is because he had another sort of famous seminal piece of research called the Bloom 2 Sigma problem. Anybody know about that? 

Bloom’s 2 Sigma problem. Basically, he proved back in, I think for paper publish like ’84, that one-on-one tutoring with mastery based model was the most effective means to helping students acquire skills. And so, what many of us in ed tech have been doing since that time is trying to figure out ways that we can enlist computers to help us approximate the performance delta between classroom teaching and that 101 tutor. And so, that’s where personalized learning has come from. A lot of the AI models are trying to do that. 

And so, that’s what I do and a lot of my day job. We’ve made some great progress and we’ve got some amazing tools that are close if a couple are even better, especially when you pair that sort of individualized support with a skilled teacher. I’m focused and probably will spend a good chunk of the rest of my days focused on how can we do that, scale that, get it global, help students address that. So, that’s one sort of big thing because we definitely haven’t solved it. We haven’t solved it in every context for every student. By the way, I’m saying all this research because I know the Morehouse people did too. So, I’m trying to give y’all some game too. Free game. Okay. 

The other one I want you to look this up too, is Hattie. Anybody? Hattie’s research? So every year, every couple years, Hattie does a study of meta-analysis. So, a study of all the studies to say what’s moving the needle in instruction. And he looks at studies all over the world. The number one, and it measures effect size. So, that’s the movement against a standard deviation. Way to think about that is just the thing that is the factor that is most impactful to changing the outcome, right? So the number one thing, last few years. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Yes. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: I know. I know. I know. 

Sharif El-Mekki: What’s in the narrative. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Exactly. You know where I’m going. Actually, what do you think the number one thing is that determines student outcomes? 

Audience: Quality teacher. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Quality teacher. 

Curtis Valentine: Parent education. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Parent education. Say either one. Okay. 

Audience: Engagement. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Engagement. Anybody else? Any of students going to guess? Say more. What do you mean? Lack of equity. Okay. Flip it around. You’re not deficit, the asset here. So flip it around. What will drive the outcome then? If lack of equity is the- 

Audience: Increase equity. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Increase equity. So more resources and all that kind of stuff? Okay. Anybody else got a guess? Okay, number one thing is something called collective teacher efficacy. Collective teacher. So that is the belief that the group of teachers have that their children actually can learn at a high level. And that’s really important. And they didn’t detect this particular one until recently because kids don’t go to just one teacher’s class. So you have a great teacher who’s all about that life, mindset to the wazoo, doesn’t believe in anything about your lack of your inferiority inherent and all that stuff. All that. And then you go to English and somebody else does not believe in you. 

Also, what they found is teens, we talk about them in these atomized, isolated classrooms, but they’re ecosystems. So, if all those teachers are like, our children, there’s no failure. What are you talking about? It’s just about, “Yeah, how we do today? How we do this week?” All that stuff. So collective teacher efficacy. What I want to do some research on Curtis with you is what we don’t know is what are the best mechanisms to build collective teacher efficacy? How do we replicate that? How do we make that more present? And tying the two points together, what is the sort of 2 Sigma version of that? So, if we were going to try and build collective teacher efficacy, what’s the way that we do that most effectively? And what role can technology play, as always? 

Sharif El-Mekki: I’ll join you with that. You know what I mean? 

Matthew Mugo Fields: My man. 

Curtis Valentine: Wow. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: My man. 

Audience: I want in. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: You want in? 

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah. But the Morehouse can be the essential part. For two reasons. One, we definitely believe mindsets matter most. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yes. 

Sharif El-Mekki: That the Center for Black Educator Development team is here. We start all our work with mindsets matter most. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yes. 

Sharif El-Mekki: How does that permeate? Because when people think about low expectations, it’s always individual teacher to student. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yes. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Actually, the low expectation is for themselves. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yes. 

Sharif El-Mekki: I can’t teach you because you’re Black. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: I can’t make you get here- 

Sharif El-Mekki: I can’t. You’re too poor for me to get. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: I can’t get you there because of your circumstances. Blah, blah, blah. My limitations. 

Sharif El-Mekki: And then if it’s multiple, right? You know what I mean? It can’t just be, “Oh, this year I was good. The next year I got somebody with negative.” 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Exactly. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Because they- 

Matthew Mugo Fields: They do a longitude of- 

Sharif El-Mekki: You probably heard some of this at one of the previous panels that they were talking like the next year actually put you further behind. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yes. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Right? So you imagine. So the study is like, “All right, I have a great teacher, great mindset, high levels of self-efficacy, and I’m thriving.” And the next year I have somebody that has a deficit mindset. The outcomes are worse than if I didn’t have the good teacher the year before. So, it would’ve been better off to have two bad teachers instead of a great one and then a bad one. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: Yeah. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Because the bad one, if I had a great experience, then I have the bad one. I am now demotivated, disconnected, and I’m like, I know what I had, and now … I started to deficit like, oh, my life is over. I missed that so much that I actually regress. And so, that impact is everything. 

And then the other one is my son keeps honeybees. So, watch an ecosystem thrive where everybody is a singular mission to get something done; collecting pollen, they’re raising kids, blah, blah, blah. It just shows like, hey, here’s the ecosystem is what’s more important than the individual. A lot of people think the queen is the monarch, blah, blah. That’s not what actually happens. It’s the elective hive that’s the ecosystem that makes them thrive. 

Matthew Mugo Fields: And that’s why we need you doing what you do. Me doing what I do. And millions more. 

Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah. 

Curtis Valentine: No. Wow. I mean, on that note, I don’t want to even add anything to that because that was such a drop-the-mic moment. I just want to thank you brothers for letting me come to Philly for a couple of minutes. Again, soon-to-be Dr. Matthew Mugo Field, soon-to-be Dr. Sharif El-Mekki. I’m Curtis Valentine. Thank you all again. This episode of RISE Reports. Thank you all so much for joining us today.