Chris Whittle: Reforming Education, Globally

It’s impossible to have followed Education for the last 40 years and not know Chris Whittle. He’s a serial education entrepreneur – a “reformer,” as he puts it – and he’s not done yet.

After various bold ventures, Whittle is now preparing perhaps his biggest venture yet: What he calls the first modern school.

It’s a global vision – K through 12 education for the globalized, connected world. And I mean global: Once completed, the Whittle School & Studio will have 36 campuses across 30 of the world’s leading cities – some 90,000 students and thousands of faculty. The first two campuses are scheduled to open in Washington D.C. and Shenzhen, China next year.

Can it work? That’s what we discussed.


It is impossible to have followed Education for the last 40 years and not know Chris Whittle. He’s a serial education entrepreneur – a “reformer,” as he puts it – and as you’ll hear, he’s not done yet.

After various bold ventures – founding Edison Schools, co-founding Avenues: The World School in Manhattan – Whittle is now preparing perhaps his biggest venture yet: What he calls the first modern school.

It’s a global vision – K through 12 education for the globalized, connected world. And I mean global: Once completed, the Whittle School & Studio will have 36 campuses across 30 of the world’s leading cities – some 90,000 students and thousands of faculty. The first two campuses are scheduled to open in Washington D.C. and Shenzhen, China next year.

Whittle aims, simply, to reform the institutionalized, one-size-fits-all approach and make relevant, flexible, and personalized education at scale – a new approach to learning in innovative physical environments around the world. The vision is attracting some leading educators – and education reformers – in the world.

Can it work? Can Whittle and team create something that not only lifts individual students in this unique school, but extends beyond and impacts education more broadly from American urban centers to underserved populations globally?

That’s what we discussed.

Chris Riback: Chris, thanks for joining me, I appreciate your time.

Chris Whittle: Happy to be here.

Chris Riback: So I’ve seen a few times now around, as I’ve done research for the call, where you’ve been called an education entrepreneur. It seems like a pretty good description to me. Is that how you’d describe yourself?

Chris Whittle: It’s good enough. I often use education reformer as well. Because my last two or three decades, have been a lot about trying to change schools for the better.

Chris Riback: Yeah, they sure have and I guess under the whole range of things that one could be called, and I’m sure you know, you’ve probably heard it all, education entrepreneur or education reformer, certainly both of them has to be on the positive side of the spectrum.

Chris Whittle: We hope.

Chris Riback: So in fact, you’re obviously not new to the education reform track. It’s been your life’s passion, at least a significant part of your life’s passion, you know, and certainly as an outsider, and somebody who has viewed and been aware of, some of the things you have done.

On education, how would you describe your overall vision. And one of the things I’ve found myself wondering, is have you had the same vision since the start, or has it evolved as you’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work?

Chris Whittle: A great question and the answer is yes. I have had an idea and a plan that I have actually been working on, for almost three decades, And I feel like if you want to think of it as mountaineering, that I’ve gotten to camp one, camp two, camp three, I don’t think I’ve ever summited and I’m hoping that in my last endeavor here that will happen, but yes, it is an idea I have been working on for a long time.

Chris Riback: Do the altitude changes affect the approach.

Chris Whittle: I’m trying to work with the metaphor, I’m not sure I can.

Chris Riback: Yeah, as you get higher up, is it still one foot in front of the other? And to keep your metaphor, have you had to change your climbing approach as you reach different altitudes?

Chris Whittle: Definitely, and with each trip up the mountain, I’ve learned things. And it’s been a very iterative process. And it spans really three endeavors. Edison Schools, which was really the pioneering endeavor in the world of charter schools. And then Avenues in New York, which is one of the great private school launches in US history. And then what I’m working on today, Whittle School and Studios.

And they’re very much connected in my mind, and the lessons from one have informed the other.

Chris Riback: So describe for me the newest one, what I assume from your point of view, will be the next greatest private school experience, not just in New York, but in the world. I would assume that that will …

Chris Whittle: And my last rodeo I think. What we are doing, is building what we think of, as the first global school. And at the same time, what we think will be the first truly modern one. And we are building major campuses, in the great cities of the world, to serve children ages 3 to 18. And our first two campuses open 18 months from now.

They are under construction in Shenzhen, China and in Washington, D.C. And then the next year we open in two other Chinese cities, Hangzhou and Nanjing. And then we return back to the United States, working on our next wave of sites there.

Chris Riback: And so I want to ask you, obviously, about the specifics and you know, you talk about the construction and the design and the physical approach to what you are doing, is a key part of it and the drawings that I’ve seen look really extraordinary. And the actual curriculum, etc. I want to get into that.

But at the core of it, and at the core of your vision of what is required to make great education, what is it? And what sits there? And how does that, you know, inform or drive Whittle School and Studios?

Chris Whittle: I’m not going to be able to do that in one paragraph, but maybe in three or four.

Chris Riback: I’ll take it, I’ll take it, this is not a sound bite conversation.

Chris Whittle: Yes, which is really a pleasant relief by the way.

The central theme of what we’re doing, is that a system of schools can do things that a single school can not. And that most of the great schools of the world today, are single side institutions, the Exeter’s, Andover’s, Eaton, and China Rendafuzhong.

They’re single campus schools, and what we’re doing, is building what we call, one school with many campuses. And we believe the scale and systems of that, provide real possibilities for both students and faculty, that you wouldn’t see elsewhere. And we can come back to that, but that’s one of our key themes.

A second is, we believe children have got to be prepared for a global world. And that broadly that means, they should not be monoglots, but should speak fluently, multiple languages. And that they should have experience during their youth, in multiple cultures. And a system of schools enables that, in a way that a single school does not.

And then finally, we often think in kind of old school, new school frameworks. And old schools were all about educating groups of kids at the same pace, with the same program, etc. And we think a new school is all about personalizing education, and responding to children’s strengths and interests, and weaknesses in a very individual way.

So those are big themes and I’ll stop there and let you pick one.

Chris Riback: That’s perfect. it’s a multiple choice opportunity unless, professor, you tell me I’m obliged to pick just one, I may pick more than one.

So I’ll come back in a second to personalized education, because I’m very, very curious about how one does that at scale. And your plan is to do it in a, you know, in a way that’s going to involve, ultimately your vision is 90,000 full time students. And so well, that certainly might qualify as at scale.

But you know, so literally in terms of how it will work, you talked about, you know, putting campuses in some of the great cities of the world. I think you’re planning on 30 of them. So how will it work if I’m a student in Washington, D.C., do I then have the opportunity at some point to attend the campus in Paris, in New York, in Tokyo, in China? How will it work, how do those campuses get connected beyond philosophy, curriculum, etc. Talk to me about that.

Chris Whittle: Here’s the way it would work, as a student you would not be required to study elsewhere, but you would be highly encouraged to do so. And most families that choose us, they understand that, and are going to partake of those opportunities.

And starting in middle school, that might be simple summer programs of three to six weeks. By the way, all of these campuses have dormitories as part of the campus. And so you might do a three or six week program at another campus, a couple of times during middle school.

Then as you move into high school, you might do semesters abroad, and you might do a full year abroad as well. Again at our campuses. An important thing, is that you can do that with your friends, so that rather than kids feeling that they have to disrupt their lives to this, we would organize groups of kids to do it together and they stay, if you will, in their school because it’s one school across the globe.

Chris Riback: Understood. And the personalized education, which makes a great deal of sense. You know as a father of students myself, you know you understand very quickly that despite their all coming from the same gene pool, they’re very different. And you know, going through a very similar education system, or the same education system, in my case a public system, I still understand why each one really does need to be treated differently.

How does that happen? How do you do that with 90,000? How do you do that across 30 campuses? How do you do that in a way where you’ve got … I mean you do have a curriculum, how do you deliver personalized education?

Chris Whittle: It starts with one core thing, a school has to know its students. And what that really means, is that individual faculty members need to know each student. And I’ll take it a step further, is we believe that for this to work, we have to have the world’s best advising system.

And to be quite specific, an individual faculty member will have 9 students, that they are an advisor to, over a period of three years. So they will keep that group of students. They’ll meet with the group every day, and they’ll meet with each individual child within the group, every two weeks. Meaning, in one on one sessions.

And that may not sound like a big deal, but we have yet to find a school, and we have visited schools all over the world, that’s doing it. And then, so it starts there, and in those sessions, what an advisor is doing is listening. And going “What interests this particular student?” And then “How can this school be responsive to that.”

And how can advisor say “Well if you’re interested in robotics, are you aware that these six students are working on a project, you might want to be a part of that project. Are you aware of this particular teacher, that is very strong in that? Are you aware of this summer camp, that is extremely strong in this. Do you know that we have a center of excellence at our campus in Shenzhen, that’s about robotics and maybe you want to spend a year there.”

And what it’s doing is, listening and then guiding students towards resources that the school has. And giving that student enough schedule flexibility to pursue that. And I’ve compressed into a minute and a half, what is a lot of schedule engineering within a school but, that is what we’re doing

Chris Riback: Two things are coming to my mind. One is yes, I’m sure the operational logistics of the scheduling, that’s its own massive headache I’m sure. But on the other side, you know, it sounds like a connecting of the dots. And the example that I’m kind of feeling, and it’s bringing it earlier into the education timeline I think.

So as kids, you know, better probably than I do, as kids go start thinking about college, many, many folks, you know, you get either help from the school dean, or you know a lot of folks have college advisors, and there’s a whole industry around that.

But they really start thinking about okay “Who are you as an individual?” with the kid, and then “What are the opportunities in the world’s great universities, that might make sense for you given your interest levels.”

And too often, I think, it’s not until kids reach that level, that they even start to think about, connecting interests and skills and opportunities. And it sounds like you are figuring out a system, to bring that earlier in the education timeline. Am I understanding you correctly.

Chris Whittle: Absolutely. Earlier, and often. And what you pointed out, is a very good example. A lot of good advising goes on in the kind of end of high school. By the way a lot of good tutoring goes on in that time as well. But both of those tend to be outside the school setting. And what we’re trying to do, is to bring that kind of personalized activity, into the school setting.

And what it means, is you have to change calendars and schedules, and you’ve got to make hard choices to do it. We think it’s really important. One other thing is that, sitting with that teacher and that student in an advising session, is a dashboard of information.

And for a teacher and the student, to have data that is a sense of what’s going on with the student, in different disciplines and areas of study, so that a teacher is seeing information and the student is as well and that matters.

So we view this as technology enabled, but not really technology driven. And there’s one other thing that I wanted to mention, there’s a really good example of this in existence, which is the tutorial systems at Cambridge and Oxford for hundreds of years, have been based on these kind of one on one faculty student relationships and they, you know, they really work.

Chris Riback: Yes, those are two not terrible brands to say the least, But again, you know even bringing it earlier and more often is, you know, that seems to be something that is a bit different.

What does pre-enrollment look like? Are you doing pre-enrollment at this point?

Chris Whittle: We literally just launched. We had four launch events in Washington, New York, Beijing, and Shenzhen over the last five weeks. And we have admission teams on the ground in Washington and in Shenzhen. And we’ve just begun parent events, and literally in the last six weeks, we have seen thousands of parents, in both communities. And so it’s exciting and going well.

Chris Riback: Good for you. And, you know, obviously so many people are looking for new and better. First of all, there is almost nothing that parents will want to do for their kids, across all countries and regions and you know, socio economic levels, and you know, there’s so much frustration with education generally, that we all know that’s where it starts.

If I could, let me ask you, you know you’ve been at this so long, you know the global trends and you know, global views and a little bit of philosophy, that I’m curious about a couple of things.

One, your view of a globalized world at a time of increased nationalism, and so I want to ask you about that. First just picking up on the other point, your point about the advising that needs to go on, and the tutoring that needs to go on. And it doesn’t usually happen until later and among the reasons why I think, it doesn’t happen is, it costs money.

And you know, your school as well will cost money. And private schools cost money and you know, I think it’s fair to say that, the school is expected to come with, a not insignificant price tag. How do you work that, you know … I think a lot, I’m sure you do as well, about the opportunity gaps that society faces. The inequality gaps that are existing in this country and other countries, you know, turning into public policy challenges, from my point of view.

I’m sure you worry about that. How do you worry about it? And is that something that you are going to be able to account for, as part of the schools and studios?

Chris Whittle: There were two questions there, one about globalization, and then the other about educational equity. It clearly is on our minds, and we are doing a significant amount. But we should be humble about how much we can do. To be quite specific about what we do, we take seven percent of our top line. And that goes into what we call our social responsibility fund. And to give that a little perspective, most enterprises, companies are putting about one percent of their bottom line, into various kinds of contribution.

Because we are a school, we want to be and should be much more robust versus, if you will, standard company. We are putting about 20 times as much of our total economic means, into social responsibility. We break it into a couple of buckets.

One is what you would see at most good schools, which is scholarships, of essentially financial aid. And at a typical campus, about 300 of our students … Our typical campus by the way is about 2,500 students. About 300 of those will be on some form of aid. And that’s anywhere from a quarter ride, to a full ride at the school.

And then the second thing we do, is we try to support other education reform organizations, within the cities that we’re in. And the last thing that we’re doing is what we call, a one to one program. And I’m going to give you a little bit of educational economics here. There are countries where the per pupil spend … If you go to Zimbabwe, the per pupils annual spend on education is just over $100.

Chris Riback: Annually?

Chris Whittle: Annually. Rather than give a full ride, $40,000 scholarship in Washington, we can take that 40,000 if you will, export that into developing countries. And we, for that 40,000, let’s say instead of $100 a child, we said we’re going to do $1000 per child, we can do 10 times the funding that a typical school in that region would do.

But instead of educating one student in Washington, we can educate 40 students in those countries. So we’re doing a variety of different things. And our objective is, for every full pay student in the school, we’ll be providing an education somewhere, for a student who could not afford it.

Chris Riback: Excellent, and the globalization push, in your very strong … It’s a core part of the philosophy it sounds like obviously with 30 campuses, you know, 30 cities, 36 campuses, that we live in a globalized world and that’s among the skills that one needs. At the same time, you know, we seem to be in an age of rising nationalism, whether that’s China, or Russia, or Venezuela or Hungary-

Chris Whittle: Or France.

Chris Riback: Or France, or here in the US. So how do you feel about those growing tensions? And how does that, you know, inform or impact your global education approach?

Chris Whittle: I think it makes it actually more important, because the idea that if you will, we’re going to return into our shells, or national shells if you will.

I’m not sure that, that’s actually going to be realistic anywhere. But if that were the case, then global skills in a way, become more important, because that means, even more so, we have to navigate the distance between cultures, if you will.

And the second thing I would say, is I think there’s no turning back on the reality that we’re a global world. And for many, many reasons, as everyone knows, air quality does not recognize national boundaries. And if you’ve got pollution, it’s going to go everywhere. And we have to deal with it as one world, not as you know 30 countries or whatever.

So I think it makes our mission even more important.

Chris Riback: As you look domestically, and there’s been, you know there’s so much talk about it right now, with an education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who brings a great deal of attention. Having focused on education, as you have for so many years, what’s your evaluation? What’s the state and what’s the role for public education today in the US? I mean it’s got to … you know, you’re finding alternative … You’re finding additional solutions, which I take as meaning that you just, you know, a statement that as many folks do look at the state of our public education and you know, one can get frustrated and even sad perhaps.

And yet I personally happen to think there is a role for public education, so I’m curious as to how you view it?

Chris Whittle: I think there’s an absolutely critical, role for public education, everywhere. And that for many years, I’ve been … I’m agnostic when it comes to where a modern school comes from. Meaning that our mission is to create a next generation of schools. And one of the great things about education, is there really aren’t any patents in education. And that innovations travel pretty freely.

And so if we do our job well, and we create a school that’s admired, it will also be a school that’s followed, in terms of educators everywhere. And to let you know, schools all over the world have opened their doors to us, for us to come see what they’re doing. And all of that has shaped who we are, and it’s our responsibility, for our doors to be open as well.

And part of those social responsibility dollars that I mentioned earlier, are actually to reach out to the public schools, within the cities that we are in. And to collaborate in a variety of ways with them. I’ll give you two examples, in Washington, we’ve reached out to the largest charter school in Washington, and said we would like to sponsor groups of their students, to study at our campus in China in the summers.

And then we’ve reached out to the public schools in China, and said that we would like to host conferences there in China, for American educators to see what’s happening in Chinese schools, and vice versa. So a school is part of the broader world of education, a private school. And public schools and private schools, should be talking and sharing all the time.

Chris Riback: Clearly, anyone who has some awareness of your career, the idea of private public partnerships, is not something that you are not familiar with. And I’m not surprised that a core component of what you’re doing, would involve some outreach there.

Two last things are on my mind. One is the talent that you have attracted, and Nicholas Dirks, the former chancellor of University of California. I don’t know James Hawkins, but you know, the headmaster of the Harrow School. Your president is former Senior Boeing executive, and I don’t know him, but Ian Thomas. Obviously Benno Schmidt a person who you’ve done you know, a little bit of work with, in the past. And the former Yale president.

Getting talent like that, attracting talent like that, on the one hand obviously very, very hard, but on the other hand I assume that there’s an idea, the core of an idea that is a, you know, is a light that is attracting the talent to you. What has that process been like, getting … And you talked about the important role that faculty will have to play.

What has it been like for you to try to attract talent, to a global school, that physically is only just now starting to exist.

Chris Whittle:  Easier than you would think, is the answer. This idea is a magnetic idea. And once the capital really was in place, because until that occurs, it would be difficult to do what we have done in terms of talent. But once our capital formation was well under way.

This is an exciting mission and we had a management committee call the other day. And it’s a team of about 20 people, and they were in 16 different cities around the world when they called in. And when your management committee calls are exciting, that’s a good indicator, that what you’re doing is interesting. So people have flocked to this, because it’s complex, it’s meaningful, and it has the chance to affect a lot of students and education world-wide.

Chris Riback: And just to close out for me, Chris about you, how did you get into the whole education thing in the first place? I saw where you were … but I don’t know where you were actually raised, I saw you were born in, is it Etowah? Tennessee?

Chris Whittle: You pronounced it well – “Etowah.”

Chris Riback: Etowah, and I don’t know if that’s where you were raised, in fact, you know, it looks like it’s, yeah go ahead.

Chris Whittle: It’s a small town in Eastern Tennessee.

Chris Riback: Foothills of the smoky mountains, it looks like.

Chris Whittle: Yes, we saw them from our doorstep. And I first started thinking about this, as a junior in college in 1968. When all my fellow students were protesting the Vietnam war. I heard about an education reform conference that was happening out on the plains of Kansas, in Manhattan, Kansas.

And I said, you know, “I want to go see what that’s about.” And drove across the country. And that conference, which was put together by a group called the National Student Association, really started me thinking about it. And I ran for student body president the next year. My bumper sticker read “For a better education.”

And we won, and then I quickly learned how hard it was to change a university, but that’s when it began, and it’s stuck with me for 50 years.

Chris Riback: Well there was a lot of revolution going on in 1968…

Chris Whittle: There was.

Chris Riback: And education being a part of it makes sense. Chris, thank you. Thank you for your time and thank you for the work that you do and the passion that you’ve had, obviously, for education for, you know, a number of years now.

Chris Whittle: And thank you for giving me the time.