In Conversation with Martin West

In Conversation with Martin West

by Aasimah Navlakhi

I met Marty West in Cambridge, on one of those elusive early spring days marked by warm sun and cool breeze. His office sits atop the Gutman Library, its muted brown tones joyfully interrupted by colorful artwork courtesy of his children. Marty’s resume is impressive: editor of Education Next, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. I ask what he’s proudest of.

“I’m proudest of the family that my wife and I have managed to raise together. I have two boys – nine and six – and while every family has difficult moments, I am proud of the way in which we’re trying to work through those moments together. And I’m proud of the way in which we try to be a positive force in our community.”

Marty grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, in a place called Rockville, Maryland. He had the privilege of attending the best elementary and secondary schools that anyone could attend, which in turn led him to the best colleges and graduate schools.

“I had a very privileged upbringing, educationally,” he says. “I was at schools that offered a very well-rounded education, that were very demanding academically but also encouraged students to participate in the arts and music.”

Marty became interested in education policy during a summer internship at a Washington, DC think tank, Empower America. He was assigned, by chance, to be a staff member for former Secretary of Education William Bennett.

“That was my first exposure to systematic data on the extent to which there were great disparities in educational opportunity within the United States,” he says. “There were really fascinating debates about why that was the case and about what policy-makers and practitioners could do to try and change the situation.”

That summer proved pivotal for young Marty. Since then, all his work as a student, and eventually as an academic, was motivated by those basic questions. Work that led him, very quickly, to the charter world.

“For those, like me, who think that the expansion of school choice is a promising way to improve outcomes for American students, charter schooling has proven to be politically more successful, more palatable, and able to benefit from bipartisan support,” he says, pragmatic as ever. “I think it has demonstrated that when the right conditions are in place it can really produce dramatic improvement for students who have been poorly served by traditional school districts.”

Marty is interested not only in the question of how charter schools can take advantage of the autonomy they have to provide better education for underserved students, but also in questions about how we can create the right policy environment so that more of them are able to do so.

“In his book The Founders, Richard Whitmire said that it seemed like whenever he heard about a high-performing charter and visited it, it turned out that it was run by or had been started by a BES Fellow,” he recalls. “and I had that same experience as well.”

Marty talks about a day he spent at Edward Brooke Charter School in preparation for speaking to their eighth-grade class at graduation. Having heard of the “no excuses” reputation of Brooke and other Boston charters, he was surprised and impressed by the level of warmth that was evident in the interactions between teachers and students and by the sheer rigor of the academic experience.

It was on the heels of this experience that Marty met Linda Brown, Founder and CEO of Building Excellent Schools. A convening at the Harvard Graduate School of Education brought together leading thinkers and doers on school and district leadership: Linda Brown, of course, was top of the list.

“I think of her in this exalted state as this person who’s clearly left an imprint on so many educators that I respect,” Marty says. “And she immediately made it clear that she knew who I was and that she respected the work that I was trying to do. I remember feeling extremely encouraged and validated by that.”

It’s clear by now that Marty had always been a distant admirer of BES and its work. Which is why, when he was approached to join the board in November 2016, he didn’t hesitate to say yes.

“BES is an organization that I think has played an incredibly important role in the charter school movement in the US by helping the sector develop some exemplar schools that show what chartering is capable of,” he says.

Like Ken Campbell, Marty joins BES at a transformative time, both for the organization itself and within the larger educational landscape. There are important questions that the no excuses charter sector is wrestling with right now: Yes, the approach has produced dramatic improvements in academic outcomes and altered the life trajectories of many students, but have we perfected the model? How do schools impact not just test scores and graduation rates, but also some of the non-cognitive or social-emotional outcomes that students need to succeed in post-secondary education and ultimately later in life?

“I think an organization like BES has the opportunity to play a role in building on the first generation of high-performing charter schools in ways that would allow them to do even more,” Marty says. “We shouldn’t get away from our core competency of recruiting and preparing outstanding school-level leaders for charter schools. But I hope we prepare leaders who don’t purely replicate what has worked in the past, but also have a mindset to continue to innovate to try and do even more in the future.”

 

Martin West is associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is also deputy director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and executive editor of Education Next, a journal of opinion and research on education policy. West studies the politics of K-12 education in the United States and how education policies affect student learning and non-cognitive development. His current projects include studies of public opinion on education policy, the effects of charter school attendance and on cognitive and non-cognitive skills, data use in schools, and the influence of relative pay on teacher quality. In 2014-15, West worked as senior education policy advisor to the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. He previously taught at Brown University and was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he is now a nonresident senior fellow. West joined the Building Excellent Schools Board in January 2017.

 

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