Schnur is chief executive officer and cofounder of the nationally acclaimed New Leaders for New Schools nonprofit group, which, during the past decade, has trained hundreds of educational leaders for key roles in urban schools. He called ensuring a quality education for all students both "the number one civil rights issue of our time and the number one economic competitive issue of our time" during his keynote speech to the Business of Education Symposium at Stanford University on May 11.
Schnur told the audience — attentive MBAs from the Stanford Graduate School of Business as well as students from the Stanford School of Education — that they hold the key to a solution for the persistent education achievement gap between poor and privileged students. "I so deeply believe that those of you in this room, and colleagues of yours around the country, are going to be at the center of whether we seize or squander this historic opportunity we've got for our kids," he said.
In introducing Schnur, Deborah Stipek, the I. James Quillen Dean of the Stanford School of Education, praised New Leaders for New Schools for its creative approach to solving a persistent problem. The nonprofit organization maintains "a very different way of developing leadership skills and school leaders than we have had in the past," she said. "I think the organization has really been an inspiration for those of us who have been searching for some alternatives to the status quo, which I think has not been working very well."
Schnur began his talk with a quick history lesson explaining how the education gap in America evolved. He cited the case of his own great-grandfather, who came to Milwaukee, Wis., from Europe at the turn of the last century. With just a third grade education, he "had what he needed in order to get a decent job, start a little company, and really be successful," Schnur said.
Today's landscape is vastly different, with the fastest-growing jobs requiring a high school education, if not advanced degrees. While in the 1960s and 1970s the United States was ranked number one in the world in terms of the percentage of students completing high school and college. "Today we've slipped to the middle, and we are dropping," Schnur explained.
This decline hasn't happened because school completion rates in the United States have worsened. "The issue is that the rest of the world is moving ahead in order to prepare themselves and their kids for this century and this economy," he said. "The gap is growing dangerously large because we are standing still."
As examples of the most glaring deficiencies of U.S. public education, he cited research showing that only 1 in every 10 kindergarten children from low-income families graduate from college; that the majority of low-income 4th graders read below a basic level; and that more than half of urban students — many of them people of color — end up dropping out of high school.
That's where initiatives such as New Leaders for New Schools can make a difference.
Already, more than 640 New Leaders trained by the New York-based group are serving 220,000 children. By widely employing his group's methods emphasizing preparation, commitment, and high expectations at many more schools nationwide, Schnur said, "It would make us a much fairer society."
Schnur cofounded New Leaders in 2000 after he had been a member of the U.S. Department of Education’s staff, serving as special assistant to Secretary of Education Richard Riley.
While at the national level, Schnur said he noticed a common denominator among the nation's great schools — they all had exceptional principals who recruited and retained extremely effective teachers. So, after leaving the department, he and his colleagues developed a plan to train people — from both inside and outside the education field — to be excellent principals intent on turning around struggling schools and boosting student achievement. Their strategy to create effective school leaders involves combining coursework, on-the-job training, and mentoring.
He invited the audience to enlist in his group's effort: "If you're fired up to spend many years — for the long term, not the short term — as part of a community of leading schools, we'd love for you to apply."
From September 2008 to June 2009, Schnur took a leave from New Leaders for New Schools to serve as an advisor to Barack Obama's presidential campaign, as a member of the Presidential Transition Team and a senior advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
He graduated from Princeton University with honors and took graduate coursework at Harvard's Business School, Graduate School of Education, and Kennedy School.
The Stanford event was sponsored by the Education Club, which engages Stanford business and education students in discussion about education issues, in conjunction with the Stanford School of Education.