An Interview with Meredith Johnson: The Erin Project

Jul 19, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Meredith, can you first tell us a bit about you, your education and your experiences?

I am currently the Director of Communications for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), a private foundation dedicated to producing substantial, widespread and lasting reforms in some of the most challenging areas we face today. My experience ranges from corporate relations to state and local policy work.

Before joining the Foundation, I served as Executive Director of a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization committed to promoting policy reform. Prior to that, I was the Government Affairs Manager for one of the largest Fortune 500 construction companies in the United States, where I directed state and local policy initiatives and launched a federal Political Action Committee.

I also previously worked as a legislative staff member for a Texas State Senator. I currently serve on the Young Professionals Board of Directors for Easter Seals of Greater Houston, am an honoree for the Citizens for Animal Protection, and am a member of the Victory Committee for the American Cancer Society. I hold a degree in Public Relations from The University of Texas at Austin.

2) Now, what exactly is this ERIN Project?

The Education Resource Information Navigator Project (ERIN Project) is an innovative online education database which is free and open to the public. ERIN affords users the opportunity to dive into important issues and questions in K-12 education by seeing a landscape overview of the work being done to improve education, learning about current hot topics and developments in the space, and studying the major players.

3) I understand The Laura and John Arnold Foundation recently announced an innovative K-12 education database called the ERIN Project, but what does it contain? How is it going to be helpful to teachers?

As the first of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation’s Technology & Innovations projects, ERIN Project offers a broad overview of the national education landscape. ERIN provides user-friendly information on various education topics through five key lenses: education research, education policy, education-centric organizations, education technology, and philanthropic support. By doing so, the database allows audiences, such as researchers, teachers and advocates, to see the education landscape through multiple perspectives.

4) I understand this project is currently in beta mode- now, for the digital pilgrims around- what exactly does that mean?

“Beta” refers to the initial public stage of content and functionality development of ERIN Project. This is an “open beta” model, which means that anyone can access it and provide us comments and reaction. In this way LJAF can continually update and improve ERIN and potentially add new features based on user feedback.

5) Who are some of the people who have contributed to the creation of this project? And have they ever actually set foot in a school or taught for any length of time in the classrooms themselves?

Some of the foremost experts in education contributed to the creation of ERIN Project in order to make it a cutting-edge, functional information source. Not only is the caliber of their research well-known and respected, but ERIN contributors have taught in classrooms around the country, served on school boards, and established research that is regularly used in the education field today.

These researchers include:

  • Grover Whitehurst, Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings,
  • Jay P. Greene, Head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute,
  • Robert Siegler, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Carnegie-Mellon University,
  • Dan Goldhaber, Director of the Center for Education Data & Research and Professor in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell,
  • And many more.

6) How exactly does this ERIN Project, analyze the national education landscape?

ERIN Project provides easy access to resources so that people can make their own reasoned judgments based on the best information available. Users have the opportunity to dive into important issues and questions in education reform such as, charter school effects on student performance, the laws shaping teaching and recruitment, the top 20 philanthropic organizations working to improve curriculum, and many others.

Rather than seeing only certain aspects of each topic, users have the opportunity to see the aggregation of each issue through five key lenses: education research, education policy, education-centric organizations, education technology, and philanthropic support. By providing a multidisciplinary perspective that looks at the current educational environment, users can identify where progress is needed and what is already improving and changing across the education spectrum.

7) What information might a reader get about the laws shaping teaching and recruitment?

By using key search terms like “teachers” and “recruitment,” ERIN users can build a unique list of data that suits their specific needs. For example, a user can find data within ERIN about laws and policies that are either in effect or being debated regarding recruitment, training, evaluation and compensation for teachers.

For example, a quick search reveals legislation on teacher compensation laws passed this year in Michigan, as well as pay for performance and tenure legislation in Louisiana.

8) Why study the top 20 philanthropic organizations working to improve curriculum? Do they offer grants and proposals and are there always strings attached?

Central to ERIN’s mission is providing a multidisciplinary perspective on the current education landscape. In turn, the education community can identify opportunities where they can progress together—whether the user is a funder looking for strategic investments, a legislative staffer researching what charter school laws other states have passed, or an organization looking for funding for their curriculum project and wondering which philanthropic organizations they should approach.

9) Who is heading up this effort? And what experience does this individual have?

As Vice President for Education Initiatives, Caprice Young will guide the ongoing work of ERIN Project, as well as LJAF’s overall national education investment strategy. Young, a nationally respected education innovator, has held top leadership positions in technology, education, government, and business, including serving as the Assistant Deputy Mayor of the City of Los Angeles; a Manager in IBM’s eBusiness consulting practice; founding CEO of the California Charter Schools Association; CEO of KC Distance Learning; and, most recently, CEO of ICEF Public Schools. Young has also served on numerous boards, including the Board of Education of the Los Angeles Unified School District, on which she presided as President, as well as the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Education Excellence (California), the Fordham Foundation, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

ERIN Project itself is the first of many innovative projects produced through the Foundation’s Technology and Innovation platform. Later this year we plan to launch the Giving Library, an online video library that offers philanthropists an innovative way to enhance their strategic giving. We also hold Innovation Labs, which provide Foundation staff members with a collaborative setting to brainstorm – and later potentially implement – breakthrough innovations to solve some of today’s most pressing problems.

10) What kinds of documents would I find there? Journals, books, newspapers? Who has been doing the evaluation as to what has been included? If I googled my name, how many documents would I find there? Or is this only by subject and not author?

There are two basic kinds of resources for the education sector today. Drill down sites that provide users with extremely in-depth information on a single subject, or a search engines like Google or Bing that allow users to get information on virtually any topic, but is not vetted or contextualized. There is an unmet need for a high-level and multidisciplinary view of topics in education. ERIN Project meets that demand and is targeted for education advocates, policymakers, philanthropic supporters, educators, nonprofits, and members of the education media. We worked with some of the leading experts in their respective fields to identify the key pieces of information needed to understand the education landscape, so while you won’t find something as simple as a newspaper article, you will find the pertinent information decision-makers need to actually drive education policy.

ERIN Project provides the following types of information:

  • Funders: The Foundation Center, which maintains a proprietary database that is updated periodically, provides funder and grant information.
  • Research: ERIN Project partners with academic professionals nationwide to identify methodologically-sound and touchstone research in their respective fields.
  • Policy: ERIN Project profiles public policies that are prominent in education, including examples of both actual and model legislation.
  • Organizations: ERIN Project works with education experts to identify organizations that are active in public education. ERIN draws upon publicly available information and coordinates directly with organizations to create profiles.
  • Information Technology: ERIN Project works with New School Venture Fund’s Education Technology Landscape Map to identify current classroom technologies. ERIN draws upon publicly available information and coordinates directly with organizations to create profiles.

11) What have I neglected to ask?

You forgot to ask “why.” Why are Laura and John Arnold producing tools like ERIN Project, pursuing reform solutions in public sector employee benefits, promoting high-quality education opportunities for every student, leading philanthropic involvement in studying ways to improve our criminal justice system to public safety, and so on?

There is enormous pressure to join the conventional wisdom of “safe” philanthropic giving and to avoid risk and cutting-edge thinking. Laura and John, however, realize that in order to solve the most crucial challenges our society faces, they must take an aggressive and entrepreneurial approach to their philanthropic endeavors. In turn, we at LJAF aim to think big, take risks, be aggressive, and be willing to change course quickly based on new information. We seek fundamental changes that not only yield immediate gains, but also repair broken systems for future generations.

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