Marc Ecko: Education Innovators Have to Be Like 'Civil Rights Leaders'

Marc Ecko talks about what it takes to cut through red tape in the education sector.

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Fashion designer and media mogul Marc Ecko has spent almost 25 years building up his clothing brands, Ecko Unltd., Eckored, and Marc Ecko Cut & Sew. Along the way, he’s started Complex Magazine, released video games, and started a production company. He’s also started a host of philanthropic organizations, including Sweat Equity Education, which seeks to teach students about entrepreneurship and design while re-engaging them in school. Last month, Ecko shook things up at the U.S. News Making Science Cool event, where he expressed frustration with the slow speed of education innovation and the difficulty of implementing new programs in schools.

“I’ve spent a lot of my income trying to fight this fight,” he said. Trying to get schools to make changes to curricula is difficult, he said, and designing new ones is like “building the ultimate Dyson vacuum and not having a shelf to sell it on.” His curricula have become “nice after-school programs,” he said. I talked to him about his frustrations and about his newest venture, Artists & Instigators, a for-profit company that will try to help launch start-ups with “game changing” potential.

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You really made an impact at our event—do you think other companies and academics are feeling the same way as you? Are they afraid to be too blunt?

I think how they're feeling is one thing but there's a certain kind of etiquette and forum that exists in education space that is incremental in its tune. Because it's an academic to academic tone, there's a certain level of diplomacy that's used in communicating that creates an incrementalness to the conversation, without sensitivity to the fact that we're underserving the consumer—the consumer being the students. The consumer knows the product is falling short, but the adults seem to move at a different pace.

There's a lot of helpful things that are happening in the spectrum, but the educational ecosystem and laws of physics that apply to the business of education don't look like other areas of free markets.

So you think students know they're getting shortchanged? 

It's in the air—you see young people out there frustrated on both sides of political spectrum—with the Tea Party and Occupy [Wall Street]—all are sufficiently frustrated. They all know they're being underserved, we're moving slow.

You've said you're sick of your products and curricula being relegated to after-school programs—do you think states and local school boards are reluctant to rock the boat because we're dealing with children?

Using kids, using this academic kind of etiquette as an excuse is all a bait and switch—it's all sleight of hand. The reality of the industry is—what is big oil to education is the Carnegie Unit [credit hours and seat time]. The educational system's dependence on metric models that we use to deploy credits and accreditation—that is our oil dependency. Seat time—this formulaic belief that the more time a student spends in class, the more they'll learn—is so steeped in pedagogy. These were ideas that were drafted in the early 1900s by people who were well intentioned to create standards, but they're probably spinning in their graves a little bit seeing that things haven't changed.

The A-F letter grades—that whole building block does not reflect the way people apply themselves and learn in the real world today.

The pace [of reform] and lack of hands-on, lab-like experiences is very analogous to our dependency on oil. Why are we dependent on [seat time]?

It's because of [test developer] ETS, who deploys 20 million tests a year in 80 various countries and everyone from K-12 and higher ed uses their formulas to establish a basis of pass/fail. And big education textbook publishers—I'm not trying to slight these guys, but they're still in the business of selling books that were designed on the seat time equation. Asking them to get out of that is like asking big oil to stop making gas and start doing only wind energy; it's out of their comfort zone.

This has nothing to do with kids' academic attainment, what this has to do with is money—this is a giant industry, it's bigger than the military. I'm not trying to be disruptive for the sake of being disruptive, but I'm trying to reflect soberly on what's going on. I'm just trying to snap people out of it, man.

So you've got several different philanthropic organizations—Sweat Equity Education is the one most closely related to education. You've gotten the University of Georgia to accredit your fashion and retail program, but you've expressed frustration with the red tape involved.

We worked with the Kellogg Foundation for two years to help us build the curriculum to get to the point so that it could get accredited and certified, but I can't tell you how much money it cost relative to return on investment in terms of how many people get to touch the product.

The cost per head of student that will touch this product is crazy—it will probably average out to $20,000 a head. When you take the setup cost to get to the point where someone was bold enough to certify it, it's crazy how many years it took to get there.

But I'm proud of that work and it needs to continue. I'm trying to work within the system and outside the system as well. I'm running a bunch of different plays and I'm not sure which will work.

You've got several other organizations as well—when did you originally get involved with philanthropy?

It was 1997, 1998 when I first started applying my income, income I didn't even have yet, to charities. I guess there was this, I don't know, some kind of vacuum I was trying to fill. It started with [Tikva] Children's Home in Odessa [Ukraine].

I started getting into programs in the States with an emphasis on educational intervention because I took inventory on my own educational experience. Growing up in New Jersey, going to Lakewood High School, some of my peers didn't have the same shakes I got. Just taking inventory as I was traveling around the world—every six months it seems like we're falling farther and farther behind. There's a lack of relevance and rigor as it reflects on the real world. I talk about the three R's—real world, rigor, and relevance. There's a lack of that in the sector.

The number of times one of my employees has learned something on the job and says, "Damn, I wish they taught me that in school," the delta between what it takes to be gainfully employed and what we're measuring you to exhibit to us is [immense].

We don't have that in medical fields. We have apprenticeship like models there, but we don't apply this type of system to liberal arts education or even business school unless you go to one with a good co-op program.

You say we fall farther behind other countries every six months—what are other countries doing that we aren't? Is it all the red tape and bureaucracy?

Yes, take India for instance—some of the great education innovation is happening in that country and you can say India is the Wild West, but there are typically compliance issues in this country and a bureaucracy of compliance that becomes restrictive. Take Google—if Google had to develop its algorithm with the same level of compliance a charter school has to operate under, then the Google business never gets off the ground.

If you go to countries with a more emergent middle class, they know this is a sector they could be disruptive in. Those free market environments create a lot more experimentation and innovation… there's innovation in technology, with using technology in English Language Learning programs, in the arts, these countries don't have the regulations we do.

In this case it's funny because [the regulations are usually state or local], and it's kind of like how when you want to build new construction, you've got these kinds of absurd compliance issues, and they have these rules so they can keep a bunch of old [people] busy and employed, not so they can improve education for students. It's so fragmented, so weighed down, like our tax laws and tax filings—you get lost in the trappings of having to navigate these regulations, and anyone who is free market and wants to be entrepreneurial gets so damn frustrated that they want to check out.

It's rare cases, guys who almost become like the second coming of civil rights leaders—to have that kind of patience and to be a free-market thinker—one part activist like a Geoffrey Canada--one part activist like a [Harlem Children's Zone CEO] Geoffrey Canada, but how many people are like that? That's hard to scale, that's a rare bird—that's the kind of level of selflessness and kind of leadership it takes to create in this kind of environment.

If this was another sector—if it was GE or Apple or Ecko Unltd. who had to work like this—executives would never stand for it.

You're obviously really frustrated—are you sick of talking about this? Are you sick of spending your money on this problem? 

It's what has compelled me to want to launch Artists & Instigators, a new platform that's for-profit. When I study Nike, Mike [Jordan] said, "Just Do It." They didn't say, "Just cut the calories." They didn't say, "Just don't fry it." They said, "Just do it," then they showcased a wraparound lifestyle of best-in-class athletes whose lifestyle has to be embracing an environment of wellness. They work out, they train, there's a certain amount of rigor and learning, and it occurred to me: Maybe the effort isn't to say, "Get schooled," or "Get your education," or "Write a plan." Maybe the play is to say, "Get it done."

So my plan is to create a brand that's all things entrepreneurship in terms of how Nike is all things sports. My thesis is, if you want to be an effective entrepreneur, you have to be educated. I don't know if that education fits tidily in an 18"x24" frame with a foil stamp with a university accreditation on it. That's up for debate, but you must be sufficiently educated to be an entrepreneur.

There are other mechanisms to bring that education. There's lots of good [education] products out there that consumers don't know exist. I'm frustrated, but I also see great opportunity from it. I see a great opportunity to create change and run it from the outside lane.

The Gates Foundation is running the ball down the center—they have the patience and wherewithal to spend money and get accreditation and work within the system. I don't have that luxury. I have to run the play around the outside and it's going to be that blend. Those with brute force pushing down center and those on the outside who are going to warm up the body. I'm hitting the body. I might not be the knockout punch that solves this thing, but someone will be.

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